The thematic readings for this Sunday are linked by something paradoxical, a call that is to both obedience and to leadership. In the passage from Exodus, God puts into the mouth of Moses this message for the Israelites. ‘If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. The whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.’ It is a message repeated again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures. ‘Deep darkness covers the land’, Isaiah tells his people, ‘but over you the Lord will rise, and nations will steam to your light’. This supreme distinction -- serving the whole earth as a holy nation -- is a matter of great pride. Yet at the same time it springs from humility, the willingness to show complete subservience to God.
With the coming of Jesus, the message remains the same at heart, but also undergoes a radical change. ‘When Jesus saw the crowds’, this week’s Gospel says, ‘he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’. So he summoned his twelve disciples and sent them ‘to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. In the end, though, the lost house of Israel rejected him, and his disciples, handing him over to the Romans for execution. As a consequence, God’s call to obedience and leadership ceases to addressed to a single ethnic group. Instead, ‘the holy nation’ becomes a universal church, drawn from all peoples and all nations, yet retaining the same role -- to be a light in places of ‘deep darkness’ wherever human beings find themselves ‘harassed and helpless’.
Alongside this call, though, is a warning. Discipleship comes at a cost. ‘You will be dragged before governors and kings because of me and you will be hated because of my name’. As the reading from Paul’s Epistle confirms, this warning applied not only to the twelve disciples, but also to those who responded to the Gospel through Paul’s preaching. For Paul, the suffering that may result from Christian conversion also brings consolation. ‘Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope’. In other words, the very difficulty of being a Christian can itself be the means by which we come to experience afresh God's love being poured into our hearts.
Few Christians in the West today are likely to undergo the persecution and suffering these readings anticipate. Instead, Christianity’s modern enemies are indifference or contempt, and the name of Jesus is most often used as a dismissive swear word. This leads to a different, but no less serious issue. It would not be any exaggeration to say that our current, covid-19 dominated world, is one in which large numbers of people are ‘harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’. Scientists and politicians have stepped into, and been accepted in, the role of ‘shepherd’, while religions (and not just Christianity) have been completely side-lined. This generates a great problem. How is the Church to be a light in this new form of darkness?
When Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them out like sheep into the midst of wolves, he gives them strange advice. ‘Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. According to normal ways of thinking, cunning is the opposite of innocence, and while the reward for cunning, it is widely supposed, may be success, the price of innocence is just as often failure.
If we believe in a God-given, providential order beyond anything that science and politics can offer us, in which love, not medicine or technology, ultimately governs all things, we need to find a practical way of working with a world that denies this, while at the same time holding on to Christian truth or integrity. It goes without saying that this is very hard to do. It is much easier to keep our heads down and follow the rules prescribed by scientists and politicians. Moreover, when Christians do act in the name of their faith, these readings tell us, they are by no means assured of an easy ride. That is not the way God works. At the same time, they have this profound assurance – ‘it is not you who speaks, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you’. Our human weakness and vulnerability will not go away. But by the grace of God they can be transformed.
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