Faith and Thought

Sunday 7th October 2018
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Joshua 3.7-17
Matthew 10.1-22

Jesus sends the Apostles out to spread the "good news" that "The Kingdom of Heaven has come near"; they have the powers to heal, exorcise and even raise the dead; they are to go out with the minimum clothing and no money; they are to accept hospitality but if a person or town will not listen to them, the punishment will be worse than that meted out to Sodom and Gomorrah; they will be like sheep among wolves and must be wise as serpents and gentle as doves; they must run away when in danger of persecution but if they are caught then the Holy Spirit will conduct their defence; and the mission will not be completed by the time that "The Son of Man comes".

At which point, the best thing I can do is to read that first paragraph over again so that we can fully take it in. When reading familiar texts, like the Gospels, it is all too easy to slide over the surface without stopping.

Examining this text in its own terms, trying to work out what it meant to the Apostles being sent, it is important to understand that they did not know what Jesus meant by "The Kingdom of God has come near" or "the Son of Man comes" which book-end this passage. But whatever they can say, probably referring to repentance which they have heard from both John the Baptist and Jesus, can be reinforced by healing and exorcism and, quite remarkably, raising people from the dead, even though Jesus only did this twice, with Lazarus and the son of the widow of Nain, if you take literally the comment of Jesus that the 12-year-old daughter of Jairus was only sleeping. They would have understood the points about minimum resources, accepting hospitality and avoiding Gentiles but it is difficult to see how they would have understood the proposed punishment for the denial of their message which, incidentally, mirrors the account of the destruction of Sodom in that the innocent are punished, in spite of Abraham's pleas, alongside the wicked. They would, too, have understood the dangers of persecution particularly as this passage, and a similar one in Mark Chapter 6, is intertwined with John the Baptist. I am not sure how they would have understood the point about the Holy Spirit taking care of their defence.

To be honest, I am not sure how far any further analysis of this passage in its own terms can take us; but, equally, to adopt the alternative approach of what it should mean to us today is hardly more rewarding. With the gift of hindsight we can understand what Jesus says about the Good News of The Kingdom and the coming of the Son of Man but, with the best will in the world, we are not going to give up all we have and preach the Gospel and, if we do, we will have no direct powers to heal, exorcise and bring back from the dead, although we do these things through sympathy and generosity, more than we know.

What, then, are we to make of it all?

In the first place, and before we draw any further conclusions, we should accept that the Bible is frequently very difficult to understand; and The New Testament is not always easier than the Old Testament; our First Reading today is much easier to make sense of than the second.

Next, even if we can make sense of what this text meant to the writer, to Jesus and his hearers, it does not mean that it is easy to apply to our contemporary situation.

And finally, therefore, we ought to be very careful when we encounter Biblical text.

What I am supposed to do at this point is to say something about what it means to be an Apostle today but it only approximates to our Gospel Reading and comes nowhere close to the miraculous scenario in the Reading from the Book of Joshua.

In the first place, by definition, if we are to be Apostles then we must in some way be sent out; the Good News of Jesus is not private property, it is not simply our private relationship with Jesus but to be an Apostle is to have a public obligation.

Secondly, to be an Apostle may not mean to confine ourselves to one set of clothes but it does mean minimising our worldly goods, not least because Jesus says, and we know from our experience, that the more we have the more difficult it is to be faithful to Jesus. I am haunted by the eye of the needle and the lilies of the field.

And, finally, although we will not be physically persecuted, we are being worn down both by aggressive atheism and by being characterised as irrelevant. We are being expected to keep our religion to ourselves and well out of politics but if we are to be Apostles we must be in the thick of the political - even the party political - fray.

The Gospels, naturally, tell a story about proposals and opposition, particularly in Matthew who is trying to demarcate Christianity from Judaism, but I suspect that the reaction to Jesus, as to contemporary Christianity, was indifference, except when he offered healing; people could just not be bothered to pay attention; but if we are not prepared to pay just a little more attention, we cannot expect anybody to pay any attention to us.

And here we come full circle: what we want to say about loving God and our neighbour is relatively simple; but what we ought to do about it is very difficult; and how we ground what we say and do needs to be coherent. For this reason, using the hackneyed phrase, we ought to understand the Bible anew in each generation. The Bible is a wonderful history of the relationship between God and humanity, and we ought to learn from history, but it is not a reliable ethical corpus. The Bible is a set of tools which we are to use, not an extended inscription like the tablets carried down from Sinai. And, above all, as we have learned from our Gospel Reading, our response to the Bible has to be critical if we are to get anything out of it. There is no conflict between thought and faith as long as thought is the servant of faith, not the other way round.