11th of the Year, 18 June 23
St Mary’s, Lansdowne Road and the Good Shepherd, Mitchley Road
Eleventh of the Year, 18th June 2023
Some months ago I was having a conversation on the street round the corner with two guys, who may or may not have been under the influence of one or two substances. One guy I knew; the other I did not. Both saying they’d come to Church - a lot of people say that to me - and one sought to ameliorate or make it sound better that he hadn’t come by saying, “I’ve read the whole Bible, you know, yeah I know the whole thing.” To which I responded, with a smile, “Yep, that’s great but remember the devil has read the Bible too and knows it because he quotes it when Jesus is tempted in the Wilderness!” They both laughed and I then encouraged them to come and one of them has since.
We’re all to be missionaries, my friends, and I want to talk a bit about what mission is. The word means “sent,” and you can’t be a follower of Jesus Christ without knowing that you have been sent. This is because we are to imitate the same love that we see in Jesus Christ who is sent from God into the world. At the end of Mass we hear the priest or deacon say, “Go forth, the Mass is ended,” and so we are sent forth having said our own private thanksgiving. We use the word “Mass” to describe the service of Holy Communion we come to because of the Latin translation of that phrase “Go, forth the Mass is ended,” which is “Ite Missa est.” It could also be translated as, “Go, it is sent,” but the truth is we are sent out, having been nourished by Christ’s life given for the world.
The question then must be, where are we sent? In today’s Gospel Jesus calls the twelve apostles, gives them authority and sends them out, saying: “Do not turn your steps to pagan territory, and do not enter any Samaritan town; go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” The mission of Jesus always has a reach beyond the Jews, hence we see Him speaking to tax collectors and sinners and to the Samaritan woman (St John 4). Yet there is also a definite sense in which His mission begins to these “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” that is the Jews, for they received the first call to be God’s people, as the Old Testament testifies. That Covenant is not obliterated by our Lord but completed, fulfilled, brought to fulness.
And for some of us, during our lives we have a clear sense of being sent to particular places. I remember when it was first suggested that I come to Tottenham, the Principal of the seminary, St Stephen’s House, Oxford, said to me over breakfast, “You’d like to go to St Mary’s Tottenham wouldn’t you?” I shrugged because I didn’t really know about our life here though I had visited Tottenham not long before that conversation. Anyway, eventually it happened. It was unexpected in many senses in part because I’d not been an ordinand from this Diocese and so there wasn’t an expectation that I would be here in London. Anyway, there was quite a clear sending at that stage of my life.
And sometimes churches are also engaged in this sort of sending: some from St Mary’s were sent down to the Good Shepherd thirteen years ago when we reopened it; some were sent to St Philip’s when we started supporting them five years. It is a continuous part of the life of the Church that we get sent to places. A large part of how that works will be individual discernment. Last Tuesday we celebrated St Anthony of Padua and a significant desire in his own forty years of earthly life was spent wanting to be sent to Morocco to win souls for Jesus Christ. I think priest and people, you and me, should have more of such conversations of you saying where you feel sent and me trying to help you work out if that is God’s will, how that might work and how the Church can support you.
Equally a lot of us have so little power over our lives or have so many commitments within our lives that our being sent might not be about upping sticks and going to a different country. However it almost certainly will be that some of those other commitments need to be ditched - they might be well-intentioned - but if they make us less agile in our service of the Lord, we should have the grace to strip ourselves of them. Do we need to spend as much time on clothes, do we spend so much money we need to end up working more, do we really have to watch a box-set TV series every week, are we too content spend inordinate amounts of time travelling in cars or on buses.
Our being sent isn’t necessarily about upping sticks and leaving everything behind. Some priests like St Bede from this country in the seventh century and others like St John Bosco in nineteenth century Italy never really left their local area. They were still sent as apostles of Jesus Christ though they remained local lads. This may be true of us. There’s a danger with a lot of our life that we end up being fatalistic about events: I live where the council sends me, I work wherever there’s a job and we feel imprisoned by fate. The other extreme perhaps is that we are overly predeterminsitic believing God has placed us every place we end up and there must be some reason for our being there of earth-shattering importance. The reality is somewhere between the two probably: we take a job, we send our children to particular schools, we shop in certain shops, for a variety of reasons but whatever reason might be uppermost in our mind, we are still called surely to see that God sends us there. And once we recognise that God sends us we go with a different spring in our step.
So, we help out at Sunday School, we visit relatives at the care home, we stand at the queue in the post office all these in the light of the fact that we have been sent out by God, not just to collect our pension, to see Aunt Ethel or because no one else will do it and it’s my turn on the rota, but because God has sent us.
This move us on to the second question: what happens in those places to which we have been sent? St Paul, in that weighty passage from Romans 5 we heard just now, reflects that because we have been reconciled by Jesus’ death we will be saved by His life. Both are a reality in our life already as well as something we look forward to seeing the consummation of in the future and so in the phrase Paul uses “we are filled with joyful trust in God.” What is inimical to trust? What reveals that we are failing to trust God? Worry and panic and despair, surely, these three. “Oh, I’m worried about this … Ahhhh, isn’t this terrible … Oh, there’s no hope,” there’s no room for trust in any of those mindsets. When we think God hasn’t given us enough time to get to Mass, or enough money to get by, or enough love to forgive our enemies we’re doing God a disservice and failing to trust in His generosity. So we need to display trust in God in these places even when everyone is getting hysterical. Our Lord’s words in today’s Gospel, “You received without charge, give without charge,” are in no small way an exhortation to trust that what God has given is enough.
In those places to which we have been sent we will also need to call people to be elsewhere. The Shepherd who finds the lost sheep picks it up on his shoulders and takes it back to the fold and the Prodigal Son is reunited with his dad because he has returned home. The promise made through Moses to God’s people in that first reading is that God has brought them so far but that is not the end, God hasn’t stopped working yet. The commandments which are about to be given are about forming a “kingdom of priests, a consecrated nation.” We have particular men ordained priest in the Church because we are all called to be part of a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, a people set apart, as St Peter puts it in his first letter (I Peter 2:9). We’re to be a community of believers, offering worship and sacrifice, this is what a priesthood does, bound together by prayer. And this continues with the work of the Apostles as commissioned in our Gospel reading. They go and proclaim a Kingdom and their specific contribution as Apostles is to unite the Church around the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, His life and Teaching. This same call is given to Bishops today to ensure the Church remains faithful. We call others to join us in worship in that faith-filled ministry.
So, in those places to which we are sent, we are always saying, “Come and join. I love this … I love that … You know we are actually nourished by the Body and Blood of our Saviour when we gather.” It will almost certainly be easier to do that in particular circumstances, which we can seek to create in those places we find ourselves. So it might be that you go to a library and see they put posters up, maybe you can ask if they would display a Church poster. Your witnessing in that place to which you have been sent then becomes easier. Or you might work in a school where one or two others of the teachers are Christians and you want to pray regularly together. Maybe you organise doing that every week and once a term you get the priest to come in. Again, your witnessing in that place to which you have been sent gets easier for you’re saying God is here, loving us and listening to our prayers, as well as saying come and join the rest of the priesthood at Mass where we keep our life on earth holy.
Let us then, my friends, consider these two questions I’ve sought to explore: where are we sent and what happens there? May we pray the Holy Spirit will fill us here, working in invisible ways in us even now, so that when we’re sent this afternoon when we start work or tomorrow when we do the school run, or on Tuesday when we’re in Aldi, wherever we’re sent we may witness to Christ and draw more souls in to the flock of the Lord. Amen.