I have never before noticed how a few of these verses from this long lectionary passage in Matthew have a quality to them that is somewhat reminiscent of session minutes.
The reading starts out lofty with metaphors of sheep and shepherd, harvest and laborers. The mission Jesus gives his followers certainly is not one I’ve ever read in minutes or church bulletins. Imagine this on the line under First Presbyterian Church: Our mission is to cast out unclean spirits and cure every disease and sickness. It would be an attention grabber, to be sure. Even better if we included what comes later in the reading. There we find the addition of proclaiming the good news – check, we do claim that mandate; but then there is the “raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” clause we don’t normally emblazon on the church stationary.
Imagine this: The meeting was opened with prayer by Pastor Smith at 6:30 p.m. After much discussion, the session voted unanimously to approve a new mission statement to read as follows, “We cast out unclean spirits, cure every disease and illness, proclaim the good news, raise the dead and cleanse lepers, welcoming all in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Nope, never read that anywhere, ever, in all the minutes I’ve read. And (church nerd alert) I’ve read a lot of church meeting minutes.
However, what I have read is what comes in verses 2-4. Present at the meeting were: Alice Smith, pastor; Glen Johnson, associate pastor; Jim Thompson, clerk; etc.; etc.; etc. Absent: Jane Doe. Excused: MJ McCrae.
Names are recorded. Who was there, who wasn’t. Sometimes their role is noted. Every now and then how one person is connected to another is included – such as when people come before the session to join the church or be confirmed. (Or is it only a Southern thing to list who the parents –and sometimes grandparents – of the confirmands are?) When there are presentations by non-elders they are listed, by name, along with their reason for attending: the architect for the church building project, the deacon in charge of the stewardship campaign. Names and roles are on the record, into perpetuity, and they are right here in Matthew (and also in Luke and Mark and the 11 sans Judas early in Acts).
Why bother? Let’s face it: The line-up will not impress potential donors or entice additional followers. Unlike organizations that proudly list their board members in hopes that others will be eager to be affiliated with them as a result of the status and notability of their leaders, those chosen by Jesus might have the opposite effect. Tax collectors? Oh, yes, sign me up to spend more time with them! Fishermen? Not exactly the professionals with whom one wants to network. And seriously, if you tell me up front one member of the inner circle can’t be trusted, then I wonder about the entire enterprise. And yet, the writers of the synoptic gospels want those of us who come after them to know the first disciples’ names, sometimes their professions, their family ties and, occasionally, even their key character traits. (I am not keen to have dinner with anyone known as “the zealot” either, by the way.)
These are the 12 who were sent out. These are the 12 Jesus entrusted with his mission. These are the 12 who are going to bring in the harvest and recruit more laborers. These are the 12: Peter and Andrew, James and John, some fishermen, a tax collector, Alphaeus’ boy, Simon from down the road (you know the Cananaean?). These are the 12 who will shepherd the helpless sheep. These are the 12 who will cast out demons, raise the dead, heal the sick and proclaim the good news, first to the lost sheep of Israel and then to the ends of the earth. What?! These are the 12?
Perhaps this is precisely the reason the Gospel writer wants their names, their family connections, their professions and, yes, even their character traits recorded. Jesus calls these 12 particular people. Let the minutes reflect that Jesus sent Simon Peter and MJ McCrae, Andrew and Alice, Zebedee’s sons and Jim Thompson’s daughters, too, to go and cleanse lepers and raise the dead. Matthew the tax collector was called and commissioned to a ministry of preaching and healing and the session approved Elder Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Used Cars, to start an afterschool program in the fellowship hall. Youth Elder Leah Anderson, Elder Anderson’s granddaughter, reported that on the recent mission trip the hungry were fed and demons were cast out. Pastor Briggs prayed the closing prayer and the meeting adjourned at 8:46 p.m.
There is, in this text from Matthew, a seamless mix of ordinary and extraordinary. Twelve unremarkable men imbued with remarkable life-giving, divine power. Twelve people, powerless and poor by worldly standards, entrusted with heavenly riches. These 12 are given the ability to share God’s wholeness with others, first with the lost sheep of Israel and eventually to all nations.
Make no mistake, even if we don’t list the details of Jesus’ mission in our bulletins or on our church signs, we are entrusted with all of it, too. Preaching, healing, resurrection, wholeness, reconciliation, all of it. We ordinary, sinful human beings are sent to do the work of the One who called and commissioned us. In every age the need is great; there are sheep dying for lack of compassion. Jesus sees their need and aches for them and for us when we are among those hurting in body, mind or spirit. In every age, Jesus calls and sends laborers, shepherds, ambassadors of divine care and compassion. In every age, followers of Jesus Christ are to have integrity. They are not exploit the vulnerable by taking their gold in exchange for false promises of miracle cures, quick fixes or prosperity. Rather, they are to go where the vulnerable are and, when welcomed to do so, eat around their tables and share the good news of Jesus Christ with any who will hear us out.
The healing, preaching and life-giving mission of Jesus Christ still requires his followers to cleanse lepers: bringing back into community those who have been shunned and cast out. We, like Peter and Bartholomew, are still called to cast out demons: refusing to let systemic racism and all its infrastructure label entire groups of people as somehow God-forsaken and irredeemable. We, like Andrew and Philip, are still called even to raise the dead: going to places where hope has no oxygen, creating space where the flames of the Holy Spirit can burn through offering relief and refusing to leave even after everyone else has returned home.
Let the minutes reflect that Jesus has chosen and called you and your congregation. Each of you, all of you, with your particular name and profession and family and character traits. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. The sheep are needy and the threats are real. The work is hard and rejection is certain. The hours are long and the pay is negligible. Every ounce of your being will need to be invested and yet the results of your efforts will rarely be immediate and not often measurable. This work will take a lifetime and your very life may be demanded of you. Shall we call the question and take a vote? Who will go to the lost sheep of Israel and the rest of God’s beloved world, too?
These are the names of those who went: Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother, Andrew; James son of Zebedee and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean; and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him. These are the 12? Yes, these are the 12. Will the minutes reflect your name as well?
- Look at the lists of the disciples in Luke, Mark and Acts. What differences do you notice? What do you learn when you look at all four lists that you might miss if you look at just one of them?
- Go to your church website (and maybe some others, too) and read the mission statement. How does it connect with the mission Jesus gives the 12? How doesn’t it?
- Read Matthew 9:35 and then read 10:1 and 10:7-8 and note the similarities between them. How does our ministry reflect the ministry of Jesus and the 12 in this Sunday’s reading?
- Carefully read through Jesus’ instructions to his disciples. Do we still follow these instructions as we go about Jesus’ work in the world? Why or why not? Is it possible for us to follow these instructions today?
- In verses 19-20, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about what they will say when they are in dire circumstances as result of their ministry. Have you ever been in a situation that was frightening as result of fulfilling Jesus’ call? Did you experience the Spirit’s guidance during that time?
- Just for fun (?!) read through some old session meetings minutes and jot down what you notice. Are names listed? Any descriptors of the people? What decisions were made and do they reflect in anyway the mission Jesus gives the disciples in this Matthew reading?
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