Being a Little Like Jesus
What an interesting year 2020 is turning out to be. On Thursday 11 June we marked the feast of St Barnabas, a Saints day traditionally associated with the mid-year Solstice. We are halfway through, or halfway to Christmas, depending on how you look at things.
Our contemplative seasons of reflection: Advent to Easter have come to an end. For me, these reflective seasons have passed very quickly. In some ways overshadowed by bush fires, hail and the COVID 19 pandemic.
Can a person of faith believe in coincidence, or must we find all things providential? For, as the cross shows us, hope can be found in the darkest of places.
From a certain perspective it might be a somewhat providential turn of events, that from Advent to Easter, we have been fairly well confined to our homes. Firstly, through smoke, fire, and closed roads, and more lately through the virus and travel restrictions. We have experienced an unusual time of confinement during a season where we are called to set aside time and heart for a personal pilgrimage through the story of Jesus’ conception, incarnation, death and resurrection. Hopefully, with time in hand, this pilgrimage reminded us once again of the magnificence of God, or revealed another small slither of his fully unfathomable nature. Hopefully, we also revisited that story’s connection with the first spark of our own faith, however long ago that might have been, and felt it fanned into a renewed, more vigorous flame.
Possibly, with holiday plans dashed and social connections severed, we have experienced a little fear, frustration, anticipation, and perhaps a little wonder at what tomorrow will bring. Might this experience bring us alongside the Apostles in spirit: as they sat waiting and hiding, in an upper room, anticipating the Spirit of Pentecost to come upon them.
Celebrating Pentecost, we moved into the long season of Ordinary Time, which we now countdown as ‘days after Pentecost’. Whichever label you choose it is a season of action. The season of Contemplation is over. It is time for the labourers to go out into the field.
I like the old label of Ordinary Time, as it reminds me that the mission of the church is in the hands of ordinary people of the church i.e. everyone and not a chosen few. Although, perhaps referring to this season with constant reference back to Pentecost gives it a little more energy and urgency. This a time for us (ordinary folk) to rush out into the world, with the excitement of a reveling crowd. This year in particular, we are certainly itching to get out there!
How providential it also seems, as we come to the end of the church season which gave us some license to sit indoors and soak up our Bible, and now come to that turning point in the calendar where we must feel compelled to 'get out there' and be the church in the world. Such a curious timing that restrictions should be eased and the doors, and roads, opened up to us.
The season of Going Out is upon us. Our lectionary readings cleverly conspire to ensure we can have no doubt.
Last Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost, where the disciples found themselves fully equipped to go out into the world, we turned back to Matthews’s Gospel story of their final Commissioning. A Commission to go and make more disciples, and to teach those disciples, us, to make more. Commissioned with a loving reminder at the end of Mat 28:20, the last words of this Gospel, “… and remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
That last verse of the Gospel began, “teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you …” (Mat 28:20)
As the faithful gathered today, we are the ‘them’. Filled with the Spirit of Pentecost and led into our Commission by those disciples who came before us, Baptised us, taught us, encouraged us. We are the ones who now hold the Commission – to follow the commands of Jesus, and go and make more disciples.
Where do we start?
We started at the end – with an instruction to make disciples. Now, like detectives in mystery movies, to find how to make disciples, we turn back to the instructions on how to be a disciple.
We look back to the early days in the disciples’ journey with Jesus, so that we might observe and learn all that they were commanded.
Theirs is the story of a group of ordinary people, just like us. The lives and faith journey of the disciples, the ordinary people in this extraordinary story, demonstrate what is possible for us in taking up the call to the Great Commission. Jesus tells us we can do it, and he will be there with us always. Because we humans need to see to believe, we see it is true when we look at these ordinary men.
Ordinary men who often seemed a bit of rabble. Peter, so passionate in his commitment, will deny the Lord three times as soon as he is challenged. Judas will betray him to death. In between we have a collection of fishermen, the anti-establishment “zealot” Simon, and of course Matthew, one who works for the occupying Romans as a tax collector.
They will be called Apostles (the only time they are called this in Matthews’s Gospel) and the powers they are given look the same as those of Jesus himself: "cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons”. They are given the powers of Jesus and sent out to proclaim in his words: "The kingdom of heaven has come near". (Apostles in Mat 10:7; Jesus in Mat 4:17; John in Mat 3:2).
What they are called to do looks a lot like what Jesus does.
The command to followers, applying equally to ourselves as much as to the original audience (and all in between), is that we followers are expected to resemble Jesus in word and deed. To be sent by Jesus is, in some sense, to be sent as Jesus. This is the Great Commission – to be sent out on the mission of Jesus.
To be like Jesus is the subject of many a hymn and many more prayers. I am particularly drawn to ‘From Earthly Pleasures Vainly Call Me' by James Rowe. It reminds me that the danger in our recent period of confinement was to spend too much time thinking about pleasures lost than about God.
All the way from earth to glory,
I would be like Jesus;
Telling o’er and o’er the story,
I would be like Jesus.
Be like Jesus - this my song,
In the home and in the throng;
Be like Jesus, all day long,
I would be like Jesus.
To encourage people to see themselves as Jesus is precarious teaching. Those who hear it need to understand the difference between an aspiration to be ‘like’ Jesus and the inappropriate ambition to see ourselves as a Saviour in our own right. As a beloved lecturer at St Mark’s National Theological Centre used to point out to us students, we are called to be like the Saviour, not be the Saviour.
However, Matthew's point is that while the roles of the master and apprentice are distinct, ultimately the apprentice must bear some resemblance to the master.
During COVID 19 we have been watching these YouTube choirs and orchestras, made up of individuals performing alone in their homes and brought together through the power of technology. I have also been watching videos of ballet dancers doing the same. In a homage to the birthday of a particular teacher and choreographer, different members of the Royal ballet had all recorded themselves, at home and in interesting places (alone), dancing his signature steps. It seems that, in these particular steps, the signature of the master can be identified. A good teacher should be recognizable in their student and Jesus highlights this in Mat 10:25 "It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master”.
If Jesus is our Lord and master, do others see that when they see us? It appears that the Great Commission has two parts. Firstly we have to be doing the same things Jesus did. Secondly, others have to see and hear it. It is an active and not a contemplative Commission.
Turning back to the first part of our Gospel text, we find Jesus well into the action of his mission— proclaiming, teaching, healing— suddenly stopping to induct the Disciples into the same vocation.
As Jesus' compassion for the “harassed and helpless, like a sheep without a shepherd” (Mat 9:36), provides the foundation of his mission, it is also accompanied by a sense of urgency to respond. "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Mat 9:37).
This sense of compassion leading to urgent response in Jesus mirrors his own master. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son’. (Jn 3:16). Therefore, the Lord must commission others with powers like his own, giving them the authority to respond in love to their neighbours, and authority to respond just as God himself would respond.
A response from the compassion of love, to tend to the sick, the harassed and the helpless. A response also from the connectedness of love. The mission is one of recruiting and apprenticing others, to join in the great purpose of God the Father. Surely the past few months has shown us just how essential to wellbeing, a sense of being at one with others provides. Without that connection many of us have felt a bit harassed and helpless.
From the Gospel of John, (Jn 20:21)
21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
Every Sunday for the next five months, we will remember that these days come after Pentecost. Reminding ourselves that we have received the Holy Spirit. As the Father has sent Jesus, so we are now commissioned as the sent. As we have received, so we are called to give.
As we return to some sort of ‘normal’, ‘ordinary’ life, the Gospel calls us to remember that our life should be one of:
- Urgency to respond in love
- Sharing the good news.
And in the words of another hymn. Let us not hoard as private treasure, all that he so freely gives. (Lord You Give the Great Commission, Jeffery Rowthorn)
Every day let us be a little more like Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen