“Cure the sick. Raise the dead. Cleanse the lepers. Cast out demons.”
There’s been a lot of talk this week about reopening churches. The provincial government made an announcement allowing churches to reopen with reduced capacity. Our Anglican bishops in Ontario sent us a pastoral letter advising that “our churches will not be reopening for in-person worship until at least September.”
All of which kind of begs the question: what is the church?
Two weeks ago we celebrated Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit. Pentecost is often called the birth of the church, and we can understand why. In Luke’s narrative, the Spirit comes upon the disciples gathered in Jerusalem and they are empowered, pouring out into the streets to proclaim the good news.
But in Matthew’s gospel, the birth of the church is to be found in the reading that we just heard today. In today’s gospel, Jesus summons his followers and sends them out. They are transformed from disciples, those who learn, to apostles, those who are sent. They become the church. This is the moment that the church is born.
So what can we say about the church? Here’s my take, from today’s gospel:
- The church is born out of compassion. Compassion is our driving force.
- The church is on the move. “Go!” This is a movement. God’s movement.
- The church is sent for a purpose, a mission. The church’s mission is Jesus’ mission.
- The church is called to bring healing.
Let’s unpack all this a bit, shall we?
“Cure the sick. Raise the dead. Cleanse the lepers. Cast out demons.”
That’s bold language. That’s urgent language.
What is so important, what’s at stake here that has Jesus commissioning his followers with such boldness and urgency?
It’s what Jesus sees. It’s right there, at the beginning of today’s text.
Jesus sees the crowds, the people, people like us. He sees suffering. He sees sickness. He sees racism. He sees poverty. He sees marginalization. He sees oppression. He sees despair. He sees beneath the surface. He sees that they are harassed and helpless, faint and tossed aside, like sheep without a shepherd.
And it moves him. It moves him with compassion, a compassion, which according to the literal sense of the Greek word, churns his gut. He feels it with his whole being when he sees us harassed and helpless, he is moved with compassion when he sees our need, and so he acts, going about the cities and villages, not just some of them, but all of them Matthew tells us, teaching, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, bringing healing to all he meets.
And knowing that more needs to be done, that this is just the beginning, that the harvest is plentiful, that he can’t do it all himself, knowing the depth of our human need, Jesus gives birth to the church. The church is born out of the Son of God’s gut-churning compassion for the needs of the world.
He summons his disciples and sends them out, first to the people of Israel, and then in the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel, to all nations, to the ends of the earth. The church is on the move. Its driving force is God’s compassion for humanity.
The church is a movement. It’s a movement with a message and a mission. The message?
“Proclaim the good news, ‘the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.’
And the mission?
Cure the sick. Raise the dead. Cleanse the lepers. Cast out demons.”
Are you ready for that mission?
Did you notice that the church’s mission and Jesus’ mission are the same? To be sent by Jesus is to be sent as Jesus. What is Jesus’ mission? Teaching, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, healing every sickness. What is the mission of the church? Teaching, proclaiming the good news, healing. If the church is doing what it has been commissioned to do, we will look and sound like Jesus. Like a mirror. Like an echo-chamber.
So what does Jesus look and sound like? What has Jesus been doing in Matthew’s gospel immediately prior to this commissioning moment?
Here’s what he’s been doing. He’s been curing the sick, healing many people. He’s been raising the dead, restoring a young girl to life. He’s been cleansing lepers, reaching out and touching the man who knelt before him. He’s been casting out demons, healing two men who were living among the tombs in the country of the Gaderenes. This is Jesus on the move, carrying out the mission that God entrusted him with:
Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.
The church has been entrusted with this exact same mission. The church has been called to be on the move, on a mission, driven by compassion, bringing healing.
And so, does the church need to be reopened? Well, the church may need to be reawakened. The church may need to be recommissioned. The church may need to be reinvigorated. The church may need to be re-enabled by the power of the Spirit to do our God-given mission. But reopening our buildings has very little to do with all of that.
Because the church is not a building. The church is a movement of people on a mission, a mission that looks like Jesus, driven by compassion in the face of human need.
We are called to teach, to make disciples.
We are called to preach, to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God.
But even more so, we are called to bring healing to a world that is in great need of healing. That’s what Jesus emphasizes when he commissions his disciples to be the church. That is who we are called to be as church. To feed those who are hungry. To give drink to those who are thirsty. To welcome the stranger. To give clothing to the naked. To take care of those who are sick. To visit those who are in prison. To bring healing wherever there is brokenness, alienation and despair.
To quote Frederick Buechner, vocation, the mission we are called to by God, is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep needs.
We are the church. And so through the generations, through the centuries, the call comes down to us, to those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus.
Cure the sick. Be with those who are afflicted by disease and distress, those who are poisoned by the ills of our age. Talk to them, pray for them, reach out on Zoom and when you can, hold them, hug them, and anoint them. Proclaim the power of God to heal us.
Raise the dead. Go to those whose lives are deadened, those who need to take their life back, those for whom the life is being squeezed out of them, the ones at life’s end, those who mourn. Proclaim the power of God to raise us up.
Cleanse the lepers. Journey with the outcast and the marginalized. Go to them, break down the barriers. End isolation. Cleanse them from stigma and sorrow. Proclaim the power of God to restore us to community.
Cast out demons. Do not collude with evil. Name it, root it out and resist it. Walk in solidarity with those who are afflicted by violent and oppressive forces. Let the oppressed speak. Proclaim the power of God to cast out the demonic forces that afflict us.
Jesus looks on his people, and he sees. He sees their need, sees how we are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, and he is moved with compassion. And so he summons his followers and he sends them out on a mission.
This is your mission, if you choose to accept it.
Be the church.
Homily. Yr A P11, June 14 2020, St. Albans. Readings: Exodus 19.2-8a; Ps 100; Romans 5.1-8; Matthew 9.35-10.8
Inspired by Anna Carter Florence, Preaching Year A, 2016 Luther Seminary. Image by James Cridland, Creative Commons