Sooner or later it was time for the Gospel to be spread, and Jesus alone wouldn’t be able to do it in a timeless and sustained way. Even if his death and resurrection, upon which we base our faith, hadn’t occurred in that way, as man or God or both, the assumption would have been that he could live the proverbial four score years, more or less, but no more. And eventually the Word would have to go out. Jesus sends out his own, the Twelve and the Seventy, in pairs, partly for safety, but partly for mutual support, to spread the word. And this missionary journey is told in various ways in all three Synoptic Gospels. As we are told to go forth and spread the Gospel by word, deed, and witness of our lives.
The injunction to go only to Jewish towns, avoiding all Gentiles, has been subject to a lot of apologetic writing. One example is presenting Jesus as the new Moses. And while I find these both interesting and worthy of prayer and meditation, I think this command is much simpler. The Matthean community was still trying to claim the Jesus movement as the fulfillment of Judaism, not its replacement, or even a separate religion. So I would say that this order to stick with the Jews was to focus on the primary goal of the mission. Later in the Gospel disciples were enjoined to convert the world. They are also instructed to go out with barely more than the clothes on their backs, trusting in God to provide whatever resources they would need. Thus they are totally beholden to the good will of strangers. And they are not to charge anybody anything. And poverty and trust are consistent with Jesus’ teaching, which we still teach. The list of powers given to the Twelve is pretty expansive. Yes: heal, banish demons, cure lepers (make the unclean to be clean). But to raise the dead? We are told in Acts that Peter had done so, and in the Jewish Testament, Elisha raised a boy. Jesus raises several dead persons. But that was Jesus. Can we raise the dead today? I haven’t heard of any provable cases. Are we of little faith? In Mark disciples cast out demons, and we read that they healed by anointing with oil. In Luke we are only told that they are to be heralds of the impending Kingdom. While the mission statements vary, what does not is the way these disciples are to go and how they are to behave. Which is where it got interesting for me.
In Matthew the apostles are told to salute, greet, welcome, even to enfold in one’s arms a new house, a new town (ἀσπάσασθε, aspasasthe). But if that welcome is rejected, they are to reclaim their offer of peace. Here peace (εἰρήνη, eirene) can also mean prosperity, which now returns to them. Leave the soil, dust of a land that is now foreign to you, but take your prosperity. A little kinder but perhaps not that far from cutting dead those not called by the Father, or at least not convinced by the Apostles/Seventy. But Jesus was talking about the Eschaton, the End Time, as being imminent. Judgement of those not called seemed to be part of the message. In Mark the missioners are to give testimony against them, and the charges and threatened punishments are dire. And the section in Luke also closes with a threat. There were consequences in not taking in Jesus’ missionaries. This is not our message of universal love and forgiveness. And that is disturbing to a society as open as ours.
And yet this is a joyous and critical narrative, the first instruction which will in time build the Church, a manifestation of Jesus the Christ’s Resurrection and the promises gained from it. Yes, Jesus sent out lambs to face predators, spiritual children to spread God’s word, and that is where the heart of Jesus’ teaching lies. Yet, I find this lesson of closing the door and turning away from those whose need for Jesus’ light and life are just as strong as it is for those who quickly embrace it difficult and sad. The underlying message is that the Father decides who will be called. Up until interreligious dialogue took a more prominent role in our missionary identity, we, like the disciples at the end of the Gospels, were called to convert the world. And now, as we expand our notions of God’s universal love, it is not clear where we draw the lines between mission and acceptance of diversity.
I think that this teaching in Holy Scripture still has meaning for us now. We know that some attempts at relationships seem to be a lost cause, but for the Grace of God. Even in a small familiar community such as the parish community, I have been taught and teach that those bits where we rub against each other are grist for the mill to refine our souls. And thus we are called to refrain from shaking the dust from our sandals. To stick it out.
And yet, this, too has its own problems. For people being people, no amount of training is going to eliminate the dark thoughts we all hide. Somebody feels an irrational threat from another, probably based on little or nothing. A gesture or word that unearths an ancient memory and two human souls are on their way to a shift in relationship. In the Lord’s prayer the use of “debt” recognizes the mutuality of such an entanglement. Although one may never know why subtle gestures or words from another can make us feel uncomfortable or unsafe, both for the initiator and recipient, real reconciliation and healing can’t take place. And “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” can’t sustain the illusion of peace. A true bonding of souls requires more. And that is frightening. I find it a hard truth that not everybody is going to like me, and what I find most painful is the periodic insight that people whom I have loved and trusted don’t know me at all and I feel like a projection of their reality, thus diminishing my own. And how much can we ignore the fact that we shake the dust from our sandals early and often, if not by walking out, but by simply withdrawing our peace?
How can we carry the essential message of those first to harvest the crops of faith into our own small fields? Are we still walking into a strange house, be it a human to human encounter, a parish, a wider community, or the world community, if only for a little while, and assessing if we are to stay or leave, shaking the dust from our souls because we have perceived the deep knowledge that we are not safe? Or can we go into the world with so little that we truly depend on our Father to clothe us and feed us and protect our fragile souls? Because a soul filled with the Spirit is anything but fragile. Sometimes saddened, sometimes hurt. But never fragile.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.