|Rt. Rev'd Christopher Herbert, former Bishop of St Albans|
‘...Deacons are called to work with the Bishop and the priests with whom they serve as heralds of Christ’s kingdom. They are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God’s purposes of love. They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.... We trust that you are fully determined, by the grace of God, to give yourself wholly to his service, that you may draw his people into that new life which God has prepared for those who love him...’
Thursday of last week marked the 14th anniversary of my ordination to the Deaconate. The day that Bishop Christopher Herbert (above) said those words to the congregation, me and others being ordained Deacon in the Abbey at St Albans. Thursday was a day saturated with memories for me of the journey that God has and continues to lead me on in His service. Appropriate that as a Deacon is called to serve, Thursday included conversations about extending the ministry of our foodbanks and spending time with a family planning a funeral service.
I can vividly recall not being ready for my Deaconing. I don’t mean arriving late and in a flap. I mean, having a very real sense of unpreparedness. I had only begun the formal stages of my journey towards that day 2 years previously.
And yet on that day, 14 years ago, the Church was acknowledging that, no matter how I felt on the day or since, I had been identified, trained, and sent to a specific place with the specific responsibility of initially being a Deacon for a specific period of time.
Interestingly this Thursday marks my second anniversary as your Parish Priest. Much has happened in that time. I still feel daunted by the task ahead of us but I am all the more aware of God’s specific call here with you to make known His Kingdom. In a similar way, in this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus asks us to consider carefully the mission, the task, he calls disciples to.
This morning we meet Jesus appointing pairs of disciples to go from the comfort and safety of their life with Him, on a specific task, to specific places, for a specific period of time. This should not have been a shock for them. They will have been well aware that this day was coming. Luke records for us in the opening lines of the Gospel, ‘After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go...’ After they had experienced the equipping and sending the 12 disciples in a similar mission, after they had seen a huge crowd fed with 5 loaves and 2 fish, after they had heard Peter’s declaring that Jesus was God’s long promised Saviour, after they heard Jesus foretell his own crucifixion and resurrection and referring to their own following of Him in terms of taking up the cross, after they had seen copious healings and miracles, after they had seen the way that Jesus was received by some and not others, after they had begun to become aware that Jesus was asking them to place God first in their lives - above family, friendship, or other social nicities... after all this, he identifies 70 of them to try it out his job for themselves.
This sending of the 70 was part of a strategic, planned mission not some random whim of Jesus. The places where these pairs were to go, were places on His’ agenda anyway.
Go, says Jesus, aware of where you are going and what people are really like. Go like lambs in the midst of wolves. Go attentive to your surroundings and the people you are amongst. Go with an openness. Go with a vulnerability.
Go also, not unprepared, but with little to tie to a certain place or people. Don’t take a bag, sandals, a purse or a money belt. Rely on the hospitality and provision of others - rely especially on God.
Go proclaiming a message of peace - a message of the saving love of God, of his holiness in the now; a message that God longs to be in relationship with all people whether Jew, Greek or Samaritan. Go with the message that His Kingdom is near, that ‘God loves you. He wants to be with you. WIll you come and be with him?’ Go with this message to house and town alike. Go expecting to have your message received well, go expecting to have your message ignored and be drummed out of town.
Whilst this fortnight has anniversaries for me, this passage isn’t about me as an ordained person. It is for all of us as those who are baptised. The gospel tells two things about every baptized person here today. The first is that the task of telling the Good News to others is given to us all. We may achieve that task in many different ways, quietly or spectacularly, verbally or by our loving care for others, but the task of showing Jesus to others is one of the chief reasons why we exist. That is not an exaggeration. We have to grasp the idea that each of us has been created, was born, for a purpose, and that purpose is in the mind of God and is more important than any other purpose we may take on.
The second truth the gospel tells us is that we have been “empowered” so to do. That’s an assurance and a challenge. We tend to absolve our passivity by muttering things like, “I’m an introvert,” “It’s not in my nature,” “I get embarrassed.”
The Gospel assures us that we are all empowered to witness, to tell of the nearness of the Kingdom, in our world and that empowerment is not the same as natural talent.
Jesus, present among us this morning, continues to call us, send us, and empower us. As we ready ourselves to take on a Curate this time next year it is worth remembering that we all have a vocation to ministry. Perhaps this coming week, in quieter moments, when we have the opportunity to reflect, or even to pray, it might be good to consider what task, seemingly beyond of strength or talents, our comfort zone, God wants us to take on and embrace, in the power of the Holy Spirit, who has lived within us, often unrecognized, since the day we were adopted by God in Baptism.