Scripture Readings: Galatians 6.1-5
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
In the 1950s, a British Prime Minister told his people that ‘You’ve never had it so good’. There have been ups and downs for Britain since, but for a long time it has seemed that way to many people. We certainly have it better than many, if not most, people in the world. Most of us have enough to eat. Even in times of political crisis, society does not break down. The administration of government carries on. Pensions and benefits are still paid, there are neither terrorist nor soldiers on the streets, there is food in the shops and the lights haven’t gone off.
Perhaps, therefore, some of us on these islands have become a bit complacent. We have not worried overmuch about the rise of extreme nationalism and xenophobia, which has affected even relatively liberal European nations like Denmark and Holland. We were able to imagine that we Scots, tucked away in the far north west of Europe, would be immune to the pressures of the refugee crisis afflicting Europe’s Mediterranean borders. We have imagined that shopping and entertainment could create a new economy to replace jobs being swept away by automation and globalisation. Are we, perhaps, now waking up to face that fact that we are not immune to these, and other, shocks?
You might think that today’s Bible passages don’t especially address themselves to our sense of crisis. But read with imagination, I think they do have things to say to us. For they remind us about what the Church is for. Christians are to proclaim to the world the coming of God’s Kingdom. This is never easy, for the message is not always welcomed by the world. But we do not have to do it alone.
As always with the Bible, we can’t just take the words we have heard and apply them directly to our own situation. Luke’s Gospel is preserving words of Jesus to his followers in first century Israel. Paul is writing to a church in Galatia very different from the Church of today. But in Scripture, we get to overhear those ancient conversations. They are part of our history, and they have something to say to us even now.
Start with the Gospel story. The story of the sending out of seventy-two disciples comes in a section of Luke’s Gospel which is all about mission. Jesus and his friends went around proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was near. You’d have thought that that would be good news for the poor peasants of Galilee, struggling to survive on the edge of the Roman Empire, oppressed by foreign-appointed rulers paying taxes to the superstate in Rome. But no, it is not plain sailing for the message- not everyone thinks the Gospel is good news.
So Luke offers a series of tales dealing with questions about mission which we are still asking today. Firstly, who are our friends? Whoever is not against you is for you, says Jesus (Luke 9.49-50). Then we hear of a village which refuses to welcome Jesus, even when his disciples have paved the way (Luke 9.51-56). There are stories of people who say ‘I want to follow you, Jesus’ who then realise that the cost and commitment is too great for them (Luke 9.57-62). Mission is a bit of a struggle, frankly. We might be bringing good news, but not everyone will say yes to Christ.
So then Luke gives us the story we’ve heard about Jesus choosing people to go out and be his missionaries: labourers to bring in the harvest. He must have acquired a good few followers by now if he can find seventy-two to go out and proclaim that ‘The Kingdom of God is near’. And at the end of the passage we read there is again some reflection on what happens when people reject Jesus’ message (Luke 10.13-16) before we hear that the mission has been a great success (Luke 10.17-20), causing Jesus to rejoice (Luke 10.21-24).
But we are not the first disciples, treading along dusty Middle-Eastern roads to small rural villages. Our situation is quite different. In our context, the Church is more of an institution, rather than a band of wandering preachers. We have buildings, traditions, and- still- rather a lot of money. We are, curiously, still, in some ways, part of the establishment. But we are in an age of enormous spiritual and religious change. Our ways to talking about the Kingdom are often no longer understood by our contemporaries. Would struggle to find the kind of success that the 72 experienced.
So maybe the phrase which jumps out at us today, across 2,000 years of history, and speaks to us in our own time and place, is the memorable phrase which Jesus uses to characterise his 72 missionaries: ‘Go! I am sending you like lambs among wolves’. That’s such a striking image. Indeed, it sounds almost irresponsible, or even sadistic.
I cannot call myself a countryman in any meaningful way- I am really a town boy. But I spent much of my childhood in house on the very edge of the town. The fields started just across the road. And so we got to play for hours in the hills above the Vale of Leven- among the green fields, exploring the woods, following the burns through their gorges, even up to the moors. We were friendly with the local farmer, and were well-trained in the Country Code- don’t annoy the cattle, close all the gates, don’t damage the farmer’s fences. It was wonderful place to grow up, but sometimes it brought you face-to-face not just with joys of nature, but its horrors. We would sometimes come across a lamb which had been killed by a dog- not uncommon on the edge of town. We would report it to the farmer when we got home, for we knew it was his livelihood. And the blood on the white wool gave us a sense that something horrific, vicious and cruel had happened. Lambs among wolves- that’s an unnerving image, if you have ever seen the result.
Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus assures his disciples that he goes with them. ‘I will be with you always’ are almost his last words in Matthew’s Gospel. ‘I am the vine and you are the branches’ is how he puts it in John’s Gospel. Comforting, reassuring words which we do need to hear.
But always, always, there is threat. It is a threat which is very real for Christians in some parts of the world, where telling the good news of the Kingdom might literally leave you in a pool of your own blood. Or the wolves can be more subtle- breaking down our defences, niggling away with doubts or ridicule or indifference. When we struggle even to find anyone who wants to know about Christ, never mind follow him, or when they start and then stop when they realise the cost of discipleship, we must feel, sometimes, that we are up against impossible odds. How can the lambs overcome the wolves?
The first Christians faced hostility from the established political and religious order. The other rabbis had the venerability of tradition behind them. The Romans had all the power. The Christians had- well, nothing. We still have a lot of resources in the Church today to face our culture. But those first Christians had not money, no power. In fact, Jesus suggests that taking too much baggage might be a bad thing- don’t stop to pick up your purse or you beggars bag or even to put on your shoes! The work is urgent! Perhaps we have baggage we have to leave behind?
And is it dangerous for us? In fact, very often our doughtiest opponents will give us time and respect if we give them time and respect. In this country, at least, you are highly unlikely to get be killed or injured for speaking out the Christian message. The wolves, as I have suggested, are likely to be more subtle.
Secularists and humanists look at the extremes of religion and cling to a faith that a world cleansed of religion will be a world ruled by rationality. People will be free not to have other people’s beliefs forced on them. We will make decisions in rations, scientific ways. Superstition will have no place in public policy making.
So how come, during the referendum campaign, a leading politician, Michael Gove, felt able to say ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. We’re supposed to be living in a secular, rational age. You’d think we’d want to know more from the experts. But in fact, the spirit of the age is that it is OK to rubbish experts (at least if they are saying things you don’t like). Although if, God forbid, Mr Gove became seriously ill, I wonder if he would still refuse to see an expert?
I’m sceptical of the idea that our culture is becoming gentler and kinder as traditional forms of religion and belief decline. In fact, compared to much of what goes on the world today, the sort of middle-of-the-road Christianity which this congregation stands for sometimes seems more rational and kinder than many of the alternatives- the extremes of harsh secularism or spiritual mumbo-jumbo which seem to be filling the space once occupied by Christianity in Britain.
And all over the world, people are reacting with fear to the globalising trends of our age. In a strange way, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage have a lot in common. They are symptoms of the fear that is around- fear of all the change that is happening in our world (although they suggest very different responses). There are some dark forces at work in our culture. So if you go into the world speaking of love and justice, and of the worth of every person in the eyes of God- well, the wolves will circle. We will not be welcomed everywhere. The message of the Kingdom is the best news there is. But taking it into our world is by no means straightforward.
It is a struggle, being a faithful Christian today. And sometimes we fail, or get hurt. Fortunately, we are not required to do it alone. Christ goes with us, of course. He may have sent us out like lambs among wolves, but he is the Good Shepherd, who cares for his sheep (as John’s Gospel puts it). And we have one another.
And that is what the passage we read from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians is about. As Paul gets to the end of his letter- after he has dealt with their theological questions- he turns to practical advice about how the Christian people of the Roman province in Galatians should get on with each other.
We have vows in the Church of Scotland which we ask people when they become members of the church. If I could rewrite them, I think I would include the question, ‘Do your promise to carry one another’s burdens?’ For that’s the main piece of advice Paul gives in this section of his letter: ‘Help to carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will obey the law of Christ’ (6.2).
Bear one another’s burdens. It’s hard to think of a more pithy way of describing what the Church is about. ‘We each have our own load to carry’, as Paul points out. So we need to be able to share with one another.
I had an elder in Glasgow how told me once it took him ages to do his communion visits. He had many elderly people in his housing scheme district, and he was a retired joiner. So they would wait until he came, and he got all the minor repairs to do- the broken curtain rails, the replacement door handles, the windows that wouldn’t quite shut properly, even changing a lightbulb for people no longer quite able to climb a ladder. I think he quite enjoyed being asked, for it meant his visits lasted a bit longer. The conversations were a bit deeper, and he realised, as all pastors come to realise, just how important it is to listen to people tell their stories. Church should be the place where can tell each other our stories. For when we share our stories, we share our burdens.
Paul also encourages the Galatians to help when it looks like someone is going astray (but with gentleness!). To do so we you to ‘keep an eye on yourself, so that you will not be tempted’, not to deceive ourselves that we are better than we are. It takes humility to share our burdens- to be humble enough to carry a load for someone else, but sometimes also to allow them to carry some of our burden. But that is the Christian task. The Church makes it possible for us to bring the news of the Kingdom to the world, for we cannot do it on our own. Although many people try it, you can’t really be a Christian individualist.
We live in a world of uncertainty. Everything is in flux, and you don’t quite know who or what you can depend on. Globalisation, new technologies, migration (often fuelled by wars in far-off places), changes in social attitudes, changes in the way people treat religious belief- all these things are changing all the time. And yet Christ sends us people into the world: ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few’. The message of the Kingdom- love, justice, faith, acceptance of others- and that we should share one another’s burdens- is not always going to be welcome. But proclaim it we must. For even if it’s risky, Christ has sent us not to ignore our turbulent world, but to be in it with a message of hope.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2016 Peter W Nimmo