THE sending-out of the twelve disciples is like a “Race Across the World” challenge. Tough parameters are set. Instead of doing the “sensible” thing and packing a change of clothing, some provisions, and all the insurance of stuff (“just in case”), they are not allowed to take any money or baggage. Nor are they permitted to plan ahead. For shelter and rest, they must depend on the kindness of strangers (“Look where that got Blanche Dubois,” they might have retorted).
Their mission is to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”. They probably felt utterly unprepared. If so, anyone who is preparing for ordination this Petertide will sympathise wholeheartedly. Still, “ready” is one thing; but “willing” and “able” matter much more. Following Jesus is a training in itself. It forms us.
Naturally, the disciples did as Jesus commanded them. Not even Judas Iscariot refused. Although they must have found it intimidating, they were impelled and inspired by the Lord’s call and by a force external to themselves, which we now recognise as the Holy Spirit.
The Gospel gives no hint that the disciples tried to negotiate with Jesus about the guidelines that he had given them. They did not react as Moses did when he tried to wheedle God into letting him off challenging Pharaoh and leading the children of Israel through the wilderness. After a couple of feeble attempts to talk God out of his choice, Moses gave up on excuses and, instead, spoke plainly the fearful reluctance of his heart: “O my Lord, please send someone else” (Exodus 4.13).
Matthew does not tell us the outcome of that first mission. We have to rely on Jesus’s wise judgement of people if we want to affirm here that they “succeeded”. Despite being commissioned by their Lord, the disciples must have found it a nerve-racking business. Without any education in public speaking, they had to proclaim good news. Without any medical training, they had to cure the sick. And, as if that was not hard enough, they had to raise the dead, too.
When it came to lepers, they were told to “cleanse” rather than “cure” them. This is an interesting distinction. Nowadays, we would agree that both elements are necessary to recovery: that physical and mental healing are twin aspects of a single process.
Their last task was the most difficult of all: to do battle against the forces of evil. It is still a vital part of a Christian’s duty, even though we do not express it by using the language of “demons”. It is good to reflect, even for a moment, on that aspect of our faith; for, as Paul reminds us elsewhere (Ephesians 6.11-12), there is more to life than the earthbound struggles of our physical existence.
The sending-out of the twelve disciples is like a dry run for the aftermath of Pentecost, when they knew, without having it explained in detail (Matthew 28.19-20), what they had to do for Jesus — because they had done it before. For this first apostolate (“sending-out”), the mission field would be restricted to the house of Israel. Later, all the nations would become God’s “treasured possession”, a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19.6).
When Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, he, too, gave them clear guidelines (for organising their church life), but not a comprehensive legal code that might encourage pharisaic scrupulosity. As Captain Barbossa says in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, “The [pirate] code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” Flexibility matters amid the “changes and chances of this fleeting world”.
Those guidelines suggest a method for responding to the challenges that Christians would go on to face in the future. Paul explains in Romans 5.3-5 how each setback can feed into future strength; and each increase in goodness can make the next setback something to learn from, instead of being crushed by it.
This way of ordering common life is like a biblical equivalent of the unwritten constitution or the common law. We learn what is right through making choices, then reflecting on them as a way of guiding future choices. We take action, or refrain from it, because we have learned from past action or self-restraint. Learning from, and building on, the past: this is how the Christian present grows in resilience, and this is how a Christian future is built.