This is a timely Gospel. In it Jesus sends the Twelve out on mission – for the first time. He summons them to himself, sends them out two by two and gives them his authority to cast out demons. It’s timely because on Friday evening two young men, Malachy Eze and Christopher Doig, are summoned to this Cathedral, will be ordained as priests and sent out on their missions, to act in the person of Christ. This will be a good moment. The demons will tremble as two fresh warriors step out from the camp of Christ. And it is a sign that things we hear in the Gospel, Sunday after Sunday, are not past things, dead things, but fresh and living and continuing. “My Father is working still and I am working”, says Jesus (Jn 5:17).
Last Sunday we heard of a setback (Mk 6:1-6). Jesus went to Nazareth, his home town, and the people couldn’t believe that the village carpenter was saying the kind of thing he was saying and doing what he did. The prophet had no honour in his own country; rather, rebuff. Such was their lack of faith that he worked only a few miracles. Today, our Lord adopts a change of strategy. He is engaged in the great campaign on behalf of the Kingdom of God, and now he opens a new front. He has already recruited the Twelve to “be with him” (Mk 3:15), close to his person. Now he associates them with his mission. He mobilises them and sends them into battle. He empowers them to do precisely what he does: preach conversion, cast out demons, heal the sick. At this point in his life Jesus is an itinerant preacher, going around the villages of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues. When he bids them travel light, asks them to depend on the hospitality of others, to wear sandals and take a staff – like the Israelites leaving Egypt – he is inviting them to reproduce the dynamic of his own life. More than that, he is identifying the Twelve with himself and himself with them. He is multiplying himself by twelve. He is establishing a real presence of himself in them and distributing himself through them. Whoever receives them will receive him, and whoever receives him receives the Father. And this works. People are freed from the hold of sin (by repentance), from the power of Satan (by exorcism) and from illness (by anointing with oil). Last Sunday’s Gospel ended with Jesus laying his hands on a few sick in Nazareth and healing them. Today’s Gospel ends with the Twelve anointing many sick people and healing them. This all points to the post-paschal future and the mission of the Church. “You will do greater works than I” Jesus would tell his disciples (cf. Jn 14:12). The truth now is that the glorified Christ, the post-Resurrection Christ, now acts through others, acts through his disciples in every time and place. He multiplies himself in us.
There are many hints here of the liturgy and sacramental life of the Church. It’s hard not to think of the apostolic succession, the ministry of bishops, priests and deacons, of the Sacrament of Orders. Preaching in view of repentance suggests Baptism. The casting out of demons reminds us that we have a rite of Exorcism. The healing of the sick by oil looks to the Sacrament of Anointing. Thanks to these things, the “mysteries”, what Jesus did once in the past passes into the present, and the glorified Christ among us. The “great shepherd of the sheep”, as the New Testament says, has been “brought again from the dead” and we are led by sacramental strings into the peace of God’s Kingdom (Heb 13:20).
But let’s go back to the essence. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, comes to throw back the power of evil and open the Kingdom of God to humanity. Today’s Gospel flags up the moment when Jesus expands the way he does this. He enlarges it by enlisting the Twelve. He incorporates them into, he identifies them with, takes them up into his person, his mission, his Sonship, his Christhood. And this should speak to us. As Catholics and Christians, in this “western” part of the world, we can get caught up in a narrative of decline or a narrative of crisis. But the real narrative is always the Gospel, including today’s Gospel. Here our Lord expands his mission through others. And what he did then has been reproduced through history. The Church has grown her mission in an external sense: think of Christian education and health care, think of the encouragement now towards care for creation. But Christ has been expanding it in this other sense as well, multiplying himself in us, enlarging the orchestra. Through the Second Vatican Council and the Popes and so many contemporary saints, he is seeking to mobilise all of us on behalf of the coming of the Kingdom of God and its freedoms. Certainly, the successors of the apostles and all the ordained have an irreplaceable role, a commission to lead. But the call-up, as it were, is to all the baptised and confirmed. It’s universal conscription. If the mission were just left to the clergy, we may simply re-enact Jesus’ failure in Nazareth and heal only a “few”. But if each and all of us, according to our various characters, gifts and situations, allow ourselves to be mobilised, then the “many” will be healed, Christ’s Cross glorified.
So we think of the ordinations ahead of us, and we hail Christ among us. And this Sea Sunday, we think too of the great healing work of Stella Maris, the apostolate to seafarers. It engages so many lay and religious, volunteer ship visitors – all those who walk up the ships’ gangways or welcome the seafarers on land, those who give financial support and pray. Again, we hail Christ among us, the ongoing mission.
“My Father is working still, and I am working.” Brothers and sisters, this is the true story, this is the real fight. Let’s pray to be part of it.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 11 July 2021