Sermon for Trinity 1, 2020

St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church,
Trinity 1, June 14, 2020,
Matthew 9.35- 10.23.
Canon Claude Schroeder

Today on this the First Sunday after Trinity where we are embarking on the long season of Trinity in our church calendar, which is the season devoted towards the long, slow, patient work of  growing in our knowledge and love of God, who is “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This as we learned last Sunday, is who God is, and who it is that we have come to love and adore.

‘The Father is my hope; the Son is my refuge; the Holy Spirit is my protector. O All-holy Trinity, glory be to thee, glory be to thee!”

Trinity is also that season devoted towards the long, slow, patient work of growing in our union and communion with this God, and our holiness of life, which is the work of the Holy Spirit in us.

IN this Trinity season we will be working our way through St. Matthew’s Gospel, where today we pick up the story in Matthew Chapter 9, where Jesus having embarks on a missionary journey, visiting the cities, towns, and villages of Galilee, where Jesus sees crowds of people and has compassion on them because they were ‘harassed and helpless. ’ Harassed and helpless. If that doesn’t accurately describe what many people are feeling, I don’t know what will! People are feeling harassed and helpless.  Realizing the enormity of the task, that this is too big a job for just one man, Jesus tells the disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;   therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

It is interesting me to me that Jesus should describe the situation in terms of a ‘plentiful harvest’, because when I look around all I see is needs and problems, and a long road to recovery, and just how far we have to go. But for Jesus the time is right and the time is ripe, for a “harvest”, for people to come to Him, and to return to the “shepherd and guardian for their souls.” (1 Peter 2.25)

It is also interesting to me that in face of the enormous need for labourers,  Jesus doesn’t ‘ask for volunteers!’ which again is how we normally go about things. 

No, Jesus instructs the disciples to ask the Lord of the harvest, in other words, they are to pray, not ask for volunteers…

What a concept! 

IN the prayer request to “send out labourers” into the harvest that word “send”  is the same word used when  Jesus casts out demons. It’s a strong, energetic word. The workers, in others words, are all here, huddled together in the church, and we have more than enough. They just need to be sent out, or perhaps “booted” or “kicked out” out of church, and into the mission field! 

And so it was that much to the disciples’ surprise, Jesus called the 12 together and tells them that God has answered their prayer.  Who are the workers that God is sending? It’s them. And it’s us.

And as we read through the list of names of the 12 whom Jesus sent out, we can be forgiven for thinking that Jesus had made a huge mistake. At the top of the list is Peter, the leader of the group. But wasn’t this the guy who in the crucial moment denied Jesus three times? And the end of the list is Judas, the Treasurer. Wasn’t he the guy who ‘sold out’ and betrayed  Jesus for 30 pieces of silver?  And as to the rest of them, what an undistinguished, bumbling lot, caught between the denier on the  hand, and the betrayer on the other.

“You know, Jesus, you really could have done a better job of vetting your candidates for heading up the apostolic mission!”

And as we look over 2,000 years of Christian history since then, examples of denial and betrayal.  It makes for discouraging and depressing reading, and we are caught between them. 

But that of course is not the whole story. 

The fact that we are here today even telling the story is evidence that in the midst of centuries of denial and betrayal, there has been unbroken line of faithful witnesses who have exemplified what Jesus taught his disciples, and without them, we wouldn’t be here.  In the same way, whether the apostolic mission of the Church has a future or not, depends very much on our discovering what keeping faith with Jesus means. How do we do this?  We do it by staying close to Jesus as He leads the disciples in mission, and we do  it by learning the names and the stories of those who in the past kept the faith, and by following their example.

Well, we hear that word “mission” a lot these days. There are two kinds of churches we are told. There is the ‘maintenance church’ whose goal it is to keep the doors of the church open, and to pay the bills. Then there is the ‘missionary’ church whose goal is…what?

The goal of the missionary church, as we heard from Jesus in last Sunday’s Gospel, is to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28.18-20)

Today as Jesus goes about the work of mission we see Him “teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.” ( Matthew  Teaching, preaching, healing. This is the central work of Christian mission.  Jesus called the twelve and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. We note the exact repetition of this phrase, “cure every disease and every sickness.”  (Matthew 9.35)

We are at a point here in world history where there really was no such thing as health care system such as we have today, with doctors, nurses, and clinics and hospitals. This explains why it was that wherever Jesus went huge crowds of people would show up. We need a doctor! There wasn’t a single sickness or single disease among the people that Jesus couldn’t and didn’t treat. How did He do it? Quite simple really.  Through touch. Through Word and through Spirit. He laid hands. He anointed with oil. He prayed. And he did it all, free of charge. No health care plan? No problem.

So it was that in the A.D.  325 at the gathering of Catholic Bishops at the Council of Nicaea, where along with the Nicene Creed, a decree was issued that hospitals be built in every cathedral city in the Empire. This concern for an infrastructure for the charitable treatment of illness and disease is something we owe to Jesus Christ and His Church.

But we are at a point now where, thanks to medical science and technology, the work which Jesus initiated in the healing of every disease and every sickness is almost complete!  Such is the confidence that we have in medical science and technology that we hear people say, “Cancer can be beaten! Along with Parkinsons, Alzheimers, and what have you. We can beat this, in the same way we beat tubercleosis, polio, and  leprosy.  As I speak we have laboratories around the world working around the clock to find a vaccine for you-know-what.

So where does this leave the Church’s healing ministry?

Well, on the one hand, nothing much has changed. 

I continue to pray for healing, and to officiate at the healing services of the Church that includes according to Jesus’ command, anointing with oil and the laying on of hands with prayer. This doctor makes house calls, and  if necessary to the ICU.  All you have to do is call. “Peace be to this house, and to all who dwell in it.” Is the service begins.

In the Gospels  “the healing of every sickness and disease” requires faith. Sometimes it’s the faith of the person seeking healing. Sometimes it’s the faith of the family member or friend  who had brought the sick person to Jesus. And then sometimes it’s the faith of the person conducting the healing: Jesus, or one of his apostles. Somewhere someone needs in faith “to call upon the name of the Lord.”  

It would be a mistake however to identify Jesus as a “faith-healer ” or “wonder-worker.” This is the guy who builds a reputation and a business  for himself by telling you to forget about any other kind of medical therapy, and just “believe, and be healed!”  Jesus was not that guy. In his ministry Jesus prioritized preaching the Gospel over healing, (Luke 4. 42-44)  and when He did miraculously heal someone , he was anxious that they keep quiet about it (Luke 8.56), which they almost never did.

So why did Jesus heal? 

The healing miracles of Jesus were both a sign and a demonstration of His Lordship and authority over sin, sickness, death, and the devil, which effected a transition of Lordship. If at one point a person found themselves under the reign and rule of sin, sickness, death, and the devil, through the healing they now found themselves under the gracious, compassionate , forgiving, loving, life-giving reign and  rule of Jesus Christ. Every person who Jesus healed invariably got sick again and died, only now they would do so in faith that they belonged to Jesus that He would raise them up again to eternal life at the Resurrection on the last day. 

That made all the difference.

This transfer of Lordship which Jesus effected through his healing miracles is something that the Church accomplishes through Holy Baptism. “I sign you with the sign of the Cross and mark you as Christ’s own forever.”  Baptism is of a piece with the healing ministry of Jesus Christ, where the wound at the center of being, that is sin, is healed, through our union with Jesus in His death and resurrection. And so when in your sickness you call for the priest to anoint you with oil, lay hands and pray over you, the point is not just that the Lord will “grant you forgiveness of all your sins, relief from your pains, and recovery of health in mind and body” ( BCP 585) but that He reestablish  in you the transfer of the Lordship which took place in your baptism, according to the prayer which says,

“The Almighty Lord, who is a most strong tower to all them that put their faith in him, to whom all things in heaven and earth and under the earth do bow and obey: be now and evermore your defense and make you to know and feel there is none other name  under heaven given  to man, in whom , and through whom, thou mayest receive health and salvation, but only the name  of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (BCP 585)

Then we have the great healing service of the Church, where on a weekly if not daily basis we come in repentance and faith to the Holy Communion to feed on the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to “preserve our bodies and souls unto everlasting life.” 

It is because the Holy Communion unites us to Christ who suffered, died and was raised again, that St. Ignatius , the 2nd century Bish0p of Antioch in Syria could speak of the Eucharist as “ the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live forever in Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 20.2). This “medicine,” however, does not leave us untransformed, for in this case, the medicine is the Physician himself, our great healer Jesus Christ. (Ephesians7.2). He himself is “our never-failing life” (Magnesians 1.2). To be united to the person of Jesus also means being united to his faithfulness and love toward both God and others. This is what we mean by “healing.” And as we look at our lives, and the lives of people around us, we see how desperately in need we are of  this healing, even if we aren’t lying sick in bed.

I don’t think there is a person here who isn’t grateful for the health care system, such as it is, along with the front line workers in this system.

But here is the thing. For all it’s wondering working miracles, the medicine today often ends up treating the disease and the illness, and not the patient is suffering, and who is enquiring into the meaning and purpose of their life and their suffering, or perhaps wanting to prepare themselves for a “good death.” Which raises the question, “To what end or purpose is the doctor seeking to eliminate my suffering and preserve my life?”   It also raises the question, what did Jesus mean when He said, “ I have come that I might have life, and have in in abundance? (John 10.10).  Is this being able to play golf into my 90s? 

These are question which the doctor has not been trained or equipped to answer. What is needed here is a minister of the Gospel, who by means of the Word and Spirit of God, does not come, as Alexander Schmemann has written, “to restore health in this man, simply to replace medicine when medicine has exhausted its own possibilities. The Church comes to take this man into the Love, the Light, and the Life of Christ. It comes not merely to “comfort” him in his sufferings, not to “help” him, but to make him a “martyr,” a witness to Christ in his very sufferings. A martyr is one who beholds “the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). A martyr is one for whom God is not another – and the last – chance to stop the awful pain; God is his very life, and thus every thing in his life comes to God, and ascends to the fullness of Love.” (For the Life of the World) 

It is the minister of the Gospel who comes and declares that the fullness of life which Jesus promises is something we do not yet have, but something that we attain to through death, according to the saying of the Lord, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8.35) 

And so it is that the aim of the healing ministry of the Church is not simply the elimination of suffering,  and the preservation of biological life, but rather it’s transformation, so that as St. Paul wrote, we are able “to boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5.3-5)