Sheep amongst Wolves – a sermon on Matthew 10:16-22

“Behold, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles… 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

When it comes to great commissionings, I frankly prefer the one that comes at the end of the Gospel of Matthew – “Go and make disciples of all nations …, and lo, I will be with you always, even to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

That latter commissioning certainly has a far more optimistic feel to it, with no mention of wolves or floggings or betrayals or death, though I must admit that, even then, the very concept of being sent out on mission does make me feel uneasy.

Perhaps that’s because I still associate the word ‘mission’ with the missions I had to participate in while I was a seminary student at Moore College. Those missions inevitably involved a group of us going out door-knocking round the neighbourhood, and it was never a good experience!

Perhaps some people have a gift for that sort of thing. I found the whole practice of cold-calling not only thankless but frankly embarrassing. I always felt like a salesman trying to hawk a product that nobody wanted. It’s wasn’t that I was embarrassed by the Gospel, of course, but it was more the wrapping that the product came in …

In as much as we might want to share the Gospel, we inevitably do so as members of the church, and the church – let’s be honest – is often a hard-sell, and that for the most understandable of reasons. And it wasn’t just as a representative of the Moore College end of the church that I found this hard. I’ve done door-knocking here in Dulwich Hill too, and I don’t have many fond memories of that either.

Some of you may remember dear Daniel Ryan, who is still in ministry in the Northern Beaches area, and served us as our youth worker here in the late 1990’s, and did so with incredible dedication and energy. Dan had a passion for door-knocking which he never managed to pass on to me, though I did join him on at least one occasion.

We may have door-knocked together on more than one occasion but it was one particular occasion and one particular house that I remember. We were promoting our new Youth Centre at the time, rather than trying to preach the Gospel as such, which I felt a little more comfortable with, at least until Dan rang the doorbell and greeted the householder with “we’re from Holy Trinity Church. Do you have any boys living with you here?”

Those may have not been Dan’s exact words, but they were close to that. Even in the days before the Royal Commission into the abuse of children by the church, this just didn’t sound good as an opening line, and I remember urging Dan to rethink his presentation.

Mind you, even then, the householder didn’t set the dog on us. We weren’t ushered inside for coffee and homemade cookies, but neither there was there anything particularly hostile about the reception we received at that time or at any of the houses we visited in Dulwich Hill. Indeed, even as a reluctant missionary for Moore College, I don’t remember ever being subjected to violence, all of which contrasts starkly with the forecast Jesus gives to His own disciples – that they should expect to be mistreated and physically abused as a result of their door-knocking!

‘What are we doing wrong?’, I hear you say. Are we not being offensive enough?   Or are we simply living in a wonderfully tolerant society? After all, if Australians aren’t offended by missionaries from Moore College, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Maybe we aren’t taking our great commission seriously enough. If we did more door-knocking, and were more direct with people about the challenge of the Gospel, we would indeed have more dogs turned on us, and then we would know with confidence that we were functioning as true missionaries of the Gospel!

And maybe that’s not the case? Maybe (just maybe) it’s a good thing that we aren’t being betrayed, flogged, hated and killed! Maybe our mission and the mission of the twelve (as outlined in Matthew chapter ten, at least) aren’t exactly the same?

Yes, the disciples went door-knocking (or so it seems) but that may be where the resemblance to anything I’ve ever been involved in ends. For a start, Jesus was very particular in telling his representatives that they were to visit only those towns inhabited by their fellow Jews. This was an entirely ethno-specific mission.

Secondly, the message the disciples were told to share was short and sweet – ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matthew 10:7). I’m not suggesting that this was all they were permitted to say. Even so, they certainly weren’t told to ‘go and teach the Torah’, which would have been a long-term project and might have involved setting up schools. This was a short and swift strike – a Gospel blitzkrieg of sorts.

Thirdly, their word of hope was to be accompanied by sensational acts of mercy:

  • Curing the sick
  • Raising the dead
  • Cleansing lepers
  • Casting out demons

I can imagine what a mission like this would look like, and I imagine that it would make quite an impact! Instead of greeting householders with “do you have any boys here?”, we’d ask “do you have anyone who is sick here? We are here to cure them!” And Jesus’ mandate was not simply to heal the sick but to raise the dead as well! Wouldn’t it be great to turn up at a house where they were holding a wake, walk up to the coffin, bang on the lid, and see the place erupt in to chaos as the dead rise!

The mission of the twelve is like a divine tsunami rolling through the village, transforming everything it touches! Wherever these disciples go, we hear shouting and screaming, laughing and dancing, with people running about in the middle of the night, telling their neighbours about what is going on, resulting in a tumultuous mix of joy, fear and chaos! It is little wonder that this sort of activity attracted the attention of the authorities – both religious and secular– and that they didn’t like what they saw.

The mission of the twelve was unique and, in truth, doesn’t bear much resemblance to anything I’ve been involved in. Even so, we too have been commissioned to preach the Gospel and to confront evil. Shouldn’t we expect opposition and abuse?

Of course, we at Holy Trinity have received abuse. As regards the aforementioned work of our youth centre, for instance, we had a history of opposition.

Over the twenty-something years that we ran our youth drop-in, we had numerous people trying to shut us down and one even threaten to blow us up, until eventually one of our disgruntled clients burnt our centre to the ground, as we all well know! Should we see this a sure indication that we were faithful, or were we unlucky?

Similar questions could be raised about our peace work. As you know, I’ve been to Syria six times in the last four years, and numerous parishioners have come with me. We have received zero persecution for that work.

I’m not saying that we didn’t receive some harassment from the authorities, at least initially. The first couple of times I returned to this country, I spent some hours with custom officials who went through the pictures on my phone and the files on my computer, looking for something suspicious. The last time I returned though I was greeted at the baggage area by a woman in uniform who asked me “have you just returned from Syria?” to which I cautiously replied “yes”. She then asked with a smile “and did you do any boxing this time?”

Initially, we were being interrogated. Now we seem have the full support of the authorities. From a New Testament point of view, is this a good or a bad sign?

After much contemplation on the Scriptures, and after much soul-searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that if we are getting worked up over whether we are suffering enough, we have a problem.

I’m not being flippant here. This has been a problem for the church historically. Certainly, in the early centuries of the Christian era – in the days of the martyrs – there were critics of the church who believed that some Christians were chasing martyrdom as a way of identifying with Christ and ensuring their own salvation!

Certainly, there’s also a strong current of thought that suggests that the growth of the monastic movement in the years after the church became the official religion of the Empire was fuelled by a desire on the part of many of the faithful to seek a living martyrdom now that the old path to official persecution had been closed!

In as much as that might sound very alien to us 21st century Australians who are part of the me-generation, ever-obsessed with finding new forms of pleasure and sensory gratification, I appreciate too that it is easy for the church to slide into the opposite camp – upholding the importance of hard work, discipline and sacrifice –because these bear a greater resemblance to the true marks of discipleship.

As I say, I’ve come to the conclusion that worrying about whether we are having a hard enough time is a false path, and I want to suggest that we should be less focused on what results from our discipleship than on what drives it, and I find inspiration in that regard from this very passage in Matthew’s Gospel!

I read to you already the opening lines of Jesus’ commissioning – “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matthew 10:16) – but it’s important to see this commissioning of the disciples in the context in which Matthew frames it. It is depicted as an extension of Jesus’ own ministry.

This mission of the twelve is introduced in Matthew chapter nine with reference to the ministry of Jesus – “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness” (Matthew 9:35).

Notably, this is almost a word-for-word repetition of what Matthew said Jesus was doing at the beginning of his ministry, five chapters earlier (Matthew 4:23). These two verses form bookends (of sorts) containing the ministry of Jesus in between,  and it’s from the point of this second book-end forward that the work of ministry starts to be handed over to the disciples.

The other important thing to draw attention to here is that the driving force behind the ministry and mission of Jesus is made quite explicit by the Gospel writer:

“When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:26)

Jesus had compassion on these people because they were without direction, and it is this compassion that leads Him to say, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38)

This is what is driving the mission of both Jesus and His disciples that we read of in Matthew’s gospel – compassion – and this is what needs to drive us to mission too. Whether the end-point of our mission is suffering, hardship, floggings, betrayals and burning buildings, or whether we get lucky, is less important than what drives us!  We can’t determine the end-point, but we must be clear about our starting-point!

Later this year I plan to go back to Syria, and I hope to take another team with me. That’s all scheduled to take place at Halloween (late October to early November) which may sound ominous to some.

This time I hope to take with me a combination of delegates from Boxers for Peace and Artists for Peace, along with a contingent of the non-artistic and less pugilisticly inclined Parishioners of Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill for Peace, and perhaps I’ll launch our mission with a pep talk similar to the one Jesus gave: “Behold, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.”

I won’t be forecasting abductions, floggings and betrayals, of course, though I won’t be able to guarantee that the mission will be completely without danger either. We can though leave that up to God, and focus instead on building ourselves up in love for the people we wish to serve.

In the end, we have no choice but to leave it to God to determine how our mission concludes. We can, I believe, trust God that we will receive from Him whatever strength we need to endure to the end, and so can trust that our individual stories will end well. Let us not be concerned about that, but focus instead on our starting point – on allowing the Spirit of Jesus to fill us with His compassion, knowing that in the strength of that compassion we can embrace whatever destiny lies before us.

preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on June 18th, 2017

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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