In Chapter 10 of St Matthew’s Gospel, we find the second of Jesus’ great sermons in that Gospel. He has picked his 12 apostles and he is sending them out with a set of instructions. What does he say to his missionaries then – and now?
Firstly, Jesus says that they are undertaking a difficult task. ‘Do not be afraid’ appears twice. And both times, the threat comes from the strong. Jesus himself knew that a call to repent, to imagine a much better set of human relationships, to break out of an earth-bound perspective – all of these would incur the wrath of those who were benefiting quite nicely from the way things are. ‘You can look after those who are suffering from that status quo, you can also reprimand them for breaking the commandments – but don’t dare to criticise the system or the dominant culture.’ Jesus says that we should not whisper his teaching but proclaim it from the rooftops – even if there are those who would kill you for speaking out.
Prophets like Jeremiah knew what it was like to be attacked and denounced. He tried to speak the truth into the politics of his day. And the strong had him arrested. But, whatever the cost, he trusted that the uncomfortable truth had to be spoken – because untruths and half-truths are no basis for a stable future. He spoke openly, not in order to damage or demean people – but to free them from living a lie. He was more concerned about the little ones than he was about the big egos or his own comfort. He knew that we are all affected by the sin of self-deception. Jeremiah was concerned about the real freedom to become great through grace. Being enslaved to the agendas of the strong is not freedom. For saying that, Jeremiah was thrown into prison.
If Jesus and Jeremiah had spoken only about harmless holy things, they would have been regarded as irrelevant fools. But when they spoke into concrete political realities, when they spoke about arrogance and hypocrisy, when they defended the weak and defenceless, they became dangerous. In a world of fake news, the truth is unwelcome. In a fragmenting culture where everybody has their own infallible truth, those who speak of truth outside my little bubble undermine the individualist market philosophy. Such voices will always be classified as dangerous or spoilsports.
Secondly, there is much talk of getting back to ‘normal’. That all assumes that our earlier ways of running society and Church were the best that they could be. We are facing into a period when there will be new poverties. There will be the economic poverty. In a society with huge gaps between the well-off and the poor, an economic downturn first strikes the weakest and those who were hanging on by their fingertips. The pandemic has also increased the level of educational poverty. If we structure our education system in such a way as to advantage the already advantaged, are we building a future based on community or on competition?
After three months with an emphasis on dedication and service in the NHS, do we want to go back to children believing in the survival of the fittest, as if that were divinely ordained? And there will be a poverty of hope for many people. Can we offer a way of looking at life which inspires our young people to look forward rather than just anaesthetising them? Or will we continue to offer them role models who – with a very few notable exceptions - have had nothing useful to say into our current crisis? Jesus’ crash course on mission tells us not to be afraid of criticism for speaking the uncomfortable truth unto power. Those who are hurting and frightened need to dream of something better than yet more clothes for the full wardrobe or a return to hollow self-indulgence.
Thirdly, as Church we have much to learn from these last months. We have seen the large numbers who have turned to prayer and worship, privately and on-line. In many homes there has been a rediscovery of the domestic church, where many households have eaten and prayed together much more. Faith communities have often been very creative in finding ways of communicating and encouraging. And with the prospect of re-opening our churches for public worship, there has been a great surge of volunteers who want to be part of both planning and implementing the ‘new normal’. That energy speaks to me of a remarkably healthy faith culture.
Jesus’ mission has a future and not just a past. We are always on an Exodus journey. The Promised Land is always ahead of us, never behind us. Out job is to step out, not step back.
Donal McKeown, Bishop of Derry. Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.