If you haven’t noticed, the Church is living through a period of significant change. And the Leadership Scholar, Ron Heifitz (somehow you just know that name belongs to an American) distinguishes between two types of change. There is technical change, where an expert can give you the solution to return things to normal. And there is adaptive change, where things are changing to a new normal, but no-one yet knows what that new normal will be. The most common mistake, he says, is to treat adaptive change as though it was a technical problem, but in an adaptive change situation, no expert can help.
Now I think the church has been making that mistake for years – looking to its ordained professional clergy to provide answers. But according to Heifitz, the only way to navigate adaptive change successfully is for every member of the organisation to return to its core purpose and to work out the future together.
And that is very much what our readings today do for us. They take us right back to the very beginning of our faith story, when a group of freshly-liberated Hebrew slaves entered into a covenant with God at Mount Sinai and became God’s chosen people. And in that moment, God made them to be a Royal Priesthood. In other words, he gave them a ministry, a ministry that could only be conducted together. The ordained priests were not set apart to be the expert technicians of the religion. They were to enable the ministry of the whole people of God. Now this was many years before Ron Heifitz’s theory, but God was clearly thinking along the same lines. It’s almost as if he knew that his people would be going significant periods of change and he wanted us to endure for a very long time!
You see, to be a Christian is to be called to ministry. But for too long, we have allowed our ministry to be done exclusively by paid professionals. It was not how the Church was for most of its existence, but has been that way for the last 200 years and it was actually a very bad thing because it robbed the church of the active element of Christian belief. And if you rob a church of its ministry, that produces nominalism. Christians who no longer need to put their faith into action become spiritual couch potatoes, with the vicar being the equivalent of the remote control, so that we could just press the vicar into service whenever ministry was required. And that has been killing the church for the last 150 years.
Now, church is very consciously returning to a model where ministry is something we all do together – and that means you! But if you had never before thought of yourself as a Christian minister, I can well see how this morning’s Gospel reading might strike a chord – Jesus, is sending out his disciples into the surrounding communities to carry his message, being sent out, as Jesus encouragingly puts it, “like sheep in the midst of wolves”. Ring any bells?
Now, you might be tempted to think that it was okay for the 12 Disciples. After all, they’re Disciples. It’s their job. They must have been chosen by Jesus because of their special gifts and they must have been trained for this. But, not so! For a start, being a Disciple does not equip you with magical powers unavailable to the rest of us – any more than being a vicar does. If the thought of what they were doing fills you with horror, I can assure you they felt exactly the same way. And it’s the same with me. Every week I stand here and speak it scares the life out of me. I rarely sleep well on a Saturday night. But I have to say, there is no other way to develop your faith than to step out of you comfort zone, beyond your own powers and to see whether Jesus will catch you. And when he does (because he does!), it’s exhilarating, as the disciples found in this story and as I find week by week. The trouble is that it doesn’t make it any easier to stand up and do it again next week. No-one finds Christian ministry easy. We don’t do it because we find it easy. We do it because Jesus wants us to do it and we love him, so we do it for him. And we do it also because we love our neighbours. And, having experienced that love of Jesus in our hearts, we long for them to know that joy and comfort and strength and salvation for themselves.
But, you will argue, quite reasonably, that I have been trained for this work and you haven’t. And the Disciples were even better trained – they had been trained by Jesus himself. But I’m afraid that argument doesn’t work either, because this is the first thing Jesus does with them after they’ve been called. They’re called in verse 4 and sent out in verse 5. This is what Jesus considers an induction course into ministry! They have nothing – no parables; no miracles; no teaching; no triumphal entry, no Last Supper, no Crucifixion and, above all, no Resurrection. And isn’t the Resurrection the thing that makes sense of it all? They had none of that!!
And they’re to take nothing for the journey: “no purse, no bag, no sandals…” No sandals for goodness sake! Imagine telling a group of Christians not to take their sandals! No special training, no special kit, no special title, no special clothing. They’re just being sent.
And you know how they feel, I think. You also, I suspect, feel completely unprepared for Christian ministry. But the Disciples did have something -something you also have. They had Jesus. You know, Moses, when he was sent out by God in a similar state of unpreparedness had an extraordinary conversation with God in the burning bush. God told him to go to Pharaoh to demand the release of his people from slavery and Moses asked “who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” Perfectly sensible question! And do you know what God’s answer was? “I am with you.” That’s it. “I am with you.” That’s all you need – God is with you.
And for the disciples, all they needed was Jesus with them. And that was enough for Jesus too, because we are told gave them authority as soon as he called them. You have Jesus’ authority to minister in his name. You see, the true authority for Christian ministry is baptism, not ordination. And the only real equipment for ministry is having Jesus with you in here [your heart].
Have you been baptised? Yes? Good. Do you have a good theological education? No? Good. Do you have Jesus with you? Yes? Then you are ready. Go!
You know, in fact, we have more than these Disciples had, because we have all the teachings of Jesus, we have the resurrection, we have the Holy Spirit, we have 2,000 years of Christian witness to encourage us. And yet, it still doesn’t make it any easier, does it? Every time we step out in public for Jesus it’s like jumping out of a plane with a parachute. And there’s no way to avoid that feeling. But, remember that the Disciples came back from this mission exhilarated. Once you steel yourself and step out, once you connect people with Jesus and see how his love transforms them in their difficulties, once you see the mask slipping and them opening up and receiving healing for their souls, it makes everything worthwhile. It is a wonderful thing to do for someone and, if they respond and come to share the faith and share our fellowship, then you will find that so exhilarating as to make the risk eminently worthwhile.
You see, the simple fact is that there are no professional Disciples. We’re all disciples. To be a Christian is to be a disciple. And disciples are what Jesus uses to fish for people. There is no professional that can do this on your behalf – even Jesus himself did it through disciples just as scared and ignorant and ordinary as you! (In Jesus’ world that’s a compliment, by the way!) Scared, ignorant, ordinary people is what Jesus wants, it’s who he calls because he wants to reach other scared, ignorant, ordinary people – and there are plenty of those in the world who need his love as much as we do. It’s only you who can reach them effectively and we only do it effectively when we do it together as God’s people. It’s not a mistake, nor is it just making the best of a bad job in days when clergy are scarce – it’s the perfect plan for negotiating the times of change we are in. The ordained clergy still have an important role in this, but their role is to enable your ministry, not to do it for you.
You have everything you need for this, you are called, you are being sent now and with Jesus going with you. And if you step out in faith, then you will do great things in his name. So go. Be bold, be strong, for the Lord your God is with you. Amen.
Preached: Clifton, Morland, Crosby Ravensworth, 18 June 2017