The God Who Speaks: A Preacher Without Words
By Br John Bernard Church, O.P | When Christ first sends out the twelve, it’s not entirely clear what he is expecting them to say. Perhaps that is exactly the point, a lesson in proximity rather than verbosity.
There is a curious aspect to today’s Gospel, Christ’s sending of the twelve. St Mark doesn’t give us all that much information about this mission, far less than in the parallel passage in the other synoptic Gospels, and leaves us with a fairly basic question: what actually is the purpose of the exercise?
Other than giving the apostles authority over the unclean spirits, it seems unclear what Christ intends them to do on their journey. St Mark only tells us that the twelve proclaimed the need for repentance, as well as exercising their newly given power over demons.
We might expect the apostles to preach about Jesus. When he first appointed them we learned they were chosen “to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message.” So is this the sending out? If it is, what message have they been sent out to proclaim? One might presume that they would pass on what they had learnt in the time since they were chosen, the parables Jesus had preached and explained in private to them, or the drama of his miracles like the calming of the storm.
Surely preachers need something to say, something interesting to talk about. The need for repentance is what St John the Baptist announced to prepare for Jesus’ coming, but now Jesus is sending out his own disciples, so do they not have anything new to proclaim?
There is perhaps something instructive in the only part of this mission that is very specific: the practical details. Jesus gives very clear directives on how the apostles are to comport themselves and what they should take with them: to wear only one tunic and to take nothing else at all except a staff.
At one level these instructions give a clear message, that the apostles should witness to the importance of voluntary poverty. But I think there is another aspect to this mission, one I realised during my noviciate when I was travelling through London and without a smart phone.
Smart phones make travel exceedingly easy, you have tube maps and train times and directions all in your hand, without the need for any help. In a busy, hectic city they’re incredibly useful. Without one though, and here revealing myself very much as a product of a technology-dependent generation, in order to find my way I was in the unaccustomed position of having to stop and talk to people and ask for help.
I think there’s a parallel in what Jesus asks of his apostles. At its simplest, he just wants his apostles to spend time with people. No food, no bag, no money, no spare tunic – it all means they have to ask for help and explain their situation. They can’t hide or talk amongst themselves. Save sleeping on the street and starving they have no option but to meet people and talk to them.
A preacher doesn’t necessarily need words. This mission is clearly in some sense a training exercise for the apostles, so that they might learn and prepare for the time when they will know exactly what to say, “to make disciples of all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Here however, at the infancy of their discipleship, they are taught that the first principle for any preacher and evangelist is to spend time with people, to share their life, to take part in their story.
This is how the apostles, and we now, are to imitate Christ. In Jesus Christ God became man, He came to spend time with His people, to share their life, to take part in their story. If we are to make disciples of all nations, we must first do likewise.
The year 2020 has been declared a year to reflect on the importance of the Scriptures in our lives as Christians, coinciding with the 1600 years of the death of St Jerome and the 10th anniversary of Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation on the Word of the Lord. Here you can find more information about activities coming up in the dioceses of England and Wales.