Mission and Maintenance
Fourteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Fabian Radcliffe invites us to consider whether we have got the balance right.
Today’s Gospel reading is about Jesus sending out seventy-two disciples to preach the good news of the Kingdom. Since Dominicans are called the Order of Preachers, these words must have something special to say to us. But every baptised person is called to spread the Gospel too, so there will also be a message here for everyone.
Jesus sends the disciples out in twos to visit all the towns and villages where he was planning to come himself. He does not let them settle down in those places, any more than he himself planned to settle down; he tells them to preach and then move on. Earlier he had resisted the inclination to stay at Capernaum, by saying, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose’ (Luke 4:43). Immediately before his Ascension his final words were, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28: 19).
In all this, there is a sense of movement, of pushing out the boundaries of those to whom the good news of Jesus has been preached, a strong sense of mission. This is reflected in what Jesus goes on to say to the disciples. Don’t carry any luggage, and don’t stop to gossip on the road. You are bearing a message of peace; spread it to as many people as possible. Be grateful for the food and support that people give you; give healing and love to the sick, and assure them that the kingdom of God is close to them. Don’t waste your time with those who simply reject your message. Concentrate on the essential, the preaching of the good news, so that as many people as possible have the chance to hear and accept it.
You get much the same picture with St Paul. He often did not stay long in any one place. When he came to a new town he would preach, generally to the Jews first and then to the Gentiles; but once a small community of believers was established he moved on elsewhere. He did not abandon the communities he had founded; he revisited them whenever needed. He felt a strong responsibility for them, as we can see in his letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians. But it is clear that the preaching of the good news was one thing, and the building up and consolidating of the communities was another. He was concerned for both, but his overriding passion was for the preaching. ‘Woe betide me’, he said, ‘if I do not preach the gospel’.
These two aspects of the life of the Church are of course always present. Sometimes they are characterised as ‘mission’ and ‘maintenance’, the one being outward-looking (the preaching of the gospel), the other inward-looking (the building up of the Church). At some periods in the Church’s history the missionary drive has been much stronger than in others. But the need for maintenance is always present, so there is the temptation to be over-concerned with that, at the expense of mission.
This was underlined in an interesting way by an American missionary priest in the 1970s, Fr Vincent Donovan. He had been assigned to a mission station in Tanzania, working among the Masai people. He found that the work of his fellow-missionaries consisted in running schools, hospitals and centres for health and agricultural education; but there was no preaching of the gospel whatsoever. As he saw it, the balance between mission and maintenance had gone seriously wrong. At his own request he was given permission by his superiors to spend his time visiting Masai villages, and simply talking to the people about God, Jesus, sin and salvation, faith, prayer, the Eucharist, Scripture, the Church – the fundamentals of the Christian faith. To do this effectively he had of course to express himself in ways that made sense to the Masai; and that obliged him to rethink his own faith so that he could convey it not to Americans but to the Masai. After a year of preaching in a village he would offer the people baptism, which they were free to accept or reject. More often than not the decision was to accept it; and so a new Christian community was formed. Fr Donovan found that this whole process profoundly deepened his own faith. The book he wrote describing his experiences is called ‘Christianity Rediscovered’.
The Church as a whole has this double task of mission and maintenance; and if this is true for the Church as a whole it is true too in its own way for smaller communities such as the parish, and for each individual. Few of us will be able to take an entirely new approach, as Fr Donovan did. But we can all ask ourselves whether our lives as Christians do reflect the emphasis that Jesus and Paul and so many others have put on mission: the spreading of the Good News of the Kingdom in ways that make sense not just to ourselves but to those we live alongside, people whose culture and assumptions may well be very different from our own.