I had the privilege of officiating at the Institution of Nigel di Castiglione as Team Rector in the large Papworth Team Ministry yesterday evening at Elsworth Church. With 13 churches represented, not to mention those from his previous major parish of St John’s Harborne, we had an excellent congregation. Mrs Judy Pearson (DL) presented Nigel on behalf of the Crown and read out the warrant to prove it! We look forward to Nigel’s ministry among and trust that he and Annie will be very happy in Cambridgeshire.
Matthew 9:35-10:8 (NRSV)
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. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him. These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
It’s so good to be back in harness in the Diocese of Ely, and to be with you here today to welcome and launch Nigel into his new ministry among you. Your team profile made it very clear that you weren’t looking for a solo player, but someone who would encourage and enable ministries right across the board, so in a sense this must also be a launch for all of you, and that as you probably know is exactly how I think church ought to be: Total Team if I can call it that, recognising, rejoicing in and recruiting the God-given gifts of every member of the body of Christ. And with 13 parishes to go at – that’s a body that leaves even an octopus looking a bit legless.
I was starting to think about this sermon over the bank holiday weekend while I was pressure-washing our patio. Patio is too twee a word for it: there are 800 paving slabs, and for some reason I forget now I didn’t get round to cleaning them either last year or the year before. So it was a long, slow job as I let the water do the work – there’s a good motto there for the ministry and mission of the baptised, Spirit-filled people of God – and spray off three years’ worth of accumulated muck and microbia. I was keeping half an ear open in fact for a visit from the Slime and Mould Protection Society to take me to task for causing sudden and catastrophic climate change that was wiping out their families. My prepared defence was that since the spray was spreading them far and near I was in fact helping them to divide and grow… and there’s another moral there too.
Growth is a natural feature of life, and the sort of church growth – because that of course is what I am leading up to – that I support is also natural and organic, not forced or forcing of others, which all to easily leads to religion that is part of the problem not part of the solution. If DNA and its replication is the great driver of organic growth as we know it, it must always be the divine DNA of Christ, self-giving, not our all-too-human DNA of self-getting, that controls us – what C S Lewis called the Good Infection, the very opposite of a virus that destroys its host to seek its own future growth.
But don’t think that Christ-like growth is namby-pamby just because it is natural. Any self-giving chain of reproduction can lead to remarkable results. Think of nuclear reactions. Or take the story of the peasant who saved a king’s life when his carriage went out of control and was offered whatever reward he would like. He asked the king to fetch a chessboard, and the king duly had his very best one brought in – only to be dismayed but not perhaps surprised when the peasant said he didn’t really want that, but some grain – one grain in the first square, two in the second, four in the third, and so on, doubling each time. Now the king hadn’t paid much attention to maths at school so had a sack of grain brought in, with a quiet word to his staff to lay out the grain as asked, but give the whole bag to the peasant anyway, as he was a generous man and the bag would feed his family all year. Well, it wasn’t long of course before the numbers of grains needed started to rise rapidly. In fact the final heap would be larger than Mount Everest. Eventually the peasant interrupted the impossible task saying that he’d settle for all the grain the king had in his barns – leaving of course a sack to feed the king’s family all year, for he too was a generous man.
The point of the story here is simply that passing on our faith in ones and twos can have remarkable consequences, and in mathematical terms could very easily go viral. The question is, not have we got some grand new programme of faith-sharing, or clever way of doing it, or lots of resources at our disposal, but are we infectious in the first place, and with the right sort of infection?
Let’s see what we can learn about that from this afternoon’s reading from Matthew chapter 9. The context is a helpful one: it’s set in “all the villages”, and you know a thing or two about villages in the Papworth team. The first choice Jesus has made is not to stay put, waiting for people to come to him, or to set up some new and extra exclusive synagogue for the best believers only, but to get out there where the people are. That after all is what the Incarnation was all about. So he was being himself, living out his own divine DNA, and as we know from elsewhere taking time – even as the Son of God – to listen to the Father and seek his will.
Then we hear a crucial thing about his inner attitude in doing this, and again it is absolutely central to his DNA. He has compassion. There is no sense in which the crowds pressing in on him are the problem or even the enemy. Can you imagine him making a put-down comment about them to Peter? I can’t. But we do it. All the time. And in a time of institutional change and organisational challenge we are liable to do it more rather than less. We need to share Christ’s compassion, to our very heart, if we are to share Christ’s work.
And sharing Christ’s work is the third feature of the reading that I want to point to. We may think that going out and meeting people where they were, and showing compassion to them, were so much in Christ’s nature that it couldn’t have happened otherwise. But the story of the Temptation in the Wilderness suggests that his next choice was not such a foregone conclusion. He decides not to be the Great Hero and go it alone, but to give his own ministry away – to a very mixed bag of disciples indeed. I have to break the news to you that there were no Divine Appointments Secretaries employed to search for the best applicants, no application forms or complicated interview days. Jesus just said, “Come.” And they came. And so I hope will we.
Context, compassion and call. Getting out there and giving of ourselves because Christ has called us to do it with him. The visible and generous people of Jesus Christ as a well-known diocesan phrase or saying has it.
If we let the divine DNA join with ours, which is what we must long for, and which is what after all the sacraments of baptism and communion are all about not to mention our daily prayers, then I believe that DNA, that Good News, that life-changing Good Infection, will spread naturally and irresistibly through all the villages now just as it did then, and that the yes, even numerical growth is as entirely possible in our day as it was in the days of the first disciple when first the 12, then the 72, then the 5000 on the Day of Pentecost, then communities across the whole known world came to know the compassion of Christ and became disciples in their turn.
Let’s offer the real thing. Let’s out-do Amazon – can it be that hard, in being focussed on the people we serve. Let’s show such a remarkable self-giving not getting that we share in God’s work of turning a world suffering from consumption and trapped in a hall of media mirrors upside down, meaning the right way up of course, with a way to follow that really leads somewhere good, a truth to hang on to that is not just knowledge but wisdom, and a life to live that will be a flourishing for us all. Hands up who doesn’t want to be part of the team sharing an offer like that with our children, our singles, our families, our businesses, our schools and colleges, our hospitals and hospices.
And hands together is where we’ll need to start if we want it to come true. Let’s pray for a moment.