Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Go out and proclaim the Good News, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This morning’s readings remind us of the tension between the ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ which dominate much of our life as Christians. After a long-stretch of extraordinary time in the first half of the Christian year, as we moved from Advent to Christmas to Lent and Easter, we’re now left in the stillness of ordinary time. We have the space to contemplate again what all that has been proclaimed in the life of Jesus might mean for us today. In our Old Testament reading, Moses’ people, tired, hungry, and thirsty, after their long journey in the wilderness, listen somewhat impatiently to Moses’ command that one day they shall be ‘God’s treasured possession out of all the peoples’, a ‘priestly kingdom and a holy nation’. In our Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples have touched his hands and feet, or least seen and heard in real-time the invisible God made visible, and yet still the people wander around ‘harassed and helpless like a sheep without a shepherd’. And Paul’s Roman audience are told to persevere with all the suffering that remains in their life and the lives of those around them, even after the gift of the risen Jesus. ‘The Kingdom of heaven has come near’ says Jesus, and yet we, too, are left wondering exactly what Jesus might mean by this notion of ‘nearness’. Where and what is God’s heavenly Kingdom? And what does that mean for us as Christians today?
The answer says Paul, is in the gift of hope. ‘Faith, hope and love remain’ says Paul to the Corinthians, and ‘hope does not disappoint us’ he says again in this morning’s letter to the Romans. The Greek word for ‘hope’, elpis, appears over 50 times in the New Testament, coming from the root verb elpo, which means to anticipate (with pleasure) and to welcome. ‘Hope’ means to expect what is to come, but also to welcome that expectation into our lives, so that it changes our present experience in the light of the future. Moses tells the tired and hungry Israelites in the wilderness of a different future, where their physical hope of being reunited with their homeland comes true. But he also reminds them of a future in which their spiritual hope of taking up their treasured and cherished metaphysical place with God, becomes real too. In answer to being reminded of this hope, God and Moses expect the Israelites to anticipate this future by welcoming this hope into the present: the people should listen for God’s call, says, Moses, and they should answer in one voice, without bickering. Living together in unity, so welcoming our heavenly future into the present, isn’t something we manage as Christians very often, but the question of ‘where does our hope come from?’ and ‘how does that hope change the present?’ is something that we get asked often as Christians, dressed up in various guises.
Last Sunday afternoon, I visited the L’Arche community in Cambridge, where I spent 3 years whilst training for ordination. As many of us know, L’Arche is a model of community where adults with and without learning disabilities can live and encounter God together and has 160 smaller communities throughout the world. L’Arche, meaning the ark, was set up in 1964 by Jean Vanier, who we later discovered, had set up the community as a means of abusing others. Each year at our L’Arche home, we tell the history of our community through an ever-growing scroll of the handprints of past and present community members. At the beginning of the scroll are Jean Vanier’s handprints, who went to Cambridge to mark the formation of this new community in 2012. In the light of Jean Vanier’s deceit which was uncovered in 2020, sometimes I think about how easy it would be to remove his handprints, to simply cut them out of the scroll, or to end the tradition of retelling the story of our community through the handprints. But, the rhythm and repetition of telling our history through the slow unrolling of the scroll is something the community members look forward to. So each year we continue this tradition, reminding ourselves that we cannot rewrite the past, but that our present is changed our hope in a future where the abuse of power is no more. We try to welcome that hope into the present. Sometimes, we succeed, and a glimpse of God’s invisible kingdom feels visible on earth, and sometimes we don’t.
Moses reminds the Israelites of their future that is to come and expects them to welcome the hope of that future into the present in a way that changes their lived experience now. Jesus tells his disciples the story of a future that is to come, through the miracles of his own ministry, signalling a heavenly kingdom where there will be no more physical, mental, or spiritual illness, and where the bickering over money and possessions will be a forgotten thing. Jesus expects the hope of that future to change the reality of the present. The 12 disciples are the first people Jesus calls by name and calls into ministry with him, expecting them to leave behind their possessions and preconceptions, by sharing the Good News of the future through his healing touch. One of their number, Judas, will betray Jesus, but his handprints remain on the scroll of scripture: the future Jesus promises doesn’t change because of Judas’ actions, but it does shift the imbalance of the light of hope told in the darkness just for a short time.
At the Pentecost Camp a few weeks ago, we spent time discussing how, after Jesus’ birth, the 12 apostles are sent out to proclaim the Good News to different corners of the world, to peoples who speak many different languages. In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus reminds us that we must first get our own house in order before we can be sent out. ‘Don’t go yet to the Gentiles or to the Samaritans’ Jesus tells his disciples, ‘but, go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ Before we can tell the Good News to the world, we must be prepared to welcome that Good News into changing the reality of our present. Last week, Fr John and Terrence and I went to a session in Lakeside, where a group of local stakeholders – faith groups, schools, police officers, and counsellors – were discussing working together to meet the needs of the local community, and especially how to better serve young people. Many people in the room were Christians. ‘Oh well,’ huffed one member of a local church, ‘we would run a youth group, but nobody wants to help, so there’s nothing wecan do about this problem!’ The problem apparently was young people looking for hope.
‘When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.’ He said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few.’ Our present can never become a mirror copy of God’s future for us. Moses’ people will still moan, Judas will still betray Jesus, Jean Vanier’s handprints will remain on the story of L’Arche, but this morning’s readings remind us that if we believe in the future of a different physical, spiritual, and metaphysical place, we must be prepared to welcome that future into the present. And, as Kelly Latimore’s icon on the front of today’s Order of Service reminds us, we must be prepared to get our own house in order before we can be sent out, for Jesus and the lost sheep of Israel don’t necessarily look how we think we do.
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Go out and proclaim the Good News, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” The Israelites said to Moses, ‘Everything that God has spoken, we will do.’ Amen.