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Mandate for a Congregation


Matthew 10:1-9

As soon as something in our society is seen to be out of order a Royal Commission is set up to deal with it. One day it is suspected that tax-revenues are being misspent or that medicare claims are being falsified or that organized crime is taking over legitimate businesses. At this point a commission is convened. Political appointees are given authority to investigate the area of concern. They are given a mandate; i.e., they are told how far their authority extends, what they are to investigate, and to whom they are to report.

When Jesus called the twelve disciples he appointed the first Christian congregation. That first congregation was thereafter the standard or norm for all Christian congregations in every era. The mandate our Lord gave to the twelve he therefore gives to any congregation in any era. Needless to say, it’s the mandate without which we wouldn’t be a congregation at all. We might be a religious group, or a middle class club, or a social circle; but we wouldn’t be a congregation called and commissioned by Jesus Christ himself and appointed to the same task and responsibility as our twelve foreparents in faith. In other words, it’s the mandate that makes the congregation.

There’s a crucial difference, however, between the mandate the government gives a royal commission and the mandate Jesus Christ gives us. The mandate given the royal commission authorizes its members to ask questions and produce reports. They do that. They produce innumerable reports. They make dozens of recommendations. But how much gets done? A great deal is said; very little is ever done. The mandate that Jesus gives a congregation, on the other hand, authorizes us to say relatively little, even as it insists we do a great deal. What’s more, what we say and do in obedience to our Lord he then adopts himself, takes it up in his name and uses it to so as to render it his speaking and his doing.

What’s the mandate? First the twelve are to announce, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This is what they are to preach. Thereafter they are to do; specifically they are to do what reflects the fact that the kingdom is at hand. They are to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.


I: — Every congregation is commissioned to heal the sick. The sick are the unwell; the unwell are those incapable of doing well, those incapable of doing well anywhere in life for any reason. They can be sick in body, sick in mind, sick in spirit. Years ago in my seminary course with Dr. James Wilkes, a Toronto psychiatrist, one student lamented that in this age of agnosticism and secularism we were no longer sure of the church’s vocation. Wilkes stared at the student for the longest time as if the student were half-deranged and then remarked, “Are you telling me that you can have a suffering human being in front of you and you don’t know what the church’s vocation is?”

There is a low-grade suffering that is simply part of the human condition; it never goes away. There is also high-grade suffering, intense pain, that can come upon us at any time for any reason and remain with us for any length of time. To be sure, professional expertise is often needed for people unwell in both respects; but even as professional expertise is called for, we should never think our ministry isn’t. Last Monday afternoon I met at Streetsville “Go” station a 30-year old woman who has been diagnosed (correctly) as manic-depressive. As Maureen and I spoke with her we noticed as well several symptoms of schizophrenia. Plainly she is schizo-affective, to use psychiatric terminology. Maureen and I can’t cure her; we can’t even medicate her; but this isn’t to say we can’t do anything. We had been asked to meet her, feed her, accommodate her, and take her to the airport (and to the correct airport terminal) next morning. She lives 1700 miles away. If she lived closer to us there would be more — much more — we could do, should do, and would do.

Everyone knows that when intense pain comes upon us our suffering becomes a preoccupation: we can think of nothing else. Have you ever tried to do algebra or write an essay with so much as — so little as — toothache? If you had wanted for years to hear Pinchas Zukerman play his violin and you were told that a ticket was available for tonight’s performance and tonight you happened to have raging headache or unquellable nausea, you wouldn’t care less if Mozart himself were playing at Roy Thomson Hall. Intense suffering is a preoccupation that precludes us from attending to anything else. Then anything we do to alleviate someone’s Jobian suffering has gigantic significance.

For years now I have noticed how suffering alters people. A long time ago I learned that underneath the alcoholic’s bravado and self-aggrandizement and self-absorption there is a suffering human being who has suffered terribly for a very long time. Yes, I’m aware that he causes many others to suffer, and his doing so renders others impatient with him and angry at him. Nonetheless, his own suffering is monumental, and all the more terrible for being unrecognized. In the same way I have found that underneath the convict’s larger-than-life self-advertisement there is terrible suffering. Yes, I have met a few convicts with out-and-out criminal minds; but only a few. Most of the convicts I’ve met aren’t criminals at heart; they’re criminals as a consequence. Their criminal behaviour isn’t their besetting problem, it’s the presenting symptom of their besetting problem. Yes, they have behaved criminally; yes, there has to be a social response to their behaviour. At the same time, for instance, we all know that divorce destroys children; we know too that only 35% of marriages in Canada end in divorce; and we know that virtually 100% of young men afoul of the law have come from homes where marital grief has afflicted them with a suffering they couldn’t articulate and likely couldn’t even identify. After 28 years as a pastor I have concluded that nearly all self-injurious behaviour is rooted in suffering.

What about the suffering of those whose suffering we don’t see? We’d see it if we looked a little more closely. Not so long ago I used to watch a 70-year old man walk haltingly up and down Queen St. using a cane with four feet on it for stability, one arm folded across his chest and one leg dragging awkwardly. Plainly he’d had a stroke. On other days I’d see the young adult who is intellectually challenged, or the woman whose son is “doing drugs”, as she says (I know who these people are in Streetsville) or the mentally ill fellow whose wife has left him, or the ex-convict who can’t find employment, or the homemaker who would give anything for the smallest parttime job but isn’t hired inasmuch as she can’t read. I saw them all on different days. One afternoon I had reason to go to the Winchester Arms — and there I saw them all at once. They were all gathered together in one room! The stroke victim with the four-footed cane was trying to communicate in garbled speech with the retarded fellow, while the woman who couldn’t read was asking the forlorn mother to help her with the instructions on her pharmacy prescriptions. They were all together in one room in the Winchester Arms. It was as if a summit conference of Streetsville sufferers had been convened and individuals representing each different affliction were on hand to meet each other. And then I saw something more: the kingdom. The kingdom of God is the creation healed. Doesn’t Jesus mandate the congregation to announce that the kingdom is at hand, and then set about healing the sick?

All of which brings me to a matter that has haunted me for a long time. For years the outreach committee of this congregation has sighed in frustration. Who needs a committee to write a cheque once or twice a year to a humanitarian project oceans distant? I’m not denigrating the humanitarian project in any sense. Unquestionably it is a means of healing the sick. At the same time, if outreach work in this congregation is going to catch fire, we need to see human faces much closer to home; we need to open our eyes to what is in fact staring us in the face; we need to do something that is much less remote; we need to do something that is much more labour- (our labour) intensive. But first of all we need to identify the suffering in our midst.

“Are you telling me you can have a suffering human being in front of you and you don’t know what the church’s vocation is?” — so spoke a psychiatrist with surprise, anger and sorrow in response to a seminary student’s question.


II: — Next in the mandate we are commissioned to raise the dead. The written gospels inform us that Jesus raised several people from the dead, as did others in the early church, according to the book of Acts. Everyone who was raised in this manner, of course, had to die again. Then what was the point of being raised at all? These raisings from the dead were enacted illustrations, as it were, of the unique event in the New Testament: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Now the resurrection of Jesus Christ is very different from resuscitation, and different in several respects. For one, resuscitation is merely the reanimation of a corpse (someone has to die again), whereas the resurrection of Jesus exalts him beyond having to die; death can never reach out and reclaim him, ever. For another, the resurrection of Jesus includes our Lord’s capacity to share the truth and reality of his risen life with his people: we, his people, are made alive before God, and made alive in such away that death will never undo (won’t even affect in the slightest) our vivification before God. Paul exults as he reminds the Christians in Ephesus, “You he made alive when you were dead.” They had been dead before God, dead unto God, spiritually inert, when the risen Christ had seized them and rendered them alive in the Spirit.

Not surprisingly, then, death and resurrection, spiritual inertness and spiritual vivification, are the ultimate categories in scripture. To be sure, Jesus is healer; but his ultimate significance isn’t given by his ability to heal. To be sure, Jesus is teacher; but his ultimate significance isn’t given by his ability to teach. His ultimate significance is indicated in his triumphant cry, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” He who has been made alive now makes others alive; and those whom he makes alive he now commissions and uses as he continues to make still others alive. In other words, the core of the church’s mandate is the commission to raise the dead; we who have been rendered alive unto God ourselves are now to render others alive as well. How are we to do this? Of ourselves we have no power to raise the dead! In the book of Acts the apostles never pretend they have any power to do anything of themselves. Just as surely, however, they know that unless they act, albeit in the power of the risen one; unless they act, nothing gets done!

Many people are either puzzled by the word “evangelism” or put off by it. Either they aren’t sure what it means, or they think they are sure and are repelled by it. Evangelism in fact is a simple matter. Evangelism is simply attesting our Lord himself, in any way we can, with the result that he adopts our witness as he makes others alive unto him. Evangelism, then, is the congregation’s fulfilment of the mandate to raise the dead. People who are now spiritually inert are going to be rendered able and eager to respond to our Lord’s invitation, “Come unto me!” Evangelism is the congregation’s raising the dead as the congregation exudes the vitality Christ has lent it and exhales this vitality as surely as God’s breath is said to enliven inanimate clay and render that person God’s covenant partner ever after.

This congregation has been commissioned to raise the dead.


III: — Next in the mandate we are commissioned to cleanse lepers. Since leprosy is a disease, why aren’t the lepers simply included among the sick who are to be healed? The lepers are singled out to be cleansed just because the intolerable feature of leprosy, in the biblical era, wasn’t disease; the intolerable feature was defilement. Lepers were defiled, socially ostracized, outcast. Lepers have to be readmitted to the community as their defilement is dispelled and their repugnance is removed. Lepers are afflicted with a dreadful stigma. Their stigma is truly no disgrace. But society invariably equates affliction with stigma and stigma with disgrace.

During the middle ages there were aristocratic women, high-born, noble in every sense of the word, wealthy who, in the spirit of Jesus Christ and out of love for him, used to kiss the most horribly repellent lepers just to let them know that someone loved what everyone else regarded as defiled and found repugnant and wanted only to flee. Someone loved that person and would admit him at least to her and cherish him when others found him only hideous.

Shortly after I reported to my first pastoral assignment in rural New Brunswick, 1970, a villager suggested I visit the “Old People’s Home”, as it was called, in the neighbouring village of Neguac. (Neguac was only 7 miles from Tabusintac, but because it was French-speaking it was deemed to be light-years away. Leprosy wears many faces, doesn’t it!) I found not an “Old People’s Home” but a large residence that housed 23 people who were seriously mentally ill. They had been in assorted provincial institutions anywhere from 5 to 20 years. One woman, 25 years old, told me she took “dix-huit pilules par jour” (18 pills per day.) Her family lived in Moncton — two hours’ drive away — and never visited her. She was a leper.

A few years ago MDs were going to cure such people with brand-new neuroleptic drugs, and MSWs were going to ease them back into our society.

The neuroleptic drugs are certainly helpful but cannot cure; our society is already turing its back on these people; and the MSWs are being laid off as governments at every level indicate money is scarce and getting scarcer all the time. Meanwhile, the church stands around, complaining that it has no credibility in our secular age, wondering what is left for it to do, when all the while there has been delivered into the church’s hands a glorious opportunity to recover its historic diaconal ministry, its historic ministry of concrete caring. Will the church ever understand what opportunity has been handed it on a silver platter? Will it?

It didn’t understand what had been given it in Chatham, N.B., when I lived 40 miles from Chatham. One afternoon I was about to drive home to Tabusintac after visiting a parishioner in the Chatham hospital, when I noticed a large residential building whose many occupants were severely intellectually challenged. I went in, identified myself as a clergyman, and spoke with the staff. They told me the program had taken over a disused residence of a small Roman Catholic college. The building accommodated two dozen people aged 18 to 45, with I.Qs. of 50 or 60. An I.Q. of 100 is normal; an I.Q. of 20 is needed if someone is to be toilet-trained. An I.Q. of 50 or 60 permits people to do such things as thread beads on a string or cut up pantyhose and hook a rug with the pieces; but of course people with an I.Q. of 50 or 60 will never be gainfully employed. When I spoke with the staff I found many of them cold, even hostile. Finally one woman hissed at me, “We have been in business here for six months, and you are the first clergyperson we have seen.” I made a point of visiting these people every time I was in Chatham. One day I lamely suggested that perhaps Chatham’s ten or twelve clergy hadn’t come by inasmuch as they didn’t know about it. “Don’t know about it!”, one woman fumed at me, “they knew about it before it was developed; they learned what was coming and they fanned out in teams throughout the town urging citizens to resist this facility like the plague; they spread stories to the effect that intellectually challenged people were slobbering neanderthals with perverted propensities; that women and children would no longer be safe. They did everything they could to smear afflicted people and incite prejudice against them.” Weakly I asked the woman what a church group could do for the men and women so afflicted. Immediately she listed a dozen ways in which help could be rendered. Needless to say, any contact on the part of a church group, in an atmosphere so thoroughly poisoned, would have been nothing less than lepers cleansed. (Remember: the church is supposed to cleanse lepers, not condemn them.)

Before we can cleanse lepers we have to see them. Whether or not we can see lepers is a very good test, I’m convinced, of whether or not we can see at all.

IV: — Last in the mandate we are commissioned to cast out demons. When disciples are faced with evil, they are to identify it and deal with it. First they have to discern it; then they have to name it; then they have to fend it off. Most certainly they aren’t to wink at it or trifle with it or compromise with it or exploit it.

One day I found myself speaking with several university students who belonged to a zealous group of Christian students whose zeal for the gospel burned white-hot. As I listened to their fervour concerning the spiritual peril of fellow university students who remained unconverted I noticed how lightheartedly they talked about passing essays around. One person would write the essay; several others would then submit it and receive credit for it. I was appalled at their fraudulence and asked them how they squared their cheating with their burning Christian profession. One fellow cavalierly replied, “We Christians on the campus are so busy doing the Lord’s work we have no time to do school work!” Jesus commands the twelve to cast out demons, not profit from them.

At the same time our Lord cautions the twelve that he is sending them out as sheep among wolves, and so they are to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Because evil is so very evil, uncommon wisdom is needed to deal with it. It’s easy to hear our Lord’s command to cast out demons and forget that he also insisted we be wise as serpents. Many a strong person has hurled himself against evil frontally, assuming he could best it, only to find himself consumed by it. Many a subtle person has assumed she could disperse evil subtly, only to find months later she had been subtly seduced by it. Many an unwary person has concentrated so singlemindedly on one evil as to be overtaken by another evil from another quarter. In casting out demons, in resisting evil, we have to be wise as serpents.

We also have to be innocent as doves. Our opposition to evil can’t become the excuse for attacking people we don’t like. Our opposition to evil mustn’t be the disguise that cloaks our vindictiveness or our ill-temper. Our opposition to evil mustn’t become the occasion of our boasting that we are spiritually superior inasmuch as we are dragon-slayers. We are to be innocent as doves.

Yet even as we are to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, our wisdom and innocence mustn’t become an excuse for fear-induced immobility. We are to cast out demons; we are to resist evil; and we are without excuse if we don’t.

Our congregation has a mandate more important than that given any Royal Commission. We are to announce that the kingdom is at hand. And then our preaching of the kingdom must be confirmed as the kingdom is rendered visible in our midst. To this end we are to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.

I know that my Lord constrains me to fulfil this mandate. Does he constrain you too?


                                                                           Victor Shepherd
January 1998