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Sixteenth Sunday of the Year

Unprecedented Mission

The Gospel of last Sunday told of Christ's first sending out of the disciples on a mission of preaching and healing. In the order of Mark's Gospel it was followed by an interlude which tells of the Herod, the Tetrarch of Galilee, hearing of Jesus's mission, and being touched in his conscience and thinking that here was John the Baptist come back from the dead; it adds the story of how he had had John executed to satisfy the whim of a daughter of his unlawful wife which the latter had prompted. And now we have the story of the return of the disciple-missionaries.

They immediately told him of what they had done and taught, though on that Mark does not dwell. Peter, as his source, was anxious to show the care which Jesus had for them as they returned: exuberant but undoubtedly tired. This will happen when personal psychological demands are made on preachers in addition to the intensity demanded by the need to preach, as they seek always to follow the inspirations of God. With the intensity of these demands meals are easily postponed or forgotten, and the result can be very draining of energy. Being near to the sea, probably at Capernaum, Jesus decided that they should go to a 'desert place' to rest and renew their strength.

The mission which Our Lord had sent out was without precedent in the history of Israel. He had sent a considerable number of preachers with healing powers to many different places at the same time, all preaching the same message with urgency and simplicity of spirit, and all carrying out the same prophet-like tasks of healing for mind and body. Comparisons made at meetings from even individual witnesses would have confirmed its undoubted effects. A single unique message concerning a Person who must be a prophet, who had strength and compassions for all who came to him. Someone who had passed on the capacity to preach and to heal to his disciples. And the whole carried out with a lightness of heart and with personal compassion and concern. With preachers who showed no fear, and who could master those possessed by demons, and cast them out - whose presence had caused pain to the sufferers and fear to everyone else.

It was a religious happening, unexpected at that time, but most welcome. And there was an immediate further reaction when the disciples had broken off their mission and convened together. From high points along the lakeside the movements of their boat could be viewed and interpreted. They were obviously sailing towards a well-known place where quiet could normally be found. It would not be far from the lake shore. Sure of where they would be heading, and being able to travel the distance more quickly on foot, many people hurried there and awaited the arrival of the disciples with their Master.

It was not just curiosity which had brought the crowds together from many places. It was expectancy, perhaps not defined but nonetheless very deep. All great religious turning points occur when within the communication of a common spirit there is a nostalgia too widely open for words, when possibilities find a time to concretise together in a moment of wonder, when secret hidden hopes arise from the hearts of those who are dissatisfied with the state of affairs: of the nation, of the religious assemblies, and of themselves. At such moments a generalised hope can be born. It first catches people by surprise, and then, finding that the hope aroused is not being disappointed, the expectancy is born and communicates itself even more strongly.

Our Lord sensed this immediately. They were not looking for military leadership for another fruitless Galilean insurrection, but for something peaceful and permanent. They were looking for a Pastor who knew exactly how to lead them to realise their best possibilities and even more. Like the shepherds in those Middle Eastern countries who take their sheep from one grazing patch to another, leading them from the front. They were without such a Pastor who would not only lead them, but tend them, and call them by the names which he himself had given to them. Amen. 

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