15th Sunday of Ordinary Time / Trinity 6.
“An army marches on its stomach” – It was the Corsican adventurer and sometime emperor of France and hate figure for the English, one Napoleon Bonaparte, who said that. He was the one who insisted on being crowned in St Peter’s Rome by the Pope, and when the Pope was a bit slow off the mark, grabbed the crown and put it on his own head. However, the meaning of that self-evident truth can be easily misunderstood. Napoleon did not mean that he was going to ensure that an endless caravan of supply carts laden down with the offerings of the best Parisian restaurants was going to cater to the whims of the French Army. No, what Napoleon meant was that the French army was expected to live off the land, as it went along. And if the land they marched through was barren, the troops could starve, as on the famous retreat from Moscow. It was a strategy that could bring great success, but it was also high risk.
Though Napoleon probably wouldn’t have recognised it, the self same policy had been adopted by parts of the church in the Middle Ages. As far back as the thirteenth century, Franciscan and Dominican friars often took to the road, living off what people would give them, and responding quickly to requests for help from local bishops. And in the campaigns of these friars, Francis and Dominic themselves showed the way by example – often sleeping rough, begging for food and drink, eating whatever was put before them.
These friars, following the example of Christ and the apostles, despite their high-risk strategy, were never let down. As they served the high king of heaven, his protection as they travelled on – on campaign, as it were – never dried up. And also I am sure that they were helped by the fact that the believing millions in Europe would have know instinctively that in helping them they were in some way helping Christ himself.
And what prompted them to adopt this approach, when so many powerful men in the church in the Middle Ages had totally forgotten that the Son of Man had had nowhere to lay His head, and enjoyed lives of great self-indulgence? The answer lies in passages in the Gospels such as this one from St Mark. What we see Jesus doing is part of a larger strategy. In fact, as St Paul tells us, the strategy was laid down by God from the beginning, as a predetermined plan. And as an aside, behind these verses lies a truth that many today ignore or do not or choose not to acknowledge: Jesus’ choosing of twelve male apostles is a deliberate way of showing that His aim is to re-found the people of God, as once the twelve tribes of Israel were called by God.
This passage shows Jesus the Lord, like a commanding officer, but a commanding officer like none other, giving his troops their marching orders. These men, however, carry no weapons of war; they are to be, like Jesus Himself, themselves the message, both by what they are and by what they say. The apostles are to move quickly, and to move on swiftly where their preaching is not welcome. This creates a sense of the urgency of Christ’s message. The kingdom of heaven is close at hand; the time is now. And here, even before the resurrection, we see the two main weapons that Christ gives the Church – the word of God and the sacraments, both of them signs of His continued love for the church and His abiding presence with it. So, the apostles are to preach the Word, and, in a sacramental act, to anoint with oil those who are sick.
Obviously we need care in applying Christ’s strategy to our own time and our own situations. And yet, awe inspiring though it is, remember that, like the apostles, we have each been chosen from all eternity, to be co-workers in God’s plan of redemption; by virtue of our baptism we are enlisted as Christ’s faithful soldiers and servants in order to advance His campaign. It took great faith and courage for the apostles to do what Christ told them, but do it they did, and we too can ask for and be given that same faith and courage, the same resolve to carry out our Master’s will.
Fr. Edward Bryant