Sunday 18th June 2023, St Anne’s Lewes Genesis 18, 1-15 and 21, 1-7
Psalm 116, v1, 10-17
Romans 5 -1-8
Matthew 9.35-10.8 [9-23]
One of the greatest challenges we have when we're reading the Bible is to do with understanding the world in which Jesus and His apostles lived. Earlier this week in our session on the parables we spent time wondering what the Kingdom of God is or will be. The Kingdom of God appears in our readings today; Matthew tells us that Jesus went about 'proclaiming the kingdom'. 'Kingdom' to a first century audience would have meant the rule of imperial Rome, with its hierarchies, its brutality, and its oppression. We get glimpses of this in both readings; Jesus warns the apostles that they'll be beaten and persecuted, and dying for what you believe is a very present reality for Paul in his letter to the Romans. Earthly kingdoms are brutal and violent, but Jesus however wants them and us to know very different his kingdom is. Proclaiming the kingdom of Heaven is bound up with teaching love and with healing; a very different sort of kingdom to that of Rome, which taught obedience through fear, and which brought pain and suffering rather than health and well-being. Matthew tells us that the first apostles are sent to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven not with spears and wearing armour like Roman legionaries, but staffless, bagless and poor. There couldn't have been a greater contrast, especially for a first century audience. The three things which Matthew tells us Jesus practises himself and then commands of the apostles, teaching, healing, and preaching seem to me to be central to who Jesus was then and is today. Taken together they perhaps help us to understand what it means to encounter the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
Psalm 116 gives voice to what it means to be healed.
'You have delivered my soul from death,
My eyes from tears'
sings the psalmist. But it's not just physical healing, it's a spiritual healing as well. Something wonderful happens for the psalmist when they call on God in their suffering. They felt their spirits sinking under the burden of distress and anguish and then,
'When I was brought low, he saved me'.
Being healthy and well for the psalmist isn't just about being physically well, it's about a form of spiritual wellness which they find through being open and welcoming to God. One thing the psalmist and Jesus have in common is the way in which they see health and well-being in a holistic way, as being inter-connected. For much of the last century we've perhaps been busily dividing the body from the soul- the NHS for when your body gets sick and the C of E for matters spiritual, but Jesus, like the psalmist, sees bodily health and well-being as one with mental and spiritual health. This is another aspect of what it means to experience the kingdom of heaven; The psalmist sings that in their newfound sense of well-being they're ready to be God's servant, but this isn't servant hood as debasement, as it might have been if you were servant to a Roman emperor. This is servanthood as freedom from anxiety and suffering. 'You have loosed my bonds' says the psalmist. Earthly kings and emperors have servants who lose their freedom and identity, but being a servant in God's kingdom is something we choose, it means being freed from fear and having life in all its fullness.
This I think is what Jesus is teaching in Matthew's Gospel. For a first century listener news of a kingdom where you were free to live life to the full must have been a thrilling contrast to the terror of the Roman Empire. Teaching, preaching, and healing; Jesus connects those three things in one person. And twice he talks with great compassion about the people who don't know Him as 'sheep'. The implication is, I think, that he's offering us a way of looking at the world which will mean that we no longer need to act and think like sheep when things get difficult, panicking and running round in circles. In Romans Paul tells us that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, which is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit. The message here seems to be that our own sufferings, whatever unhappy form they take, may ultimately serve to bring us closer to God-to experience the grace which Paul tells us Jesus came to share and which is itself wrapped up in becoming aware of the Kingdom of God here on earth.
What a challenge Jesus sets for those first apostles, and for us! Live without money and rely on the kindness of strangers. Share what you've discovered about Jesus and the kingdom of Heaven and heal the sick. This says Jesus is how to experience the kingdom of heaven- sharing our faith, making people feel better, living simply. In the quiet time that follows the sermon perhaps we could all give time to thinking about how we can do just that in the week ahead. What can we do without? Who can we help to feel better or more alive-maybe through a visit, or a phone call, or spending time with? How can we share what we understand about the Kingdom of God?
We can't ever fully know what the world was really like for those first disciples, but today's readings give us enough clues to enable us to adapt Jesus's teaching to the needs of our own world, where people still need healing and still need to encounter God through what we say and do- and it's by obeying that call to live simply, to go out into the world confident that we have something to offer, that we can be certain we're playing our own part in bringing about the Kingdom of God here on earth.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.