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Returning God's Call: The Challenge of Christian Living by John C. Purdy


John C. Purdy is a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), which he served for 26 years as an editor of curriculum resource. He is also the author of Parables at Work (Westminster) and God with a Human Face (Westminster/Knox). Returning God's Call was published in l989 by Westminster/John Knox Press. This material was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Chapter 5: The Call to Mirror a Ministry (Matthew 9:35-10:8a)


And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest."

And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying,"The kingdom of heaven is at hand." Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons." -Matthew 9:35-1O:8a

Are you and I called to go hand to hand with death, disease, and demons? Does God want us to revivify corpses, restore fingers and toes to those afflicted with leprosy, and exorcise evil spirits? If we read Matthew 9:35-1O:8a in the straightforward way we have read other narratives, such would be the clear implications.

As Matthew tells his story, Jesus had been doing his characteristic works of preaching and healing. There was far more work than he could do alone. So he called twelve intimate friends and empowered them to preach and heal. It seems clear enough that in Matthew's Gospel the Twelve are meant to represent the church. So it follows that you and I -- members of the church -- are likewise called and commissioned to perform marvelous works.

You will get little argument among Christians that we are called to teach and preach in Jesus' name. Then why should we not expect to follow his example in doing marvelous works of healing? For Jesus had a dual ministry: He announced the present realm of God; and, as signs and seals of the veracity of that announcement, he performed extraordinary labors of healing and exorcism. Or, if you prefer, he did works of mercy and explained their meaning by the announcement, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." In a dramatic demonstration that the kingdom of heaven meant the defeat of the powers of evil and death, Jesus raised the dead, cleansed lepers, and cast out evil spirits.

And as is clearly stated in the passage from Matthew that is under consideration, Jesus gave to his disciples the authority to do that same dual work. It was this empowerment that turned disciples into apostles. Learners became like their Teacher, servants like their Master. Even after Jesus ascended into heaven, the apostles continued to both preach and do wonderful signs in his name. The Acts of the Apostles records a number of these, such as the healing of the lame man in the temple by John and Peter, described in the third chapter of Acts.

What of Us?

What of us twentieth-century Christians? Are we called to do the same? Are we to both preach and do miracles? Or are we to remain forever as disciples, willing to watch what Jesus did, and even tell others about it, but never ourselves to take up his ministry? Are we not members of a church that calls itself apostolic and claims spiritual descent from the Twelve? And therefore are we not, in the twentieth century, called to complete what Jesus started in the first century? If our Sovereign went hand to hand with death, disease, and demons, on what grounds do we ask deferment?

Here, at midpoint in our consideration of Christ's call, a fearful question hangs quivering in the air, a question that offends the sensibilities of cultured, reasonable people: Are we Christians called by Christ to hand-to-hand combat with the powers of death, disease, and demonology?

We cannot offer an unequivocal yes or no to that question -- not without being found to be liars. For if we say flatly yes, it must be with the full knowledge that there are no contemporary referents for "raise the dead" and "cast out demons." If we say that we are called to such marvelous works, we are affirming an imperative that is impossible for us to obey. We cannot raise corpses from coffins, nor do we believe in the existence of demons -- not the kind that invade human bodies. So if we say yes indeed, we are called to such works, it has got to be with our fingers crossed or our tongues in our cheeks.

But neither dare we offer a flat no, for then we are being false to God's word. The New Testament affirms that, in Christ, God won a victory for us over the powers of death, disease, and evil. If Christ is not somehow Sovereign of these awful powers, he is not Sovereign at all. Having confessed Jesus Christ as Sovereign, we do not want so openly to deny him. Besides, in this study of Matthew we have taken other calling narratives as imperative for us. How should we now suddenly decide to duck a call because it seems impossible to obey? Somehow we must interpret Matthew 9:35-1O:8a so as to preserve it as a calling narrative -- but in a way that makes it possible for us to obey it.

To repeat, there is no way the call to the Twelve can be heard by us exactly like other calls. For we cannot obey commands to "raise the dead" and "cast out demons." Not that these are meaningless commands. On three separate occasions Jesus is described in the Gospels as bringing back to life persons who had died: the son of the widow of Nain, the daughter of Jairus, and Lazarus. In the book of Acts, Peter raises Dorcas from the state of death. Also in the Gospels are a number of accounts of the exorcism of evil spirits -- demons, if you will.

Without denying that such things happened as the Bible describes them, still we cannot understand what it would mean today for us to "raise the dead" or "cast out demons." Such performances are not part of our worldview. Perceptions limit actions. We cannot do what we cannot imagine ourselves doing. Korean shamans may very well drive out evil spirits. But you and I do not believe in evil spirits. Who among us can imagine himself or herself acting the part of the shaman?

We can imagine others raising the dead. There is a pastor of a charismatic congregation in Seoul, Korea, who is purported to have revived his son after the child was pronounced dead. We listen to such accounts with skepticism, but we are not forced to deny them outright. Since we have heard the biblical stories of Jesus and the apostles raising the dead, we can imagine others doing so. But you and I cannot seriously imagine ourselves doing likewise.

Therefore we cannot offer a flat yes to the question: Are we called to go hand to hand with death, disease, and demons? But neither can we offer an unequivocal no -- at least not until we have explored every possible avenue of explanation. For by what right do we pick and choose among calls, heeding some and ignoring others? Does it not belong to the very nature of a divine call that it comes from beyond our limited world and demands that we go beyond the bounds of the ordinary?

So let us then patiently and carefully explore what imperative there might be for us in Jesus' call to the Twelve to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons.

Avenues for Exploration

What we need is a metaphor -- a figure of speech-that will mediate between the literal meaning of Jesus' call and our contemporary understanding of the world. We find such a metaphor supplied by John P. Meier. All four of our commentators agree that the call to the Twelve was to continue Jesus' ministry in the world. But Meier supplies a liberating metaphor when he writes (p. 107), "The mission of the disciples mirrors that of Jesus in word and work." The word "mirrors" supplies the metaphor. Our words and works are to mirror the words and works of Jesus. We are not called to imitate Jesus as a child seeks to imitate a parent, nor are we called to obey him in the manner of soldiers obeying a direct order. Rather, our actions are to mirror those of Jesus.

The metaphor is suggestive: To mirror the activity of another is to respond to that person's words and actions. Jesus acts and speaks; we act and speak in appropriate response. To mirror the activity of another is also to amplify it. Before the days of radio and telegraph, messages could be flashed by mirror from watchtower to watchtower, covering great distances. Our actions serve to enlarge the ministry of Jesus across time and space. To mirror is also to reflect. A mirror does not create images, it only passes them along; a mirror can only function on borrowed light; it has no power of its own to illumine. Jesus takes the initiative; we act and speak in ways that are appropriate to his actions and words.

Once we are freed by the metaphor from a literal interpretation of Jesus' call to ministry, a number of possibilities -- at least five- -- open to us.

First of all, we may say that in our personal lives we are called upon to resist the powers of death, disease, and evil. We know from our own experience and from the arts and literature how common it is for humans to be ruled by these powers . In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker demonstrates how much of our behavior can be described as an unconscious effort to cope with the certain knowledge that we must die. How many persons do you know whose whole lives are circumscribed by illness? To throw oneself into a personal struggle against the powers of death and disease in one's own life is a way of responding to Jesus' call to struggle against death, disease, and demons. Our personal lives -- as we struggle for health and sanity and goodness -- mirror Jesus' struggle against disease and death.

A second and more sophisticated interpretation is this: We are called to attack boldly and forthrightly the structural powers of death, disease, and evil. The fear of nuclear annihilation, under which many live, can be attacked by efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Disease becomes endemic and epidemic in the form of AIDS; one can join all-out efforts to rid the world of AIDS. Racism is an obsession as pernicious and devilish as any possession by evil spirits of first-century people; we can do everything within our powers to oppose racism.

Third, we can liken the marvelous works to which Jesus called the Twelve to the heroic, superhuman efforts made by individual Christians to combat the powers of death, disease, and evil. One thinks of Mother Teresa fighting on the side of the dying in Calcutta, or William Wilberforce in nineteenth-century England taking on the slave trade, or Martin Luther King, Jr., attacking racism in America. They serve as mirrors of the Master.

There is also a fourth possibility -- that the extraordinary works to which Jesus calls his church are of the order of working for the positive values of which death, disease, and demon possession represent the negatives. One could say that Jesus calls his followers to work for life fulfillment, health, and education for all God's children. There are various ways in which the church has entered the lists on the side of humanity and fought for better health systems, schools, mental health programs, and the like.

The Fifth Possibility

None of those possibilities rules out or cancels out the others. Any or all of them may operate simultaneously. But there is a fifth possibility, which may obtain in, with, and under any or all the others. And that is the possibility that the marvelous works to which Jesus calls us are the celebration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper.

There are two strong hints in Matthew 9:35- 10:8a that this indeed may be the case. There is the fact that the extraordinary labors that Jesus performed-and authorized his disciples to perform-were signs that accompanied the preaching of God's kingdom. The healing miracles were not so much proofs as they were visible demonstrations. If one wanted a demonstration of what it meant that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand," one saw the dead being raised, lepers cleansed, evil spirits driven out, and persons healed of various diseases. In the activity of Jesus, God could be seen putting human affairs to rights, entering the lists on behalf of humans against their ancient enemies.

When John the Baptist sent to ask Jesus if he were indeed the One who was to come, Jesus sent back this answer: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them" (Matt. 11:4-5). In Jesus' ministry there was both a spoken word and an acted witness, with neither word nor deed standing alone or serving merely to illustrate or prove the other.

The entire Gospel of John is one in which word and deed (sign) are so bound together they cannot be separated. The Gospel begins with the announcement that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word came to dwell with humankind. And then the Gospel proceeds to describe the presence among us of that Word by the narration of a series of signs: the turning of water to wine at the wedding in Cana, the feeding of the five thousand, the healing of the man born blind, the raising of Lazarus.

In our interpretation of Matthew 9:35-10:8a we are making great concessions to modern perceptions; we are trying to accommodate Gospel imperatives to what we moderns can and cannot imagine ourselves doing. But that should not allow us to impose twentieth-century ways of thinking upon first-century minds. We tend to drive a wedge between word and deed. Words, we say, are mental abstractions, while deeds are concrete events. Words are not deeds; deeds are not words. We want to pry the two apart and keep them apart. But one cannot understand the New Testament if one insists on doing that. Word and deed belong somehow together; Jesus' teachings reveal the meaning of his actions; his actions explain the import of his teachings. And when one asks, What signs (acted words) did Jesus leave to his church to stand alongside the preaching and teaching? the answer that comes to mind is the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper!

Matthew 9:35-10:8a offers us another clue that the sacraments may be marvelous works that Jesus calls his church to do. There is indication that the works of raising the dead and casting out demons belong exclusively to the time of Jesus presence in the flesh. When he sent out the Twelve to do marvelous things, he charged them strictly to do such things only for the eyes and ears of "the house of Israel." They were forbidden to do them for Gentiles, even for Samaritans. These signs, it would seem, had a particularly revelatory purpose: They were, in the minds of witnessing Jews, to link Jesus with the Old Testament revelation. They were not, in other words, part of the worldwide mission of the church; other signs were to be given to serve that purpose. Therefore, we ought not expect to see in our lifetime anyone who can "heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons." Such signs were authorized by God for a certain purpose in a certain historical era.

Some may want to argue that the Twelve got all the meat and potatoes, leaving us with pretty thin gravy! The sacraments seem a very poor shadow of raising the dead, restoring lepers, and exorcising demons. Are we then to substitute symbols for direct active intervention on behalf of the dying, the diseased, the possessed? In the place of miracles, rituals? In the place of saving acts, gestures?

If indeed the sacraments are seen as signs in the modern sense, as pointers or advertisements or indicators, then they are devoid of power. But what if we are to apprehend them as signs in the same sense that we apprehend Jesus' works of healing and resurrection as signs? What if Baptism and the Supper are inseparable from the announcement that the kingdom of God is at hand? Then they are not merely signs that can be replaced with other indicators; they may be indeed those extraordinary labors we are called to perform, as surely as the Twelve were called to raise the dead and cast out demons.

But have we just performed a magic trick? We began with Christ's call to go hand to hand with humankind's ancient foes and ended up with ... ecclesiastical rituals! Talk about a shell game! The pea was visible, but the magician made it disappear. And when it appeared, it had been turned into something else! But are the sacraments of Baptism and the Supper such a far cry from what the Twelve were authorized by Jesus to perform? For what do Baptism and the Supper signify-show forth for all to see-if not the ministry of Jesus Christ to a diseased, demon-ridden, dying humanity? Paul could speak of Christians as being "buried therefore with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4). Baptism is a sign of cleansing and restoration. In Jesus' time lepers were outcasts, unclean persons who needed to be cleansed to be reincorporated into the people of God. In Christian understanding, Baptism is not only a washing with water; it is our anointing with the Spirit of God, in which God's Spirit comes into our lives to replace or displace other spirits. And the Supper is a showing forth of Christ's death until he comes again, a foretaste of eating and drinking in the kingdom, where death and disease and evil have been banished once and for all.

Extraordinary Labors

Some may be moved by this interpretation of Matthew 9:35-1O:8a to wonder out loud, If that is true, ho hum! The priests have once more gained the upper hand; it is only what the priests do in the sanctuary that really matters; nothing in the world outside has changed; people go on getting sick and dying and fighting with drugs and alcohol possession and being shunned for various forms of uncleanness. But not to worry! The church celebrates the sacraments. And it is marvelous in God's eyes.

That is a fair comment and deserves a response. Note that Matthew indicates that the marvelous works were given to the whole church. That is what the Twelve represent. It is the whole church that carries on the ministry of Jesus, not just an ordained priesthood. If the sacraments seem to have no power, could it be because they have been given over by us to a priestly class-and have become signs of the power of those priests rather than signs of the power of God over death, disease, and the devil?

If we see the sacraments as mere rituals, is that not a failure of the church to keep word and sign together? It would seem from our interpretation of Matthew 9:35-10:8a that the two are not to be separated, that they become powerless if disjoined. There is no way to prove, historically, that where the church has been equally vigorous in preaching the word and celebrating the sacraments, there Christ has been powerfully present, demonstrating his victory over death, disease, and evil. But that is not the argument of this chapter. The argument of this chapter is that the extraordinary labors to which Christ calls his church today may well be the celebration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Supper, joined to the bold proclamation of his sovereignty over all the powers that threaten the welfare of humankind.

The King's Commendation

We might prefer that Christ called us to labors more heroic than those suggested here. But I am reminded of a favorite story from childhood. Once there was a young page who served in a king's castle. Each day the knights went forth to battle with the powers of evil; and each evening they came home, weary and wounded. And he who fought most bravely would have a special reward: On his shield would shine a supernaturally lighted cross!

One day, when the forces of evil were most threatening, the page was left alone to guard the castle, with strict instructions to let down the drawbridge for no one. During the day several came and begged admittance: a poor woman with a sick child, a beggar, a wounded knight. But the little page clung to his promise, for evil was known to wear various disguises. At the end of the day, when the knights came home battered but victorious, the king was amazed to discover that the shield of the page was the one that bore the shining cross!

You and I, like the boy in the tale, are called to duties that may not seem at all extraordinary. Off in the distance we hear the sounds of battle, where others are engaged in hand-to-hand warfare with the legions of evil. But we have our tasks. They are not always easy. Yet we too may hope for a victor's reward and the King's commendation.

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