Teach, Heal and Cast Out Evil
Have you ever wondered what you would have done all day if you were one of Jesus' disciples? Have you ever put yourself in their shoes, not just as people trying to comprehend who Jesus was and what he was talking about, but as people who hung out with Jesus day by day? Where did they stay? What did they eat? Did they spend all their time talking about theological things, or did they pass the time telling jokes and nudging each other when they saw a beautiful woman in the crowd? Did they do practical craft or buildingy type things...did Jesus odd job as a carpenter in the midst of his teaching ministry? Did they have the odd game of frisbee, or football? Who did the shopping?
We don't have a lot in the gospels to go on. Mostly, the texts of our faith are the edited highlights, moments of insights and truth, points of high action - conflict and miracle - or crystallisation of the most important teachings. For us, as followers of Jesus, therefore, it's pretty hard for us to know with any detail or prescription what an authentic life in the way of Jesus might look like for us. What we tend to do is listen to what Jesus taught, observe how he acted in various situations, and then try to re-apply some principles to the vastly different arena of 21st century life in New Zealand. We seek to shape our inner world, and our life choices by the wider story of redemption and transformation modelled by his life and death and resurrection. We seek to practice prayer and presence, to learn to observe the currents of God's Spirit in our world as it is now, rather than copying in any literal way the nomadic life of the preacher, prophet and healer and his band of disciples.
Andrew McDonald talked last week about how our path as Christians has more to do with being and becoming, than it does to do with doing and believing. I'm inclined to agree. Probably, our own ongoing conversion to purity of heart is the primary call of God on our lives. However, I think it's useful to ask from time to time whether there are any clues in Jesus' life as to what engaging with the world beyond ourselves should look like. Is there a mission he calls us to as his disciples?
Usually the church answers this question with reference to the 'great commission' from the end of Matthew - go into the world and make and baptise disciples. Often this commission morphs into the idea that there is a harvest of 'unreached' or 'unsaved' people out there, and our job is to preach a relationship with Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. The 'commission' is therefore framed as 'salvation', which in turn is often framed as bringing people into 'right belief', and into the church. There's an oft-quoted scripture that's used in conjunction with this kind of evangelistic idea...that of the field ripe for harvest, but with too few labourers.
This scripture verse doesn't actually relate directly to the 'great commission.' Instead, it comes when Jesus sends out the disciples into the surrounding towns...in Matthew it's the sending of the 12, in Luke it's the sending of the 70 when this phrase is used. I've recently become interested in this sending out of the disciples in the middle of Jesus' ministry, because it raises the question for me: what were they going to tell people, what was their mission task? Clearly, the good news that the disciples went to proclaim was not that Jesus had died for their sins, or that Jesus had died and is now risen, or that they could have a relationship with God through the Spirit of Jesus. None of these things had happened yet. What then, is the harvest, and what is the job of the labourer in this harvesting?
Let me read to you two of the relevant passages.
Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits.
...They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
And here's some of Matthew:
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."
Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: "Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give."
I'm not suggesting that these passages are a total blueprint for defining valid Christian mission or practice. They're too limited for that, which is to say, they're firmly fixed to the context in which they took place.
For one thing, it seems clear to me that these actions are inauguration actions... that is they're meant to proclaim and herald the beginning of something new. The powerful signs of healing, driving out spirits, raising the dead etc. were meant to pave the way for people to accept the message of Jesus, which is the message of hope and freedom for people locked in mental, religious or physical drudgery. The kingdom of heaven is not a place, it's a way of seeing the world and being in the world that is attuned to God, freed from the slavery of our mechanical habitual selves, and the patterns of culture that create bondage - whether physical bondage, or bondage of spirit. Therefore, releasing people from sickness and disease, or from mental and spiritual oppression, are dramatic and powerful illustrations of what the kingdom of heaven is all about.
We can see also from the Matthew passage that Jesus' vision is at this point confined only to the people of Israel. He instructs his disciples not to go to the Samaritan towns and villages, or those of the Gentiles. At this point in his ministry, he sees his role as shepherding the 'lost sheep of Israel', not all those lost throughout the world.
And, this picture of what Jesus sent his followers out to do is constrained by the fact that it is a pre-Easter message. It is good news of hope and forgiveness, and a call to repentance of heart, none of which depends on Jesus dying or rising. However, there are spiritual dimensions to life with God that come to us through the wider, post-Easter experience of a resurrected Christ. These dimensions are part of our 'good news' as Christians today. And they are, of course, missing from the story that the first disciples had to tell prior to the events of Easter.
Having said all that, I want now to take some time to reflect on what the disciples did when Jesus sent them off. In doing this I'm grateful for a paragraph that Marcus Curnow wrote about the work of Urban Seed, which is where Mark Pierson worked for the past few years.
Marcus distills Jesus' sending of the disciples down to these three instructions:
1. to teach
2. to heal
3. to cast out evil.
He writes: 'We seek to serve others through re-discovering and re-imagining the missionary instructions of Jesus to teach, heal, and cast out evil (Mark 6). Such practices are understood quite differently in the various traditions from which we come but we find these more helpful than secular social science or welfare categories in keeping us united in our activism and keeping it connected with our spirituality.'
What he's saying there is that the discourse of modern, secular social justice activism or social service can only inform Christian practice up to a point. Where Christians gather to serve Christ in the world, they need to understand their work as sourced in the vision and experience of the Christian gospel. At Urban Seed, they connect their social work to their spirituality by identifying with this task that Jesus gave the disciples. This task that consists of teaching, healing, and casting out evil.
Let's think about these three dimensions for a moment, one at a time. What might they consist of in our world now?
Some thoughts of mine...
'Teaching' could include any kind of participation in public discussion or debate, any form of oral or written publication that challenges and questions the sickness in our culture, or that leads people to change their lives for the better. 'Teaching' could include any communication of what the kingdom of heaven is like, by word and by example. Where followers of Christ share with others a vision for a society that is based on love, and where we work towards such a vision, we are teaching. It can include raising awareness for people about how and why they struggle - such as the consciousness raising efforts with oppressed people that are a central plank of liberation theology. 'Teaching' can also include practical, skill-based education that helps others develop spiritual practice, and open themselves to more of God. It can include a conversation over coffee, or a full scale educational organisation. Wherever people's minds and hearts are being developed to look on the world with new eyes and new hearts, and to glimpse the possibility of God, teaching is happening.
'Healing' of course includes involvement in the health system as it functions in our society today - doctors, hospitals, public health and so on, as well as the mental and emotional healing that happens through counselling and pastoral care. Healing can also include anointing and prayer for people's well-being - one on one, or as part of gathered worship. To be involved in healing in our day and age also requires us to ask 'what is sick'? When we ask that question, we might notice that sickness in our culture often has to do with loneliness, stress, isolation, emotional pain, and spiritual deadness. 'Healing', then, can include hospitality, offering welcome, refuge and care to those in distress, helping people who are trapped in painful situations, helping people to find and create 'home'. It involves the development of healthy relationships, the increase of people's capacities to love deeply and well. It involves restoring people's broken images of themselves and God, and renewing hope.
'Casting out evil'. This is a tough one. I think first we might need to ask ourselves whether we accept the reality of evil, and if so, how and where it manifests in human life and society in this century. From my own perspective, evil is about deceit and denial. It is what traps people in their own living deaths. It is the energy that allows some people to gorge themselves while others starve. It is the energy that spreads hate, and designates specific people or groups as enemies worthy of destruction. It is blindness, and cruelty. Because of the denial aspect of evil, casting it out has to begin with us being willing to notice where we participate in evil, and seek to extricate ourselves from that, while also doing the tough inner work that honestly sees evil as having a home in ourselves. Then, and only then, might we look out into the world and pray and act for change. Casting out evil might have something to do with being willing to name something as evil and setting ourselves against it through protest, activism, or advocacy. And, it's possible that some kinds of evil require us in prayer to invoke Christ's name and his loving power to release people from the grip of the evil that harms them.
Those are my ideas about teaching, healing and casting out evil. Does anybody else want to make any suggestions about what these things might look like in our time and place?
One of the helpful things about these scripture passages is that teaching, healing and casting out evil are held together, in a holistic approach that has a message to say, combined with transformative acts of care in the renewing of people's individual lives and society more broadly.
At Urban Seed, they express 'teaching, healing and casting out evil' through public education, hospitality, and political advocacy. Marcus writes that these practices 'look and feel quite different in different places and in the lives of our punters. It is in the general mix of these missional aspects rather than the emphasis of one over another that we get a sense of the breadth of God's own mission.' He also stresses that by holding these three together in small communities of practice, they get 'the vocational strengths' and 'the necessary corrective for the weakness and missional biases that can arise from our unique personalities, upbringings and faith traditions.'
'Emerging Down Under' - Ray Simpson and Brent Lyons-Lee
I think many of us have been involved in situations where the Christian vision underpinning a mission activity has been unhelpfully skewed by the 'flavour of the month' spiritual ideas of a few. For some this has meant too strong an emphasis on proclamation...too much talking and preaching to people, and too little care. In other contexts, there is an exclusive emphasis on meeting people's physical needs, but without any tending to the spiritual need. Or there's been a commitment to signs and wonders - miraculous healings and deliverance- that's been divorced from the social realities of the culture we live in, and that therefore fails to nurture people's ongoing ability to function in the world, or to practice their faith in complex situations.
Here at Cityside there are some who incline toward public speech, or toward verbalising their faith, or toward exploring ideas. Others of us, probably the majority based on things that people wrote when we explored spiritual gifts or calling a year or so ago, tend more toward the healing aspect of Jesus' mission. Others of us have a fire in our belly to confront the evil we find in the world and our selves. It's together, as a community of practice, that we express in its fullness the call to teach, heal and cast out evil. And, as I mentioned before, I don't see these three things as the totality of what it means to practice our Christianity today. But, they're a useful tool, when we ask ourselves what we're called to do in the world, as followers of Jesus.