When Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel today (Mark 6:7-13) not even to take spare clothes when they go out to try to share the faith with others, he is clearly not meaning them, or us, to take him literally. He exaggerates in order to press home an important point, just as when he says “If your hand offends.. cut it off.” He doesn’t mean it literally. So what is the important point he is making?
The answer lies in a mistake many good people like you make in thinking that you aren’t clever enough, or well-trained enough, to share your faith with others. Too often I hear good Christians saying how they can never think of the right words to say, or that they don’t know enough, to be able to share their faith, and so they don’t attempt it. It reminds me of schools that think they are doing a good job at making young people into practising Christians if they teach them all about the Bible and the facts about the faith. In each case the mistake is to think that being a Christian is all about knowing enough facts. Now of course I’m not saying that facts are not important, but facts alone will never bring anyone to faith, because faith is about a relationship with God, with Jesus.
That’s why priests like me, and teachers, people who know a lot of facts, are not the best missionaries. We are good at teaching people more about the faith once they have started coming to church, or have started to be interested in Jesus, but you the ordinary people of the Church are much better at sharing the faith simply because you are just ordinary people. That’s why I always say to you to look out for that moment when someone asks you why you go to Church. When that happens it’s easy to play down your faith, precisely because you fear they may start asking you questions that you don’t know the answer to. Jesus often says “Do not be afraid” and in this context this means that you must not be afraid to show up your ignorance, and thus miss the opportunity to say. “I can’t explain much, but would you like to come with me to Church just to see what happens?”
Part of the reason this invitation to Church is so important is because we must no longer assume here in the UK that most people know what happens in Church, and especially what happens at a Catholic Mass. The power of the presence of God in a group of Christians singing and praying together is so much more effective than words or facts. The mystery of God’s special presence in the bread and wine is even more powerful, and we must never underestimate it. Getting people just to come and see is one of the most important things each one of you can do.
Our Gospel passage is backed up today by our 1st Reading, where Amos (7:12-15) actually glories in the fact that he is an ordinary shepherd and not a professional prophet. Indeed we all know only too well that it is often the professional – the priest – who puts people off going to Church. Quite often I meet people who tell me that Father So and So said this or did that 20 or 30 years ago and that they were so angry that they haven’t been to Church since. Your example of coming to Church to pray and to offer yourself to God despite the failings of us priests is the best way of all of teaching people that faith does not rely on the quality or otherwise of the man at the front.
The message for us all today is also rammed home by our 2nd Reading (Eph 1:3-10) Listen to it, and apply it to yourself. “Before the world was made, God chose me, chose me in Christ… to praise the glory of his grace… He has let me know the mystery of his purpose.. that he would bring everything together under Christ. And it is in him that I was claimed as God’s own…chosen to be for his greater glory, part of the people who would put their hopes in Christ… this brings freedom for those whom God has taken for his own, to make his glory praised.”
So Jesus wants his missionaries, that’s all of you, not to rely on outward supports for your work as Christians, but simply to rely on God’s power, God’s grace, in other words God the Holy Spirit, working in you. Don’t underestimate yourself. Your simple words of encouragement, your sympathetic listening, your little acts of kindness, your invitation for someone to come with you to Church, or even to come with you to light a candle in church quietly, these are all things through which God can and does work. We priests have a job to do to support you, but you are the front line troops. That’s why Mass always ends with the word “Go”. It does not mean “Go away”. It means Go and live out in your life what you have proclaimed here, and God will work within you.