Fifteenth Sunday: Against Clericalism

AM 7:12-15, PS 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14, EPH 1:3-14, MK 6:7-13

Clericalism turns everything inside out.  It seems to take ministry seriously, but it is like an inversion of ministry—whether the ministry of the Word or of sacraments—where people value the wrong authority.

Our Gospel reading this Sunday is about the Apostles—the original clerics.  The Lectionary warms to the theme with the prophet Amos.  Just before our reading, “Amaziah, priest of Bethel”—someone with status—has just told the king, “Amos has conspired against you.”  Now he says to Amos, “Off with you, visionary, flee to the land of Judah.  There earn your bread by prophesying.”  Amaziah thinks of the ministry of the Word as a kind of careerism, full of plots and earnings.

Amos says, “I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.  The Lord took me from following the flock.”  I am nobody.  My authority is from the Lord, and I speak only his word.  Between Amos’s and Amaziah’s views of the prophet is all the heresy of clericalism.

***

Our Epistle is the opening hymn from Ephesians, one of the richest hymns in Scripture, far too much for my limited space here.  The riches God offers us in Christ are superlative: “Every spiritual blessing in the heavens,” “Holy and without blemish” (Latin, immaculati—what we believe about Mary is just a statement of the power of grace in all of us), “Adoption in love,” “Forgiveness,” “Riches of his grace lavished upon us,” “All wisdom and insight,” “Knowing the mystery of his purpose,” “Sealed with the Spirit,” “Redemption,” “God’s possession.”

But it is all in Christ: “To sum up all things in Christ,” “            Blessed us in Christ,” “chose us” in him, “adoption through Jesus,” “in his beloved,” “Redemption by his blood,” “the favor set forth in him.”  What we believe about Christ and what we believe about grace go hand in hand: if we believe he is awesome, we believe he can do great things for us; if we lose sight of him, we lose sight of grace.

And thus we are, “Who first hoped in Christ,” “Heard the gospel of salvation,” “believed in him.”  And above all, “for the praise of the glory of his grace”—my wife has been reading the amazing Carmelite mystic St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, who wanted the Latin for this phrase to be her name: laudem gloriae, the praise of his glory.  Let me be nothing else.

Clericalism is instead the praise of our own glory.  Ironically, many of our alternative strategies for great parishes—from focusing on ushers to clever homilies, etc.—just shifts to a clericalization, and clericalism-ization, of the laity, replacing the praise of his glory with constant self-reference.

***

As always, it comes to a head in the Gospel.  Jesus sends them out two by two.  On the one hand, he gives them high spiritual authority—“authority over unclean spirits.”  On the other hand, right at the start, “two by two” keeps them humble, as if they need a chaperone.

Their packing list is funny.  “Take nothing for the journey but a walking stick”: going to be doing a lot of walking.  “No food, no sack, no money in their belts.  They were, however, to wear sandals.”  Gonna need those sandals, you’ll be doing a lot of walking.  “But not a second tunic.”

They are sent.  It’s not that there are no clerics, or that there is no work for them to do.  The Apostles are given authority and they are expected to use it—expected to hit the road and walk hard.

But they are also expected to rely entirely on God.  This isn’t about their great strategies, it isn’t about their material or social or intellectual wealth.  To take the sandals and walking stick but no money is both to make a radical act of trust that Jesus will provide, and to accept an awesome responsibility to bring Jesus to others.

(The Lectionary is going to skip it, but the next story in Mark’s Gospel is Herod thinking John the Baptist has risen from the dead: despite the Apostles going two by two, everyone knows it is One whom they represent.)

“Shake the dust off your feet.”  Matthew adds a threat—“It will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah”—but Mark keeps it simple.  If they don’t hear you, move on, leave them behind and go.

And they go, preaching repentance, driving out demons, anointing with oil (a first sacramental representation of Christ’s power and authority, delegated to them), curing the sick.  Christ is powerful, and he works in them, works only he can do.  But only when, like Amos, they renounce their own credentials and become nothing but the praise of the glory of his grace.

How are you over-complicating the ministry Christ has given you?

eric.m.johnston

2 Comments

  1. I have interpreted the verse “shake the dust off your feet” not as their retribution but as fodder for ‘another time’ that will come.

    • I like that. Can you say more? Why does it mean “another time”?

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