This Sunday our Gospel tells of the sending of the apostles. The other two readings set us up to understand the power of God’s grace in and through the Church.
St. Paul always gives us a wealth of theology, the deepest teachings about grace. This is the last week of our reading of Galatians, and we read from the last chapter.
Throughout the letter he has been arguing against those who over-emphasize ritual observances. He concludes, “Neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.” God is the Creator. Grace – that is, the transformation of our soul – is his new creation. Since he made us in the first place, his grace does not unmake us: it does not destroy our nature. But grace is as powerful as creation itself: he makes us new, a new creation.
“Peace and mercy be to all who follow this rule.” The last word is interesting. He is battling a mindset – still so very much alive today, on all sides – that wants to figure out which human activity, which “rule,” will triumph. Paul says, instead of following this “rule” or that one, make your rule of life the new creation, the grace of Christ. Let his grace be your peace, let his grace be your mercy, let his grace be your rule of life. Stake everything on the power of Christ working within you.
And so, he says, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” All I want is in him. All my strength is in him. And I gladly go even to die with him, knowing that everything, everything, is there, pouring forth from his heart on the Cross. Nothing else matters but the power of Christ, the new creation, his grace working within me.
Our first reading, from Isaiah, gives a different picture of the same theological truth. Jerusalem is presented as a mother. We are her children, dandled on her lap, nursing from her breasts, carried on her hip.
Our translation uses “comfort” several times. It is a good translation. But the Hebrew root of the word is “sigh.” Our mother sighs for us. This is Isaiah’s image of compassion: she yearns for us, pines for us, sighs over us. How happy we are, how at peace, in our mother’s arms.
Our mother, of course, is Mary. And also the Church. Wherever you read Jerusalem, you can imagine Mary – but the more direct reference is the Church. The two go together. Isaiah takes us into this imagery of our mother caring for us – and says, ah, that is Jerusalem, the Church. We find ourselves in the joy of being part of God’s people.
It says we will be “fondled in her lap” – but the root of the word is simply the mother gazing at her child. What peace!
It is a little scandalous to find such consolation in Mary or the Church. Shouldn’t we find our consolation in God alone? But that is the extra richness of this reading: it moves back and forth between God enriching Jerusalem and Jerusalem enriching us. God, whose grace makes a new creation, can make a Jerusalem in which we find our comfort. If his grace were weak, there could be no Church. But his grace is strong, and he saves us through the Church.
“I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river” – “that you may suck fully of the milk of her comfort.” “I will comfort you” – “in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort.”
And again, we rejoice in the Cross, but the Cross in the Church. “Exult with her, all you who were mourning over her!” Jerusalem, the Church, has been destroyed and wounded and crucified a thousand times – but “may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” for in our weakness we find his strength. No, we are not strong – but he is.
All this teaching about grace gives the context for the sending of the apostles in our Gospel reading.
Jesus begins with two statements that seem to contradict. “The harvest is abundant,” he says – they are just waiting to embrace the Gospel! But “I am sending you like lambs among wolves”: they will hate you.
In fact, the two come together when we understand grace. The harvest is abundant not because everyone’s basically Christian already, but because God has created us for his grace, and his grace is a new creation that can convert the hardest hearts – that can convert even the wolves. Our hope is not in how easy the mission is for us – but how easy the mission is for him.
And so he tells them to carry nothing, no human strength – rely totally on the power of his grace. And say, “peace to this household,” not because everyone is peaceful, but because Christ will be your peace.
“Even the demons are subject to us,” they tell him – and he says, yes, “I have given you the power to tread upon serpents and scorpions.” Not the strength of men, but the miraculous strength of God’s grace, given to his apostles and his Church.
What conversion seems impossible to you?