No Man is an Island - John Donne
(Creative Commons image by mark(s)elliott on Flickr)
Dear Working Preacher,
So here’s my simple question: which was the greater gift Jesus bestowed on the disciples: the power to heal and cast out demons? Or the power to work together and rely on the hospitality of others?
I think that when we read these passages, our attention immediately goes to those things that are beyond our immediate experience: the healings, the casting out of demons, and such. Or maybe we are grabbed by Jesus’ promise that the disciples will be able to tread on scorpions and snakes (though that is likely symbolic for overcoming evil). Or perhaps it’s the language of “the book of heaven” that gets us to sit up and pay attention.
But when I read the passage this time, two things stood out. First, the disciples go out in teams. And, second, they are instructed to take nothing with them and so must rely entirely upon the hospitality and generosity of others.
The team part I understand. Jesus is sending them out to proclaim the kingdom of God, and he anticipates resistance. Little wonder. He said from the outset that he had come to set those society deemed criminals free, to heal those who had been cast aside, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor in an empire that worshiped Caesar as Lord. And so Jesus knows that plenty of folks will resist this message, whether from fear or disbelief or self-interest. When the powers of the world are challenged, all kinds of things get upset.
And so Jesus sends them out in pairs. Thus, when one falters, the other can help. When one is lost, the other can seek the way. When one is discouraged, the other can hold faith for both for a while. That’s what the company of believers does – we hold on to each other, console each other, encourage and embolden each other, and even believe for each other.
But we forget that. We live in a culture that insists that it’s all up to us as individuals, that “you only go around once,” and that there’s not enough for everyone. And so we’ve been taught to “look out for number one” and that “the one who dies with the most toys wins.” Jesus’ reminder that we find success only with and for each other is therefore a timely gift to his disciples both then and now.
He also commands that they take nothing with them. This means that the disciples – far more, by the way, than the usual twelve we think about – must depend on the generosity of others. For their meals … for a place to stay … for, well, just about everything.
Most of us find such dependence uncomfortable. It makes us feel like we’re not prepared, maybe unsafe, definitely vulnerable.
I wonder if that’s the point. I mean, we are vulnerable. We forget this, too, going to great lengths to manufacture and perpetuate illusions of control, independence, and invulnerability. But any illness, any loss, any death or disappointment or tragedy reminds us painfully of just how incredibly vulnerable we are.
And so Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs and instructs them to rely entirely upon the hospitality of others. Why? Because this is our natural state: we are stronger when we stay together and our welfare is inextricably linked to that of each other. “No man,” John Donne wrote, “is an island.” The loss of any, he went on to say, diminishes each.
I wonder how this might play this Fourth of July weekend. In the United States, we sometimes see this day as a tribute not just to our independence from Great Britain but also to the spirit of American individualism. Yet the individualism we celebrate is as much a myth of the culture as is our invulnerability. The pilgrims and pioneers who settled this land were incredibly aware that their survival depended on each other. They colonies they eventually established, after all, we called “commonwealths,” places where the good of any individual was inextricably linked to the good of the whole. And as Benjamin Franklin said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “We must hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.”
All of which is why I believe that of the gifts Jesus gives his disciples, the greater may just be that of teamwork and trusting obedience. Because when we work together, when we recall that God said it is not good for us to be alone, when we see our hope and welfare as inextricably linked to that of those around us, then we not only can accomplish so much more than we possibly could alone, but we also discover that our names, along with those first disciples, are written in the book of heaven.
So what might it mean, Working Preacher, if our congregations were to remember Jesus’ counsel and command and work and dream together of a more vibrant witness to the Christian faith? What might it mean to think about those things our congregations can do for our communities? Of things we assuredly cannot accomplish alone but might venture together?
Perhaps this is just such a time for dreaming. Perhaps you might gather your people this Sunday and invite them to hear Jesus calling them to go out together, depending upon the hospitality of others and working to advance the kingdom of God. Perhaps they could gather in small groups, if not during the sermon (though some may want to try that), then after the service during a time of fellowship. Perhaps they could jot down their thoughts to share with you and the governing body of the congregation. Perhaps throughout the summer you could provide time and opportunity to dream about what you can accomplish together for the health and wellbeing of the communities you service.
These are incredible gifts and promises that Jesus gives, Working Preacher. I thank God that you are there to proclaim and extend them to your people. Blessings on your work, life, and ministry.
Yours in Christ,
PS: For those who are interested, Donne's poem, which was first part of a sermon, runs like this:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.