Readings: Isaiah 52:7–10, Acts 1:1–9 & Luke 10:1–9
As we celebrate our Patronal Festival today, I just want to spend a couple of minutes talking about the person of St Aidan himself, before discussing how his works as a missionary relate to our readings from Scripture this morning.
St. Aidan, who is also referred to as the Apostle of Northumbria, was the founder and first bishop of the Lindisfarne island monastery in England. He is credited with restoring Christianity to Northumbria. Aidan was originally a monk at the monastery on the Island of Iona, founded by St Columba of the Irish Church.
In the years prior to Aidan’s mission, Christianity, which had been spread throughout Britain (but not Ireland) by the Roman Empire, was being largely displaced by Anglo-Saxon paganism. In the monastery of Iona, the religion soon found one of its principal supporters in Oswald of Northumbria, a noble youth who had been raised there as a king in exile since 616. Baptized as a Christian, the young king vowed to bring Christianity back to his people—an opportunity that presented itself in 634, when he gained the crown of Northumbria.
Owing to his historical connection to Iona’s monastic community, King Oswald requested that missionaries be sent from that monastery instead of the Roman-sponsored monasteries of Southern England. At first, they sent him a bishop named Cormán, but he alienated many people by his harshness, and returned in failure to Iona reporting that the Northumbrians were too stubborn to be converted. Aidan was soon sent as his replacement, and he became bishop in 635.
Siding with the deeply religious king, Aidan chose the island of Lindisfarne, which was close to the royal castle at Bamburgh, as the seat of his diocese. An inspired missionary, Aidan would walk from one village to another, politely conversing with the people he saw and slowly interesting them in Christianity. In taking this approach, he followed the early apostolic model of conversion, which was more of a “softly, softly approach”, introducing people gently to the teachings of the faith, and bringing them by degrees to an understanding of the more advanced doctrines of the Church, while at the same time nourishing them with the words of Scripture.
By patiently talking to the people on their own level (and by taking an active interest in their lives and communities), Aidan and his monks slowly restored Christianity to the Northumbrian countryside. King Oswald, who after his years of exile had a perfect command of Irish, often had to translate for Aidan and his monks, who did not speak English at first.
The monastery Aidan founded grew and helped found churches and other religious institutions throughout the area. It also served as centre of learning and a storehouse of scholarly knowledge, training many of Aidan’s young charges for a career in the priesthood. Though Aidan was a member of the Irish branch of Christianity (instead of the Roman branch), his character and energy in missionary work won him the respect of Pope Honorius I, who was the Bishop of Rome at the time.
The definition of a missionary is ‘a person sent on a religious mission, especially one sent to promote Christianity in a foreign country’. And each of our readings this morning deals with what we might describe as missionary work’. The prophet Isaiah writes “how beautiful are the feet of the messenger who brings good news”. It might sound a bit strange to hear feet described as beautiful, but the point Isaiah is making is not concerned with the aesthetics of someone’s feet.
When we think of the geography and customs of the Near East, we can assume that the messenger’s feet, after the long journey over the mountains, were not only dusty but very callused and perhaps bleeding. To those feet the witness exclaims, “How beautiful!” This might be akin to us describing someone as a “sight for sore eyes” because we know they are bringing news that will our hearts with joy, like the witness, who is longing for the announcement the messenger brings, “Your God reigns.”
Today’s passage from Isaiah was written during the period when the people of Judah were living as exiles in Babylon. These people believed that God had deserted them, and allowed the Babylonians not only to conquer Judah, but to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple, and carry them off into captivity. They were living without spiritual hope or comfort. But Isaiah writes of a messenger who brings them good news of salvation. “Your God reigns.” The message is that the God of Israel is returning to them. He will be with them and he will comfort them. This is the message they have been longing to hear.
The Greek word for good news – εὐαγγέλιον – which is also translated as gospel, is used extensively in the New Testament. In fact it appears 76 times. In the same way that the messenger in Isaiah comes to bring good news of salvation to the people of Judah living in exile, Jesus is the messenger who comes to bring good news of salvation to all people, Jew and Gentile alike, who are, in a way living in exile, because they have been separated from God. But through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, they have been reconciled to God. This is the good news.
Jesus appointed his twelve closest disciples to be Apostles and help him spread the good news. The term apostle is derived from the Greek word ἀπόστολος, which means “one sent as a messenger or agent”. In chapter nine of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus had sent the twelve out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal, and in today’s gospel passage, he appoints another seventy messengers, and he sends them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he intends to go himself.
The instructions that Jesus gives these missionaries, are similar to those he gave the Twelve: taking very little with them, relying on the hospitality of others, et cetera. But this time, there is a much greater foreboding of rejection and hostility. These missionaries will experience both acceptance and rejection. Some people will be hospitable to them, while others will be inhospitable.
The tone of Jesus’ instructions is grim, but Luke’s narrative prepares Christian missionaries for the rejection they will inevitably face as emissaries for God’s kingdom. As theologian and scholar Brendan Byrne puts it, “It is all part of Luke’s wider theme of seeking to incorporate the rejection of Jesus in Jerusalem, and the subsequent rejection of the Christian Gospel by most of Israel, within the wider saving plan of God.”
We see this in today’s second reading, from the Acts of the Apostles which, you may or may not know, was also written by the author of the Gospel of Luke. Shortly before his ascension into heaven, Jesus orders the apostles to stay in Jerusalem, where they are to wait for the promise of God the Father, which is to be the gift of the Holy Spirit which they will of course receive on the Day of Pentecost. Once they have received the power of the Holy Spirit, they are to be witnesses to Jesus, not only in Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside of Jude’s and Samaria, they are to bear witness to him throughout the entire world.
As Christians, we too, like the Apostles, and the other missionaries that Jesus sent to spread the gospel, are also called to be messengers of the good news. The good news that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, all people, if they choose to believe, are reconciled to God, not just in the hope of eternal life, but also right in the here and now in this mortal life that we lead.
We are to bear witness to Jesus. And the way we do that is through our faith, and through the lives we lead. We are encouraged to live our faith, following the example that Jesus himself gave us, when he revealed God to us through his own life. We are to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength. And we are to love our neighbours as ourselves.
The Lord be with you.