A soldier sent behind enemy lines into heavily occupied territory is not normally sent unprepared. Yet our Lord says to the 72 disciples He sends on mission in today’s Gospel, “I am sending you like lambs among wolves. Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals.” That is, he literally sends them on a journey without allowing them to pack for the journey, a journey He tells them is into dangerous territory. It is not the way that we would expect a lamb to be sent among wolves. If I were to do such a thing, at least, I would want the lamb to be well protected, not vulnerable to the ferocious terror of the wolves. And yet, this is not the logic of the Gospel; it is not the logic of our Lord.
I remember when I was younger and we would go on family vacations there would be a meticulous amount of planning. Mom had long lists of all the things that had to be brought, and everything had to be brought down to the garage in advance so that Dad could meticulously pack everything into the back of our minivan. But neither is this the logic of the Gospel. “Carry no money back, no sack, no sandals.”
Most people like to be able to rely on themselves; it’s the independent American spirit. We like to have everything ready, to make our plans, to have everything the way we want it. According to worldly logic, this is how the responsible, successful person acts. Those who do not prepare, while we might enjoy their company for their spontaneity and fun-loving spirit, are not usually thought of as the most successful members of society. But this isn’t the logic of the Gospel.
The lamb, in a way that that the well-armed soldier or well-equipped vacationer is not, is vulnerable, and in order to be sent on mission by Christ into our world, that is what we have to be too. The 72 disciples sent out on mission were forced to rely upon the good will of those who would receive them, which means that they had the opportunity to make connections with other people and share with them their love for Christ with the goal of bringing those other people to Him.
To all objective observers, the lamb sent among wolves seems to be helpless, sure to be devoured by the wolves, which would seem too to be the condition of the Christian sent into our modern world on mission. But lambs are not sent out completely on their own to roam – they are always marked or tagged so the owner will know to whom they belong. A lamb always bears the mark of its owner.
In the same way, St. Paul tells us in today’s epistle, “From now on, let no one make troubles for me; for I bear the marks of Jesus on my body.” Just as the lamb is marked by its owner’s sign, so we are marked by our conformity to Christ. Here St. Paul is recalling the indelible mark left on our soul by Baptism. When each of us was baptized, our souls were forever radically changed, transformed. The difference between a Christian and a non-Christian soul is more than can ever be imagined. Let me explain.
The Church traditionally separates the seven sacraments into two types, those that leave an indelible (that is, it cannot be erased or wiped away) mark on our souls (Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders), and those that do not (all the rest). The second kind, such as the Eucharist and Confession, give us particular graces in order to unite us more fully to Christ and to strengthen us for the Christian life. The first kind, though, makes us capable of living the Christian life (in the ways appropriate to our state in the Church) in the first place.
For example, as you know, ordination to the Sacred Priesthood (the Sacrament of Holy Orders) is what makes the priest able to turn the bread and wine at Mass into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, and able to forgive sins in confession. It is because of this permanent change to his soul that the priest is able to do this. The character his soul receives in the sacrament gives him this power, and it can never be taken away from him, because he has been made a permanent sharer in Christ’s priesthood. And in a way that is no less real and no less powerful, all of us, at our Baptism, had our souls radically altered in such a way that we are equipped with spiritual powers far beyond those who have not received the immense gift of the Sacrament of Baptism. Through our Baptism, we were opened to the life of grace, had our original sin wiped away, and we became able to receive God’s grace, to receive the strength and assistance he wants to give us through receiving the Eucharist and Confession frequently, and able to receive the graces of the sacrament of matrimony and the anointing of the sick. Baptism is the door to the sacraments, by which we are able to participate truly in Christ’s life in the Church.
As you know, one of the most important lessons to learn as a Catholic is that just because you do not see something does not mean it isn’t real. We cannot see the bread and wine at Holy Mass becoming our Lord’s body and blood, but that doesn’t mean the Mass isn’t real. We cannot see sins being forgiven, but that doesn’t mean that Confession isn’t real. You cannot see the love your husband, wife, mother, father, children, or close friends have for you, but that does not mean that love isn’t real. Every moment of our lives is predicated on the existence of invisible, spiritual realities, and they are precisely the things that make life worthwhile: love, joy, peace, happiness. None of these can be seen or experienced with the five bodily senses. We can experience their effects, but we cannot see them in themselves, and this does not make them any less valuable.
In the same way, we cannot see the way that we are different because of our Baptism, but we can experience its effects. We can experience the way that our will is strengthened to do good when we pray for the strength to resist temptation, the way that we experience an increase of patience when we are frustrated and ask for the Lord’s help; the way that our lives just seem to go better when we make time for attending Sunday Mass each and every week, pray together as a family, and admit our faults and seek the Lord’s forgiveness in Confession. All of these things are enabled by our Baptism, by which we are marked for Christ and given over to Him.
So just like the 72 disciples sent on mission in today’s Gospel passage, we are sent as lambs among wolves, but not as lambs that are at all helpless, but as lambs that are marked by their owner, and in this case, an owner whose mark is that of the Cross, the sign of a God who loved us so much that He was willing to send His only Son to die on the Cross out of love for us, Who purchased us with the price of His own blood.
Our Lord tells the 72 upon their return not to rejoice because of the great works they have done, but rather, “rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” By virtue of our Baptism, when our original sin was wiped away, our souls were filled with grace, and we were made worthy by Christ to enter Heaven at the end of our earthly lives. Heaven is our destiny and our goal. The fulfillment of our destiny, though we can never earn it, is in large part left to our cooperation with that grace, with His plan for us. God has given us the power to frustrate His designs by sinning against Him, by which we can lose that immense privilege of spending eternity with Him. Thanks be to God, then, that by our Baptism we have access to the other sacraments: to the Eucharist, which sustains us in the daily battle against sin, and Confession, by which we can be restored to the innocence and grace given to us through Baptism. Never tire of seeking that grace and that forgiveness!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Fort Wayne
XIV Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXVI
Image: Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei, 1635-40