There’s a sign that hangs in many traditional New England country stores - the kind of general store that sells everything from screwdrivers to ribbons, from garden tools to cheese: “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”

When Jesus sends out the twelve, two by two, he says pretty much the same thing, in both a literal and theological sense. There’s the clear instruction of what to bring - actually mostly what not to bring - and there’s also the mandate of what to do - and what not to do - on their travels.

A quick summary: He sends them out two by two and charges them to take nothing for their journey ... so they go out and preach [repentance] ... and heal many that are sick.

These words have powerful implications - for how Jesus asked his followers to spread the Gospel of repentance and healing. For how we live the Gospel of repentance and healing. For how we spread/share that Gospel of repentance and healing.

Why this pairing of the apostles - wouldn’t it be more efficient to send them singly, so more territory could be covered, more people encountered? “Two by two” is reminiscent of loading passengers onto the ark. The pairing emphasizes that redemption (repentance and healing) is not an individual enterprise. We need each other to lean on. We need to be accountable to each other. When the going gets rough, we need to remind each other that we are not alone - we are in the same boat. When we celebrate, our joy is increased when it is shared. Jesus, as part of three-in-one, one-in-three, knows that his followers must have human companions as well as their Lord on earth to convey Jesus’ message and carry out God’s mission of repentance and healing.

In his commentary on Mark, the Scottish theologian William Barclay[1] writes: “When the apostles went out to preach, they did not create a message; they brought a message. They did not tell people what they believed and what they considered probable; they told people what Jesus had told them. It was not their opinions they brought; it was God’s truth. The message of the prophets always begins, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ Whoever would bring an effective message to others must first receive it from God.”

Mark: “So they went out and proclaimed that all must repent.” Barclay calls this “a shattering demand.” But, he continues, “Not only did they bring this shattering demand…they brought also help and healing. …From the beginning Christianity has aimed to bring health to body and to soul; it has always aimed not only at soul salvation, but at whole salvation. It brought not only a hand to lift from moral wreckage, but a hand to lift from physical pain and suffering.”

This connection between repentance and healing is central to Christianity. Repentance is more than saying, “I’ve gone astray, I’ve done wrong, I’m sorry, I’ll try to do better” - although that certainly is part of repentance. But it is more, it is deeper. Repentance is a profound internal transformation, a spiritual change in which old, non-life giving ways are relinquished, and new, life-giving ways embraced. It is both an event and a process. Who among us does not believe they could live just a little bit better, with a little more integrity, a little more generosity, a little more kindness, a little more compassion, a little more understanding, a little more acceptance, a little more humility? These are the roots and the fruits of repentance.

Medieval hospitals offer a perfect example of the enduring centrality of repentance. They were primarily religious institutions. Monks and nuns were the chief caregivers. Their form and function was very different from what we might expect today in the form of institutional care. Confession became mandatory before medical treatment in 1215. This was a priority in a society that privileged the health of the soul.[2]

Now a few words about the anointing with oil. The use of oil in healing is an ancient practice - think of the 23rd psalm, “Thou anointest my head with oil...” The Greek physician Galen,[3] who lived about a century after Jesus, wrote “Oil is the best of all instruments for healing diseased bodies.” But the apostles’ anointing is more than just an esteemed tradition.

Again, Barclay: “In the hands of the servants of Christ the old cures acquired a new virtue. The strange thing is that they used the things which [people’s] limited knowledge knew at that time; but the spirit of Christ gave the healer a new power and the old cure a new virtue. The power of God became available in common things to the faith of mortals.

“So the Twelve brought … the message and the mercy of the [Savior], and that remains the church’s task today and every day.”

When the twelve returned, we don’t know if Jesus asked them, So, how’d you do? Did you have to leave many towns that didn’t welcome you? How many people repented? How many were healed?

The church is deeply engaged in the modern-day equivalent of this. We lament declining membership, we mark the rise of the “nones” - those with no religious affiliation, who may describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. This has sparked many a conversation in many denominations about church growth. How do we achieve it? How do we measure it?

Zachary First, director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University, is a parishioner at All Saints, Pasadena (8,000 members). He recently explored the topic of how churches measure growth in the Harvard Business Review.[4] He proposes that this endeavor must start with a question: What is the goal? He writes, “For churches today, the common answer is that growth is the goal, and membership is the measure.”

He continues, “Churches fixate on membership on the theory that members are donors. But that theory is at best half true. More important, it mostly ignores the question of what results the church is aiming to achieve.”

In the article, Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints, says, “What really makes our hearts beat fast is transformed people transforming the world. Membership isn’t our business. Turning the human race into the human family is.”

Which brings us back to Jesus and the twelve. The same mandate he gave them he gives to us: Go out, travel light, carry the message of repentance and healing. Because the church has it, and you need it. We all need it. The world needs it.


[1] 1907-1978

[2] Tudor Health Reform: The Form and Function of Medieval Hospitals. © Professor Carol Rawcliffe, Gresham College, 2011

[3] 130-200AD

[4] “What to Measure if You’re Mission Driven.” Harvard Business Review, July-August 2015.