The Twelve rejoin Jesus but now, for the first time, Mark calls them apostles. They had been with Jesus as his specially chosen Twelve but they return from the mission he gave them as his Twelve Apostles. Not only had they made a difference in the lives of those to whom they were sent but they, too, were now different.
When Jesus had begun sending them out it was with the unspoken agreement they would return to him. The Twelve knew that the mission they were setting out on was his mission and not theirs. They had been sent out on his mission in his name with his authority.
This is an immensely important understanding of the ministry, especially for bishops and priests, and even for lay people engaged in the apostolate. We come to Jesus who teaches us, empowers us, authorises us and who then sends us out. There is no mission without the Master.
Furthermore, we might be tempted to think that it is the mission which is of paramount importance but that is not so. It is Jesus, the Lord of the mission, who is of prime importance and it is for this reason that those sent to do his work must continually return to him. The mission is merely a part of our relationship with Jesus and never the other way round.
It can happen, as I have mentioned at another time, that priests, bishops, nuns & brothers, not to mention laypeople, come to forget this important relationship between the Lord and the mission they are engaged in. Very soon the mission degenerates into mere social work while those who forget Jesus become do-gooders. Predictably these unfortunates will seek compensations for their labour other than the joy of rejoining the Lord.
Not so the apostles who rejoined Jesus and told him all they had done and taught. Today we call this process ‘debriefing’ though the word does not capture the richness and the depth of wonder and thankful praise of the apostles. They had seen miracles and marvels of God’s power – demons cast out and sicknesses cured – and they would have laid their gratitude at the feet of Jesus.
How important this is for all who imagine they are living the Christian life and labouring in the Lord’s vineyard. How essential to give him all the glory! It is only by doing this that grace is given, strength is renewed, and true humility is learned. Failure to rejoin the Lord every day in prayer is tantamount to being gradually cut off from the vine. Then we can do nothing.
Jesus also invites his excited but weary apostles to come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while. Had they remained among the crowd with so many coming and going that they had no time even to eat they would have lacked the space and time in which to consolidate their many experiences into an integrated and harmonious understanding. This is the reason priests and religious are obliged to do regular retreats; why seminarians have long holidays; why all Christians must put in place for themselves a daily prayer life. This is our way of rejoining the Lord and making sure that our lives and our work continue to be centred on him.
So far we have spoken of the Lord, the apostle and the mission. We must not, however, forget the people to whom the mission is directed.
When Jesus and the apostles went off in a boat to a lonely place where they could be by themselves ... the people saw them going, and many could guess where; and from every town they all hurried to the place on foot and reached it before them.
What drove the people to seek out Jesus can be very simply stated: they needed salvation. And because they needed salvation they needed a saviour; one who could rescue them from all that makes human life unable to attain what each human being longs for: wholeness, completion, fullness of life.
So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length.
The apostles missed out on their solitude and rest, instead they were given front row seats at what must have been a most astonishingly wonderful scene: the shepherd feeding his flock. We can only imagine how quickly the crowds settled as Jesus found a place from which to address them.
They were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length.
Jesus fed his children on the rich banquet of his words. He nourished them, gave them meaning, gave them hope and, above all, gave them life. The beauty of the moment can be captured a little in the alleluia verse: My sheep listen to my voice, says the Lord; I know them, and they follow me. Alleluia!