ROBERT DUVALL'S FINEST ROLE
preached at the CHURCH OF THE ANNUNCIATION, BRIGHTON 2010 (Text: Luke 10.17-20)
I want to ask a rather embarrassing question: How exciting do we find the Christian life?
I mean, could we honestly identify with those early disciples who arrived back from their mission, flushed and panting, bursting to report their success?
Lord, guess what! Even the devils submit to us when we use your name!
I know, says Christ (probably smiling gently), I had a good feeling about what was happening .I had a vision of Satan falling from heaven. But don’t go on about your achievements. Rejoice rather that your names are written in heaven........
In other words, you have given your lives to my work and so you will be given the reward of eternal life in the bosom of the Trinity - now there’s something to shout about!
And when Christ commissions them before their journey, you can almost smell the tense anticipation of danger, the thrill of being fishers of men and the hope of a good catch.
Go. Go now. Don’t hang about. Don’t hesitate. Travel light. Take a chance on supplies and provisions. Cover as much ground as possible. Don’t waste time where you’re not welcome. Don’t be shy to accept contributions and hospitality. You deserve whatever is offered. Eat what is put in front of you. Don’t be finicky about dietary laws. Where you are received, preach the good news that the kingdom is here and prove it by healing the sick.
Anybody fallen asleep yet? I hope not but I know it does all sound rather remote from our own typical experience of the faith, which is much more to do with a church building, worshipping and praying together, fostering our communal life and looking after one another. Not so much the buzz of missionary fervour.
My efforts to evangelize have always been, certainly sincere and earnest, but also a bit polite and reserved. I suspect that it may be the same with you.
But every Christian has it in him or her to transmit and share some of the joy and peace which faith has brought.
I always thought Bishop Lindsay Urwin was on the right track when he insists that Catholics, just as much as evangelicals, can and should be charismatic.
Lindsay used to lead a post-Easter retreat/conferences for clergy and laity at Caister in Norfolk. I had to play the drums in the group which accompanied worship (the kit was transported in the van which carried up the crosses and candles and other paraphernalia).
A holiday camp on the Norfolk coast with services held in a glitzy auditorium called “Neptune’s Palace” seemed an unlikely setting for a deep religious experience. But God moves in mysterious ways. Sometimes it seems He chooses, with His divine sense of humour, to inspire us where we least expect it. Like a solemn mass celebrated in “Neptune’s Palace” with too much incense at the Offertory setting off the fire alarm sprinklers.
Another trick of the Almighty is to take us by surprise via a visit to, of all places, the cinema. I vividly remember the first time I saw a film called “The Apostle” starring one of my favourite actors, Robert Duvall. I knew it was about an American deep South hell-fire preacher and I assumed that it was going to be one more in that line of films about phoney evangelists - you know, con men in it for the money or hypocrites who become a laughing stock when their seamy sex-lives are exposed.
But this was different. Duvall plays (and he deserved an Oscar for his performance) a genuine man of God, not in it for the money or for the number of his female flock that he can seduce.
Certainly, he is a flawed human being, a sinner: he is on the run because he has lashed out in anger with a baseball bat at his wife’s lover and accidently killed him. In the end, he is betrayed to the police and surrenders to them but meanwhile he flees to a remote rural community, gives himself a new name and rebuilds a derelict tin-shack church called the “One-way-to-heaven temple” with the help of a retired black preacher who recognizes and respects the authenticity of his faith and zeal.
Together they revive not only the poor building but also the congregation of poor black families. There is a spellbinding moment when a red-neck racist thug comes with his cronies and a bulldozer to flatten the tiny church and instead undergoes an utterly convincing and extremely moving conversion experience.
The ministry of the Duvall character, the unoffical preacher who has a gospel to proclaim, is mesmerizing.His arms flail wildly as he socks it to the local radio station audience. He walks everywhere urgently and purposefully and breaks into a little run every few steps. When moved by the spirit leading his ragbag of worshippers in prayer, he involuntarily starts dancing on the spot in an awkward, clumsy shuffle.
I went to the cinema expecting to snigger. Instead, I came out with a wet handkerchief. I had witnessed admittedly a work of art and, as far as I know, of fiction but something profound and convincing and something which reminds me overwhelmingly of the headlong,, breathless mission of the seventy-two disciples in today’s gospel.
They were untrained (our Lord gave them minimal instructions and they had not been to theological college). They were very lightly equipped (no purse, no haversack, no sandals). But they had faith and they came back full of joy and excitement at having managed to spread the word.
This is something which all Christians - not just clergy and not just self-styled evangelists - are capable of doing - in fact are duty-bound by the love of our saviour to do. It’s no big deal. You don’t have to go mad or try to perform miracles. Just kneel down in a quiet moment and pray the Father that He will send you the opportunity and the courage to show your family, your friends, your neighbours, your workmates, even the people you don’t get on with, that your faith has made you whole and is too good not to pass on.
Just a casual word about the love of God or, better still, a small act of kindness done for the love of God. He is itching to act through every one of us. He knows only too well that the harvest is rich but the labourers are few.
Anyone who simply turns up in church passively Sunday by Sunday out of a vague sense of habit or for a comforting feeling is not much use to the Lord of the Harvest (although He is grateful just for your presence).
But we can all do a bit better than that. It wouldn’t hurt just to mention to a few more people that we are Christians. Never be ashamed, in the words of the baptism service, to proclaim the faith of Christ crucified. Bringing others to faith is something that can happen and, if and when it does, it is the most exciting and rewarding experience you can ever have.
Notice one last vital detail in the gospel. Our Lord sent them out in pairs.
No-one can spread the word all on their own. Robert Duvall, for all his charisma, needed the help and support of the retired black preacher.
Even those nuts who door-knock on Saturday mornings announcing that the end is nigh know enough to come in twos. It’s not just about safety in numbers or moral support; it’s about the fact that a faith already shared is a faith much easier to transmit.
We are the body of Christ; we are a community of faith. There is no such thing as private Christianity, there is no exclusive individual hot-line to God in the privacy of your own heart. Other religions may teach a self-centred spirituality but we Christians can only do our thing together.
And so when we pray the Father for grace to touch the lives of others who are still in the wilderness, we must also pray for each other’s help and support so that we can come back rejoicing together, eager to tell our modest little story of success and be greeted by a gently smiling Christ with the words:
I know. I had a good feeling about what was happening among you lot. Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.