It might seem strange to quote a military person when the readings today are about reconciliation among brothers and preaching the gospel of peace. But the instructions of the American general Petraeus to his field commanders in Iraq in 2003 were quite striking. They can even be adapted for the preachers of the gospel. Petraeus' instructions went as follows: 'Secure and serve the population. Live among the people. Promote reconciliation. Walk. Move mounted, work unmounted. Situational awareness can only be achieved by operating face to face.'
The speaker and the context might encourage us to be skeptical - a subsequently disgraced general leading an illegal invasion with whose apocalyptic consequences twelve years later the people of Iraq and surrounding countries continue to live. The Christian communities there also, but not only these.
Jesus' instructions to his field commanders, the apostles, are more radical than those given by the general. The American soldiers arrived fully armed and well protected. From a position of overwhelming strength they sought to be among and with the people, to build good relationships with them. The apostles are to do something similar, seek to build good relationships with the people by living among them. But this is not part of a political or military strategy, it is in order to share with whoever they meet the gifts they themselves are receiving from Jesus.
And rather than speaking and acting from a position of overwhelming strength the apostles are to be vulnerable. In fact they are to practise an extreme vulnerability: no money, no sandals, no walking stick, no change of clothes, no food supplies. They are to trust completely in God's care working through the response of the people. Once again it is not part of a strategy but rather appropriate to the nature of their mission: 'you received without cost, you are to give without cost'. In order to preach grace you must live in grace.
The West invaded Iraq - so it was said - to establish freedom and democracy. The apostles bring the message of a much more radical freedom, the freedom of the gospel, the freedom of grace. All that is asked of the people they meet is that they receive the apostles and listen to their words. No other demand is being made on them except the demand that is contained in their words: 'the kingdom of heaven is at hand; you received without cost, give without cost'.
Human beings continue to struggle to serve the kingdom of heaven while living in a deeply sinful world, finding that world also within themselves. The divine message of generosity, freedom and peace seems too fragile and too vulnerable in a world that finds itself more at home with commerce, control and confrontation.
But God is working his purpose out through the preachers of the gospel even when their mission seems to carry little weight in the world. Joseph lost everything when he was sold into slavery by his brothers. But the providence of God, working through his extreme vulnerability, is seen at the end of the story: 'it was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you'.
So too with the preaching of the gospel. The disciples of Jesus remain a source of life in the world and for the world. There may be times when the world shows little interest or understanding of what is being preached. There may be times when the world's values seem opposed to what the gospel promises. But we must stay faithful to the instructions of our 'general' - 'serve the population, live among the people, promote reconciliation, walk, work face to face, take nothing for the journey, give without cost, share the gifts you have received, proclaim 'the kingdom of heaven is at hand'.' It is for the sake of saving lives that God sends out the preachers of the gospel. In more traditional language they are sent to preach 'for the salvation of souls'.