July 8, 2007

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Two weeks in a row now, we’ve had Gospel stories that are not particularly encouraging. Last week we heard Jesus turning down potential disciples and warning them of the trials that come with following his way of life. Despite the fact that he’s been really honest about what a tough life discipleship involves, in today’s text we see that Jesus has managed to round up quite a group of disciples, and he’s sending them out like little ambassadors to all the towns that he is planning to visit.

And he’s sending them out “like lambs into the midst of wolves.” This is not going to be a nice little holiday. As Jesus warned the would-be followers in the last chapter, discipleship is the kind of thing that calls for full and dedicated commitment. It involves risk and requires sacrifice — no comfortable hotels, no guaranteed meal-times, no salary, and the real possibility of being frustrated, rejected, ridiculed, or even hurt by the people in the towns.

Depending on which translation you read, Jesus either sent 70 or 72 disciples out on this mission. Some of the ancient manuscripts say 70 and others say 72. And perhaps it doesn’t matter exactly how many there were… except that numbers in the Bible often have symbolic significance.

Those manuscripts that said 70 would have reminded Jewish readers of the 70 elders that Moses gathered to help him lead the People of Israel through the wilderness. The other texts that said 72 would have had significance for Greek speaking people who were familiar with the Greek translation of Genesis. In the Septuagint Greek translation of Genesis 10, 72 is given as the number of nations in the world.

Here, as Jesus sends out 72 missionaries, perhaps it points to the way that the mission will grow through the Gospels and into the Book of Acts — as the Good News is carried out beyond Israel to all the Peoples and nations of the world.

Most of the time, I tend to think of the Gospel stories as the account of Jesus’ ministry. Disciples are there — following, listening, watching, and learning from him. Later on, as it becomes clear that he’s going to get killed, they start to get instructions about keeping up the work after he is gone. And of course, as we move into the Book of Acts, we read all the stories about how they managed to do that — about Peter’s preaching, about Paul’s travelling and teaching.

But in Luke’s Gospel in particular, Jesus gets his followers doing the work of ministry very quickly. In chapter 4, Jesus begins his ministry and is rejected by the people of his own home town. In chapter 5, he calls his first disciples, inviting some fishermen to follow him and learn to catch people instead of fish. By chapter 6, Jesus already has quite a group of disciples — people who are following him and being his students — so he chooses 12 of them whom he also names “apostles.” “Apostles” means people who are sent, and as we soon see, Jesus sends them out to participate actively in his ministry.

In the chapters that follow, Jesus teaches and heals, tells parables and explains them to his followers when they don’t understand. Then, at the beginning of chapter 9, Jesus sends out the twelve apostles. He sends them out carrying no staff, no bag, no bread, and no money — not even an extra tunic. He sends them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.

The number 12 is a symbolic number as well. The 12 apostles represent the 12 tribes of Israel, and as Jesus sends them out it’s as if he’s sending them to all of Israel. A chapter later, when Jesus gathers a larger group and sends them out with a similar task, 72 people bring the good news out beyond Israel, to the 72 nations of the world.

The thing about being a Jesus-follower is that you can’t do it “a little bit.” You can’t dabble in Christianity or do it in your spare time. That’s what Jesus was getting at in last week’s text — It has to be the first thing in your life. It has to be your top priority. And here, what becomes clear is that followers of Jesus are called not just to watch and listen and learn from Jesus. Christianity is not a spectator sport. Jesus sends them out to do the kinds of things that he does — to proclaim to everyone that the kingdom of God is near. God is around and among us. God’s love is present and active.

No longer safe on the sidelines, these Jesus followers are sent out to share peace and table fellowship, to cure the sick, to proclaim the kingdom of God. In short, they are called to live out and practice the faith that they had confessed. And it is in the doing that the seventy-two are transformed from bystanders to active participants in the work of God.

I read about a young woman who spent six weeks last summer along the United States-Mexico border in the states of Arizona and Sonora. Sara was working with an organization called “No More Deaths” which provides humanitarian aid to migrants crossing the desert.

Over 2000 people have died since 1998 trying to cross from Mexico into the United States, most from dehydration or exhaustion caused by the oppressive heat and meager supplies. Sara spent the summer handing out bottles of water and granola bars, binding feet and seeking medical attention for those who had the greatest need.

When she called home from the border, Sara described the closeness to God that she felt and how deeply convinced she was about the Christian faith as she worked with men, women, and children who have been forced to leave everything behind in search of life for their families. She said, “I don’t think it’s because I’m praying more or reading the bible any more carefully — there’s just something about being here and doing this that makes it all seem so real to me.”

Jesus sent his disciples out into the world like sheep into a pack of wolves, and he sent them with the message, “the kingdom of God has come near.” We might be tempted to disagree with Jesus in so strongly asserting that the kingdom has come near. All you and I have to do is open the morning newspaper and scan the headlines to come to the conclusion that we do not live in such a kingdom. Wars rage on with little sign of stopping. Poverty and hunger claim the lives of so many while others live in comfort with more than enough. Many are unsafe even in their own homes and neighbourhoods, while others enjoy the security of gates and fences. These are not the signs of the kingdom that we would expect. In fact, if the kingdom itself knocked on our door with no sandals, no food, and no money — we might be tempted to ask it to leave us alone.

But Jesus is insistent. The seventy-two are to proclaim to those who receive them and to those who do not that the kingdom is near. How could they do such a thing? If the kingdom has indeed come near, what are the signs of its coming?

Let’s look again at the instructions Jesus gives to the missionaries that he sends out: they are to enter a town, and where welcomed, they are to stay — that’s hospitality. They are to eat what is given to them — that’s table fellowship. Then they are to cure the sick — that’s compassion and care. Finally, they are to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.

Could it be that in the faithful and loving ministry of the disciples, the kingdom of God does in fact come near?

Many Christians in our own time have begun to speak of the kingdom of God as a metaphorical and idyllic symbol of life as it will never be. But this is not Jesus’ message to the missionaries as he sends them out. Instead, Jesus declares that, within the mission and ministry of these believers, the kingdom of God will come near.

Missionaries near and far report that it is true. When they go where God sends them with open minds and hearts and the good news message on their lips, they often find that the kingdom springs up around them in the most unexpected ways. Sometimes it is the experience of watching people with so very few material things sharing their last meal with a stranger or another hungry person. Sometimes it is in witnessing the joyful praise of God of people who seem to have so little to be thankful for, of people who know better than we do what’s important in life, of people who know what it means to be blessed by God.

Sometimes it is in the breaking of stereotypes and assumptions about people who seem to be different from us — we see that they are human, we reach out in love and receive their love in return.

In so many ways, when we go where Jesus is sending us, we experience the kingdom of God coming near. In the hospital room, in the Native ministry, in the children’s program, in the International mission, Gods kingdom comes near when we go where Jesus sends us.

Have you felt the presence of the kingdom in your own life? Have you had those experiences when the thin veneer of ordinary human existence is broken and the glory of God shines through?

There is something about the Christian faith that must be lived in order to be understood. Jesus knew this, and so he sent his disciples out into the world with only the message of the kingdom to guide them. It was all they needed.

Jesus is sending us out into a complex and sometimes hostile world, like sheep in the midst of wolves. The bad news is that all we carry is a message. The good news is that the message is this: the kingdom of God has come near! Amen.