Lambs in the midst of wolves
| Luke 10:1-20
||Sun, July 8, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“After this”. Opening Luke’s gospel to the tenth chapter we land in the midst of the story. The chapter begins with the words “after this” ... and the curious among us wonder, after what? They look back to chapter nine and there find Jesus turning away three would-be disciples. One wants to follow but expects to have a roof over his head. One wants to follow but needs time to attend his father’s funeral. One wants to follow but asks to say good-bye to family and friends. Jesus won’t take any of them. He says: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back ... no one who gets behind the wheel and talks on their cell phone ... is fit for the kingdom of God.” Living in the kingdom of God is an all or nothing proposition. Once one takes out citizenship in God’s kingdom it is not possible to live a double-life ... part citizen, part foreigner. Or so Jesus says to three who waffle and waver upon accepting his call to follow.
“After this”, then, “the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. “He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. Go on your way’.” After this the Lord appointed seventy and sent them on ahead in pairs, instructing them to pray for more. Seventy. Seventy as in the seventy nations of the earth described in the book of Genesis (Genesis 10). Seventy as in the seventy elders appointed by Moses to lead the people in the wilderness (Numbers 11). Seventy as in the precise number of men, women and children in attendance here at University Hill Congregation last Sunday morning! These seventy are sent out. That is what makes them ‘apostles’, ‘messengers’ ... those who are (in Greek) literally ‘sent forth’. They are sent out with authority ... and they are “sent out to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” In other words, they are sent out to all the earth ... to every town and place where Christ intends to show his face and bring the kingdom’s peace.
The contemporary mainline church dreads texts like this one. We try hard to forget that Jesus ever sent out seventy apostles to spread the kingdom. For we, of course, live in the large shadow of an era of great missionary zeal. We struggle to come to terms with the ways in which Christian mission in the 19th Century allowed itself to be hijacked and subverted by imperial intentions to dominate entire lands and to subject entire peoples to colonial rule. In the process, we too often make the fatal mistake of abandoning the authentic and essential missionary impulse of the kingdom of God. When we do Jesus’ own people - the church - cease being known as a scattered bunch of risk-taking missionaries. The church is then no longer a movement ... it becomes a place. You can hear it in the questions people ask. They say “Where do you go to church?” instead of asking “Where is your church going?”. They say “Did you go to church last Sunday?” when they could more profitably inquire “Where is God sending your church this week?”.
But Jesus’ church is not a social service agency established by God to meet the needs of religious consumers. The church is seventy people, give or take, on any given Sunday sent out on a risky mission. This is reason that, when I am asked where University Hill Congregation is located, I find myself looking at my watch and saying something like: “Well, it is Tuesday at 2:30 pm. Barbara is picking up Elizabeth from school and talking with a troubled mother who longs for community ... Owen is flying home from business in San Francisco, likely striking up a conversation with a seat-mate on the plane ... Bernice is making arrangements for her grandson to come and visit ... Mamolete is visiting with an official in Lesotho to make arrangements for the training project ...” . At which point I am interrupted: “Yes, yes, I know ... but where exactly is your church”. “Well, if you mean where can you find us on Sunday morning then you might look in the Chapel of the Epiphany ... but even that is not ‘our church’ since we don’t actually own any property anywhere.”
Look at what happens to us when we begin to live as a ‘sent out’ people rather than as people who ‘go to church’. For us Sunday worship is not a religious performance that provides meaning on demand to church shoppers. Church is not a place where we ‘recharge our spiritual batteries’ or ‘refill our spiritual gas tank’. The focus has shifted dramatically. Church is no longer a location ... it is a people. The faithfulness of the congregation is not judged by our wants or expectations. Now life in this re-forming church is all about deciding how we are going to live in response to the upside-down kingdom of God that confronts us in Jesus Christ. Sabbath worship becomes time to praise the God whose kingdom comes and who sends messengers to invite the world to live in the reign of God. Here Jesus turns his gathered flock around: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” No wonder our children need the loving mentoring of adult disciples. They deserve nothing less when we send them out into playgrounds, classrooms and households as representatives of Jesus. Lambs in the midst of wolves, indeed. But it is not only our children who need careful mentoring. Keep in mind those of us who Jesus sends into the byzantine world of politics (be that national politics or local politics, corporate politics or university politics, church politics or family politics). When we turn our lives around at the font ... when we die to the wolf-like ways of domination and are reborn to the lamb’s sacrificial way of life ... we hunch that offering our lives to God’s redeeming mission is going to be fraught with danger. Jesus confirms our intuition. Yet he advises living without protection. No purse, no bag, no sandals ... no credit card, no insurance policy, not even shoe leather between our feet and the pavement. Jesus trusts that the kingdom of God goes with those he sends. He is the shepherd ... these lambs lack nothing ... we lack nothing.
So Jesus instructs his apostles - his emissaries - accordingly. Like lambs with a shepherd, the seventy are promised that they will find “a table prepared in the presence of their enemies”. There will be doors opened, meals shared. There will also be doors slammed, shutters drawn. In each case the time of decision begins with what appears to be an innocuous blessing: “Peace to this house”. The world craves the offer of ‘peace’. But the peace that Jesus brings is not a placid solitude that leaves us alone, unbothered, passive. This peace is marked by a distinctive way of life ... a way of life that each household is invited to adopt or to reject. It is the peace of one who enjoys meals shared with social outcasts, who makes it a habit to befriend sinners and who insists on making room for the weak, marginalized, downtrodden, forgotten, diseased, convicted, imprisoned, addicted, troubled, perverted and dysfunctional ... to name only a few. In short, when Jesus’ messengers greet a stranger with the words: “The peace of Christ be with you” they are inviting the other to respond by living life in the kingdom of God: “and also with you”. They are also asking for trouble.
Jesus, of course, knows all about trouble. Jesus sends the seventy out ahead at the very moment when, Luke tells us, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). The kingdom of God threatens to turn the world upside-down. So the world crucifies the messenger and hopes that it has silenced the foolishness. So, it comes as no surprise that the seventy who proclaim the good news of the kingdom create a disturbance among those who have become comfortable with the status quo. Jesus takes it as a matter of course. He knows from the very beginning that his church can never win a popularity contest. He assumes that there will be many households and neighbourhoods and communities that are not prepared for the new way of life that citizenship in the kingdom demands: welcoming the stranger; abandoning violence; loving enemy; trusting God; serving one another. Jesus prepares the seventy to confront those too afraid to let go of their trust in “the system” or too confident in their own “self-reliance”. He teaches his emissaries to walk away from rejection ... but not without first protesting against the ways of life in that place: “... whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near’.”
Jesus sees that he and his followers are caught up in a great contest. It is a contest between Satanic forces and the kingdom of God. It is a contest that demands a decision from each household, each town, each people. It is a contest which our modern, civilized ears find rude and impolite. Perhaps that is the reason for the lectionary’s careful excision of four verses from the tenth chapter of Luke today. Did you notice? Our lectors carefully jumped right over verses twelve, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen. There Jesus says of those who reject the seventy: ‘I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town. Woe to you, Chorazin! (read Vancouver) Woe to you, Bethsaida! (read Victoria) For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon (read North Korea and Iraq), they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But at the judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum (read University Hill), will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades.’
Jesus says that deciding to accept or reject the kingdom of God is a matter of life and death. He says that to reject the kingdom of God when it is offered by one of those he sends is to reject him ... and that to reject him is to reject the one who sent him ... and that to reject the way of God is to accept the ways of the evil one who opposes God in the world. To turn from God, to reject the invitation of God, is to choose the ways that promise life but deliver death. Of course, we would rather it weren’t so. We would rather that the Word of God did not challenge us to decide. We would rather keep living in “the system” ... keep benefitting from its comforts ... and putting up with the hell of a life that it cultivates in our global community. We would just as soon delete Jesus’ truth-telling words from our Bibles and live in childlike ignorance. But this is no longer possible for us. The seventy have delivered the message to another seventy who passed it to another seventy who passed it to us. Now the good news of the kingdom of God is ours to accept ... or to reject. Today the gospel is ours to spread ... or to silence. The good news of the kingdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ is ours to trust, to live and to announce ... if we will.
“The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’.”