Preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Doylestown, PA.
“After this 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.”
There’s a wonderful sign posted at the exit to the parking lot at a church where I attend a meeting every month, and the sign says, “You are now entering the mission field.”
It doesn’t say, Goodbye, thanks for coming, have a nice week. It says, more or less, “Get ready, because you’re going out now to the place where the real work of Christian discipleship happens.”
It’s not the only church that has a sign like that, but it’s the only one I see regularly. And every time I do, I’m reminded that nowhere in the gospel does Jesus tell his people to make a church by putting up a pretty building and posting a sign outside that says, “All are welcome.”
In the Gospel, he sends them out. He sends them out into the mission field, out to do the same work that’s he himself has been doing. He sends them out as his representatives to bring his presence into the world. Out to be with the people they encounter. Out to heal all of those who are suffering, and out to proclaim the presence of God at work in the world.
So Jesus says, when you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick who are there, and say to them, the Kingdom of God has come near. God is here in the world, God is working in the world.
Now, there’s a lot going on in this story that’s very specific to the time and place where it happened. But there are also some aspects that are very relevant, I think, to us today, and I want to focus on those in particular.
So first of all, this mission isn’t just for a few of us. It’s much bigger than that.
Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore, ask the lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Now, it’s always seemed strange to me that people sometimes interpret this as a call for more people to enter ordained ministry, because I think it’s actually sort of the opposite of that. It’s about the work that we’re all given to do, not by virtue of ordination, but by virtue of our baptism.
Jesus, at this point in the gospel of Luke has already sent out the 12 out—his closest circle—on a very similar mission, and they come back successful. And now he’s sending 70 in pairs. In other words, a much wider group.
The second thing I think is worth nothing is that it’s a story about going out to people who are different from yourself. Not just inviting people in to be churchy with you in your nice building, but going out to meet them wherever it is that they are. Going out to the whole world.
That number 70 is symbolic. In Genesis, Noah had 70 grandsons, and each of the grandsons became a nation. So this is a way of saying that he sent them out to all the nations of the world, to all kinds of people. And the story is about learning to be in relationship with those people despite whatever differences there may be between you.
The first thing they’re supposed to say when they go into a house—the very first thing—is, “Peace be to this house.” And if the people in that house share in the peace, that’s a way of saying that they enter into a relationship with you.
But no matter what, the disciples are instructed to stay in that place and eat and drink what’s set in front of them. I think it would be a mistake to minimize how significant that is. It isn’t just like if you go to somebody’s house and they’re having fish for dinner, and you’d really rather have steak, but you’re a good guest, so you eat the fish. These are people who follow strict dietary laws, and they may be visiting Gentiles, and they may have set in front of them foods that they would not ordinarily eat at all. But Jesus says to eat what’s set in front of you, to accept the hospitality that you’re offered, to be in relationship in that way with those people.
This mission isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to involve some risk. He says, I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves. There’s the risk of rejection, a risk of failure. It would seem from what he says that he expects some of them to fail, and yet he sends them minimally equipped with no purse, no bag, no sandals. It’s scary. They go out and they are totally dependent on the grace of God and on others to meet their physical needs. So it’s not the stuff we carry that matters, the external stuff, the possessions. It’s what we have inside of us that’s really going to make a difference on this mission..
As I mentioned, some of them will fail, and it’s ok to fail, as long as you try. Some of them went to places, we presume from the text, where whole towns refused to welcome them, and Jesus gives them instructions: It’s not about retaliation. He says, “Just let it go. Wipe the dust off your feet and move on.”
And they’ll never be alone. They’re in the presence of God, and they go in pairs, which is to say, we do this work in community, with each other. It’s not a solo job.
Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail, but they return with joy. So Jesus sends them out to all the towns and places where he himself intends to go. He tells them, first of all, to offer peace to whatever house they enter, and to stay there and eat whatever is set in front of them, and to carry out a very simple mission: heal the sick, and to share the message that God is present and at work in the world. And they go out and do as Jesus tells them, and they return with joy.
I heard a story this past week, a big holiday week, with all kinds of social things happening. The story was about a gathering where relatives had come from near and far to reconnect and to celebrate being family together. And at some point, the conversation turned to politics. Which is to say, in this day and age, that it turned to a discussion of identity and values held most dear. And despite the bonds of affection that held this family together, the differences that surfaced in that conversation nearly tore them apart. There was not much peace in that gathering that day.
Maybe you’ve heard stories like this yourself. Or maybe you’ve even been somewhere with family and friends where something like that happened.
In these times when people are so divided, when it feels so difficult sometimes to share a meal much less a dialogue about things that matter with people who are on “the other side,” whichever side that may be, I think we really need to hear this message about holding tension in a way that makes it possible to engage with others whose values are different and still not compromise our own values. It might feel risky, but it can be done.
In this world where there is so much need for healing, where so many people have trouble believing that God is still with us, that mission of going out to be Christ’s presence in the world is still vitally important.
Lord, send us. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Equip us with your grace and send us out on your mission.