A sermon by, Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., July 7, 2013
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Today we continue a series called “On the Road with Jesus” from a section of Luke’s Gospel where Jesus’ disciples are—literally—on the road with him. And that seems perfect, because for some time now I’ve been imagining the church of Jesus Christ as a big crowd of people following along behind him down some dusty country road. I don’t know why it’s a country road. It could just as easily be a street in the inner city. But in my imagination that’s how it is: Jesus up front, in the lead, and a whole crowd of people following along behind. Some are as close to Jesus as they can get, trying to hear every word he says. Others are following along at a distance, just happy to be part of the crowd. Some are helping those who have stumbled to get back on their feet again, while others are calling to those who have wandered off the path. Some aren’t really part of the crowd at all, but they’re curious enough to follow along for a while and listen to what Jesus has to say. Some may choose to stay with him while others will fall away, but again, in my imagination, the church is a big, happy crowd of people following along behind Jesus and the only time it gets in trouble is when it stops and builds a building, because then it has to decide who’s in and who’s out.
And who has to pay the utility bills.
But for the duration of this series let’s imagine that we are on the road with Jesus, journeying toward Jerusalem, watching everything he does, listening to everything he says, and trying to learn everything we can in this lengthy section of Luke’s Gospel called the Travel Narrative, which extends from chapter 9, verse 51, through chapter 19, verse 27. Last week we looked at the end of chapter 9, where three would-be followers of Jesus were warned that the journey wasn’t going to be an easy one and we were reminded that it never is. In his commentary on that passage Alan Culpepper writes: “Therefore, one should not rush into discipleship with glib promises. On the contrary, the radical demands of discipleship require that every potential disciple consider the cost, give Jesus the highest priority in one’s life, and, having committed oneself to discipleship, move ahead without looking back.”[i] Which makes me want to ask: are you still with me? Are you ready to continue this journey? If you are, then let’s move on into chapter 10, and the mission of the seventy.
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. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever 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 to you.’ But 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.’
Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.
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” (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20, NRSV).
Before we go any further let’s settle the question of how many disciples were sent out because I see some of you looking in the pew Bibles and wrinkling your brows. “It says here there were 72 disciples. Why did the preacher say there were only 70?” That’s a fair question. I looked up the answer myself because last Monday, when I started working on this sermon, I used a commentary that has the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version side by side. The NIV says there were 72 and the NRSV says there were 70. I wrote it down in my notes like this: “NIV 72, NRSV 70.” It looked like a basketball score where the NIV had beaten the NRSV by two points at the buzzer. But listen to this explanation, because it’s one of the reasons I love Bible study: It turns out that in Genesis 10 there is a list of all the nations of the earth, and at that time, in the Hebrew text, there were 70. But later, when the Hebrew was translated into Greek, the number was translated as 72. So half the ancient copies of Luke’s Gospel mention 70 disciples and the other half mention 72, but in both cases Luke seems to be telling us that Jesus sent out as many disciples as there were nations in the ancient world, and that’s significant.
In the chapter just before this one Luke tells us that Jesus sent out twelve disciples, and that’s an important number. There were twelve tribes in Israel, remember? It makes me think Jesus was trying to reach all of Israel with the good news of God’s coming Kingdom. But in this chapter he sends out seventy “others,” Luke says (meaning other disciples), and it’s as if he is trying to reach all the nations on earth with the good news. The mission is getting bigger and broader, but it is, essentially, the same mission. Listen as I read from Luke 9, beginning with verse 1: “Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.”
In chapter 10 he sends out these 70 others, and let me ask you to listen to the similarities between these two commissions. 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. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever 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 to you.’ But 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.’”
I read that section again not only because I wanted you to hear how similar it is to Jesus’ instructions to the Twelve, but also because I believe these are Jesus’ instructions to us. Alan Culpepper writes: “The sending out of the seventy (two) reminds us that Jesus sent out not just the Twelve, but perhaps all his followers.”[ii] If we were to take that comment seriously, and consider ourselves “sent ones”—apostles—what would we need to know?
- First of all, we would need to know that this is a big job, and that it’s going to take more than 12 of us, even more than 70 (or 72) of us. Those are nice, symbolic numbers but if we are going to reach the whole world with the good news it’s going to take all of us—every believer will have to become a missionary. I believe that when Jesus says, “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,” he means other laborers. When he says, “Go your way,” he’s taking it for granted that we are already in that number, we are among the “sent ones.” We’re like field hands trying to get in a big crop and watching the storm clouds roll in from the west. “Quick!” we say. “Send somebody into town to round up a few more day laborers! We’ve got to get this crop in before the storm comes!”
- Secondly, just as following Jesus is not easy, being on mission for him is not easy. “I am sending you out as lambs into the midst of wolves,” he says, and you wonder why he would do that at all. Why would he send his little flock into the midst of a murderous pack? The only reason I can come up with is that he doesn’t have a choice; it has to be done. He can’t wait until conditions are safer or easier. There is an urgency to this mission that is communicated in his next sentence: “Greet no one on the road,” he says. In other words, don’t even stop to say hello. Don’t even wave to your fellow travelers. Keep your head down, your mission in view. Don’t get distracted.
- Thirdly, there seems to be this understanding that we shouldn’t wait until we raise enough money for this mission trip: we should just go. “Don’t carry a purse,” Jesus says, which could also be translated as wallet, or moneybelt, or any kind of emergency financial resources. “Carry no bag, or sandals,” he says, which might mean that you shouldn’t even take time to pack a suitcase; you’ve got to get on the road. And don’t worry about making hotel reservations in advance. Jesus says, “When you arrive on the mission field simply walk up to the first house you find and say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a person of peace is there they will open the door, and take you in, and give you what you need. So don’t be going from door to door looking for a softer bed or a better meal. Stay put! Be grateful! Eat what they put in front of you!
- Fourthly, do the work of a missionary. It’s interesting that Jesus tells both the Twelve and the Seventy to do the same thing. In Luke 9 he sends the twelve out to “proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal.” In Luke 10 he sends the seventy out to “cure the sick…and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” At this stage of his ministry, at least, Jesus’ disciples are instructed to do the same things they have seen him doing: healing people and telling them about the Kingdom. Later on, after his death and resurrection, he will give them further instructions, but for now this is enough: heal people and do it as a sign that God’s kingdom is on its way into the world.
- Fifthly, and finally, don’t get discouraged. I love it that Jesus says if you go into a town and they welcome you cure the sick and tell them the Kingdom has come near but if they don’t welcome you wipe the dust off your feet and tell them the Kingdom has come near because it’s true either way, whether they receive it or not. And so, just before he sends them out, Jesus says: “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” And that’s a comfort, isn’t it? This is not about you. It’s about God and God’s purposes. You’re just the messenger. In last week’s passage I skipped right over the part where a Samaritan village doesn’t receive Jesus and James and John ask if he wants them to call down fire from heaven. But Jesus doesn’t take it personally. If those Samaritans won’t receive him he will simply move on, and they will never know how close the Kingdom came.
So, let me summarize: It’s not just the Twelve who are sent on a mission, and it’s not just the Seventy. If we’re going to get this message to the world it’s going to take all of us, that whole, big, boisterous crowd of disciples following along behind Jesus. And this is what we’re going to have to do. 1. Realize what a big job this is, and pray for extra help. 2. Understand that it won’t be easy, but that it is urgent. 3. Don’t wait until you have enough resources: just go! 4. Do the work of a missionary: heal the sick and tell people the Kingdom has come near. 5. Don’t get discouraged; they’re not rejecting you, they’re rejecting God. Got it? Good. Now go.
I’m sure that’s what Jesus said to the Seventy, and I’m almost sure one of them raised a hand to say, “I can tell people the Kingdom has come near, but how am I supposed to cure the sick?” Because in Luke 9 Jesus gave the Twelve “power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases” (vs. 1), but in Luke 10 Jesus doesn’t give the Seventy anything but these marching orders. It’s kind of where we are, isn’t it? I prayed for someone at the hospital yesterday and said, “I don’t have any healing power in my hands. I can’t heal the sick. But I know somebody who can, and I know how to ask and he knows how to answer and so I’m asking you, Jesus, to do for this man what I can’t. Help him, and heal him, and get him up off this hospital bed.” When I finished that prayer his wife looked at me as if the Kingdom had come near, not because I have any power of my own, but because I know who has the power and I’m not afraid to ask for it.
Today we are sending out several mission teams with just those kinds of credentials. They don’t have any power of their own but they know who has it and they’re not afraid to ask for it. And they know that it’s not just physical healing people need, but healing of every kind, the kind that will make their lives, and not just their bodies, whole. So they’re going to go off to places like Ghana, and Arkansas, South Africa, Singapore, and the Philippines to do what they can for people, and to ask Jesus to do what they can’t, and to claim it all as a sign that the Kingdom of God has come near. But they aren’t the only ones. Look around. There are all the rest of us. And we have a mission, too. In fact, this year-long, every-member mission trip to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, is perfectly in line with what Jesus asks the Seventy to do: to remember what a big job it is and to pray for additional help; to remember that it won’t be easy but it is urgent; to go, and not wait until we have adequate resources; to heal the sick and tell people the Kingdom has come near; and finally, to not get discouraged.
And that may be the hardest part of all.
We’ve been on this mission trip for 301 days and the Kingdom of Heaven still hasn’t come to Richmond, Virginia, not completely. It could make you want to give up. And if you’ve never started it might make you want to say, “See? I told you so.” But look at what happened in this passage: the Seventy returned with joy. With joy, I say, because there is joy in this work. I’ve seen it myself. Some of you have had a hard time getting off the bus and onto the mission field but when you did, when you finally just made up your mind to do something, you found joy in it. I’ve heard the stories over and over again in the last ten months. And in today’s reading Jesus heard that kind of story. The Seventy said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he rejoiced right along with them. In fact, he may have gotten a little carried away. He said, “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.”
I wouldn’t go around testing that theory, especially if you’re on the mission trip to Arkansas. Those snakes get pretty big. But listen to what he says next: “Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven,” because in the end, this is all that will matter. It won’t matter how many demons we cast out, or how many snakes we stepped on, or how successful we were in our mission. It will only matter how faithful we were. Did we actually do what Jesus told us to go and do?” Because if we did I believe we will one day hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord!”
And that really is the greatest joy of all.
[i] R. Alan Culpeper, “Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 218
[ii] Ibid., p. 221.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.