In our gospel reading for today Jesus sends out seventy disciples to spread his message and invite other people to become his followers. I’m not sure how they felt about this commission, but I’m quite sure that many Anglican people today tend not to be too comfortable with the thought of being sent out to share the Christian message with people who are not Christians. It smacks of the idea that there is only one true religion, and that doesn’t sit easily with our Canadian ethos of multiculturalism and respect. And so we tend to say things like, ‘Some people talk about their faith; I just live mine out, and let people draw their own conclusions’.
It sounds very spiritual and respectful, and it has a grain of truth about it: of course we’re called to live our faith out, and if we don’t put it into practice – if we don’t live lives that remind people of Jesus, in other words – the chances are that we won’t get very far in trying to talk to people about the gospel message. But we should not draw the conclusion that we don’t need to talk about our faith at all. After all, the early Christians didn’t just invite the world around them to watch while they silently lived out the teachings of Jesus. If they had, we’d probably be painting ourselves blue with woad and worshipping oak trees today! No, at the beginning of the gospels Jesus went into Galilee with a message to proclaim; he proclaimed it and invited people to become his followers. At the end of the gospels, he sent those followers out into the world to share the message with others, and in between those two bookends he was teaching them how to live it out and how to share it. Mission – sharing the love of Christ, not just in actions but also in words – was an integral part of Christian discipleship, right from the beginning.
So in today’s passage Jesus sent out seventy of his followers on a missionary journey to share his message and heal the sick. These seventy were not the inner circle, ‘the Twelve’; they were a wider group, who may or may not have had the same sort of intimate contact with him that the Twelve enjoyed. But he had a message that he wanted to communicate to the world, and he had a sense that the time was short; conflict with the authorities had already begun, and he could already see the shadow of a cross looming over his future. So he sent out this group to prepare the way for him in all the towns and villages he was planning to visit.
As we read this gospel passage today, some of the things we find in it don’t apply so readily to our situation. Jesus was sending out his volunteers on a project that would require them to leave their homes and families for a while, and give their whole time to the work of sharing the gospel. And the setting was urgent, because the cross was looming and Jesus wanted to reach as many people as possible before he went to his death. Our situation is also urgent, but for a different reason – none of us knows the day of our death, and, as Jesus says in the gospels, this night our life may be required of us. But most of us are not contemplating leaving our homes and families and going on a short term evangelism trip; our witness is taking place in the context of our normal everyday lives, at work, amongst our friends and families, in the coffee shops we frequent and so on.
So there are some differences between our situation and that of these early disciples. But this doesn’t mean the passage has nothing to say to us. I want to point out to you four connections we can make between the message of this gospel reading and our own call to be witnesses for Christ today.
First, Jesus is quite clear that people are hungry for this message. Look at verse 2: ‘(Jesus) 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”’. This illustration seems to have been a common theme in the teaching of Jesus; it’s mentioned a couple of other times in various gospel passages as well. He sees the world as like a field of wheat, full grown and ready to be harvested for the kingdom of God. In other words, there are plenty of people out there who are hungry for the very message that the missionaries are bringing; all they have to do is to find those people and share the message with them.
Many today seem to be skeptical about this idea. There seems to be a great deal of apathy out there toward Christianity and the Christian Church, and in some quarters the apathy is turning into determined opposition, with the growing popularity of the new atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and their message that ‘religion poisons everything’. So is it really true that the fields are ripe for the harvest, or did that just apply to the time of Jesus?
I think there is definitely apathy and opposition, but a great deal of it is directed at the institutional church, not at Jesus and his message. For a variety of reasons, the church has not always been seen in the eyes of the watching world as a good advertisement for Jesus, and so our message is not always able to get the fair hearing it deserves.
But I have to say that, in my experience, the idea that people are not interested in spirituality - in making contact with God, in authentic community, in spiritual wisdom – well, that’s just false. There’s been an explosion of interest in spirituality in the last decade or two, and all the rantings of the new atheists don’t seem to be able to quench it. If you have had a genuine experience of God, and if that experience is helping you to make sense of your life and live accordingly, many people are more than ready to hear about it. And if the conversation takes place in the context of a genuine friendship, where you have some credibility with the other person, it’s likely to be even more effective.
So yes, I believe that the harvest is still plentiful, but, as Jesus said, the labourers are few. So, Jesus says, ‘ask the Lord of the harvest to send out more labourers’. But then, no doubt with a twinkle in his eye, he turns to the seventy and says, ‘Off you go!’ So they aren’t only to pray that God send out more messengers: they themselves are to be part of the answer to their prayers. And the same applies to you and me today!
People are hungry for this message. The second connection we can find with this gospel passage is this: Jesus sends us out in vulnerability and weakness, not in superiority and power. He says in verse 3: “Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves”. He also tells them to carry no purse, no bag, and no sandals, to accept hospitality from people on the way, and to eat whatever is set before them.
In the early years of Christianity, of course, this is exactly how missionaries went out; they had no worldly power, no powerful organisation to back them up, no imperial armies to protect them. They walked the roads of the Roman Empire, in danger of their lives from mob violence and the Roman magistrates, and they were commanded by Jesus not to retaliate, but to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them.
But after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century AD, the picture changed. Very quickly the Empire was seen as officially Christian, and the pagans were beyond the borders. And by the time we get to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries we see military and political power and missionary effort going hand in hand. The Spanish conquistadores went to South America, offering the local tribes the choice of baptism or death. Missionaries went to foreign countries in great wealth, provided by people back home, able to dole out all kinds of goodies in order to get a hearing for their message. No longer did the messengers come in weakness and vulnerability; in fact, in some parts of the world they lived in missionary compounds, with fences and armed guards to protect them.
I believe that if we are to be effective in our work of mission today we have to look more like Jesus, and this means vulnerability. Jesus came not in power but in weakness; as I’ve often said before, he wasn’t interested in the love of power, but rather in the power of love. He paid the price for that vulnerability when he went to the cross, and he calls us to take up our cross and follow him, loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. So any use of violence or force or coercion of any kind to spread the gospel is completely antithetical to these words of Jesus.
We’ve seen, first, that people are hungry for this message, and second, that we’re to come in vulnerability and weakness, not superiority and power. Third, we see in two places in this passage the actual message that the disciples are told to proclaim. In verse five Jesus says, ‘Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!”’ Then in verse nine he adds, ‘Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you”’. So we go out to share the message of God’s peaceable kingdom. Jewish listeners who knew their scriptures would have been reminded of Old Testament prophecies of the lion lying down with the lamb, a little child playing over a snake’s nest, people beating their swords into ploughshares and the world streaming to Mount Zion to hear the teachings of Israel’s God.
And the message is the same today. When Peter summed it up for Cornelius and his family in the book of Acts, he said, “You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). In other words, God is a God who loves his enemies, and he proved it by going all the way to the Cross for us. When the world rejected him, he did not reject us back – in a sense, he rejected our rejection, which is another way of saying that he loves us with a stubborn and indestructible love. Jesus tells us that this is what God is like. And this God is now at work in the world, healing the sick and transforming people’s lives, helping those who find peace with him also to live in peace with one another, so that the whole world is changed by the power of his love.
This is the message we are called to share with people today. The exact words aren’t always that important, and anyway the Holy Spirit will guide us when the time comes. But people’s response is important. There’s a note of urgency in Jesus’ commission here; he wants his messengers to contact as many people as possible, so that they will have the chance to hear and respond before it’s too late. The same note of urgency runs throughout the whole Bible; Psalm 95 says, ‘O that today you would listen to his voice! Do not harden your hearts…’ (vv.6b-8a). People are called to respond to the message of God’s kingdom by turning from their previous allegiances, putting their lives in the hands of Jesus, and learning to live as his disciples. That’s what we want to see happen on the lives of those we are trying to reach.
One last thing: this is not just about humans talking to humans; there’s a spiritual struggle going on too. After the seventy came back enthused about how well their mission had gone, Jesus said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning” (v.18). In other words, when the disciples saw people turning to God in response to their message, Jesus saw more: he saw the advance of the kingdom of God and the defeat of the kingdom of evil.
There’s a spiritual struggle going on, and you and I are part of it. No wonder Jesus speaks with such urgency when he sends the seventy missionaries out! This isn’t a garden party he’s starting here; it’s a campaign in the struggle to set the world free from evil. The weapons are not bombs and tanks, but truth and love. People are not the enemy; the forces of evil are the enemy, and Jesus our captain has won the decisive victory over them on the Cross. You and I can walk the daily road of discipleship in the power of that victory, doing our bit to make it real in our own lives and in the lives of the people we touch.
Let me close where we began: Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few” (v.2). Here at St. Margaret’s, God has put us in the middle of a cluster of growing communities in south Edmonton. All around us are twenty-first century people, working their jobs and paying their mortgages and taking their kids to sports and trying to fit thirty hours into every twenty-four hour day. And some of them have been quietly wondering to themselves for some time, “Is this it? If this is the Alberta Advantage, how come it doesn’t feel like much of an advantage? If this is success, how come it’s not all it’s cracked up to be?”
You know some of those people; so do I. We are their friends, their family members, their fellow-workers. And if we are followers of Jesus, then minding our own business is not an option. Silence is not an option. The Lord has commanded us – not suggested to us, but commanded us – to speak. So let us pray that the Lord of the harvest will send out more labourers, yes – but let’s pray that on the way out to the harvest fields ourselves, with our tools in our hands, ready to be used by the Holy Spirit to share the good news of Jesus with all who are ready to hear it.