Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Luke 10: 1-12)
A reminder that we’re in the middle of a four-week sermon series titled “The Great Gathering,” where we’re looking at instances in the Bible where the people of God gather together, how they gather together, why they gather together. We’re doing this during the peak of a second – third? fourth? – wave of a pandemic because the truth is that God gathers us together in ways far beyond simply occupying the same space on a Sunday morning. If this strange, exhausting season has taught us anything, dear friends, it is this.
And so in our second passage today we are invited to ponder how we invite others to join us in this great gathering. With that, friends, listen to this:
Our scripture today has Jesus sending seventy out into the world to do his work. Seventy of his closest friends – his family, his flock, his congregation, if you will. It’s notable if for no other reason than it’s a shift from the way Jesus had been doing things prior. For a long time it was Jesus himself doing the preaching and teaching and healing. Just in the previous couple of chapters alone we have the healing of the centurion’s servant and the Gerasene demoniac. We have the parable of the sower and the calming of the storm. All of these things were done, spoken, shared by Jesus himself.
And then there appears to be a shift – it’s subtle; we have to pay close attention to see it. Just a chapter before this one, we find Jesus telling the twelve disciples, those closest to him, to go out to “heal and teach” – the very things he’d been doing all along, but now he’s asking others to go do it on their own. And then there’s the feeding of the 5000 when Jesus says to his disciples, when they tell him about the need at hand, you give them something to eat. You do it. It may have been Jesus who multiplied bread and fish so thousands could eat, but it’s worth noting that Jesus involves his disciples in the miracle from the very start, in such a way that it wouldn’t have been possible had they not procured the five loaves and two fish to begin with.
It’s still about Jesus, of course – it’s always about Jesus. But it’s not just about him anymore. He’s intentionally expanding the circle of faith, empowering others to do what he had been doing.
So it makes sense that Jesus would do what he does at the beginning of the tenth chapter. It’s been said that the best kind of leaders are those who realize it can never be just about them – that at some point, for the vision to become a reality, that vision must be shared with and embodied by others, so that it takes root in them, so they’ll then be compelled to go and share it themselves. Jesus knew this, which I imagine is why he’d been laying the foundation over the past few chapters for what we find in our scripture reading today. And as we see in our scripture, it’s not just that he sends them out but how he sends them out that matters.
We note, first of all, that he sends them out in pairs. Which makes sense. Because while sending seventy individuals out to seventy different locations would cover more territory and make more connections, they’d be by themselves. So who’s there to pick you up if you get discouraged? If the journey is long, who’s there to help you finish it? So Jesus sends them in pairs so they’ll have each other for support when they need it, and so the connections they make will be more genuine and authentic.
Jesus also warns them that the harvest will be plentiful but the laborers few and that they’re going out “like lambs into the midst of wolves.” An odd pep talk to kick things off for sure. It’d be along the lines of a coach telling his team before the big game, “Yeah, if I’m honest with you guys, they’re bigger up front than we are, they’ve got more scorers than we do, I don’t give us much of a chance. Alright, team let’s go!”
And yet – in telling them to expect hard work with little reward, in warning them that it won’t all be smooth sailing, we find a Jesus who’s being honest and authentic with his people. He’s giving them a heads-up for what will come so they’ll be ready for it when it happens. He’s preparing them for the worst so they have a better chance of experiencing the best. He’s doing them a favor, really.
Jesus also instructs them to “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals” – and good moms everywhere rise in protest because this is the worst thing you can do when leaving home. The same moms who make sure their beloveds have a full breakfast in their stomachs before catching the bus, wear their heavy coat before going out in the cold, and harass you to text when you arrive at your destination. It doesn’t make sense, does it, that Jesus would send them out unprepared like this.
And yet the truth is that he’s not really sending them out unprepared at all – for in sending them without the essentials of daily living, he sends them with something far more valuable for the cause – their scarcity and their vulnerability. And these will be the foundation for the strong relationships they’ll forge. Because they’ll depend fully on the kindness of those they meet; they will rely completely on those they’re being sent to. They will need those people to show them the same love and compassion that they are going to tell them about in the person of Jesus. It’s pretty smart, actually. These people will embody the essence of Jesus before they even know that’s what it is.
And the last thing Jesus leaves them with is the foreknowledge that some will simply not be interested in the vision they bring; some will refuse to extend them hospitality to meet their scarcity and vulnerability. And when this happens, he instructs them to simply leave and not make a big deal about it. We get this bit of shaking dust from their sandals – we think it’s a sign of disrespect, but actually in this context it’s the disciple’s way of showing that their mission is to share something and not take anything – not even the dust on their feet. It’s not insult, it’s closure.
Now I’ve walked us through all of this because the truth is that we have a word for what Jesus is telling his disciples to do here; something that us Presbyterians and other mainliners are less comfortable with than some of our other siblings in the faith. That word is evangelism – the “E” word – and all kinds of images come to mind with that word, most of which aren’t all that good.
I have two myself. One, a speaker at youth group back when I was in high school. He’d come that night to talk to us about the work of a local organization helping those experiencing homelessness, but at some point I remember him shifting and before we knew it he was giving a full-blown altar call, which was not what he had been asked to do, for what it’s worth; and all I remember is that as a lifelong Presbyterian I had no idea what was happening.
The second took place as I was walking to class in college, and on the steps of Wait Chapel at Wake Forest stood a man, I’m guessing in his 30’s, with two small children at his side and a well-worn leather Bible in his hand. He was waving that Bible around in timing with the words he was practically screaming at all who walked by – words of judgment and condemnation, words of hell. The Jesus he spoke of was not the Jesus I had come to know in all my years.
I imagine you may have stories like this of your own; of well-meaning people who think this is the way to share Jesus with the world; that this is evangelism. And so it’s no wonder that most of us would have little interest or even an outright aversion to this “E” word. And if we’re really honest, it’s things like this and other things done in the name of Jesus that have some of us even a little embarrassed to speak of Jesus ourselves.
What we are prone to do is talk about the things around Jesus in our faith, rather than Jesus himself. I’ve noticed this in churchspeak – where, when people are asked to share their faith, about how Jesus has made an impact in their lives, they wind up talking more about the faith community than Jesus. How much a church has meant to them instead of the foundation upon which that church was built. Now don’t get me wrong – that faith community is important in molding and shaping who we are, in supporting us through all that life dishes out. I just wonder why we do this – without even thinking, really. Why we struggle sometimes talking about our relationship with Jesus. Is it because we are uncomfortable talking about Jesus specifically? Is it because we’re not even certain what it means to do that?
In her article “Reclaiming Evangelism,” Presbyterian pastor and seminary professor Sherron Kay George makes the case that our participation in the totality of God’s mission and purpose in the world boils down to three main things: compassionate service (which is the church as servant), social justice (which is the church as prophet), and evangelism (which is the church as messenger). The purpose of compassionate service, she says, is to respond to human need; the purpose of social justice is societal transformation. The purpose of evangelism, she says, is to build community – to draw others into the love of Jesus Christ so they, too, can be part of God’s mission and purpose with us. And the only way to do this – the only effective way – is to not just talk about the church but about the one upon whom the church was founded.
And for whatever reason we struggle doing this. We think evangelism means we’ve got to explain Jesus – as if anyone can do that; to talk deep theology and quote all kinds of scripture. We think evangelism means we’re supposed to have some moving story of how Jesus came into our life in a single monumental moment that changed us forever.
Which is interesting – because none of that is part of what Jesus tells his seventy evangelists when he sends them out, is it? Do you remember what he tells them to do?
He tells them to carry no purse or sandals – in other words, be vulnerable.
He tells them to speak peace when you enter a house – we don’t need fancy words about Jesus or a moving conversion story, just sharing the peace of Christ, like we do in worship every Sunday. What if we did that out there? What if “the peace of Christ be with you” became the common thread of all our communication to everyone everywhere?
Jesus tells his disciples to eat what is placed before you – in other words, live in gratitude.
He tells them to invest in one home, one family, one town and speak of things near and not far – in other words, be present.
He tells them to not linger in hopeless places – in other words, tend to their own self-care when you need to and don’t feel bad about it.
And he tells them more or less that, in the end, it isn’t all about them.
In other words, the task of evangelism is hard because it is easy. It’s weird because it feels both counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. As one scholar puts it, “The task of evangelism is to live simply and vulnerably. To rely on the grace and hospitality of others. To encounter, to engage, to go deep. To live as guests, sharing our faith with others as if they’re our hosts, the people we depend on for sustenance and shelter. To speak peace, first and last. To let go in love. To believe always in the abundance and nearness of God’s economy.
You know, I like to think Jesus is back there somewhere, having sent you and me out into the world to do his work, to continue this thing he started over 2000 years ago. And he knows, beloved, that the world you and I find ourselves in right now is such a complicated and confusing place. Downright exhausting sometimes. We’re all kind of on edge, hanging by our fingernails. We’re ready for hard times to move on and better times to come.
And what the world needs most of all right now is evangelists – not loud-mouth preachers perched on their soapbox, not well-meaning souls trying to explain Jesus as if he’s a math problem. But regular folks like you and me who are just as confused, just as exhausted, willing to share the peace of Christ in word and deed. Willing to be vulnerable. Willing to be real. Willing to share our faith in actions always, and speak of it when invited to.
I don’t know about you, but I think we’re exactly what he had in mind.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.