July 7, 2019
Classroom teachers know that proximity holds a lot of power. Good teachers move around the room a lot, getting close to students as they work. The teacher’s nearness does two things: it raises a student’s level of concern enough to encourage the student to pay attention (and stay out of trouble), but it also makes the teacher more available to answer questions and offer support.
Proximity to the teacher offers safety, and at the same time it holds a student accountable. Proximity to the teacher increases the probability that the student will actually learn something. This is why we almost always see the disciples staying really close to Jesus. He holds them accountable at the same time he offers them safety.
But at some point, students leave school. They have to take the lessons they’ve learned into the world, and practice those lessons on their own. The safety net is gone, and they have to hold themselves accountable.
Last week, Jesus began his long journey to Jerusalem, as given to us in Luke’s gospel. His face is set. He is determined to accomplish his mission. We saw his disciples, James and John, fail in their first attempt as the advance team for that mission. Instead of reaching out to the Samaritan village effectively, they were ready to call down fire from heaven to destroy it.
You’d think Jesus might want to change his strategy. Maybe the students aren’t quite ready to leave the classroom. But look at what Jesus does next. Instead of re-thinking his strategy, he expands it. Instead of a couple of disciples, he sends seventy ahead on the road, to announce that the kingdom of God is near.
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)
So here we are, traveling toward Jerusalem with Jesus through Luke’s gospel, and Jesus sends an advance party to the places he plans to go. He tells them to offer healing and peace, and to announce that the Kingdom of God had come near.
It sounds like a contradiction: Jesus sending his followers … ahead of him. You’d think he’d have them working as the clean-up crew, but instead, he sends his followers out ahead, to heal and offer shalom.
Jill Duffield writes, “Would it not be better for Jesus to go first and for us to follow? Wouldn’t the disciples be more readily welcomed if Jesus had gone on ahead, done a few miracles, and explained that he’d deputized them to do likewise? Wouldn’t a showier display of power get people’s attention and move the plot to redemption ahead with greater speed and efficiency?”
It seems backwards, but this is the sequence Jesus chooses: sending an advance team of 70 or so followers. This is how the disciples become the apostles – 70 or so people who are given the task of spreading peace, healing the sick, and announcing the Kingdom of God.
Each Sunday, I usually welcome you to worship with the Apostle Paul’s words, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.” This kind of shalom greeting is exactly what Jesus taught his disciples to offer. But notice that this kind of shalom, or peace, is never wasted. It rests where it is welcome. If it isn’t welcome, it returns to the one who offers it. God’s peace, God’s shalom wholeness is constant.
When Jesus sent out the seventy, he warned them that the work they were to do, this Kingdom work, might not always be easy. We might think that he made it even more difficult with the instructions he gave: take nothing with you, accept whatever hospitality is shown to you, and don’t go looking for the softest bed or the best cook in town.
In other words, allow yourselves to become vulnerable, and trust in God to provide for your needs. When people welcome you, receive their hospitality with grace. And isn’t it interesting that Jesus expects hospitality from the same people who will be the recipients of the disciples’ ministry?
Instead of thinking of themselves as the givers of grace, Jesus is telling the disciples to receive grace from the very people to whom they will offer God’s peace and healing. Vulnerability and humility are to be the marks of true discipleship and apostleship.
And this is why such vulnerability is important to Christ’s mission: opposition to that mission is a given. Not everyone is going to want to hear this good news.
“Sometimes,” Jesus tells them, “your message will not be received very well. When people don’t welcome you, move on. But whether they welcome you or not, the Kingdom of God has come near, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”
When Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God has come near, he says “near,” not “soon.” You can reach out and touch it, it’s so close to you.
This is the power of proximity: When the kingdom of God is near, you get a front row seat to watch it at work. When the kingdom of God is near, you are empowered to be the kingdom to others. When the kingdom of God is near, your own weakness and vulnerability are exposed. And Jesus says, “Go anyway. Heal and proclaim the nearness of the kingdom.
“And watch Satan be defeated.”
The kingdom of God is near you. You can reach out and touch it. It’s sitting next to you in the pew right now. Jesus sends us out to offer healing, to say to people, “Here is the kingdom of God. Let it touch you and change you forever. Go ahead, you can touch it. You can touch me.”
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” (10:2). Harvest time is when you bring in all the help you can find, because there is only a short window of opportunity to get the crops in while they are at their peak. Cousins and in-laws and neighbors work diligently together from early morning into the night to bring in the harvest. They understand the urgency of the situation.
Jesus reminds us that our situation is just as urgent. It is this urgency, this need to persevere in doing the work of the Kingdom that brings us to one more realization: we cannot do this work alone.
We need each other to fulfill Christ’s call on our lives. Jesus sent out his followers two-by-two, not to echo the animals entering Noah’s ark, but because he knew how important it is to have partners you can depend on in ministry.
A partner holds you accountable for keeping the work going, just by being present. You don’t want your partner to see you goofing off, do you?
And a partner offers encouragement when you need it most, when you feel weary, and especially when your message is rejected and you feel like your work is in vain. A partner helps you stay focused on your mission: to offer healing, to spread peace, and to share the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near.
Jesus sends us out into the world like sheep in the midst of wolves, making ourselves vulnerable, allowing ourselves to be touched by the need around us. He gives us authority to act in his name, encouraging one another, rejoicing that our names are written in heaven, where we will feast at our Lord’s Table with all the company of saints. As we anticipate that joy, Christ invites you to his table.
Come to this sacred table, not because you must, but because you may; come to testify not that you are righteous, but that you sincerely love our Lord Jesus Christ and desire to be his true disciples; come not because you are strong, but because you are weak; not because you have any claim on the grace of God, but because in your weakness and sin you stand in constant need of God’s mercy and help; come, not to express an opinion, but to seek God’s presence and pray for his Spirit.
Come, for the Kingdom of God has come near to you, and Christ invites you to be part of it.