Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/0uHQZZ6Sj2U.
Pentecost 7C 3rd July, 2016
2 Kings 5:1-14
“After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to go.” This is one of the greatest encouragements to mission in the whole of the gospel story. After this… after what? Well, after Jesus has sent out a smaller group, and then after Jesus has turned his face towards Jerusalem and after he has warned them of the difficulties of discipleship, the lack of a home, the need for urgent action, the need to prioritise, then he sends out seventy to do his mission in the world. Now seventy, or seventy-two as some manuscripts have, is not likely to be a counted up number- people didn’t operate like that. Seventy is a number that represents universalism- it was the number of the nations of the earth- so it means ‘everyone’. After this Jesus sent out everyone who was with him, in pairs with a tricky set of instructions.
“Go on your way,” Jesus says- “I am sending you like lambs into the midst of wolves”. Now does that strike you as an encouraging beginning? Is it yet another warning of just how difficult this is going to be? Well, yes, very possibly. There is a passage in Isaiah that I think might shed some light on this. In Isaiah 11:6-9 it begins, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them”. It goes on to make a reference to snakes and I am sure that this passage is what Jesus has in mind. Isaiah gives us a picture of perfect peace, doesn’t he? These traditional enemies, or victors with their prey, are going to lie down together- there won’t be any death nor consumption of each other. And peace and reconciliation is what Jesus is on about throughout this section of Luke. I also think that Jesus has chosen the wolf as the symbol of the oppressor because the wolf is the symbol of Rome. These disciples are going out for a very important reason- they are sent to bring peace to their world. The first thing that they are to say is, “Peace to this house!” This is the primary message- it is the way in which the Kingdom of God has come near. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. And if the peace is rejected, it will come back and rest on the disciples. Now, that is an interesting idea isn’t it? If I were to go to a house and offer God’s peace and then be rejected I might feel disgruntled and and maybe indignant, on behalf of God. However, just like last week when James and John want to call down fire from heaven, and Jesus stops them, here Jesus tells them that their peace will return to them. They are to brush the dust from their feet and go on, and what’s more, that is what they are to tell the peace rejecting person!
Now, let me just say that the greeting of peace was the traditional Jewish greeting, “Shalom”. Jesus is not telling them to do anything very radical. They don’t have an amazing spiel that he has taught them, they are simply to bring God’s peace and heal people. That’s a great throw away line isn’t it? Just heal people! We will come back to that in a minute but I want to have a look at Jesus’ other instructions first. He tells them to “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals,” and most perplexing of all to, “greet no one on the road.” Well, the no money, clothes or even sandals seem to be a symbol of being completely dependant on God, or rather on God acting through the human beings that they encounter. Imagine going off on a trip with no preparation what so ever. Imagine putting yourself in such a position of vulnerability. And then, he tells them to accept whatever hospitality is offered to them. They are not to pick and choose, they are not to look for a richer person with a better spread on the table, they are to eat whatever is put before them. More vulnerability. They are to accept the hospitality that is offered. And as for the greeting no-one on the road, there are various ideas about that- some people think that it will slow them down, and that it is like putting your hand to the plough that we thought about last week. Some people think it is about asking directions, don’t- just go where you feet take you. But I tend to think that it is about not choosing to spend your time greeting your friends- this isn’t about the people that make you feel good, this is about the world out there that needs to hear the message of God’s peace. And it is in that that the healing comes. It is in the interior places of people’s fragile and fractured lives that the healing love of God will transform people, and in offering peace to the conflicted that we will heal.
The thing that I find absolutely fascinating about all of this is that you are not offering God’s peace out of your position of strength or plenty. You are not the host, offering the meal and the peace of God with it. You are placing yourself into the position of vulnerability to receive the hospitality and to eat what you are given and then offer the healing of the peace of God.
And what does that tell us about our own mission? Well, do we usually offer things to people- courses, baptisms, meals, programs, events? Well yes, that is how we do mission. We visit people, sometimes, but we go with a product to sell. We have this great thing, called faith, that we want to share, and others can come into our church, and belong to us, and be blessed. But this isn’t how Jesus tells his disciples to do it, is it? He tells them to eat at the table of the other. This isn’t about bringing people in, this is about taking the kingdom to them, and accepting them as you find them. And if they don’t welcome you- well, “it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town,”! So, what does this mean? Is it some veiled reference to homosexuality? No indeed! The sin of the people at Sodom was their terrible failure in hospitality. The men of Sodom, instead of welcoming the strangers in their midst, raped them. They should have opened their homes, and provided for the needs of the strangers and instead they failed in the most abysmal manner. And let it be said here that rape, particularly in the context of war, has nothing to do with gender relations- it is an act of power, a desecration of the enemy, very often, of course, of the most vulnerable. The sexual nature of the crime is almost incidental, except for the element of personal violation. The thing that Sodom is condemned for is that it failed to protect and care for the stranger.
And this rejection of the words of peace, of the solution that love offers to the troubles of the world, amounts to a rejection of God, God’s-self. Jesus knows that humankind will prefer conflict, war and oppression of their enemies, both on a small scale as well as on the world stage. We human beings so often choose hatred and fear when we could choose love and generosity.
The disciples however come back from their mission rejoicing, albeit in their borrowed power. And like everything else, their motives are probably mixed- very glad that they have been able to heal people but also quite pleased with themselves. This last section, is worthy of a great deal of attention but I am only going to give you a teaser. I believe that when Jesus says, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning,” it is an incredibly important statement pertaining to the end of the false sacred. I believe that in the taking of peace to people the disciples have broken the power of the mimetic impulse with its resulting scapegoating, and that Jesus in his death and resurrection finishes the power of this for ever. This is, however, the material not for the tail end of a sermon but rather a whole series! If you want to know more about that I can point you to some resources.
Let me just go back to the funny little reference to the snakes and scorpions, for a second. These things represent evil for the Jewish listener and the Isaiah passage picks that up as well- no reference to scorpions but certainly to snakes. There the child will play over the hole of the asp and not be bitten- here the disciples will be able tread on these terrible things and not be hurt, this is figurative rather than literal. But none of that is important compared to the relationship that they have with God- their names are written in heaven. This is not a promise of future glory but a statement of who they are now, people of the kingdom, people of peace.
“The harvest is plentiful,” Jesus says. There are fruits waiting to be gathered and we are sent out into the harvest. Is this mission difficult? Well, yes and no. If we are prepared to go into the lives of others, eat with them in their homes accepting them as they are, then we will be able to speak the words of peace to them. If we are prepared to be vulnerable in the name of the kingdom, then no. But if we are waiting for others to come in to us, and then expecting them to conform to our standards, then maybe yes, it is difficult. And we need to be people whose lives are modelling the peace that people so desperately need to hear.
However, having said that, I am also conscious that the disciples, at this minute are pre-resurrection beings, who are still in the process of being transformed. We don’t have to wait until we have it all together in our lives, until we are perfect models- what we need is a story of God’s peace and love in our lives and that is all the equipment we require. And a partner. These people are sent out in community with the support of each other, two by two. And with Jesus himself watching over them. And that is what we have as well- we can share the burden and the joy with another.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, In the name of Christ! Amen!