Sermon Pentecost 5 (Ordinary 14) Year C [RCL Resources Index]

Missionary joy

The Gospels tell us of two occasion when Jesus sent the disciples out on mission. They were to announce the coming of the Kingdom. On the first occasion he sent out the twelve and later, in the gospel lesson for today, seventy (or seventy-two). They went ahead of him to towns and villages where he intended to go:

Whose harvest is it?

The happy experience country people had of the harvest was commonly used by Jesus in parables of the Kingdom of God. A bountiful harvest was promised. It was partly to emphasise the great love and generosity of God, partly to tell of his grace in giving us far more than we can ask or deserve, and partly, as in this account, to declare the greatness of the victory that was being won over evil. For an agricultural community it was a homely way of pointing to great opportunities. Now Jesus is saying the time has come. God has prepared great things. -- ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. -- his harvest.

If we are to learn something of this for our situation of mission today, we need first to see that it is God who has brought the harvest to fruition. If we are called to help gather the harvest, it is only to assist in the final stage of his work and strategy. It is to co-operate with what God had been doing without our aid. Elsewhere, Jesus spoke also of people planting he seed, but that it is God who makes it grow and brings it to bear fruit. We may be called at times to share in the work of God, but we do not make it all happen. Sometimes I think we berate ourselves and others too much for our lack of energy, foresight or concern for the work of God in church and society. In the end it is his church and his world and it he who will bring in his kingdom. We do need to be ready to respond as disciples of Jesus when called upon, for the labourers are few, but we do not produce the harvest by our own efforts. We act in faith that God is accomplishing what he promised.

Going out in faith

That they go out in faith is clear, not only from our general understanding that it is God's work, but from the instructions Jesus gave to the seventy.

They go as innocents abroad (as lambs among wolves), vulnerable, apparently ill prepared for a journey (no money, no bag, no sandals), and with a sense of urgency (no stopping for an idle chat). It was not so much that they would find virtue in poverty or that they should lack good sense or neighbourliness, nor were they simply foolhardy, rather it was a matter of going in faith, to emphasise that it was God's work, they were his agents and were dependent upon him. In the end they would give thanks to God rather than take credit for anything that they accomplished.

Despite their apparent innocence, their mission strategy was appropriate to the situation. It depended upon a culture of hospitality. Not that everyone would be expected to welcome them as guests, but in the way that travelers and especially teachers were received in the places where they went they could expect some people to take them into their homes.

Indeed the common generosity of the people was reflected in what Jesus said about accepting what they were offered and not shopping around for a better deal.

So their trust in God was to be confirmed and they would have cause to be thankful; and they should be grateful for whatever was offered to them.

What do we learn from that? In a different culture, less generous in hospitality, we might need to travel differently; one should never be literal about these poetic images, but in whatever way we travel we need to go in faith, trusting God to provide for our needs if we have acted faithfully in a responsible way. Too often in our materialistic and technological world in which so much seems to be under our control we think we have to have everything tied down and double checked before we take a new venture. There is something to said for a church that "risks living the way of Jesus", as our Basis of Union says we in the Uniting Church will do, not because there is any special merit in risk-taking as such, but because we cannot be followers of Jesus without acting in faith.

The message

Their task to help bring in the harvest was simple enough:

Healing the sick was much the same as saying The kingdom of God has come near to you. It was the same thing in word and deed. Incidentally, one of the major concerns of the Uniting Church in Victoria, through the Commission for Mission, in recent years has been is a special effort called "the re-joining of word and deed". We have hundreds of welfare agencies which are often unrelated to the preaching of the Gospel and the worship of God, while many parishes have no connection with the practical work of the church where people in need are being served. A effort has been made in recent years to bring the two closer together again, to reunite word and deed. The introduction of the renewed ministry of deacon is another example of this concern and one of the ways we are tackling the problem. Deacons work in another kind of ordained ministry to work especially among the poor and vulnerable members of our society. Jesus himself sometimes pointed to an act of healing or befriending an outcast, or driving out an evil spirit, to show that the Kingdom of God had come near. Sometimes he proclaimed the good news by doing and sometimes by speaking.

Much the same message is contained in the greeting with which the missionary disciples entered the houses:

It was not a mere formality although it was a common greeting. The members of the household were expected to be blessed by this peace. "Peace" meant healing, wholeness and well being. That is what they could expect to receive if they accepted the messenger and his message. But if not, then the blessing would be on the messenger who brought the greeting.

The key point is that with the coming of the Messiah, whose works are wonderful, the Kingdom is coming with its healing helping and saving work of victory over the death dealing powers of evil. The disciples as representatives of the Messiah act in his name and do his work, announcing the Kingdom in word and deed.

What about rejection

It is very important in our own discipleship that we see the value of making known what God is doing without necessarily expecting people to respond in faith. We can, and should, expect some results. The harvest is there to be gathered. But God has given every person the capacity freely to accept or reject the message.That does not mean that God will treat people the same whether they accept the gospel or reject it, but disciples of Jesus must be prepared for a free response. There was no point to it if it was not a free response because if accepting the gospel is to be effective in changing lives faith must be incorporated into a unique personality. For a genuine response people must respond in their own way or not at all. Mere outward conformity is no use. The task of the messengers was to proclaim the message faithfully in word and deed. That was their responsibility, but they were not responsible for the hearer's response. They would be rewarded for their faithfulness in delivering the message. As Jesus said later:

There was to be no pride of achievement in the way they proved their power. Their job was to convey the message faithfully. One of the consequences we need to remember in times of struggle is that, provided they were faithful, just as they were not responsible for success in a worldly sense neither were they responsible for failure:

We need to remember that the consequences of rejecting the messenger and his message fell on those who rejected it:

We too often tend to blame ourselves for the difficulties the message of the Kingdom of God faces and to become disheartened. In a corrupted self seeking society with little regard for the truth and a belief that people should trust in their own strength, the message of peace, and the blessing of the poor and weak, must seem strange. When salesmen are slick and strong and wear the best clothes a message from those who act as innocents abroad vulnerable to attack hardly seems likely to be worth very much in the mainstream of society. We are likely to be treated with contempt, but it is not our job to engineer a response in these circumstance or to blame ourselves when it does not work as planned. We are called only to be faithful messengers. If we accept that we will be much less likely to punish ourselves, and more likely to maintain our effort despite rejection.

That is not to say that numbers are not important. They are, because numbers refer to people, people whom God loves and desires to know him; and there will always be some response to the faithful messenger. It is a matter of attitude - or, better, of faith. Nor should we lack concern for those who reject the message. Jesus wept over Jerusalem when they would not respond to his call. If the messenger shakes the dust off his feet, while he does not blame himself, neither does he leave without compassion.

The joy of the Kingdom

The outcome for the disciples was, however, that God blessed their faithful work with obvious success. They returned from their mission with joy:

It was an exciting experience and Jesus shared their joy:

All this is symbolic. They have seen that the powers of evil have been overcome, so the Kingdom has indeed arrived. That is cause for rejoicing. The great power of evil, a power which had been in heaven and had been a messenger of God [Job 1:6;2:1; John 12:31; Revelation 12:7] who had rebelled against God, was now thrown out: I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. It is symbolic, but it also true that what happened on the earth had spiritual significance and changed the balance of power between spiritual forces. The coming of the Kingdom is a joyful event because the evil powers which are enemies of humankind are defeated. So we have the symbolism of harmful things like snakes and scorpions being subjected to human action rather than dominating over humanity: 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.

Liberation, salvation, reconciliation, all the blessings of Christ's victory, have been given and the faithful innocent messenger rejoices in the triumph of the Lord for humanity. It is the joyfulness of sharing in far more than we could have asked or expected. It is the joy of those whose burden is light, because it has been borne by someone else. We are free to rejoice because we have been blessed with far more than we could have expected if it had all depend on us.

Of course, we should acts in mission with good sense and using the knowledge and abilities God has given us. Loyality and commitment are important. But that is not the most important thing. If it were, we would soon be broken and discouraged. There have to be big changes for mission to be effective today; but in the end if the work is blessed it will not be our doing. That is the message from gospel today: we go out in faith, trusting God to provide what is needed. All that is required of those who are sent on mission is that they be faithful messengers. Then we can expect to rejoice in the Kingdom of the Lord our God, to whom be the glory for ever. Amen.

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