The Nearness of the Kingdom

This is no way to gain a following, Jesus. This is no locker room pep-talk, no inspirational speech for sending out followers into a plentiful harvest. Sheep in the midst of wolves! Who wants to play that role?

And that is not all the bad news for these first Christian missionaries. They are commanded to go empty-handed, without even the most basic provisions necessary for the road. No purse, no bag, no sandals. Sheep in the midst of wolves. Jesus was acutely aware of how perilous the work of the gospel would be, and yet he allowed them to take no precautions as he sent them out.

As the seventy disappear two-by-two into the dusty roads before them, Luke tells us that they are empowered to share in the work of Jesus. The peace that they give will be the peace of Christ. This is why Luke is so careful to tell us that there were seventy. Just as God commanded Moses to gather seventy elders to share the unbearable load of the wilderness wandering, Jesus appoints exactly that number and then pushes them beyond their comfort zones and into the world. "Go on your way." No longer safe on the sidelines, these followers are now sent out, to share peace and table fellowship, to cure the sick, to proclaim the kingdom of God. In short, they were called to live out and practice the faith that they had confessed. And it is in the doing that the seventy are transformed from bystanders to active participants in the work of God.

And then there is the command to go empty-handed. These disciples are to carry with them no money or swords to display power, no food or supplies, no sandals for their feet. They must leave all of these comforts and necessities at home. The seventy are armed with only a message: the kingdom of God has come near. This is their proclamation and it is their promise: the kingdom of God has come near. They are to speak these words to those who offer them hospitality and to those who do not. They are to be ambassadors for Christ; they are to live into God's vision for the world. They are to practice peace, do justice, perform the faith. After seeing what they had seen, after witnessing so much pain and so many miraculous moments, these followers were sent out to be doers of the word, to be kingdom carriers.

There is something about the Christian faith that simply has to be lived to be understood. There are some gospel truths that only make sense in the homeless shelter, or on the steps of the capitol, or at a hospital bed, or in any one of the great number of places in the world where people cry out for mercy, for bread, for justice, for compassion. Perhaps this is why Jesus sends his followers into the mission field carrying only the message that the kingdom has come.

I have a friend who spent six weeks last summer along the United States-Mexico border in the states of Arizona and Sonora. Sara was working with an organization called No More Deaths, which provides humanitarian aid to migrants crossing the desert. Over 2000 people have died since 1998 trying to cross into the United States, most from dehydration or exhaustion caused by the oppressive heat and meager supplies ( Sara spent the summer handing out bottles of water and granola bars, binding feet and seeking medical attention for those who had the greatest need. When she called me from the border, Sara described the closeness to God that she felt and how deeply convicted she was about the Christian faith as she worked with men, women, and children who have been forced to leave everything behind in search of life for their families. She said, "I do not think it is because I am praying more or reading the Bible any more carefully-there is just something about being here and doing this that makes it all seem so real to me."

And Jesus sent his disciples out into the world like sheep into a pack of wolves and he sent them with the message, "the kingdom of God has come near."

We might be tempted to disagree with Jesus in so strongly asserting that the kingdom has come near. All you and I have to do is open the morning newspaper and scan the headlines to come to the conclusion that we do not live in such a kingdom. Wars rage on with little sign of stopping. Poverty and hunger claim the lives of so many while others live in comfort with more than enough. Many are unsafe even in their own homes, while others enjoy the security of gates and fences. These are not the signs of the kingdom that we would expect. In fact, if the kingdom itself knocked on our door with no sandals, no food, and no money-we might be tempted to ask it to leave us alone.

But Jesus is insistent. The seventy are to proclaim to those who receive them and to those who do not that the kingdom is near. How could they do such a thing? If the kingdom has indeed come near, what are the signs of its coming?

Let's look again at the instructions Jesus gives to the seventy missionaries: they are to enter a town, and where welcomed they are to stay-that's Christian hospitality. They are to eat what is given to them-that's table fellowship. Then they are to cure the sick-that's compassion and care. Finally, they are to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. Could it be that in the faithful and loving ministry of the disciples the kingdom of God in fact comes near?

Many Christians in our own time have begun to speak of the kingdom of God as a metaphorical and idyllic symbol of life as it will never be. But this is not Jesus' message to the seventy as he sends them out. Instead, Jesus declares that, within the mission and ministry of these believers, the kingdom of God will come near.

Walter Rauschenbusch was a theologian and a social reformer who is considered by many to be the voice of the Social Gospel Movement in early 20th-century America. At a young age, Rauschenbusch became pastor of a German Baptist Church in New York City which was located in a part of the city called Hell's Kitchen, a depressed area in which poverty, malnutrition, unemployment, disease, and crime were rampant. It was precisely in this setting, not within the ivory towers of scholarship, that Rauschenbusch began to develop his theology of the kingdom of God. Later, he would write, "The kingdom of God is always coming, but we can never say it has arrived. It is always on the way." (Theology for the Social Gospel, 227).

Dax is about fourteen years old and lives in a village outside of Iquitos, Peru, near the Amazon River. There is not enough work in this small town and so Dax and his mother leave every morning to walk the streets of Iquitos and try to sell homemade flour tortillas for the equivalent of about five U.S. cents a piece. On a good day, they are able to make enough money to pay for the bus fare back home and buy a little more flour for the evening meal. Dax and I played soccer together a couple of summers ago when I was supposed to be painting the church building in his town and he was supposed to be at school. We kept each other's secret. Dax invited me to come and visit his family in their home. We spent over an hour teaching each other new words in Spanish and English and drawing pictures that we hung on the walls. Then, just as it was time for me to leave with my group-Dax ran to the other room. He emerged a moment later with a fresh, large, flour tortilla in his hand. Dax broke the tortilla and handed me one-half. We sat down and ate together, he with the proud look of a generous host, I with tears welling up in my eyes. Dax was surrounded by the wolves of hunger, illness, poverty, oppression. Come to think of it, Dax had about as much as those first missionaries did. Dax was near the Kingdom of God. And I was near Dax.

Have you felt the presence of the kingdom in your own life? Have you had those experiences when the thin veneer of ordinary human existence is broken and the glory of God shines through? There is something about the Christian faith that must be lived in order to be understood. Jesus knew this, and so he sent his disciples out into the world with only the message of the kingdom to guide them. It was all they needed.

We can use our theology as a bludgeon with which to beat others who cannot muster the faith we have. We can shout louder, speak longer, or preach harder than anyone else. We can be absolutely sure of our right answers and the certain damnation of others. We can stay in our comfort zones, safely hovering above real engagement with the issues of faith that call out in our time. But if we do, if we refuse to get our hands dirty and our hearts changed-than we risk missing the kingdom of God that has already come near in Jesus Christ. We risk missing the terrifying and empowering journey that requires nothing but faith in God to sustain us and trust in fellow travelers to support us.

Jesus is sending us out into a complex and hostile world, like sheep in the midst of wolves. The bad news is that all we carry is a message. The good news is that the message is this: the kingdom of God has come near!

Let us pray. Liberate us, O God, from all the burdens that we carry on this journey of faith, so that we might welcome your kingdom with open hearts and empty hands. Empower us, O Christ, to share the Good News that the kingdom has come near and to demonstrate its coming through communal acts of compassion, justice, and peace. Amen.