A recent conversation was a bit jarring for me. It was also revealing… and humbling.
I am relatively new to my current ministry in Houston, Texas. A few weeks ago, I met a man about my age. We had a lovely visit. He learned I was a pastor. I learned he was a believer. I asked where he went to church. He asked where I was pastoring and I told him. “Where’s that?” he asked. I shared our address. He paused to ponder that a bit. He has lived here his whole life, but I could tell he was foggy about our campus. I spelled it out in a little more detail. We are at the corner of two well-known Houston streets and across from one of those streets is Houston’s largest public high school. He cocked his head and puzzled some more. Finally, after I offered even more description, he expressed a dim recollection of our campus. “Oh, right. I think I know where you are.”
Perhaps you imagine I was a little humbled because here was a nice Christian man who has lived in this city a lot longer than I have, and he did not know where our church was located! But it’s worse than that. Our church campus is located less than a quarter of a mile from his own church campus… on the same street!
I don’t mean to give too much weight to this casual exchange, but I thought, “How is it possible that our church could be so hidden in plain sight?” I do not think this conversation was a commentary on the size of our buildings or about a lack of architectural impressiveness. The buildings are plenty large enough. But it had me thinking: do others in the city not even know we are here? Maybe we need to get out more! When our neighbors are foggy about our congregations, it may be because we are too - foggy about our reason for being, to be visible lights shining forth for our cities and towns beyond our well-maintained campuses. I want to explore that thought.
Heading into the middle of Luke’s gospel, Jesus does a new thing. Having spent the first portion of his ministry calling and spending a lot of time with his 12 disciples, instructing and exhorting them, preaching and teaching and performing miracles in front of them, as we get into the heart of the story Jesus suddenly does 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…”
Abruptly, the cast of disciples is expanded to include an additional band of followers, an outer ring of 70 - another group extending beyond the tight-knit circle of the 12.
Is this a good idea? All the gospels indicate that Jesus has his hands full enough just trying to get these 12 to be a well-functioning team. Now, Jesus empowers a much larger, newer group with apostolic ministry. Are these “newbies” ready for their mission? Don’t they need more of an introduction to missions, another orientation class, more personal coaching first?
And who are these additional 70 disciples anyway? (By the way, some manuscripts say it was 72.) Only Luke among the evangelists shares about their ministry. And you recall that by chapter 10 in Luke’s gospel, where we are today, Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem. There is no going back now. There is only a resoluteness going forward to the cross.
We are now in the travel narrative, a transition section, on the road between Jesus’ early Galilean ministry and what awaits him in the Holy City. The 70 are sent ahead in pairs to all the towns and places along the way to issue a general proclamation that God’s Anointed, the long-awaited Messiah, has arrived and is coming toward you. I believe the 70 represent the church, you and me. We are not the original apostles; we are those who come next. But we are appointed with apostolic ministry.
Luke 10:1 tells us that “the Lord appointed the seventy and he sent them….” The Greek sense of the word translated here as “appointed” means one who is proclaimed by an authority as now elected to a high office, an important position. Jesus says to these 70 missionaries: I am announcing that you have my authority to go forth on my behalf to let people know that I am coming soon. You are an authorized sent-one (apostle). That’s what it means to be appointed. It means Christ authorizes you to be sent like an apostle. Appointed and sent! The mission of every congregation.
What does that look like for your congregation? This is not a question to individual followers of Jesus. He sent them out two by two, after all. Mission in ministry is always a collaborative effort. Note how at the beginning or ending of Paul’s letters, he always acknowledges his co-workers in the mission field. Think of the beginning of say, the letter to the Philippians, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ.” The missional question of today’s gospel is addressed to our communities; it’s addressed to us collectively.
I suppose I am yet one more voice acknowledging these are extremely challenging days for the church in the West. It may get more challenging. Membership in mainstream Christianity has been in decline for a couple of generations now, and that downward curve is accelerating.
We are living in a changed social and global environment: Covid and quarantine and ongoing worry about this virus have done their damage. It continues. Pre-existing skepticism of organized religion exists among many we are called to love and serve all around our churches. Of course, there continues the relentless march of secularism and materialism and individualism and polarization and cultural fragmentation. Our society is beset by ideological warfare, many say - and, of course, the dangerous fragility in our global order brought on by the horrors of armed war.
And into a world that looks like all that, we hear the voice of our Lord appointing the 70, the church, and sending us forth. “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” Where? “To every town and place.” There is no place Jesus does not want to go and bring about his Kingdom. Are there places we would rather not go?
He appointed 70 and sent them on ahead. Appointed and sent.
I want us to hear the urgency here. This is a pressing imperative. It’s not just that Jesus is being a good delegator or wanting his disciples to have a useful internship. This is a dramatic moment in the gospel story. God’s kingdom is being activated and brought forth in God’s people – the fulfillment of an old promise, the Old Testament promise originally given to Abraham that his family would be a blessing to all families, this his descendants, Israel, would be lights to all the world, wherever they go… no, check that: wherever Christ goes!
And where does Christ go? To all towns and places between himself and Jerusalem. Jesus always walks sacrificially toward the world’s pain, brokenness, sin, suffering, and death. And all of that is taken unto himself on the Cross, the place where he is going, to die for our sin and suffering that we might live as those set free.
Where is Christ moving beyond our local church environments? Look to his own words as he describes his mission. As he takes upon himself the very words of the prophet Isaiah, earlier in Luke, preaching in his own hometown synagogue, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Does this shape and inspire our life together in our congregations?
Well, this is a long holiday weekend celebrating the 4th of July, our national birthday in the United States. I glanced at some sermons I preached from 9, 10, 11 years ago on this weekend and noted my upbeat and celebratory tone. I am as grateful and proud to be a citizen of this country as ever. But it does seem a lot has changed in the last decade.
It feels, I don’t know, the tone of this 4th of July is one of disquietude. It feels like a good time to take a hard look at ourselves and ask what – if anything – can save us from further unraveling. What a time for the church to be her very best! I think the most patriotic thing you and I could do for our country right now is to be Christian and to embody in our own patterns of life our Lord’s cruciform life. To live into our Lord’s clear calling as those who are appointed and sent to be agents of his love, grace, truth, justice, and peace.
I am absolutely convinced that thriving churches of the coming decade will be those that live out a clear, intentional missional consciousness. More of that than simply trying to maintain our settled status. By which I mean, what begins as contagious commitment to Christ together gets lived out in contagious commitment to our communities.
Jesus appoints his 70, that next circle of disciples beyond the original 12, to go on ahead of him… “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Simple translation: “There are more people out there in the world who don’t know me and God’s will for their lives than those who do.” Well, yes, Lord, we can look around and see this is painfully true. And so, let us pray that we would have a vision as large as our Lord’s to see the abundance of the harvest there before us.
These 70 unnamed disciples are not yet ready to be the church. But they will learn that, as they go forth and obey, Jesus’ mission is the organizing principle of their life together – of the Church itself. To hear this gospel passage again today is an invitation to relearn that as well. And I think it is an invitation to do an audit of anything and everything that we are clinging to that may impede our mission for where Jesus wants us to go.
So, here’s a question for you. What if more and more people in our communities were saying about your congregation, “You know, I don’t know if I agree with those people on everything that they believe, but I have to say I don’t know what we would do in this community without them.” The 70, we are told, returned with joy.
The Good News is that we have Jesus’ promise – he has given us his authority, his very life for ours, that we might give ours for others. And as we go together in new and powerful ways to share Jesus, we discover that he is true to the promise of his word. And it is that promise our country needs now as much as ever.