In the Name...
Billy Graham told the story of how he was once invited to speak at the closing service of a week-long crusade, but he arrived a day early and, without making himself known, quietly sat down with everybody else to listen to the preacher at that night’s service. When the call came for people to come forward, though, very few did. Dr Graham was surprised and tapped the man sitting in front of him on the shoulder and asked, "Would you like to accept Christ? I'll be glad to walk down with you." But the man shook his head and said, "Naw. I'm waiting till tomorrow when the big gun shows up."
In the thinking of this man, evangelizing was something reserved for the "big guns." Today's Scripture, however, tells us that anybody can do it, big guns and little shots, alike.
The way St. Luke arranges his material, he describes two occasions on which Jesus sent people out to spread the Gospel. First, he records that Jesus sent the twelve apostles and then, in the passage we heard this morning, seventy other followers. Now, according to Jewish tradition there are twelve tribes of Israel and seventy nations of Gentiles and one reading of these events has been that the twelve apostles represent the mission to the Jews while the seventy symbolize the mission to the whole world.
Today, however, I want to look at the story from the perspective, not of those receiving the message, but of those bringing the message, from the perspective of the missionaries themselves.
Christian tradition identifies the Twelve Apostles with the ordained clergy. They were the first bishops and the term "Apostolic Succession" refers to the line of subsequently ordained bishops, priests, and deacons who can trace their lineage back to them.
The seventy, on the other hand, are traditionally understood as being lay people. And, by placing these events where he does, Luke is telling us that, when it comes to evangelizing, the laity has a bigger role than the clergy. It's a task for the non-ordained as much as for the ordained.
Why was that important for St. Luke to emphasize? Well, human nature being what it is, even at this early date in the Church's life there was already an attitude that spreading the Gospel was for the "big guns" only, the Peters and Pauls, and Luke felt the need to address it. "The harvest is plentiful", he records Jesus saying to the seventy, "But the labourers are few." In other words, don't rely on the Twelve to do everything; don't leave it to the so-called professionals, the shepherds of the flock.
Actually, I recently heard a good line that only sheep make other sheep – shepherds don’t. And, if they try it’s illegal in 38 states.
By the way, speaking of legal, can anybody tell me the legal name of the Episcopal Church? There is one. The legally incorporated name of the religious organization to which we belong is "The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church." It's an important distinction. Our Founding Fathers incorporated us as a missionary society rather than as a church and the canons say that the Society "shall be considered as comprehending all persons who are members of the Church." So, congratulations. You're officially missionaries.
So, what are you going to do? Paddle off up the Amazon? Knock on doors in Kathmandu? Well, there are people who do that sort of thing and they're what we tend to think of when we hear the term "missionary." Traveling to distant lands and encountering new cultures is a noble tradition. After all, missionaries gave the cannibals their first taste of Christianity.
But not everybody is called to that particular ministry any more than everybody is called to be a priest or bishop. Mission is a broad topic which involves lots of different kinds of ministries, but underlying all of them is something which we can all do and that's the thing that excited Jesus the most in today's reading. Excited him so much that, when he heard how successful the seventy had been at it, he exclaimed, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from Heaven.”
What was this one thing that Jesus found so inspiring? Well, what was it he told them to do when he sent them out? He told them to proclaim that the kingdom of God was near and to prove it by performing miracles, specifically miracles of healing. Miracles of healing.
Now, why those? Why not miracles of walking on water, or feeding multitudes? Why didn't Jesus have his disciples amaze their friends by turning water into wine? That would have made converts. Because those particular miracles were personal to Jesus. He did those to reveal specific things about himself. Healing, on the other hand, restoring that which is broken, in body, mind, and spirit, is God's will for all creation. Nothing is broken in the kingdom of God. There's no sickness, no estrangement, no fears. And healing, putting people and situations back together, is the proof that God's kingdom is near. When Jesus said that peacemakers would be called sons of God he was asserting that making peace, bringing reconciliation, was the way we most closely imitate our Father.
Genesis tells us that when God created all that is, seen and unseen, earth and Heaven, he called it "good", but the book of Revelation tells how the peace of it all was disturbed by the archangel Satan. "There was war in Heaven", it records, and ever after Satan's goal has been to divide and tear down everything. He tried with the angels, he tried with Adam and Eve; he tries today. He has some successes. But when the seventy returned and reported what they had done, Jesus rejoiced because he saw that Satan was doomed - and not just in the distant future.
Jesus told the seventy to proclaim, "The kingdom of God has come near you." Has, not will. The fact is that the kingdom of God is not merely a by-and-by hope or dream, it is a living reality in the present and that is the vision Jesus calls us to share.
Other religions look to a remote, almost fanciful, hereafter, high up and far away from this world, but Christians do not. We actually don't believe in a hereafter. That's right. We don't believe in a hereafter. The Gospel never says that God is going to abandon the world and take us away from it. On the contrary, it says that God will renew the world so that we can live in it properly. Like with any renovation, there'll be some tearing out and discarding of things and a bit of a mess will be made, but the finished product will be basically the same structure, only improved.
The mission of every Episcopalian, every Christian, then, is to make miracles to prove that, in the words of Revelation, and Handel's Messiah, the kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. “Spreading the Gospel” doesn't need to mean going to distant lands or even winning debates. Evangelism means healing in Christ's name. And, not always by laying on hands and anointing. It isn't just about broken bones and cancer. Every time a kind word is spoken, every time an argument is resolved, every time a war is averted, every time a species is saved from extinction, every time somebody comes to accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour, there is healing, there is the kingdom.
Jesus sent out the seventy with the authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, in other words to overcome any adversity, to heal any situation and you, you have that same authority. So use it. Make miracles. Make Satan fall. And, when the really big gun of all shows up on the last day of the cosmic crusade, He'll rejoice at what you've done to make His kingdom a reality.
In the Name...