(preached at St. John’s UMC on 7/7/13)
After 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. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’
The Harvest is Plentiful
When I was in my freshman year of college, I attended numerous on-campus Christian organizations. Every week I gathered with a different set of people intent on worshipping God in a place where God is largely absent from thoughts, conversations, and actions. On one particular Wednesday evening I found myself in a room with ~100 other students preparing for worship. From what I remember of the event, the music was sub-par, the message was flat and lacking biblical foundations, but the people we incredibly kind and welcoming. As I made my way out of the worship space that night, unsure of whether I would return the following week, a young woman walked over and presented me with a stack of papers. “Thank you so much for coming tonight!” she exclaimed with pronounced over-emphasis, “Bring these with you to the Moffet Dorm, knock on every door, and make sure the students know that they are going to hell unless they accept Jesus Christ. Thanks!”
With the packet in my hands I made my way out of the building to the nearest trashcan, dumped the papers, and never returned.
By the time we get to the tenth chapter of the gospel according to Luke, the disciples have spent enough time with Jesus to witness healings, miracles, teachings, and even the transfiguration. After a peculiar debate about who can truly follow the Lord, Jesus appointed seventy others in addition to the twelve disciples to go on ahead of him everywhere that he intended to go. It was clear at this point that the mission of Jesus Christ in the world was expanding beyond the limits of the core followers. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. The instructions to the seventy are simple and direct: Do not be overburdened by what you carry, greet each house you enter with peace, do not move about simply from house to house, eat what is offered, cure who you can, and above all say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Jesus chose seventy people to carry out this vitally important mission to the greater area in order to spread the good news of the reign of God incarnate in the man Jesus Christ.
The choice of seventy is particularly striking considering its linkage to the time of Moses when the Israelites were wandering through the wilderness. The Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place with you.” These seventy became part of the leadership of the budding nation, and helped to carry the message of Yahweh to the people throughout their trials and tribulations, joys and celebrations. So Jesus, ever aware of the Old Testament and its ability to reveal God’s grace in the world, appointed seventy to help with his ministry in the world.
The way Jesus expanded the Gospel in the areas surrounding his ministry is relevant for how we, the church, still exist within the world today. Unlike the college ministry that I had experienced we are not called to knock on people’s doors, threatening them with hell unless they accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Jesus’ ministry rejects those kinds of tendencies and rather emphasizes three important aspect on what it means to be the body of Christ for the World
1) Reach the Community
2) Focus on the present and future
Community: Jesus commands the seventy to enter the communities where he will eventually reach. Ministry in the church is not supposed to be focused inwardly, but instead out there, toward the greater community. If the church is focused primarily on maintaining the status quo, and creating ministry for those already within the doors then we will wind up worshipping ourselves rather than God every Sunday. Much to the contrary of many Christian programs we are not called to move about form house to house trying to convince people to believe in God. Jesus specifically says in the passage this morning: “Do not move about from house to house.” Instead, the church is about making relationships with the community so that others can see and experience God’s love through us. Marching door to door, or just expecting people to show up on Sunday morning will never achieve the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth. The best way to help a church grow, and therefore participate in God’s glory, is to simply invite someone to worship that you are already in a solid relationship with. Our faith community will grow when we have something worth sharing, and we already do – God came in the form of flesh to dwell among us so that we might be brought back to God, God died on the cross for us so that we might never die again!
The Present: Jesus ministry was always focused on the present and the future while also remembering the past. It is important to remember what allowed Jesus to be who he was, figures like Moses and the stories of the Israelites, but its important to notice that he did not try to just merely repeat what had already been done. He used the past to help him envision a new and exciting future. Many of you have been with this church for a long time, there are things that you have experienced that have made this church what it is. We need to remember our past so that we might envision what the future can look like. That means that we simply can’t keep repeating everything we’ve always done, but use our story to help inform how we continue to participate in God’s kingdom today and in the future. Jesus’ ministry was always on the move, invigorating and exciting for everyone who participated in it. Our church is and will continue to be an exciting place where worship can bear fruit in our lives and the lives of the greater community, where our missions and service can help those in need within our building and abroad.
Prayer: Jesus consistently relied on prayer throughout his ministry and therefore demonstrated for us what can be a sustaining practice as we wrestle with what it means to be Christian in the world. Whenever Jesus faced a particular challenge throughout his life, he used prayer to return his focus to the one thing needful, and allowed him to fully embody the mercy and love of God in his thoughts, words and actions. Jesus commanded the seventy to greet every place they entered with “Peace to this house,” this is a prayer that can continue to help to bring all of us back together as the body. We, as a church, are similarly called to be a people of prayer who rely on spending time with God in order to reflect God most fully for the world. Without prayer we are just like any other organization. But with prayer we become God’s holy church.
A few months ago I was with Lindsey visiting her sister in New York when I received a phone call at 9am one morning from my home District Superintendent. “Taylor, I know you were probably not expecting this phone call so soon, but you have been appointed by the Bishop to your first church. (I remember sitting excited on the other end of the line, anxious to hear more) You will be serving St. John’s UMC in Staunton VA. The Bishop and the cabinet believe your gifts and graces fit with the church and we will be praying for you.” Like anyone else would, the first thing I did was Google the church to find out any information that I could. As I searched around on numerous websites, I looked at maps and pictures, listened to part of one of Rev. Meadows’ sermons, and even started looking around at the wonderful city of Staunton, until I finally found the church’s listing on the general United Methodist Church’s website database: “Thank you for visiting. You are always welcome. The church has many doors through which people share in serving God and others. Whether you visit in person or via the Internet, we hope you discover something here to encourage in your spiritual journey. Average worship attendance: 70.”
70. That number stuck with me for the following weeks. I began to pray for those seventy people, for you, regarding the beginning of our time together. I compared the number with fellow seminarians who were also discovering their new appointments. But there was something more about the number, something I could not quite put my finger on until I found myself reading from the tenth chapter of the gospel according to the Luke the week before I graduated.
“After 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. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Here we are, nearly seventy Christians just like the ones Jesus sent out into the world. How blessed are we to have such a wonderful number of people worshipping. Jesus appointed seventy of his followers to change the world, just imagine what we can be capable of here in Staunton! Through reaching out to the greater community, focusing on the present, and relying on prayer we can be the seventy appointed by Jesus to go out sharing the good news. Jesus is calling us, calling us to be more and do more than we have in the past, he is calling us to be nothing short of the seventy described in the Luke chapter 10.
The kingdom of God has come near. God has brought this church together in order to reach the community and help share the story of God’s interaction with God’s people. We have the Lord’s Supper to help us reflect on the past while looking forward to an incredible future. And we are called to a life of prayer, of commitment to the church, and faith in the triune God.
Truly I tell you, the harvest is plentiful. Jesus is sending us to be his people in the world.