Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Mission of the Seventy Today

Each week as I do my personal devotional using the weekly lectionary texts as a guide, I find a theme and write a reflection. Sometimes one of the passages does not fit the theme and so I mention it only in passing or not at all. One passage from a few months ago completely stood apart from the other passages, and while it did not fit the theme I pulled from the rest of the passages, it is the passage that has stayed on my mind since then and I continue revisiting it as event after event reminds me how relevant the passage is today.

The first verses of Luke 10 marks the first time Jesus sends his followers out to do ministry work on their own. The seventy Jesus sent may actually be a symbolic rather than an actual number, but it clearly indicates the ministry extends beyond the twelve apostles. He gave them very specific directions as to their conduct and their mission. Those same directions are ones we Christians could well heed today as we continue the mission into the world.

The first direction Jesus gave the seventy as he prepared for them to go out in pairs was to take nothing but the clothes on their backs. They were wholly at the mercy of acceptance in the towns they approached. They only carried with them the Peace of the Lord (pre-cross message of Jesus). They went out with humility before those they encountered.

His second command was “to greet no one on the road,” meaning, go with urgency and do not get delayed by distractions. They had a purpose to their journey and Jesus did not want them getting sidetracked from that purpose.

The third direction was that if they were welcomed into a house, then they were to stay there, not hop from place to place and they were to accept whatever was offered to them in the way of food and lodging. They were expected to be as good as guests as the hosts were generous in hosting. Moving from home to home projected the image that they were seeking something better than the current host offered which could shift the message from the blessings they could bestow to an implication of desiring comfort.

The fourth guideline dealt with acceptance and rejection. If the town accepted them, then they stayed, shared the message, and performed miracles as they had been given power by Jesus to do. For these towns, the message that the kingdom of God has come near was a blessing of salvation. Likewise, if a town rejected them, they went out, wiped the dust off their feet, and delivered the same message, but instead it was a notice of loss.

The directions Christ gave apply to us today - maybe even more than to those seventy disciples he sent to the towns ahead of him. We need to have that same humility in the world that the seventy took. Being Christian does not grant us any power or status to hold over those we encounter in the world. Instead, our service in the world becomes the beacon that draws people to Christ. Christianity is a religion to which one is drawn, not driven.

Jesus recognized that we need to have a sense of purpose in the work we are doing. Today, even more than in the time Jesus was on earth, we are surrounded by distractions. Work, media, family, social events - the list is lengthy. When Christ sends us on a mission, though, our entire focus is that mission.

Accepting people where they are and as they are remains one of the greatest challenges of the Christian church. The Gospel is clear that no one can become perfect to get into the kingdom of God, but after accepting Christ we have the best chance we are going to have. Unfortunately, I have heard too many messages in the media and from pulpits that affirm the message of “if you are not like us, you are not welcome.” Change your ways and then you can approach will lead to very few approaching. As the seventy sent by Christ illustrate, we should do the approaching, not waiting for those to come.

The final instruction, though, may be the hardest to follow. When the disciples were rejected, they went on their way and did not look back. There were no angry confrontations. There were no pleas to change the minds. They simply did as Jesus instructed and went on their way, wiping the dust off their feet. It is only natural that we want everyone to experience the joy, peace, and hope we have as Christians. Unfortunately, being confrontational shows none of that.

The same caution applies to any religion in the public sphere. Whether through broadcast religious-based talk and news shows or worship services, the humility, purpose, and acceptance are essential parts of the message. Sadly, as religious organizations have played a more prominent role in the political system over the last thirty years those tones have continually diminished as the leadership has been more vocal. Anyone who disagrees is in for a confrontation and stands to be attacked, especially if they have a different understanding of the scripture: believe my way or else.

Amazingly, it is exactly the same kind of legalistic, theocratic posturing Jesus fought within the Jewish establishment of his time. Most of his interactions with the Jewish leadership could be summarized with, “you have it memorized to the letter, but you are completely missing the point.” Legislating Biblical principles is exactly the opposite of what Jesus would have done.

Christianity is a religion to which people are drawn, not driven.

Legislating one sect’s beliefs guarantees a backlash against the faith as a whole. That is already being seen in the churches shuttering their doors and the empty pews of the ones hanging on. Even Christian groups that do not support the actions of the vocal minority are being harmed by the vociferous “spokesmen” for the faith. People hear a reference to faith and these are the voices they remember.

Jesus closed the experience with the seventy after their return to him by reminding them not to take any pride in the power they had in his name, but to rejoice that they were saved. He sent them out with humility and brought them back to humility. It is time the whole church revisited Jesus directions to the seventy and consider its next steps.
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