On Sunday, July 7th, 2019
The waxing and waning of the household of faith is something that you can see beginning even in the Gospels. As John tells it, first there was Andrew and another follower of John the Baptist who followed Jesus. Andrew then goes to tell his brother, Peter, and Peter becomes the third disciple. Next comes Phillip and then Nathaniel.
Within days it seems, after the baptism of Jesus, he has the core 12 gathered together,
along with the women and more than few curious people.
By John chapter 6, there are hundreds, maybe even more than a thousand. But Jesus’ teaching at that point was very challenging, and many in the crowd were following merely because Jesus had fed them in the miracle of loaves and fish. When many in the crowd realized that Jesus was not going to feed them again, and that he was really asking them to give up everything to follow him, so many left Jesus that he turned to the 12 and asked if they were going to leave, too.
This is so important to remember because the “gospel” of success would have us believe that the true Church, a healthy church, will always be one that is growing and increasing. And if your church is not growing and increasing, then it must be unfaithful in some way, or doing something wrong. The opposite has much more often been the truth. As one wise scholar once said, “If they come to it like pigs to the slop, it ain’t the Gospel.”
So many left Jesus that he turned to the 12 and asked if they were going to leave, too. He didn’t ask them what he was doing wrong. No, he knew that the problem was not his. The Gospel has never been about popularity. He just wanted to know if his core followers were still with him.
I keep in my satchel a quote about Jacob of Voragine, an Italian, who lived and ministered in the 1200s. In his day, he described how difficult it was to grow the church. He said that in the early days of the church, the preachers cast a net and drew in great multitudes. The late 1940s and 1950s seemed like that in America. But in Jacob’s day, he said preaching was more like hunting, which requires great labor, and often great patience, to finally realize a single convert. He said, “If in fishing the catch is not large, the reason may lie with the fish. There are those who adroitly avoid the net of preaching.”
That sure seems to describe our situation today. But this is how it has always been, waxing and waning. From that low point in Jesus’ ministry in John 6, his movement began to grow again, until that night of his betrayal and arrest. That night, everyone abandoned him. Even Peter, who lingered near, in the courtyard, denied three times that he knew Jesus.
Then, after the resurrection, the core 11 and the women, and a few others added up to about 120 faithful souls. They gathered for prayer daily as they waited for the gift of the Spirit. Finally, on Pentecost, the great growth and expansion really began.
The Book of Acts charts the growth, from Jerusalem in chapter 2 to 1500 miles away, 30 years later in Rome by chapter 28. It’s estimated that the Apostle Paul traveled more than 10,000 miles spreading the Good News, by foot, by boat, before Motel 6 was even thought of. By the early 400s, Patrick had carried the Gospel to Ireland. By the early 600s, disciples had carried the Gospel to China.
The passage we’ve heard from Luke offers clues about how such an amazing growth and expansion was possible. One clue can be seen in the response of those first disciples. Luke tells us that Jesus traveled from town to town, preaching and teaching, declaring that the realm of God has come near. Now was the time to come follow him. He said, “Repent, and believe the Good News.”
And people did! They saw the healings, and the feeding of multitudes. But I bet what impressed them most, what moved them most deeply, was how Jesus welcomed everyone. He completely ignored class lines and gender lines and national lines. He welcomed the poor, ate with unclean sinners, and openly associated with outcasts. In a world that was absolutely rigid in its stratifications, that was indeed good news.
So, people responded. They made a clean break with their old ways of thinking, and believing, and they became followers of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel is most emphatic about the disciples responses. Over and over Mark says, “Immediately…” Of James and John: “They immediately left the boat and their father and followed him.”
Douglas John Hall has written in a recent book Waiting for Gospel:
Christianity, as faith centered in Jesus as the Christ came to be called, got a foothold in the world, and for a vital and vocal minority changed the world, because it proclaimed a message that awakened men and women to possibilities for human life that they had either lost or never entertained.
And therein lies the challenge for disciples today, says Hall.
…the challenge to all serious Christians and Christian bodies today is not whether we can devise yet more novel and promotionally impressive means for the transmission of “the Christian religion” (let alone this or that denomination); it is whether we are able to hear and to proclaim . . . gospel!
Can we hear as those first disciples heard?
You may be thinking, “Can we hear as they heard? What difference would that make? What about the gifts he gave the Apostles? We could maybe do what they did if we had their gifts.” Can you imagine having the gift of healing? Or the gift of casting “demons” out of some poor soul? There are the stories of the Apostle Paul reviving the boy who fell out of a third story window, and of being bitten by a poisonous snake, yet surviving.
But what if two other gifts were more important? One important detail in Luke’s account is how Jesus sent out the 70 on their mission: he sent them out in pairs. As we are reading through the Gospel, this fact makes good sense. Jesus has already told them that he would face resistance, and so would his followers.
He said from the outset that he had come to set those society deemed criminals free, to heal those who had been cast aside, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor in an empire that worshiped Caesar as Lord. And so Jesus knows that plenty of folks will resist this message, whether from fear or disbelief or self-interest. When the powers of the world are challenged, all kinds of things get upset.
That’s why he sent them out in teams. When one gets tired, the other can rally them. When one loses his way, the other can lead. When one loses heart, the other can encourage. Thus, they set the pattern for the community of believers. This is what we do for each other: Console, inspire, challenge, encourage, and even believe for each other.
While I was in seminary, one of our professors told us of how he walked with another professor who was his friend, after his friend lost his wife to cancer. He knew when he was having a very dark day, and when he sensed this, he did not ask his friend, “How are you doing today.” He asked him, “How are you believing today.” Yes, even in this way can we help one another.
Jesus sent them out in pairs. How often we forget this aspect of our faith, and to the degree we do forget this, we exhibit how powerful our surrounding culture is. In our culture, it’s all up to the individual. All by ourselves, we should be able to make our way in the world.
Jesus knew better. So, for disciples today, we do very well to remember that he sent out that first group of 70 in pairs.
The other important clue to note lies in his command to them. He said they could take nothing with them. That meant that they would be totally dependent on the mercy and generosity of others, for enough to eat, and for shelter. I wonder if this makes any sense at all to us.
Make ourselves completely dependent? Really? Most of our days center on some aspect of keeping ourselves independent, safe, and secure. The last thing we want to be is a burden to anyone else. We fear being vulnerable.
But maybe that is a point Jesus wants us to understand. We are vulnerable, despite all our efforts. Our sense that we are in control is an illusion. Most of us live only one serious illness or injury away from bankruptcy. One unanticipated finding of the doctor, with its treatment, can put us in financial stress for months, or even years.
Then there is the possibility of accident, tragedy, or terminal illness. Those possibilities are there for everyone, and no amount of any kind of security can protect you from them.
We are indeed vulnerable. “And so Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs and instructs them to rely entirely upon the hospitality of others. Why? Because this is our natural state: we are stronger when we stay together and our welfare is inextricably linked to that of each other.”
We celebrated our nation’s independence this week. We like to believe in the strength of rugged individualism. But think back to those Pilgrims and Puritans who came to the shores of North America almost 400 years ago. They had a very sure sense of their vulnerability. They knew that they only way they could survive was to depend completely on one another.
Do you remember what they called the first colonies and then states? Commonwealths. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Commonwealth of Virginia. The Commonwealth of Rhode Island. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. They understood that they held all things in common, that the good of any one individual was inextricably linked to the good of all others.
Jesus sent them out in pairs to be dependent on others. Can we hear this as a good word, as Good News, as Gospel, that is addressed to us today? “We are thinking about the mystery of the gospel, and this,” as Douglas John Hall writes,
…is at the heart of that mystery: namely, that the good news always has to be discovered, rediscovered, received, and articulated ever anew. Gospel is not a once-for-all belief system, a full-blown and unchanging ideology, permanent intellectual property of the church. To the contrary, the church is the product of the gospel. That is to say, it becomes the church as, and only as, it discovers gospel for itself again and again.
“We come to know it only when and as we hear it for ourselves, day after day, age after age, changing context after changing context.”
Our culture is waiting for good news. It is waiting for Gospel. Ours is a challenging time to bear witness to our faith. But it is no more challenging than the day the 70 were sent out. If we remember how they were sent and if we let Christ send us out as they were sent out, together, depending on each other, then the Gospel will do its work. And more will be welcomed into the household of faith.
For this assurance, thanks be to God. Amen.