The Sending of the Seventy: a specific example of a broad mission

This was my homily on Luke 10:1-20 at Grace Anglican Church on 7 July 2019.

The sending of the seventy, or seventy-two (depending upon which New Testament manuscript tradition you go with), is one of the classic stories in the gospels of apostolic mission and evangelism.  It is frequently cited as the example par excellence of how the church “ought to” grow.  Send people out two by two, go into the towns and villages, preach the Gospel, stay in one place (with a “person of peace”, someone who heeds your message) and invest in those who listen rather than showing the instability of one who jumps haphazard from place to place.  Signs and wonders, especially healing the sick and exorcising demons, are to be expected and pursued.  The power of God will therefore be seen both in the proclamation of his Word and the supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit.  What often happens, at a conference or workshop or sermon dealing with this subject, is that the speaker takes this story of the sending of the disciples and applies it directly to us.  What town or community are you going to preach the Gospel in?  Don’t you hear the call of the Spirit in your heart to heal the sick and save the lost?  You and your church need to organize, get out there, and get to work!  And if you don’t know how to get started then you should come to our special training program for a special low fee, and we’ll re-train you how to be a real disciple-that-makes-disciples.

This can be very discouraging.  If this form of mission sounds foreign to who I am in Christ, does that mean all my years as a believer have been misguided and shallow?  Most of Jesus’ disciples, as far as we can tell, were fairly young adults, is it too late for those of us distracted with children to raise, or in the lower-energy golden years?  Do I have to submit myself to re-education in order to be valuable to and productive in God’s kingdom?

Thankfully the answer is “no.”  The sending of the 70 or 72 disciples was a specific example of a broad mission.  These disciples were people whom Jesus had been teaching and training for some time beforehand.  He gave them particular instructions: they were to go “two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come.”  Take note of that: Jesus was going to visit those places himself; he was simply sending these disciples ahead of him to prepare people for his arrival.  Therefore, this story by its very nature cannot be an all-encompassing picture of mission and evangelism; it’s just one example in one particular region and period of time.  We are not all particularly-trained-and-called evangelists to run around the county preaching in the streets and performing miracles.  That definitely is the gift of some, but in this room I’m not aware of anyone with that exactly sort of calling.

As our bishop reminded us when he visited us this week, God uses us in ways that match our ordinary callings.  The fellowship of elderly English ladies excelled at making afternoon tea – with the cakes and sandwiches and the whole deal.  They turned that into a ministry of service, friendship, and love in a nursing home, and eventually a large worship gathering spanning multiple generations was born.  The mission of God to bring the Gospel of his Son Jesus Christ to a broken and dying world can be carried out in myriads of ways.  As we were reminded the other day, we don’t have to force ourselves into someone else’s mold of evangelism and mission; in fact to do so would only discourage and damage us.

So we learn from passages like Luke 10 according to its principles.  When you take a Bible story and try to apply it directly and immediately to yourself, some people call that “narcigesis” – instead of exegesis (drawing out the author’s intent and meaning) it’s narcigesis (making it all about you).  The Bible is a rich book, and more often than not its pages are telling us about God first, and ourselves second (or even third).  As I’ve already done here, we have to read Bible stories in context, and pay attention to what’s going on in them.  Only when we understand the story and its message can we move on to the task of application to ourselves.

So what do we learn here in Luke 10?  Here are four big examples.

  1. The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.” We have to trust that there are always people out there whom God will call to salvation in Christ.  As we minister to others in whatever ways we can, we must remember that there is always opportunity out there.  Never fall into the trap of complacency and assume that there are enough Christians out there sharing the love of Christ already.  The harvest is plentiful; keep your eyes open.
  2. I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.” The specific dangers and opposition that the 70 or 72 faced are very different from the specific dangers and opposition you and I might face today. But the underlying spiritual war is identical: the world, the flesh, and the devil will oppose the Gospel of Christ in your thoughts, words, and deeds.  Just because things get difficult, that doesn’t mean God is telling you to stop; it’s far more likely that when you face harassment or opposition that you’re on the right track.
  3. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages; do not go from house to house.” Again, this is a specific instruction to specific people on a specific mission, but a basic principle is here expressed: stick to the ministry or place that you’ve been called to.  Especially in a fast-paced world such as ours, we can be tempted to give up and move on all too quickly if things don’t work out the way we hoped right away.  There is a point where Jesus commands his disciples to shake the dust off their feet and move on.  We must remember that they had itineraries to follow, and more towns to cover; we who live sedentary lives must take a much more long-term approach to our activities and commitments in serving our communities.
  4. Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” When you meet with success, and the church grows and God’s kingdom prospers, don’t pat yourselves on the back too much.  As the disciples were not to rejoice that they had such authority over demons, neither should we rejoice at our cleverness when we see the hearts and lives of others turn to Christ.  Rather, we rejoice, we worship God, because he has saved us.  As important as mission and evangelism is, as important and significant is Christian service, these are not the reasons we gather for worship.  We worship God because he is worthy; and though we are unworthy in ourselves, he has written our names in the book of life, he has shown us his great mercy and love.  Times of worship can be encouraging, even inspiring to greater service, but the primary purpose of worship is always to praise and proclaim God, both in our midst as well as above and beyond us.

So let us keep watch for the opportunities the Lord may set before us.  When can we gather for fellowship more often?  What are we willing and able to do together that we can give to the Lord?  How can we come alongside those in our midst who already have a sense of outward calling and mission?  We are not the 70 or the 72, we need not (indeed should not!) attempt to become carbon copies of their assignment in Luke 10.  Rather, we are who God has made us to be.  Let us have the patience, humility, and joy to recognize ourselves for who we are in Christ, and then look to sharing that with those around us.

Let us pray.

Grant us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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