The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9C)
7 July 2013
O God, who hast taught us to keep all thy commandments by loving thee and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to thee with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Galatians 6:1-10, 14-18
Luke 10:1-12, 16-20
The story of Jesus appointing the seventy means different things to different people. Lots of folks get hung-up wondering who they were. Can we identify them with anyone we meet by name in other accounts? Were there women among them? How were they chosen for this appointment? What does this have to do with ordination? I could go on.
What struck me reading the passage again this week were two things. First, Jesus’ statement “The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few...” rings loudly in my ears as a call to all the baptized to get to work. The second is the acceptance of human freedom that the rest of Jesus’ exhortation implies. The latter theme is also echoed in the excerpt from Galatians we read at the Epistle.
In appointing the seventy, Jesus is expanding the reach of the Gospel he has been preaching. I have the sense that seventy is meant to sound like a big number—it is a significant number certainly. He is expanding the reach of his message ensuring that the proclamation of the Advent of the kingdom of God will be heard throughout the land, far beyond what Jesus could do alone, even with a dozen helpers. Jesus seems to use these thirty five pairs as heralds of his own coming. Jesus intends to get around to each place that they go and does not use theses seventy as substitutes for his own presence. When he says, “the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few,” Jesus knows that there is much work to be done in spreading the Gospel, but on the face of it there are not a lot of people prepared to go out and do it. Jesus, therefore is seeking helpers: “Pray, therefore the Lord of the harvest to send our labourers into his harvest.” True as this must have been at that moment, it remains so today. In all ages God in Christ is seeking those who are willing to go out into the world and herald the coming of the Kingdom, spread the Good News that Jesus has inaugurated a new age in which Love becomes the priority, in which God’s purpose of reconciliation is the thread running through all our actions.
The question of who the seventy were precisely fades in the face of the realisation that the seventy could have been anyone. Anyone who heard Jesus, who met him, who came within reach of his loving embrace could have been amongst the seventy. And indeed, any of us could be counted in that number. The commissioning of the seventy is not about the ordained leaders of our Christian communities. It is about the work of the baptised, spreading the word about Jesus, living lives that show forth the love of God into the world. I am not, of course, suggesting that we head down to coffee hour in a little while and make sandwich boards and signs and then head down to the subway and shout out that “the Kingdom is nigh.” Certainly not. What I am saying is that the work God calls us to do in the world, our work to live our lives as followers of Jesus in the world, is not insignificant, but that God calls us to this work, each day and in our own way, as Jesus prays to send out labourers into the harvest.
Indeed, as we go out into the world, our message, our efforts will be met with mixed success, and this is something that Jesus clearly recognised. Sometimes the world will be receptive to the message and actions of Christian love. Sometimes, perhaps more often, it will not be. But that is OK. That is reality. Jesus knows this when he commissions the seventy and tells them just that. He tells them that their job is to get on with their own work, sowing seeds all over the place and sometimes the seeds will take and sometimes they will not (to paraphrase the familiar parable and use Paul’s language from today’s Epistle). And here we have the second thing that struck me about today’s Gospel: that Jesus recognises and accepts the reality of human freedom. Jesus’ message, the preaching of the Kingdom and the call to reorient our lives, is not forced upon anyone or delivered by coercion. No one is made to bend to God’s will. No one is forced to obey. True love never operates by coercion or force. True love works by persuasion, by the sowing of seeds.
When you go somewhere and they receive you and listen to you, great! When you go somewhere and they do not, deliver your message, dust yourself off, and move along. In Luke’s account today, Jesus does tell the seventy that when they are rejected to let the people who rejected know that there is an “or else...” involved. There is no getting around the particularly evocative line, “it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town.” Threats of eternal hell fire and damnation aside, we have to say that those who reject God’s message of Love are cutting themselves off from relationship with God, they are choosing to remain outside of a life of nourishing relationship with him and with their neighbours. But what we also know about God is that he never stops loving us. God is always inviting his people into relationship with him. It is we who have the power and the freedom to cut ourselves off from God and this is the power of the freedom Jesus acknowledges.
God is not, however, diminished by our bad actions, Paul tells us in today’s Epistle. We are, in fact, responsible for what we do: “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” That freedom is an awesome power and one we must not misuse. Jesus and Paul assume we have both the freedom to cut ourselves off from God and to come into relationship with him. They want nothing more than for us than that we come into relationship with God in Christ. As Paul says, “as we have the opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” This is the life into which Jesus and his seventy minister-messengers are calling us.
Today’s lessons are complex. In the end, however, they are calling us deeper into relationship with God, calling us to take on the challenge of the plentiful harvest and to share the Good news. They are calling us to listen to others who preach the kingdom and use our freedom to orient our lives towards God and his love. They are calling us, persuading us, to use our true freedom to love our neighbours and love God.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, 7 July 2013
© 2013 Andrew Charles Blume