[Jesus said:] “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”
[Luke 10:3 NRSV]
The Cleveland Indians have not lost since June 15, and now sport a record of 49-30 – best in the Central Division and second only to Texas in the American League. The last time they enjoyed such a lofty post was three years ago, when they ended the season 22 games above .500.
Couple that with the Cavaliers NBA Championship a couple of weeks ago and there is reason for rejoicing in Cleveland.
Baseball teams, like those in any other professional sports, are given every possible tool for success. They are given equipment, coaching, training facilities with every exercise machine imaginable. In short, virtually everything is provided for them. And yet, in spite of that, not many of them succeed.
Our gospel text for this Sunday, July 3, talks about teams. Jesus sends out 70 unnamed followers in teams of two. As Jesus is on his journey to Jerusalem, he is preaching the kingdom of God. But now he sends 70 others to witness to everything they had seen and heard about Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
But unlike pro sports, Jesus sends them out with plenty of instruction, but not much else.
“I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves,” Jesus tells them. Now that’s and encouraging pep talk if I ever heard one. And he goes on, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandal…”
Can you imagine a team of athletes being told, “Go out into the field, but carry no glove, no bat, no ball, no helmet, no pads…”? It would sound utterly ridiculous and laughable to send a team to play with nothing. And yet, here is Jesus, sending out 70 untrained apostles on a mission totally unequipped. If Jesus were a head coach, he wouldn’t last one game!
And not only that. He warns them: “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”
This statement has become a popular metaphor in our American culture to indicate that one doesn’t have a chance. Wolves are the natural predator of sheep and not only that, sheep aren’t very smart, nor courageous.
And here is Jesus telling the 70, “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”
But we jump to the end of our reading to learn the most amazing result – Jesus’ method works! The 70 return successful. They are excited that even the demons submitted to them.
Jesus warns them, however, not to be proud, not to be too full of themselves for their part in the fall of Satan from power, but rather remember that they are on the heavenly roster not because of any skill they have on the spiritual playing field but because Jesus selected them and they were apparently good at following directions.
This is a story about mission and our role in mission. We are now those whom Jesus sends ahead of him. We are now those who are being sent “like lambs into the midst of wolves.”
If we look at the general state of most churches today, it is easy to see that somehow along the way, our mission has lost focus. We have plenty of evidence to verify that:
- Declining numbers
- Aging congregation
- Budgets not being met.
- Churches closing down
- Or churches no longer being able to afford a full time pastor.
You have to admit these facts paint a very bleak picture for the future. And yet, when churches are faced with these realities, the tendency is to work harder to recreate those achievements of the past, instead of focusing on the reasons why we got ourselves into this situation. What is God’s purpose for us, God’s people?
There are a few points in this passage I find instructive for us who call ourselves themselves followers of God. I want to concentrate on three of them.
First, they are not sent alone where they go. Neither Luke nor Jesus give us the reasons why, but it seems that there could be any number. Perhaps Jesus knows that workers are more diligent and accountable when sent in pairs. Perhaps we are safer, less vulnerable with someone to journey with. Perhaps there is wisdom in sending pairs with diverse gifts. Whatever the reason, we are sent in pairs.
Perhaps the mission of the wider church today would be better served by seeing how we can “pair” ourselves in ministry. I remember my early days as Mission Developer for a Latino congregation in Canton (which we recently decided to close temporarily for the summer – see story HERE). It was a very lonely existence. I sought advice from more seasoned pastors for the more difficult issues and concerns of my ministry. They remain dear friends and colleagues to this day.
I am convinced that without their friendship, without their counsel, I would not be writing this to you today because I would have been out of ministry. They have been my listening partners; people who, after hearing all my whining and complaining, helped me to get back on track and focus on what are the really important tasks in my ministry. I still rely on them and hopefully I have been able to provide them with similar encouragement.
We are sent in pairs for all of the reasons I mentioned, but also because it helps us to see the relationship between us as the place where God’s Spirit works and dwells. All people in ministry know that we do nothing without the spirit.
In much the same way, it is good for congregations to work together in pairs. One of the greater gifts Jesus gives his disciples, and us, may just be that of teamwork and trusting obedience. During my time as bishop, I have placed my highest priority in building relationships. We are more effective in ministry together, because when we work together, when we recall that God said it is not good for us to be alone. When we see our hope and welfare as inextricably linked to that of those around us, then we can accomplish so much more than we possibly could alone.
The second point that stands out to me is that these seventy that Jesus sent were not trained religious leaders. Today, we are tempted to think of pastors, or professional clergy, as the people who are sent into ministry. The reality is that everyone is called to proclaim that “the kingdom of God has come near to you,” no matter what you do to earn money. I’m sure these seventy earned wages doing something, but what they do now is embody God’s kingdom, with the many signs that they do helping them to reveal its presence. The sharing of God’s peace, the curing of the sick, the casting out of demons are all signs of the breaking in of God’s future reign into our present world and reality. These things do not, contrary to popular belief, require professional religious leaders so much as they require trust in God’s rule. When God claimed you in baptism, you were claimed for God’s purpose. All of us are called to this ministry, and we carry it out in any number of ways.
When Jesus sends us out he intends to use us for something big. In our routine, ordinary, humdrum, everyday lives, Jesus is working out some larger matters. We look at the church, our church, we see mundane meetings, ordinary folk, unspectacular routine, people with all kinds of troubles. Yet Jesus sees heaven and earth being transformed through us.
YES – in US; in our various board meetings, in our Sunday School classes, in our Bible studies, in our ushering, in our assisting with worship, whether as lector, assisting minister, or crucifer; taking communion to the homebound, kneeling to speak to a child, fixing things around the church, dusting or cleaning or cooking or washing dishes; in all these things and more, the kingdom of God is taking shape. God sends out ordinary folk like you and me to be a signal, a witness that God’s kingdom is breaking into the lives of people – through us.
God chooses to use flawed, fallible human beings as witnesses to God’s reign. But it’s not about us. It is always about God and what God is up to. It is testimony to both God’s power and God’s vulnerability and risk. We should expect no less from the God of the cross.
The third point is that sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, known to most of us today as “evangelism,” is not easy. You may encounter resistance, rejection, even hostility. Remember the words of Jesus: “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”
We live in a world where it seems that the Christian message is having little effect. It’s easier to just pack up and go. When watching the news on TV, or reading the newspaper, it can create a feeling of helplessness regarding all the problems of the world. As Christians, we and the church are involved in Christ’s mission of renewing the world, of bringing hatred and injustice to an end, and of establishing God’s reign of love and peace. But in the face of all the problems of the world, we often feel that our efforts are pointless.
I’m here to tell you that Church and faith is not about achievements. It is about being in a relationship with God. Everything for you was achieved in your Baptism. And just like any relationship – friendships, marriages – there are times when you feel good about the relationship and times when you don’t. The problem is that we tend to evaluate the whole of a relationship on one incident.
When Jesus sent out the 72 men to share the gospel he gave them a specific message to tell – they were to say clearly, “The Kingdom of God has come near. God has sent Jesus to bring salvation.”
What the troubled person needs to hear from us is precisely that, “Jesus loves you. He has provided the only cure for the sickness in our world. He died on a cross to give you forgiveness and the reassurance that even though you have messed up so badly, God still wants you to be his dearly loved child”.
That’s something we all need to hear again and again.
We close our liturgy with six simple words. “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.”
As you respond, “Thanks be to God,” think about this. As Jesus sent the 70, we are now the ones through whom the Gospel is now proclaimed. We are now the ones through whom others see Jesus. We are now the ones through whom Christ’s message of faith, hope and love is heard.