Sending out of 70/72 disciples

Sermon at St James, Colwall, 7 July 2019

Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

It might be a shopping list or cricket scores, birthdays or dates in history, some of us have a problem with numbers. Arithmetic is not our strongest suit and you may know the old joke that there  are three types of people in the world – those who can count and those who can’t.

In today’s Gospel reading from St Luke there is some confusion aver numbers. We heard that Jesus sent out seventy disciples in pairs on a mission to the surrounding villages, but a number of ancient manuscripts suggest the number was really seventy-two. An early copyist may have made a simple mistake, perhaps.

But there is another issue and that is that Jesus is recorded as sending out the 12 apostles on a similar mission with similar instructions. And whilst the seventy or seventy two account is only in Luke the sending out of the 12 is in Matthew, Mark and Luke. And in all cases, they took nothing with them and were dependent on the hospitality of the villagers and they proclaimed a new age of the kingdom of God.

What we can safely say is that our Lord decided to send his close followers on a kind of training mission so that they were ready for the time after his death. Their job, once he was gone, was to spread the word and you will remember that in one of his resurrection appearances he said this: “Go and make disciples of all nations” and this has been the role of the church ever since – to preach the good news. We belong to a club which exists for non-members. We are called to bring others in.

When I was a young, rather naïve theological student training to become a priest over 50 years ago, the Principal of our College announced that we were all going to go on a mission the following term for a week. Where was he going to take us? Africa was surely too far. Perhaps some distant part of the UK. Well it turned out to be Brierley Hill, between Dudley and Stourbridge. There were about 50 – 60 of us and we were put up by members of the local congregation and for a week we made our presence felt at lots of church events and gatherings in an attempt to boost people’s awareness of their local church. At least we were not expected to mount a soap box outside Marks and Spencers and preach in the street, but whether Brierley Hill benefitted from this exercise I have my doubts.

All this reminds us that we belong to a faith that is evangelical, we are called to promote it and recommend it, but that is easier said than done. Jesus was instructing his disciples to spread the word of his arrival as the Messiah bringing the kingdom of God. Our message is rather fuller than that because of Jesus' death and resurrection and living in what might be called a post-Christian society we know that many people are familiar with the message and have rejected it or ignored it. So perhaps we do not feel like lambs living amongst wolves.

But are any of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples relevant to us? He tells us to accept hospitality wherever we go, but not to move on if offered something better. We are not to waste time on any who reject our message and he also says that we should not carry a purse or a pack and travel barefoot. This reminds me of the cabin staff on EasyJet or BA telling us to leave our bags in the overhead lockers and take off our shoes before proceeding to the exit in the event of an emergency. In other words, leave your stuff behind. Things are of no importance. Leave them behind. The best things in life are not things.

We can go along with that instruction and it may reflect a deeper idea which is that we have to make sure that our lives reflect our Lord’s values. Values before words. If we practise love and forgiveness, if we accept and welcome everyone whatever their background or character, if we fill our lives with tolerance and concern for other’s welfare we can surely hope to show our faith to the world – especially when people know what is our core motivation.

We must not be shy about our faith and hide our light under a bushel but on the other hand we are not prepared to be pushy about it and jump on a soap box because that would be counter productive and put people off. Yet there will be times when we should speak out and judging the moment to do so requires sensitivity and serenity.

So whether it was seventy, seventy two or twelve, Jesus trained his disciples to continue his work and, when he finally left them, he said “Go and make disciples of all nations.” That responsibility now falls to us and all members of his church.