by Ellen Sims
When Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem, he commissioned, in addition to the original twelve disciples, seventy others (seventy-two, according to some early manuscripts). He charged them to do two things: 1) announce the Kin*dom of God and 2) mend broken bodies and spirits. On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus perhaps was preparing others to continue his mission should he be killed.
You and I today are invited to be part of that ongoing mission. We who are ready to share what we’ve glimpsed of God’s realm and who are being healed by Jesus of our bigotry, anger, materialism, physical and emotional pain, indifference, trauma . . . we have the very same vocation as the twelve and the seventy: heal the hurts and herald the kin*dom. You and I are, to paraphrase Paulo Freire, building the kingdom while living in it.
You see, God’s realm is already here but not yet. This paradox (and theology is often expressed paradoxically) might be understood this way: the kin*dom is like a new restaurant we are preparing to open, so we place a sign outside the building that says to passersby: “Coming Soon: SOUL FOOD.” But we’ve added these words: “Oh, y’all come on in because we can at least offer you some bread and wine now.” Even before our restaurant is fully operational, we can offer this hungry and hurting world something. Even while my life is still a mess and our church is small and imperfect, we can live AS IF God’s realm is here. Or nearly. Since forever God has been serving up that good ol’ recipe of justice and compassion in the now and coming kin*dom, and we are included right now, even before the fullness of God’s ways hold sway. Let’s give the world at least a taste of the kin*dom.
We’re Jesus’s “not ready for primetime players” thrust out onto the world’s stage. Let’s attend to the script given the twelve and the seventy in Luke. Let’s consider how closely the 21st century church resembles the 1st century church? More specifically, how closely does Open Table resemble the 1.0 version of church started by the twelve and the seventy? The earliest history of the church is found in the Acts of the Apostles, also written by the author of Luke, but today’s text, with Jesus’s instructions for those who’ll carry the Gospel forward after he’s gone, gives us a foretaste of the Church. If we were to measure our faith community against the very earliest versions of the church—-before church actually existed—-how would we fare? Today’s Lucan pericope gives us a pretty detailed, extended set of instructions in this monologue from Jesus that emphasizes how to lay the ground work for creating Church. And compared to IKEA instructions, the directions for assembling the kingdom of God are actually quite easy to understand though difficult to commit to. Let me pull out some themes from Jesus’s instructions to the seventy and invite you to measure your engagement in Open Table and in the life of the larger Jesus project against the challenge Jesus gave to his followers. I’ll place his instructions in three groupings:
In verses 1-4 Jesus sends out his representatives in pairs “like lambs into the midst of wolves” (3b) and without money or other resources, depending on one another and those who might welcome them along the way. As Jesus’s emissaries, we are supported by fellow pilgrims for the road ahead but are otherwise vulnerable (Tannehill 175). “Go on your way,” Jesus instructs them in their simple mission. But contrary to what preachers of the “prosperity gospel” say, money and other provisions are not the way to point people to the kin*dom. Those who preach that wealth is a sign and a consequence of God’s favor are not followers of the One who said that “the son of man” had no place to lay his head. One Lucan scholar believes the injunction to the seventy to take no money or provisions with them is meant to stress the vulnerability of Jesus’s representatives as well as to embed them in homes where there would be natural opportunities to share about the Kingdom of God as they shared meals (Tannehill 175). Another theorizes the Jesus representatives would teach the ways of the kingdom while sharing meals as a “strategy” of “commensality” for “building an egalitarian community” (Crossan qtd. in Tannehill 175). Imagine if churches today became egalitarian communities built on mutual dependence. Open Table began, by the way, with no “purse”—-no denominational funding for our first 18-months, just a handful of strangers who met in George’s and my home ten years ago. For several months we made ourselves vulnerable to one another by sharing our stories and our dreams of what church might be.
The second section of today’s pericope is covered in verses 5-9. Verses 5 and 6 explain that Jesus’s representatives actually DO bring one thing to the homes they visit: a spirit of peace. “Whatever house you enter first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ Jesus instructs, “In the mission of the seventy (-two) the peace of the Messiah’s kingdom is being established at the grass roots, in the homes and towns of common people, not from the top down” (Tannehill 175). Emissaries of Jesus bring peace that’s not just an absence of harsh words, tension, anger—but active and palpable peace. You and I, friends, are called to enter into mutual relationships trustfully and to move into new situations gently to heal lives and announce that “the kingdom of God has come near to you.” That’s the Church’s message. That was Jesus’s consistent sermon. Caesar’s rule is ephemeral and empty and violently forceful. But God’s rule is enduring and meaningful and gently invitational. The seventy were scouts sent ahead to seed communities with a dream of God’s kin*dom. But since then countless Jesus followers down through the centuries have been authentic to his call when they announce and live in expectation of the anti-empire way of life and when we trust that it’s already here though not yet fully.
In verses 10-20 Jesus concludes his instructions to those scouts with an alternative plan in case the kingdom of God they announce is rejected. After all, God’s kin*dom is a hard sell. Might and money have greater appeal than vulnerability and communal care. So for those homes and towns that spurn God’s way of living, Jesus tells his followers to wipe the dust from their feet as an act of public protest in the “streets” (The Greek word here is plateias, which means the broad streets (not the alleys) so there’s maximum visibility of this public display (Tannehill 176).
Open Table, we can’t be all things to all people. We may at times take a very public stance that is unpopular. We may in fact push back against today’s “empire” in acts of public protest. But always we hope to follow the same instruction Jesus gave the first seventy or so representatives who announced the now and coming kin*dom: we want to speak words of peace even as we invite others into the difficult work of ushering in the anti-Kingdom, the un-empire, which is the now-and-not-yet peaceful and communal realm of God. Because the stakes are high, Jesus closes his training of the seventy dramatically with predictions that communities that do not welcome Jesus’s representatives will meet with dire consequences. Maybe those are simply natural consequence of rejecting God’s ways of peace and communal care for one another.
A little over ten years ago the very first Open Table participants gathered for a meal and conversation in my home. A little less than ten years ago we became a new church start of the United Church of Christ and designated a church in full standing in 2013. During those early years I sometimes quoted to you this line from writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” That’s how you get a boat built.That’s how we built our boat.
To this day the only thing I have to offer you is a love of “the endless immensity of the sea”—which is another way of naming my love for God in service to you.
Jesus’s simple but methodical strategy for sharing his vision of God’s realm was important: working in pairs, being vulnerable, speaking peace, creating community. But more important still was Jesus’s vision of the now and coming Kin*dom of God that was already breaking into this world and gripping some, not all, who heard of it. That vision of God, that love of God and God’s realm is like an immense sea that calls to us so powerfully that we start collecting the wood and begin taking on ship-building tasks simply because the sea is calling us. The endless immensity and beauty and majesty of the sea lures us. You and I have been sailing this ship while building it for ten years. And the sea keeps leading us deeper, deeper into its embrace.
I thank God that we are building and sailing this ship together as God beckons.
Take us out deeper, O God, as we trust you and your ways more fully. Thy kin*dom come, thy will be done. AMEN
Tannehill, Robert C. 1996. Luke.Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon.