“Greet no one on the road?” “If anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you?” “I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions?” “And nothing will hurt you.” (Luke’s Gospel, chapter 10)
How can we, as a community of rational people take these verses seriously? Do we really believe that we live in a world governed by cosmic forces and that good and evil exist external to us, perhaps through demons and angels? There certainly are times of profound frustration when we say: ‘we have to face our demons’. There are other moments of inner exaltation that awaken in us the sense that ‘we have been touched by an angel’. We can make both these comments to friends and they seem to know that we are speaking of uncertainty and despair that have got the better of us while at other times we are overjoyed at having risen above our circumstances. The problem comes when we try to analyse these emotions.
Good and evil reside within us. They are not absolute terms; they are simply ways of understanding our uncertainties and the confusions of our world. Beyond that ‘it’s easy to make self-righteous assumptions’ (The Christian Century, Kelly Baker, ‘Then and Now: Evil Religion’, 1 May 2013). Hear the response of the commentator who spoke these last words:
The quick and convenient labels “good” and “evil” don’t help us understand the motivations behind either event. As we analyze the Tsarnaev brothers, perhaps we should spend less time labeling them as “evil” and instead try to grasp the complexity of religion’s role in these tragedies, to figure out why humans turn to violent actions. Calling something evil is not analysis; it is dehumanization.
Do angels and demons live out there? Not in my understanding of the cosmos, but I sense so many life experiences beyond my control and so many impulses that seem to invade my actions. Sometimes insecurity and uncertainty drive us to invent a supernatural world. The alternative may be to accept responsibility for ‘building a wall’ between my neighbour and me – and that is sometimes too hard to bear.
All that said, I must confess that today’s text baffles me, not least because it seems so central to Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ ministry. I suspect that was also the case for those who shaped the lectionary: they omitted verses 13-16 maybe to soften the text, but the modern reader is still left to struggle with what seem like magical incantations. What is more, Luke – accepting that he was the author – must have known that this was not literally true. The early disciples faced hostility, persecution and even death. Luke wrote about this in his account of Christian mission detailed in the Acts of the Apostles.
On a straightforward reading almost no detail is relevant to the world you and I live in. Those of us who take mission and evangelism seriously find nothing obvious here to guide our presentation. When I first set out in ministry as an Assistant Curate the Rector handed me a list of tasks: one morning a week I would meet him for prayer and reporting; four mornings a week I would visit every bed in Ryde District Hospital; five afternoons I would knock on every door in that section of the parish that extended from Vimera Road Eastwood through to the Housing Commission and market gardens that then made up Marsfield and Denistone.
I understood then that this style of ministry was based on Jesus’ direction to the disciples as outlined in today’s chapter of Luke’s Gospel. There were certainly some inspiring experiences in this cold canvas – but mostly this visitation program was defeating and deadening. Too often I was the object of abuse and contempt. If you have ever followed this sort of community door-knock you will know what I mean. It rather sounds as if this might be a good place to end the address, but let’s puzzle on together to see if there is more here than at first meets the eye.
Let’s take another look at what the text actually says; let’s read it without miracle and Satan blinkers. The story of Luke chapter 10 is about Jesus’ understanding of mission, reshaped as a model for 1st century Christian expansion. It enters a very different world to ours where preachers of various religions and cults have easy access across the vast Roman Empire. Hints about these people dot the pages of the Book of Acts. Some of them are religious showmen who performed healing miracles.
Luke places Jesus in that world of expanding ideas, with a distinctive message about the Kingdom of God. While the roots of this teaching were in ancient Jewish writings, Luke translated it into a social and political message. The healing stories are majorly about ritual and social exclusion. The blind, the deaf, the paralysed and the lepers, by the fact of their illness, were excluded from their communities. Jesus work was about restoration. The text in front of us is more concerned with the proclamation of an embracive belonging than it is with the miraculous.
We may see Jesus as a faith-healer but his message persistently went beyond the cured body to the changed community. If now you re-read the text, including the lectionary omissions, you are struck by the account of a ministry focused on cities. While there has always been a place for rural outreach, the primary mission of the New Testament writers was to the major cities of the ancient world. These were multi-ethnic societies, where slaves could gain freedom and citizenship, where women could rise in prominence and where different religions and life values rubbed close shoulders with each other.
When Luke speaks here of seventy (some texts say seventy-two) disciples sent out on mission, he means his readers to recall the Genesis chapter 10 account of the seventy tribes descended from Noah and the seventy elders gathered around Moses (Numbers 11:16-25; see further Numbers 11:26-30). The spirit that inspired Moses was there said to rest on them. Luke uses national heritage stories from their childhood to remind them that they, in the service of Jesus, fulfil their tasks as spirit- endowed people. The world as Wesley once said, was their parish; and that locates us in worldly situations. Having just quoted Wesley let me share here his great challenge that the holiness we seek is ‘social holiness’ – that is lives lived in close connection with neighbours.
We don’t know a huge amount about the seventy but we were introduced to a few of them in the preceding chapter. They were utterly ordinary people filled with doubts and uncertainty: they don’t stand out as spiritual giants. Their task was to share the heart of their convictions in the ordinary events of city life.
We need translate this for our own times. The most basic theme here is the urgency of the message. Notice how Luke puts this: twice he says ‘the kingdom of God has come near to you’. You can’t read the New Testament without encountering this term and it has a variety of meanings. Sometimes it refers to the end of the age or the summation of history, sometimes it simply means the presence of God, but fundamentally, as here, it is a political metaphor. People then as now live within power structures, or what the ancients called ‘kingdoms’. Some of those structures reflect ways of life and values that we have inherited; they aid ease of communication and help create workable neighbourhoods. But others impose restrictions and injustice.
This is a tense place for any sermon. Through the ages religious leaders have also demanded allegiance to corrupting values. If I were to here summarise the Christian message, preaching the kingdom and living the kingdom are two sides of the one coin. Its essential meaning is about the way we use or abuse the earth and those around us. That sense stands out each time we say the Lord’s Prayer: your will be done on earth as it is in heaven … for yours is the kingdom. That is what I mean by saying that preaching and living the kingdom is essentially social and political. It involves us as agents of change.
So, when in this text Jesus seems to be offering magic formulae for ministry such as:
“Greet no one on the road?” “If anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you?” “I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions?” “And nothing will hurt you.”
his intention is to stress the urgency of change. As a brief pause let me remind you of the now hackneyed story about how many Anglicans it takes to change a light bulb. The answer is 10 – one to change the bulb and nine to tell you how better the old one was.
Yes, that was intended as no more than a pause, but don’t let your liturgical caution miss the point I am actually making. For the six years up to 2006 my primary role on the senior Charity management team was to write material and to conduct management and staff retreats on workplace change. I am going to quote here from one of those publications:
To be Christian is to be passionately committed to the divine incarnated in the human. In Australia, Incarnational theology which linked evangelism and welfare, evolved slowly after the 1840s. It struggled against accusations that it was Catholic, and confused the basis of our acceptance with God.
The City Mission movement was born of this hostility. As a pioneering movement it attempted to reach the most impoverished through welfare programs; as a reactive movement it locked into a top-down interpretation of Christ’s atoning sacrifice to guide those programs. Both theology and welfare were about goodness reaching down to the undeserving.
… Incarnational theology … is about God becoming one of us. The all-powerful (the ‘global’), God engages our circumstance treating us, not as subjects, but as sons and daughters. This is the heart of grace and it is a quality offered to all human relationships.
Following divine example, a Christian agency does not exercise power over others. Rather it empowers them. The challenge for the agency is to act incarnationally, that is, in partnership with those it serves, rather than in control.
I believe that quote could stand as a church’s estimate of its own mission to its neighbourhood and that it is consistent with the image in Luke of a community urgent about human hope and destiny. All that differs is the method we use.
An obvious beginning place for a liturgical church is to review the language it uses in public worship. We accept that we are part of a long Christian tradition and quite properly words from that tradition find central place in public worship. But, as here, we also share facilities with other groups. Throughout the week the grounds of St George’s are thronged with adults and young people. How can the liturgy embrace them without attempting to own them?
I have tried to identify here a concept about partnership that forms the conclusion of Ervin Staub’s study The Psychology of Good and Evil: Why Children, Adults and Groups Help and Harm Others (Cambridge University Press, 2003, p.547). He speaks of the crucial influence of those he terms ‘bystanders’. His comment could shape this church’s Vision Statement:
… to create social change it is necessary for people to work together. To be active bystanders requires caring vales, a feeling of responsibility, as well as a feeling of efficacy, the belief that one can bring about positive ends. Active bystandership is also facilitated by mutual support, people working together for a shared cause.
What I gain from today’s text is not some ancient and outdated concept of good and evil, angels and demons but a remarkable sense of living incarnationally – that is, in partnership with those we serve, rather than in control. As I read the history of this parish and speak with many of you about what drew you and held you here I sense the importance of a supportive community and a belief that the faith we share is about breaking down barriers between people – healing their exclusion. You say this on the Notice Board where you tell the wider community that you stand in the broad Christian tradition as bystanders who embrace and accept others.
A Meditation Homily based on the Gospel reading for Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Luke’s Gospel chapter 10 verses 1-12.
7 July, 2013