At St. Andrew’s, we are constantly exploring together what it means for us to be a mission-shaped church and to share the Gospel to the wider community in both word and deed. We are soon moving into Christmas, which, of course, is a wonderful opportunity for us as a church to engage in mission with our family, friends and neighbours. So it’s a good time, in our sermon series on ‘Living Faith’ to remind ourselves what it means to be a Sharing Church: a mission-shaped church dedicated to sharing the Gospel.
And that is what this morning’s Gospel reading is about and if you want to follow it with me, it’s on page 75 of the Pew Bibles.
The story is about Jesus sending out his followers into mission. And you would think that, before he sent them, he would want to give them strong words of encouragement and to stir up their spirits and fill them with a sense of joy and hope for the mission journey that lay ahead. But he doesn’t do that, I’m afraid: in fact, his approach seems really puzzling…
Given Jesus’ approach in this morning’s Gospel reading, I’m not sure that that many businesses would want to employ Jesus as a Personnel Manager! He obviously hadn’t been on any team building courses!
There is a huge task that Jesus wants his team to undertake, so what does he say? “The harvest is plentiful. But the labourers are few”. Not much of a way to motivate the team, really: there’s a lot of hard work to do, guys: but hardly any of you to do it!
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he compounds the problem further: “Go on your way! I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves”, and “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals”.
This task doesn’t sound very inviting, does it? It’s too big for the team, we are likely to get ravaged by wolves, and we can’t take anything with us to help us on the way.
Welcome to Christian mission!
But, as we have recognised here at St. Andrew’s, we are called to be a Mission-Shaped Church and devote ourselves to this most uncomfortable of callings.
So what do we learn from this passage about the task of mission to which we are called?
1. Mission is a partnership activity between all of us and God
To be honest – we don’t really know how many people Jesus sent out in mission here: the Greek is a little bit ambiguous and some versions of the Bible say 72 people whilst other versions say 70.
Now, that may seem like a tiny matter of no real importance but actually I think it is quite important. And without going through the ins and outs of the Greek grammar, I believe that there were actually 70 people sent by Jesus. And this is important, I think, for two reasons:
Firstly, the fact that there were 70 people reminds us of the story of Moses in the wilderness in Numbers 11. If you remember, Moses was tired and overworked and the people of Israel were expecting way too much of him and working him into the ground. And, in verse 13, Moses complains to God. He says…“Where am I to get meat to give all these people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I am not able to carry all these people alone, for they are too heavy for me!”” So in verse 16, God said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel...they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.”
So I think we have the example of Moses calling 70 helpers for the mission mirrored here in the life of Jesus as a reminder that mission and ministry is not the sole responsibility of the leader, whether that’s Moses, or Jesus, or even the Vicar! No, mission and ministry is a corporate activity that we undertake together as the Body of Christ in this place, which reflects back to what we were thinking about in last week’s sermon, doesn’t it?
And secondly, the number 70 is important because at the time that was thought to be the number of nations in the world. So, symbolically, what Jesus is saying here is that all the nations of the world are to be involved in Christian mission. Christian mission is the responsibility of all believers everywhere.
Now that make us feel nervous because we don’t feel confident in our own abilities. But that’s exactly how Moses felt in Exodus 4 when he said to God, “Lord, don’t send me. I have never been a good speaker. I am a poor speaker, slow and hesitant”. But God wouldn’t let him off that lightly and said to Moses, “Who gave man his mouth? It is I, the Lord. Now go, I will help you to speak, and I will tell you what to say”.
And the same is true of us today, that if we are obedient to God in responding to the mission call, he will empower us for the task and give us the words to say. Like these 70 whom Jesus sent out, we may be taken out of our comfort zone. But we go in the power of the Holy Spirit and are transformed from being mere bystanders into being participants for the Kingdom of God.
I’ve mentioned the analogy before of too many churches being like a football match where 22 people are running around, exhausted and desperately in need of a rest being cheered on by a big crowd of people who desperately need some exercise. Fortunately, St. Andrew’s isn’t like that – we have a well-developed lay ministry here. And we do need to continually share the load amongst us, which is good because we always need to remember that mission is a community act. And that’s why, in this passage, Jesus sent them out two by two, in partnership with one another.
The call to mission is essentially a call to partnership work for the Kingdom of God and we all have a part to play in that.
2. Mission requires that we be absolutely focused on the task in hand
As a church we need to be single-minded in our commitment to mission. That’s why, in verse 4, Jesus says to the 70: “Greet no one on the road”.
It sounds like Jesus was encouraging rudeness - but that’s not really what he was driving at.
In Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries, greetings can take a very long time. I was running a Ministry Conference near Johannesburg once, and one delegate from Malawi turned up 3 days late. I asked him if everything was OK and said that we had been worried about him. “Everything’s fine,” he said. “I just met someone at the train station”. That was it: he’d met someone, got chatting and turned up 3 days late for the Conference!
Perhaps in a less obvious way, when it comes to mission, it’s easy for us to get sidetracked and forget why we are on the journey in the first place. Too often, churches operate like social clubs – a place to hang out and be with our friends. Now, of course, forming friendships is absolutely vital to church life - and if St. Andrew’s is not a place where we are forging friendships and positive relationships, then we, as a church, are doing something seriously wrong. Of course St. Andrew’s Church must be a warm community that we enjoy. But us enjoying being part of the community here is not the sum total of what St. Andrew’s is about: we are a mission-shaped church, constantly seeking ways to share the Gospel with others.
So Jesus imperative not to stop and greet anyone was not saying that they shouldn’t be friendly to other people but saying that the building of relationships was part of the task in hand and that they shouldn’t get side-tracked and forget the missional work that needed doing by becoming too comfortable. They needed to remain single-minded in purpose.
And as we continue to develop as a mission-shaped church we may find ourselves being taken by God outside of our comfort zones. And so verse 7 in this passage is really important in this regard, where Jesus says: “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide”. This may seem like an obvious thing to say, so why is it so important?
Well, it was quite a radical thing to say to young Jews, who would only have eaten ritually clean food. Because the mission they were being sent on was to the other side of the Jordan, which was a Gentile region. And if they accepted hospitality, they would have to eat unclean food. So Jesus is saying that, in order to be successful in their mission, they would have to sit lightly to their religiosity and their rituals and immerse themselves in the local culture so that there would be no barriers to receiving Christ.
Of course, that is a huge challenge to us as a church as we seek to remove any barriers that prevent others from coming to Christ in our local community. We may be very comfortable with the way church ‘is’ - but, if we are to be truly missional and embrace the wider community, it will inevitably involve us stepping outside our corporate comfort zone in order to find new and creative ways to reach out with the Gospel. And that can be as challenging as it is exciting…
So our mission is a partnership activity, between all of us and God.
Mission is a way of being that demands of us to be absolutely focused on the task in hand.
3. Mission is activity-based
This might seem an obvious thing to say, but being involved in mission is about more than words; it’s about active engagement. In this passage, in verse 9, Jesus exhorts his followers to say: “The Kingdom of God has come near to you”.
But when we look at the state of the world today, we might legitimately question to what extent that is the case; there is so much pain, so much suffering, such terrible hardship in our society and across the globe. These things are clearly not signs of the Kingdom - but Jesus does point to other signs that prove the Kingdom of God is near. In brief, there are three of them mentioned here:
Firstly, the sharing of hospitality, verse 7: “Eat and drink whatever they provide, do not move about from house to house…” The sharing of hospitality is a sign of the Kingdom. And by hospitality, I don’t mean just having a cup of tea or a meal together but that we are to share space together, to celebrate diversity, as I mentioned last week, and to encourage one another in our walk with God - even when that journey may look very different from our own. A mission-shaped church is inevitably a hospitable church.
Second, compassion and care are signs of the Kingdom, verse 9: Jesus said, ‘Cure the sick who are there”. Caring for the sick and the dying, the sad, the lonely, the hurt and the anxious, are all signs of the Kingdom of God in our midst.
Third, proclaiming the Gospel is a sign of the Kingdom, verse 9 again: “Say to the them, ‘The Kingdom of God has come near to you’”. People cannot guess the truths of the Christian faith. They need to be told about Jesus’ love and how that has been expressed through the Cross and Resurrection. Proclaiming the Kingdom, clearly in words, is an important aspect of mission too.
So, this fascinating passage has much to tell us about mission.
First, that the call to mission is a partnership activity between us and God.
Second, that we need to be focused and single-minded about mission: we need to take it seriously and be prepared to move outside our comfort zones.
Third, that mission happens in a variety of ways: sharing hospitality together, showing compassion and care to one another, proclaiming the good news.
Our prayer must surely be that St. Andrew’s becomes increasingly known as a missionary people - not because of what we do but because of who we are: a hospitable people, a compassionate people, a proclamation people.
As we allow ourselves to be shaped by God in this way, the community of Enfield will increasingly join with us in proclaiming this one, great Truth: “The Kingdom of God has come near.” Amen.