This is the first of three farewell sermons (one at each of my churches) to come over the four Sundays of July. First off, a farewell to Broomfield Methodist Church:
Many are the suggestions of themes for a minister’s farewell sermon. You may have heard the story about the disgruntled Anglican curate who had never got on with his vicar. At his final service, he preached on the text, ‘Stay here with the ass while I go yonder’.
You will have nothing like that from me today. Nevertheless, I found it difficult to choose a passage. In the end, the Lectionary came to my rescue. Today’s Gospel reading brings us back to the core theme of my preaching and ministry here, that of mission in the community. So for one last time, you are going to hear me preach on this vital subject.
This is a reading that has been much beloved of mission organisations and evangelists, particularly in recent years. Yet if evangelists and missionaries find this relevant, you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s a story for the specialists, not for the ‘ordinary’ church member (as if there is such a thing as an ‘ordinary’ church member).
But I don’t believe Jesus is only addressing the specialists here. His ‘specialists’ would be the Twelve. But he sent the twelve apostles out on a similar mission in Luke 9. Here he sends out seventy others (verse 1). This passage is mission for ‘ordinary Christians’. This is an indication of how Jesus views mission for all his followers.
We se this not only in the reference to the seventy rather than the twelve, but in the way Jesus launches them with a call to prayer:
The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. (Verse 2)
Why seek more labourers? Mission can’t be limited to specialists. It needs all of us, in some capacity or another. What can we all do? We can all pray. One failing I have in public worship is all too slavishly following standard categories of prayer in the intercessions. Like too many preachers, I have not sufficiently modelled for you the need to put prayer for mission high on our agenda. Yet this is something we all need to do, in public and private prayer. I should have set you a better example.
John Wesley said that God does nothing except in response to prayer, and while I’m not convinced Wesley was completely accurate in that statement, it does bring home to us the prime importance of prayer. We sit around wondering whether this initiative or that project will work, when God is calling us not to be dazzled by the latest hyped-up claims but to commit ourselves to prayer for mission. Prayer, that is, for people to engage in mission. Prayer for God to be at work in people’s hearts preparing them. Prayer first, prayer second and prayer last in mission.
With that foundation, Jesus then says, ‘Go on your way’ (verse 3a). In 1989, Kevin Costner starred in a film called ‘Field of Dreams’. He plays a farmer who is searching for his dreams. One day he hears a voice saying, ‘If you build it, they will come’. ‘They’ turn out to be the famed baseball team the Chicago Black Sox.
‘If you build it, they will come’ is the fallacy under which many churches operate. I even heard those aspirations in some quarters here when I arrived and inherited the refurbishment project. I warned people then that it would not work in those terms, and sadly five years down the line I think we can see that is correct. Renewed buildings brought no newcomers to the congregation.
You know what I’m going to say. Jesus said, ‘Go’. Mission takes place in the world, as we share the love of God in word and deed there. Every one of us has people we know outside our church circles. God sends us to these people and others with his love.
And note there is no distinction between those who pray and those who go. Jesus commands the pray-ers to go and the goers to pray. The idea that some Christians pray for mission (and maybe raise funds, too) while others go is a false distinction to Jesus.
“But I’m nervous,” we say to Jesus, and perhaps the seventy did too, because Jesus seems to acknowledge that sense of vulnerability when he goes on to say, ‘See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves’ (verse 3b). We may not always be as sophisticated in our approach as we might like to be, we know that some people will mock us for our faith. But Jesus still sends us like lambs among wolves. Why? Because vulnerability and powerlessness are two of the upside-down values on which his kingdom thrives. Jesus does things differently from the rest of the world. His mission is cross-shaped. We are not exempt.
Yet the overall lifestyle of mission to which Jesus calls his followers is open to all of us. Not only cross-shaped, but full of simplicity:
Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. (Verse 4)
Some mission organisations take this very literally. A friend of mine works for one organisation that makes it a policy when people serve on their week-long missions that they leave behind their cars and mobile phones, and only bring £2 per day spending money. For the rest of what they need, they depend on local Christian hospitality. And most go back having put on weight!
Most of us, though, do not spend the average week on a dedicated evangelistic mission. For us, this text might be about a general simplicity. Many of us could de-clutter our lives and live more simply as a sign of the kingdom. Many of us could also take heart that Jesus only expects a simple approach to witness. We don’t all have to be cluttered with gizmos and techniques and academic knowledge. What shines through best is a simple devotion to Jesus. Do you have that? If so, you have qualified as one of Jesus’ missionaries.
And as we go simply, walking the way of the Cross, we do so knowing that God has gone ahead of us. We don’t have to engineer situations and we don’t have to force or manipulate people – all of which would be contrary to the spirit of Jesus. Jesus commands the seventy:
Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. (Verses 5-6)
God will have prepared the way for his word. We don’t pray, “God, will you wake up from your slumber and do something in people’s lives?” Rather, we pray, “God, will you show us where you are already at work so that we can join in?” Look for the signs of interest. If there is none, move on, and pray that if you missed the signs, God will show you or someone else. This is what John Wesley called ‘prevenient grace’ – that God’s grace is at work before there is human involvement and response.
If there is manifest resistance or opposition, though, we most definitely walk away. We wipe the dust of the place off our feet (verse 11) – in other words, we reject the contamination of evil. We do not judge but we warn, and we leave the actual sober business of judgement to God (verses 12-16).
But what if we do get a hearing? What kind of things are we to do and say? What will be an advertisement for the kingdom of God? We are to proclaim and share signs that God is remaking his world in accordance with his loving purposes. Jesus gives his disciples a balance of word and deed:
Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Verses 8-9)
In fact, the deed comes before the word: ‘cure the sick’ precedes telling people about the kingdom of God. How we act in the name of Jesus will be the sign of the kingdom to people. It has been well said that the only Bible some people will read is the lifestyles of Christians. If we are the kind of people whose presence is healing to others and to communities (and yes, why not risk praying for sick people to be healed?), then that is a witness to the kingdom of God. People will be curious. We then need to explain ourselves.
So the old adage that allegedly (but probably wrongly) comes from Francis of Assisi – ‘Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary’ – is slightly wrong. We preach in all sorts of ways as we seek to bless all and sundry – and yes, including those we don’t like. But a lifestyle of blessing provokes questions, and we need to be ready with our answers and our explanations. They don’t need to be academic in the way that someone like me would enjoy. We simply need to explain our hope in Jesus and his coming kingdom.
All Christian mission will have its joys and sorrows. At times, we shall be elated when we see signs that the kingdom of God is advancing, just as the disciples did here, when they returned to Jesus and exclaimed, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” (Verse 17) On other occasions, we shall be frustrated and disappointed. Much of the time, we shall just be plugging away without anything extraordinary or dreadful happening.
In all this, we must not allow the mood of the season to dictate our spiritual well-being. We need to keep anchored in Christ and in the security of God’s love for us. That is why Jesus responds to the delight of the seventy by saying,
“I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Verses 18-20)
We can’t base our security on our achievements, because then we shall rate ourselves less valuable in the day of small things, or we shall describe ourselves as not being useful to God when our physical strength begins to fail. I knew a Local Preacher who became frail and confused, and we had to stop her preaching. She still had enough touch with reality to be angry about it. Her whole sense of self-esteem was based on her preaching.
But we believe in a faith that responds to grace. By the grace of God, our ‘names are written in heaven’. By the grace of God, we are loved with an everlasting love. God’s grace and love are for us, whether we are able or not, and whether we achieve great things or not. We are loved because … we are loved.
Nothing else will give us a firm foundation in life.
And nothing else is worth sharing as Gospel.
And because we believe in a God who loves like that – even to the Cross – we have something to take to the world. We are all his missionaries.
 See, for example, Mike Breen on the ‘man of peace’; Through Faith Missions on simplicity during their ‘Walk Missions’, and Ed Silvoso in That None Should Perish for a strange take on ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’.
 Or seventy-two, depending on your translation; manuscripts vary.