I am sure you will recall the hymn,
Come, let us join our cheerful songs
With angels round the throne;
Ten thousand thousand are their tongues,
But all their joys are one.
One Methodist minister of a previous generation used to twist those last two lines to describe certain preachers:
Ten thousand thousand are their texts,
But all their sermons one.
You will know the sort of preacher who always seems to harp on about the same subject, whatever the Bible passage. You know these preachers are obsessed with one thing. You wonder whether they will ever broaden out and cover what the Apostle Paul called ‘the whole counsel of God’.
There is, however, one theme that keeps recurring in my preaching in recent years. But it can’t be avoided in today’s Lectionary Gospel, because it is front and centre: mission.
And if I do speak often about mission, it’s for this reason: a key element of my vision for the churches I serve is that we give mission priority in our lives. And when something is central to your vision, you can’t mention it enough. I can’t afford to allow us to forget that mission has to dominate our vision. Some people say that the church is here to worship, but we are also here for mission. Indeed, the two are connected. As one preacher put it: ‘Mission exists because worship doesn’t.’
And when you have a vision, you have to keep restating it. It’s surprising how you can certain things from the front of a church, and then discover people haven’t heard what you said. So vision has to be repeated, even if it sounds like you have a one-track mind. And I intend continuing to emphasise mission here.
So we come to this passage – one of my favourites on the subject, and actually the first passage I ever preached on as a Local Preacher On Note. Mission is a theme that makes many Christians nervous for a variety of reasons, but I like this reading, because it reminds us that Jesus uses ordinary disciples in his mission. He has sent out the Twelve in the previous chapter, but this time we read that he appoints ‘seventy others’ and sends them out (verse 1). We don’t know their names. They are the regular disciples without a high profile who are put to work by Jesus.
Not only does it remind us that he uses ordinary followers, there are themes here that address some of our fears.
Firstly, Jesus here shows us that mission has a simple approach. Think of how we have often conceived of mission. If it is evangelism, it has been along the lines that we need a lot of churches to pull together, raise a lot of money and stage evangelistic meetings in large venues such as theatres of football stadia with a big name preacher. They take a lot of organisation, and many things can only be done by experts.
Now I have nothing against the big event. I have been involved in a few, and there are occasions in the Gospels when Jesus speaks to a ‘multitude’. But we do not have that approach here. Instead, Jesus sends out the seventy – the ‘ordinary disciples’, as I have said – and they go without purse, bag or sandals (verse 4). There isn’t a big budget here. There is no importation of a big name celebrity preacher. The only big name person in this story is the One who sends these people out on their mission!
Why is this? Because at heart, all you need for mission is ordinary Christians telling other ordinary people what they have discovered in Jesus and how he has changed them. You don’t need fund-raising or an advertising campaign for that. You just need people who love Jesus.
So it doesn’t matter here that we are a small church. It doesn’t even matter that a lot of us are elderly, and that many of us have health problems. Because none of that need get in the way of us simply telling the story of our faith in Jesus at the right time to our friends, families and neighbours. Do not worry that we lack the energetic young people that some other churches in Addlestone. Do not be disheartened when you see some of the larger churches spending bigger sums of money on various projects. None of these things is a barrier to us getting on with the mission of God. All that mission takes is a bunch of people who love Jesus and who are therefore prepared to tell their story. It doesn’t require big bucks, it doesn’t mean Bible-bashing, it simply requires those who are prepared to tell a love story. And we have such people here – don’t we?
Secondly, Jesus shows us that mission has a simple principle. Again, we don’t always think mission is simple like this, do we? We think that for mission to happen and to be successful, it all depends on us. We must learn techniques, we must deploy them properly, if we are asked questions by non-Christians we must have the right answers up our sleeves … that’s a huge burden to bear, isn’t it? So much effort to expend. So many things we must ensure go right. What a responsibility!
But again, Jesus shows us that mission is rather different from that picture. Yes, there is the general need to be obedient to the call, but mission never did depend on us getting all the mechanics right. Ultimately, it doesn’t depend on us, it depends on God.
And we see that in the reading. I draw your attention to a part of the passage that seems a touch mysterious to some, but which is one of my favourite parts. Hear verses 5 and 6 again:
Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.
‘If anyone is there who shares in peace’ is an inclusive language way of saying something like this in older language: ‘If a man of peace leaves there.’ Jesus tells his followers to look for men and women of peace. He seems to be telling them to look out for people who show they are receptive to the message, and not to waste their time on those who are scornful.
But here’s the issue for us: how come there are already people who are receptive to the message of Jesus before a disciple of Jesus ever gets to them? What do we make of that? We know it happens. In the book of Acts, the Roman centurion Cornelius is somehow ready for the message that Simon Peter brings, even before he arrives. Missionaries tell stories of going to villages that have never previously been visited by Christians, and encountering people who have had dreams in which Jesus appears to them. What does this all mean?
Basically, it means that God goes ahead of us. That’s why – although we need to be obedience to the call – the success of mission doesn’t depend on us. God shows up in people’s lives before we do, and he prepares them to hear the Good News.
So when we have the courage and love to talk about our faith in Jesus to people, we are looking for signs that God has got there before us. Does something stir in these people? Are there signs of interest? Or are we just being humoured? Worse, are we simply being mocked? It’s worth persisting if God is opening up interest, but if not, then remember what Jesus said about throwing pearls before swine. The fact is, we cannot do the heavy lifting of mission on our own. If God is not lifting the weights for us and enabling our witness to be received, then move on. But if it is being received, stay with it, because God the Holy Spirit is at work and we need to co-operate.
The third and final thought I want to share on this occasion from this passage is that Jesus tells us that mission has a simple message. In the passage, Jesus puts it like this:
Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Verses 8-10)
Now perhaps you are thinking, hang on Dave, you said this was a simple message. There’s nothing simple about curing the sick! Give me a chance to expand on this. The message is in the words at the end of that quote: ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ That is the basis for all we do – the message of God’s kingdom. It is a message that God has made Jesus king of creation, despite what the world has done to him. So despite sinful people nailing him to a Cross, God raised him from the dead and vindicated him as his ‘right hand man’, and now people owe him allegiance.
When he reigns, blessings come – and that may include things such as healings. That’s why the Church Council was happy to let a group of Christians from other churches set up outside here each month for an initiative called ‘Healing on the Streets’. You may have seen them recently, and they will start in earnest come September.
We may not all have a healing ministry, but we all have ways of demonstrating the rule of Christ over our life and of others. It may be in being a voice for those suffering injustice. It may be that you can do something practical for those who are poor and in need, as the Food Bank here does. Or perhaps you can get alongside someone who is despised by society, and be an example of Christ’s love to them.
Whatever way it is, the simple message of Christian mission is that God has made Jesus king, and now all are called to bow the knee to him. This is not something we simply speak out, we have to demonstrate it as well. That is why you get the reference in the passage to ‘curing the sick’. It is incumbent upon us not only to call people to follow Jesus as Lord, but to put that into practice in our own lives and give demonstration of the things King Jesus cares about in our world by practical action on our part.
Of course, you may say that the reign of Jesus is a simple message to describe in word and deed, but a challenging one to put into practice, and you would be right. However, we have the help of the Holy Spirit to do this. What is more, the Spirit equips ordinary disciples of Jesus to engage in this mission, and that same Spirit goes ahead to prepare the way in people’s lives.
All in all, Christian mission is much simpler than we have allowed ourselves to believe. So what’s stopping us?