Seventy Others (Fourth Sunday after Pentecost)

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Every year, as the 4th of July approaches, many of us remember a few of the key people in the story of the founding of our country.  As kids, lots of learned about people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

But since I was a kid in school, we’re now learning about others who were also important in the struggle for independence.  It wasn’t just a few old, rich white guys.

For example, we know there were a lot of women involved as well, even in combat roles.  They were women like Mary Ludwig, who was possibly one of the women behind the “Molly Pitcher” legends.  But far from just carrying water to soldiers, Mary Ludwig manned an artillery piece at the Battle of Monmouth.  Her fighting spirit apparently did not diminish with age, as she was one of the few women to convince the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to pay her a veteran’s pension in 1822.

And then, of course, there were as many as 5000 African-Americans who were part of the struggle for American independence right from the beginning.  This included guys like Barzillai LewSalem Poor, and Peter Salem, who were some of the heroes of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

But for all the people whose names we now know, there are many, many others whose names we’ll never know.  The story of America’s struggle for independence involved lots of people, and everybody played some part.  And it’s important to remember that.

But this is also an important thing to remember as we read the story of Jesus.  Often, when we think about – or even read about – the story of Jesus’ ministry, we remember a few of the key people whom Jesus called to follow him – people like Peter, James and John, and Mary Magdalene.

But it’s clear that many other people followed Jesus as well.  And they didn’t just follow around as spectators – Jesus gave them important roles to play, and empowered them to be part of God’s saving act in the life of the world.

Today’s Gospel reading is an important reminder of this fact.  Luke begins by saying Jesus “appointed 70 others.”  That means, 70 people OTHER THAN the people we already know about.  Who were these people?  What were their names?  Were they all Jews?  Did the 70 include women as well as men?

Luke doesn’t tell us anything about these folks. But he DOES tell us what their mission was, and what they were called to do.  Even though Luke doesn’t seem to give us many details, it’s clear that these unnamed 70 were an essential part of Jesus’ plan, because their job was to:

  • Create community with those they met – the first part of the instruction is to wish peace to whatever house they enter and eat whatever is set before them. That is, they are to create and share community with people they don’t know.  And they’re to do this because this is what Jesus himself is doing.  In Jesus, God was entering into the life of his people, bringing peace and sharing human community with them.  And that’s what Jesus tells his followers – including the 70 – to do.  Without this, nothing else can follow…
  • Cure the sick – and this doesn’t necessarily mean playing doctor, which surely many of them weren’t.  Instead, it simply means helping people with their actual, real-life needs, whether they find that people are physically sick, hungry, lonely or in distress.  And again, this is what Jesus is doing, and so he tells his followers, whether we know their names or not, to go and do the same…
  • Announce that the kingdom of God has come near – and notice that the verb used here is “announce”, not necessarily “preach.”  That is, these followers are to show the presence of God’s love and help not only by what they say, but what they do and how they act towards others.  These unnamed 70, like all the other followers of Jesus, aren’t supposed to get up on soap boxes and make speeches.  Instead, they’re supposed to “announce” the presence of God by the way they live and care for others…

And so this story reminds us not of the names of Jesus’ followers, but of the mission that Jesus called all of his followers to participate in.  And that means that we, also, are called into this kind of following, even if we don’t think we’re particularly known or noteworthy.  In fact, Jesus has still made us part of his mission.  And that means that we’re also called to be followers who:

  • Seek to create community with others – not so that we can lure them into theological discussions about God, but because this is what Jesus wants to do through us.  Throughout the centuries, and down to today, there have been Christians who, in one way or another, have sought to distance themselves from people who are NOT followers of Jesus (or sometimes not the right kind of followers!)  But Jesus was always entering into relationships with lots of different kinds of people, and building community with them, because apart from that community and relationship, no living experience of God could happen.  And so it’s important for us, even if we’re not sure how or what God might do through us, to be in community and relationship with others, because it’s the pre-requisite for everything else God is doing through us…
  • Make God’s presence a lived experience in the lives of others – when Jesus sent the 70 to “cure the sick”, he meant that they should show people that God’s love isn’t a concept or a feeling, but a real experience.  And even when we do things like collect school supplies for kids, or bring in food for Gaithersburg HELP, we’re making God’s love a tangible reality in other peoples’ lives, even if they don’t believe in God.  The point of being Jesus’ followers is to do the work, so that the Holy Spirit has a real experience to work through…
  • Announce the kingdom of God by the way we live our lives – and for us, too, like the 70, that means more than running our mouths.  Instead, it also means showing others what our confidence in Christ looks like by the values we live, by the ways we treat each other and by the attitudes we convey, especially towards those with whom we disagree…. (this is also partly why in last Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus rebuked James and John for wanting to call down fire on people who were nasty to them…!)

This weekend is Independence Day weekend.  And while we often get more caught up in barbeques and fireworks than anything else, it’s also a time not only to remember the many people before us who fought for our freedom, but to consider how we ourselves are going to continue that story.  That is, how are we, also, going to be people who seek to advance the freedom and rights of others in our own time.

And the same is true every time we read the story of Jesus.  And that’s because the story of Jesus isn’t just a story about long ago and far away.  Instead, it’s the story of how Jesus has brought us, also, to new life with him.  It’s a story which reminds us that Jesus is always calling his followers to create community and make God’s love a tangible reality in the world around us.  And it’s a story that calls us also, like those unnamed 70, to be part of Jesus’ mission in our own time and place by showing others around us that the kingdom of God has come near.