You can listen to my sermon for Proper 9C on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.
If you were here last Sunday, then you might have noticed that my sermon almost completely ignored the first half of that Gospel lesson. This was, I assure you, done totally intentionally, but to be fair, it was a pretty tough lesson. To refresh your memory, Jesus had set his face to go to Jerusalem. While on the long winding journey from Mount Tabor, where he was transfigured, to Jerusalem, where his death will defeat death, Jesus and his disciples passed through many small villages. In order to make the most of the time he had left, Jesus sent messengers, literally in the Greek Jesus sends them as angels, to each town where he was going to sort out the logistics: to find a place to stay, to connect with the local religious leaders, and to gauge interest in the message and ministry of Jesus.
The portion of the story that I skipped over last week told of a town in Samaria that would not receive Jesus. James and John, the two sons of Zebedee who are probably best known for their mother’s attempt to get her sons named name co-Vice Presidents in the Jesus administration, were quick to pronounce judgment on the Samaritan town. Remembering their Hebrew school, James and John were eager to see the punishment levied on the city of Sodom for its failure to be hospitable to a couple of angels meted out upon the Samaritans. “Please Jesus,” they pleaded, “let us call down fire from heaven to consume them.” Jesus would have nothing of it. He wasn’t worried about a town that wouldn’t welcome him, his face was set to go to Jerusalem and his ministry was needed elsewhere. He simply rebuked James and John for their foolishness and moved on.
Our Gospel lesson for this week opens not long thereafter. Jesus is now sending even more messengers ahead of him. This time, Jesus sent seventy (or seventy-two, depending on which Bible you read) with much stricter instructions. They were to travel in pairs; to carry no luggage, not even and extra pair of shoes or a change of clothes; and to waste no time with idle talk along the roadside. These are the words of a man on mission. Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. His whole person: body, mind, and spirit; is focused on the cross that is to come. In order to make full use of the time he has left, Jesus was sending messengers to prepare the way, to till the soil, and to make ready for his message and ministry when he arrives in each town along the way. As he had made clear to the three would-be disciples in last week’s lesson, there was urgency in his work now. The time to look back and worry was past, the road ahead was going to be difficult, it was going to be long, and it required complete dependence on God, the giver of all good gifts. By traveling in pairs, they had everything they would need for the journey. Each would be the support for the other. When one got frustrated, the other would press on. When one discouraged, the other would encourage.
When they arrived in a place, they were to rely on the hospitality of those to whom they would minister. Each town they entered would be offered the peace of God. If that peace was reciprocated by supportive hospitality, then the pair should stay in that place, eat what was offered whether it was clean or unclean, cure the sick, and to declare the central message of the Jesus Movement, “the kingdom of God has come near.” If the peace of God was not reciprocated and the messengers were unwelcome in the town, then they should shake the dust off their sandals even as they declared the central message of the Jesus Movement, “the kingdom of God has come near.” Whether the town received them with peace or not, the message remained the same, “The kingdom of God has come near.” For some, this will be a message of hope. Those who have welcomed Jesus will welcome news that the kingdom is coming. For others, it will come as judgment. Those who have rejected Jesus will find condemnation in the news of the kingdom’s arrival. Either way, and even to today, the central message of the Jesus Movement remains the same, “the kingdom of God has come near.”
Every Sunday, and hopefully more often than that, you pray the Lord’s Prayer. This is the prayer of God’s kingdom, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray, with great regularity, for the kingdom of God to come near. We hear in today’s Gospel lesson that it is the central message of the Jesus Movement is that the kingdom of God has come near. But, do we have any clue as to what the kingdom of God is? So much of the Gospels is wrapped up in the language of its time and place. The people to whom Jesus ministered knew of kingdoms, but all we know is that Prince William and Princess Kate make pretty children.
The imagery Jesus used in his preaching was soaked in the idioms of his time, but it often leaves us scratching our heads. If the core message of Jesus’ life and ministry can be summed up in “The kingdom of God has come near,” it would behoove us to help our people consider what that means.
Of course, we already have our answer. It comes to us in that prayer of the kingdom that Jesus taught his disciples. The kingdom is where God’s will is done. It is the place where the dreams of God are fully realized, and it is made known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. His life prefigures the kingdom. When Jesus comes near, the kingdom of God comes near. His work of healing, his proclamation of God’s love, his commandments that we love one another; this is the Kingdom that is near and available through the power of the Spirit at work in our lives. As disciples of Jesus, we are invited to be his messengers, his angels, in the world around us. We are called to go ahead to every place he plans to visit and prepare a place for him; to lay the groundwork for his arrival. We are called to proclaim through word and deed that the kingdom of God has come near.
The central message of the Jesus Movement turns upside-down the central message of the Episcopal Church. “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” assumes that people will be coming to us, knocking down the doors to meet Jesus here, when the reality is that Jesus plans to meet us out there. We aren’t called by Jesus to wait here for visitors to come and visit, but rather to be present in the community as faithful witness to the Gospel of Christ. He’s on his way to Foley and it is our job to make sure this town is ready to welcome him. God’s mission is to bring the kingdom to earth, and the church is privileged to play a role in making it happen. I take that privilege very seriously, and I hope you will too.
On Tuesday, Penny, Keith, and I will spend the day dreaming about what Saint Paul’s can do to proclaim the kingdom of God in this place. Next Monday evening, the vestry will gather to do the same thing. We may be short on cash, but that’s OK; Jesus sent his messengers out with nothing but each other and a whole lot of trust in God. As your parish leadership dreams, would you consider doing some dreaming too? Would you join us in spending some intentional time praying for the future of Saint Paul’s and the coming of the kingdom of God? You can do it simply by praying the Lord’s Prayer, but if you’d like something more specific, try this: Almighty God, the giver of all good gifts, we want to see your kingdom come near. Help us to be your messengers, your angels, in Foley. Send your Spirit to guide us in the fulfilling of your purposes that we might be faithful witnesses to your Son our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.