This is a sermon for the feast day of St. Luke, given as a guest preacher (over Zoom) to Parkdale Church of Christ. The Scripture it reflects on is Luke 10:1-9.
I want to think a little bit this morning about vulnerability.
That might seem like an unexpected thing; but just below the surface of today’s reading there are layers of vulnerability to be explored. After all, a lamb among wolves is pretty vulnerable! And, although – depending on your preferred translation – you’re unlikely to find the word “vulnerable” as such in your Bible, the whole gospel story, from womb to tomb, is one in which Christ deliberately chooses vulnerability for our sake, and invites us into that place of vulnerability for the sake of others.
Now this is something we often don’t want to think of. We choose to think in terms of a God who is in control, of a Messiah of power and strength, and of a church which will ultimately know triumph over all its circumstances. But if we’re honest with ourselves, the images of control, power, strength and victory are not the whole truth about our lives as they are now. Those lives – whether our personal lives with their struggles and griefs, or our communal life as a church and its challenges and uncertainties – are coloured by our vulnerability.
So it’s good to take the time, sometimes, to draw connections between the vulnerability of Christ in the gospels, and of passages like the one we had today, and the vulnerabilities of our own lives, and see what God might be saying to us through those connections.
So we see today a passage from the part of Luke’s gospel where Jesus is beginning to turn away from his time as a wandering rabbi, and turn his face towards Jerusalem and his eventual death. He is, throughout this part of the gospel, preparing his disciples for his departure, and equipping them for what they will need to do after he is gone. He has sent out groups of disciples before in this gospel, notably the twelve; but now there is a new urgency, and seventy others are sent out in pairs. Presumably these others will thus be well equipped to form a core group of capable, experienced, wise leaders in the fledgling church after Pentecost.
On a side note, although we don’t know who many of these seventy people were, in the letter to the Romans Paul mentions Andronicus and Junia, a couple who were “prominent among the apostles,” and there are ancient records that this married couple were two of these seventy sent out by Jesus at this time. That’s significant in part because it is evidence for involvement of women as leaders and teachers – apostles even! – in the Christian movement, during Jesus’ lifetime and with his blessing.
But I digress. Let me come back to today’s text. And let me suggest that it would be helpful to consider it from two different points of view.
The first point of view is to hear Jesus’ commissioning of the seventy apostles, as an invitation to us to consider how we engage with our own context. In that reading, we consider ourselves also as those who are sent out into the world – the world of our own schools, workplaces, families and social networks – with a mission. We consider ourselves as inheriting, to some degree, the task of these early apostles, in our own time and place.
And there are a number of indications here in this passage, about how we’re to approach that mission. First, before anything else, we’re not meant to engage in this on our own. Jesus sent out these apostles in pairs; and although the text doesn’t tell us why directly, it’s easy to see that engaging intentionally in mission is easier when there’s someone else to share the joys and challenges, to bounce ideas around, to keep us accountable for our words and actions, and so on. Mission can be challenging, and having a partner in mission strengthens us, gives us resilience, and makes us much more effective than we might be, each on our own.
So that’s something I’d encourage you to think about. If you’re taking seriously the challenge to engage in mission in your own context, how might you buddy up with someone for shared prayer, mutual support and care?
Then we come to the instruction to “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” What this instruction, in that context, did was make the new apostles dependent on the hospitality of others. They were not to take money and supplies enough to be self-sufficient, but would have to be able to create and sustain relationships in which others would be prepared to house and feed them. This is also part of the point of the instruction not to move about from house to house; Jesus’ instructions put his apostles in the homes and at the dinner tables of those to whom they were sent, and then meant that they didn’t just get up and leave when the conversations became challenging.
Now, our cultural context is different and I’m not suggesting we ought to apply that instruction literally today. But I would encourage you to think about that position of being dependent on the hospitality of others. How often do we, as Christians, engage from a position of cultural and emotional self-sufficiency, and even superiority; as if we need nothing from others, and indeed, could not possibly benefit from anything someone else might share with us?
That’s not the posture Jesus encourages in those he sends. He encourages humility, openness; dare I say vulnerability. He encourages us to put ourselves in a position where the people with whom we’re engaging hold the power in the relationship, and to engage with them on their terms, not ours.
That’s not necessarily easy or comfortable. It requires us to do more work in the relationship, and even to take the relational aspect of mission seriously, as the foundation without which anything else is not even possible. So I’d encourage you to reflect on the question: how are you going about building meaningful relationships with the people to whom you are sent?
And finally, the apostles are given the content of their message: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”
It would take a whole other sermon (or possibly a series) to unpack all that is meant by “the kingdom of God,” but for now it’s enough for me to note that this is a message with stark, dramatic implications. It is meant to be life-changing, and indeed life-giving. It is meant to bring light into darkness, to offer hope to those in despair, and to bring joy to those who those who are in misery. It is meant to offer a sense of identity, of purpose, and of connection. It is meant to be the reason for the radical peace which Jesus here sets out as an inescapable part of the Christian way of life.
So I would encourage you to be really clear about what the kingdom of God means in your life, and in the life of this church community. I would encourage you to be ready and willing to share what happens for you when God truly reigns. To be able to offer others glimpses of that life-changing, life-giving reality.
So much for what this passage might mean for us, as people who are sent out.
But let me suggest to you that there is another side to this reading for you, particularly at this point in the life of your church. And that is to consider what it is to be a community who receives someone sent to you.
As I understand it, Parkdale is in the position of soon receiving someone who will be sent to you as a minister; a minister with particular experience and wisdom around helping churches which are not really viable any more to grow and rediscover vitality in mission. And, alongside him, will also be sent another experienced and wise person to serve on your board, to bring support in governance and oversight, and help you renew this church’s vision and mission.
And I would suggest that this reading makes some suggestions about what it is to receive such leadership support, as well. While your new helpers are not exactly in the same position as these early apostles, they are coming alongside you to help you with particular tasks and needs. And that is not always an easy reality for a church to navigate.
You will need to face honestly and bravely the emotions around this; grief that the church has come to this; perhaps shame or a sense of having “failed;” frustration and anger and the temptation to blame others, or even oneself, for the difficult position the church finds itself in; fear of loss of control over a church that means so much to many of you, and has done for decades now; fear that decline is inevitable. And so on.
I know that in speaking like this I may hit sensitive spots, and I apologise if it is painful to hear me speak so frankly; but I have known all of you, and been connected to the life of this church so long, (if somewhat at a distance more recently), that I hope you will hear that I am speaking to you with genuine love and concern for the next phase of your life.
These emotions are real, and the reasons for them are not trivial. In many cases they come out of deep devotion and long, long years of self-sacrifice and service. They sit alongside the frustrated hopes and the many lost moments of potential that have been a real burden to you.
And into all of that are walking these newcomers, offering their gifts, and making themselves vulnerable to you, in the sort of way that I’ve been talking about above. This is not easy for them or for you. You will inevitably bring to the table different perspectives, different experiences, different expectations, different values, and different hopes. And somehow, in all of that, the challenge is to trust that God is at work, that the kingdom of God has come near to you, and that the reign of God will be transformative, life-changing and life-giving, as much to you as a church, as to those earliest Judean communities.
So what does that suggest about how you receive these modern-day apostles?
If they are invited to make themselves vulnerable to you, you are invited to be hospitable to them. Here I don’t so much mean in terms of things like eating and drinking, but in terms of the intellectual and emotional room you make for what they bring. For your ability to host their perspectives, experiences, suggestions, and so on; not dismissing them as different or foreign to the way Parkdale has always been, but truly being open to what God might be up to through them. (After all, Jesus sent his apostles to people who needed to entertain and, eventually, come to accept and act upon new ideas and perspectives; and it may very well be the same for you).
This reading makes it clear that peace is God’s expectation both of the people he sends and the communities who receive them. Peace is not just the absence of conflict, but the reality of personal and communal flourishing. Peace is not something which happens by accident, but needs to be intentionally cultivated.
What does it mean to cultivate peace, in the midst of all that is going on for you? Peace within yourself before God, peace with one another, peace and harmonious working with newcomers, peace in your outlook beyond your church. That’s an important question which I would encourage you to reflect on over the coming weeks.
The key message of today’s reading is that, “the kingdom of God has come near to you.” The kingdom of God is always near to us; and yet the kingdom of God always has more on offer than we have already realised. The challenge in times of change is to see how God’s reign is bringing that “more” to the front of our experience, and to engage with God’s reign in ways which are transformative and life-giving for ourselves, our church and the world around us.
That takes humility and openness. It takes vulnerability, and willingness to let God be in control. Parkdale has done that faithfully over many decades, and I look forward to seeing you rise to the challenge again, discovering a renewed sense of purpose, and new depths of hope and joy, as you move into this next phase of your life.