Sermon – July 7, 2019, Proper 9, Year C
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
One of the most vexing challenges for Christians in twenty-first century America is how to bring others to church. Many churches are seeing their numbers drop, and some are having to close their doors. American Christians are too often ill equipped to do what has to be the most basic and fundamental thing that Christians are called to do. And that is to evangelize.
We often rely on techniques that were developed for the culture that existed in the 1950s and 60s but which no longer produce results. Back in those days, it was figured that pretty much everybody went to a church and so the challenge was how to convince them to come to our church. And so the whole enterprise for growing your church was to figure out how to get people through the doors of your church. The thinking goes that people are already believers and that once they step through the doors of your church, they will be so impressed with your preaching and Sunday School and music and coffee that they will keep coming back. The problem is that today, most people don’t have any interest in going to church in the first place. They can hear better music on Spotify, get better coffee at Starbucks, and their kids already have enough programs. What’s more, going to church is becoming increasingly costly in terms of social and economic status.
If this is our church growth strategy we will fail. People aren’t interested in attending church unless they have already heard the Gospel. Coming to church is almost never something that people do before they have had the Gospel shared with them. So how can we share the Gospel with members of our community?
Our lesson today from Luke gives us some great words of advice. We might think that our passage in Luke couldn’t possibly apply to us today since it was written so long ago, but I think we’d be wrong. In many important ways, our American culture today is more similar to the Roman culture of Jesus’ day than it is to American culture of 50 years ago. In the time of Jesus, there was a pluralistic religious culture which accepted many religions. But no religion was permitted to claim to be the one true religion or challenge the dominant Roman civil religion. The teachings of Jesus were seen not only as a threat to the Jewish religious leaders, but increasingly to the Roman civil religion.
Today in America we also have a very pluralistic religious culture which frowns on any religion that claims to be uniquely and exclusively true. Christianity is increasingly seen as a challenge to American civic religion. Christians are okay as long as they don’t rock the cultural boat. And this is true no matter what your political perspective. Just as following Jesus was frowned on by the Roman and Jewish cultural leaders back then, so truly following Jesus today will not win us any popularity contests. This impacts how we do evangelism.
For the first three hundred years of its existence, the Church thrived in a context in which it was severely persecuted. I remember visiting the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey twelve years ago and seeing a faint fish drawing on a paving stone. Our tour guide told us that this was the secret sign used by Christians to identify themselves to one another. Christians had to be careful because the government and religious authorities wanted to eradicate the church, and many of their neighbors would have been only too happy to turn them in. Remember that the Apostle Paul before his conversion traveled around trying to find Christians to persecute.
I want us to think about what this means for how the early Christians did evangelism. Christians continued to meet together during these times for what we would call church services. Yet it would have been madness for them to invite unvetted outsiders in. Outsiders were not invited to attend church until they had already been converted to the Gospel. Worship and the sharing of communion was strictly for believers. This was not an era of seeker sensitive services. And yet, this was the period of the greatest church growth ever and is only ever replicated in times of persecution of the church. How can this be? How can the periods of greatest church growth happen when you can’t actually bring outsiders to church?
Let’s turn to our passage from Luke where we can find some answers. Our passage begins with two very important words “After this”. We’d be wise to ask “after what?” Well, after several important things that happened in chapter 9 and which we will discuss along the way. The first thing to note is that this comes after Jesus sent out the Twelve with very similar instructions in the beginning of chapter 9. Why is this significant? The Twelve represent the disciples of Jesus. They were the inner core, the leaders, and Jesus certainly sent them out to preach the Gospel. But in today’s passage, Jesus also sends out the Seventy-Two. The Seventy-Two is a large number with symbolic meaning. It symbolized completeness and so Jesus sending out the Seventy-Two is his way of saying that he intends all of his followers to be sent out to preach the Gospel. The task of evangelizing falls upon each one of us here today just as much as it falls on Pastor Barbara or Bishop Megan or any other clergy.
The second thing to note is that there is an urgency in the air. Immediately before our passage today, at the end of chapter 9, Jesus makes it very clear that his call is not something people can put off till later. We read this last week and it might sound a little harsh to us when Jesus tells us that the dead can bury their own dead. But the point that Jesus is making is that the Gospel is either the most important thing in our lives, or it has no meaning. It can’t be something we just dabble in when we have spare time.
This is the context in which today’s lesson sits. Turning to our passage, we see that Jesus sent out his followers two-by-two ahead of him. Every word here is important as there are key lessons. First, Jesus sent his followers out. He did not send his followers out to round people up and bring them to church. No, he sent his followers out to where the people were. Each team would enter a village and, if they were welcomed, they would heal the sick and tell them about Jesus. This is our task also. We are not called to round people up and bring them to church so that they can hear the Gospel. No, we are called to meet people wherever we may be in our lives and do what we can to bring healing to them and tell them about Jesus.
Second, Jesus sent them out two-by-two. Evangelism need not be a solitary endeavor. We are all part of the body of Christ, and often it can be very helpful having another person with us. Jesus does not expect us to be alone.
Third, note carefully that Jesus sent out these teams to go “ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.” The teams went ahead of Jesus to prepare the way. And this is our task as evangelists as well. It is not our role to convert people – that is the task of the Holy Spirit. It is our job to bring what healing we can to people and share with them the Gospel of Jesus. I think that one reason we are often reluctant to share the Gospel is because we think we need to be salespeople out to close the sale with a reluctant buyer. And, all too often, this is exactly the impression that some evangelists in popular culture give off. But that is not what Jesus is calling us to do.
When we bought our first new car five years ago, I learned how car dealers typically work. There is one guy whose job it is to show you the car, and tell you all about its features. If you are interested, he passes you on to the salesperson whose job it is to actually sell you the car. Our role is more like the first person. Our role is to share the Gospel and tell others about it.
There are three more lessons to take from this passage before I finish. Jesus tells the seventy-two that he was sending them out like lambs among wolves. Think about that metaphor. Lambs among wolves. We discussed earlier how being a follower of Jesus would have invited persecution back in those days, and how it can even have a serious cost today. I can tell you that about fifteen years ago I had applied for a job at a law school in the mid-west and sometime after my interview I received a call from the very embarrassed library director asking me what kind of Christian I was, because one of the professors at his school had noticed my theology degree on my resume and had declared that she didn’t want an annoying Christian working at her school. So, yes, we need to be prepared that we will be putting ourselves at risk when we share the Gospel.
This leads me to our next lesson. Jesus tells his followers that if a village does not welcome them, they are to shake the dust off their feet as a warning to them. Now at first glance, we might think this is being harsh and judgmental. But it isn’t. In chapter 9, there is a story of Jesus passing through a village that rejected him at which the disciples became very angry and asked Jesus “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus rebuked them. Context matters. This event happened just a few verses before our reading today. Luke is making a very important point. The disciples wanted vengeance against the village that rejected Jesus, but Jesus shut that idea down immediately. That’s not what Jesus was about. Instead, Jesus instructed his followers to peacefully leave a village where they were not welcomed but to issue them a clear warning.
Christians today can fall into opposite errors when confronting our hostile culture. Sometimes, we become angry and want to teach somebody a lesson. We take on the attitude of a warrior seeking vengeance against those who would disrespect our tribe. This is a very human response and yet the antithesis of the Gospel. On the other hand, another error is to refuse to warn someone of the consequences of rejecting God. We think that warning someone against rejecting God is judgmental but that affirming them in their rejection is kind and loving. This would be like telling a person that refuses to leave a house on fire that there is nothing to worry about even as they are about to be overcome by the smoke and heat. Both of these are natural human responses, but neither is actually loving to the person or the culture. Jesus calls us to love those that reject him, but to be clear about the consequences, because there are consequences.
The final lesson to draw lies in what Jesus instructed his followers to do when they entered a town that welcomed them. Listen to this list. They were to enter the town and the first thing they were to do is give a greeting of peace. Then they were to heal the sick, eat and drink with the people, and stay among them and teach them about the kingdom of God. This wasn’t just an intellectual exercise. It wasn’t just telling people about something. Yes, telling people about the Gospel was a necessary part, but Jesus called his followers to do more. They were to dwell among the people, sharing meals, and bringing healing.
This last point brings to mind some very pertinent reflections from our new bishop on the occasion of her consecration a week ago. Bishop Megan gives us a few short and succinct teachings that seem ideally suited for our passage today.
In one teaching Bishop Megan writes “This is the rewarding challenge to congregations – of any size and location – to become deeply (or more deeply) engaged in our surrounding community. If God has pitched his tent among us in the Incarnation then we must do the same, becoming known as true neighbors to those around our places of worship. Each parish has a set of gifts that can uniquely meet community needs around them. Finding that overlap is the work of trust and the Holy Spirit and is a source of great missionary energy.”
Our bishop is calling us to do what Jesus called his followers to do, and that is to dwell among the people in our communities, bringing healing where we can.
Then, immediately after her consecration and seating in the cathedral, Bishop Megan wrote to us: “Under all of the beauty, symbolism and polity of this past weekend is a deeper treasure: we each carry the ability to make a significant mark on the world. It walks in with us into every office, soup kitchen, school, and state park we visit. A life powered by Jesus and marked by forgiving and self-giving love brings change to the people around us in practical ways.”
Again, we are called to go forth into our communities, and to live lives powered by the grace of Jesus Christ. If our lives are marked by the forgiving and self-giving love that Jesus gives us, and if we dwell among people and bring healing, then people will be interested in what we have to say about Jesus and we can prepare them to receive the Gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit working within them.
And then, we can invite them to church.
Let us pray,
God our savior, look on this wounded world in pity and in power; hold us fast to your promises of peace won for us by your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.