The mission of the seventy

Sermon St Mary the Virgin, Bishops Cannings, 7th July 2019 10am
Third Sunday after Trinity: Galatians 6.1-16, Luke 10.1-11,16-20

seventyToday’s Gospel reading from Luke speaks about the mission of the seventy, or the seventy-two, depending on which sets of manuscripts are to be believed. The  precise number doesn’t matter theologically, as both indicate an expanded scope from the mission of the twelve disciples, which is recorded by Matthew and Mark, as well as by Luke.

Through the text we are invited to reflect on the wider mission of the Church, and our own particular role within that. Of course, our situation now in 2019 is very different from the time and place in which Jesus lived and worked, so we need to be careful to look at this passage too literally. However, there are a few key themes which apply to us as much as to the seventy-two who Jesus sent out in Luke’s Gospel.

The first one is that ‘the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few’. Yes, we probably all agree that the labourers are few: I suspect that also here it is hard to find people who will populate the PCC and the various rotas, people who will welcome, and open and look after the church building.

However, do we also agree with the statement that the harvest is plentiful? On one level, I suppose we do. There are enough people in this village whom we would love to see in Church. But, what do we really mean by ‘harvest’? A too superficial reading makes it too easy to start talking about ‘us’ and ‘them’, those who are ‘in’ and those who are not. It is the same dynamic against which Paul warns us in the final part of his letter to the Galatians, which we also heard earlier. So, if harvesting is not about getting people to Church, what does Jesus mean by this sending out labourers to a plentiful harvest?

I think that it is about seeing potential in others, trying to see other people in the way God sees them. This is completely the opposite of reducing people to ‘us’ and ‘them’, but seeing our common humanity. As Christians, we believe that we are all made in God’s image, that God loves each of us with a love that is greater than we can comprehend. It is when we remind ourselves of this that we realise the abundance of what others have to offer, the plenty of the harvest, more than we will ever be able to reap ourselves. And we don’t need to, that is precisely the point.

To give an example, if someone would say that they are happy to spend some time to look after the church building, would we accept this gift of time and skill? Or would we ask that person how often he is planning to come to Church on a Sunday? If he is planning to get onto the PCC, and make a regular financial commitment too? In other words, are we open to the richness of the harvest, or only looking for what we expect?An openness to the variety of gifts and the realisation that the harvest is rich, maybe paradoxically, makes us realise that there are choices to be made too. Because of the richness of what others and we ourselves have to offer, we cannot do everything ourselves; we need to be selective. If people don’t welcome us, we need to move on, but if they do, we need to accept them as they are: eating and drinking what they provide and share the Good News with them. We can widen, I think, this insight to whatever we do: if it doesn’t bear fruit, it is better left alone, but if it does, we need to embrace what we are doing, even if it isn’t quite what we had expected.

So, the choices we make need to come with an openness, a willingness to receive the unexpected. I think many of us have found ourselves at some point in our lives in a different country or culture, worrying what food was put in front of us. I remember a few years ago a trip to the Gambia, where people had slaughtered a sheep for us, as they wanted to celebrate their stay. I have to say that I was very pleased that it was dark when we ate, so that I could not see what precisely was put in front of me. But receiving the food, meant receiving the hospitality of the community, and indeed by being thanked giving thanks for the community that had invited us.

The choices we make also need to come with a certain perseverance, ‘do not more about from house to house’. It is often tempting to give up too easily when our efforts don’t immediately produce the result we want, or the result we expected. I’m sure that many of us will have faced challenges, have had moments when we thought that anyone else would be more suited to whatever task was in front of us. However, through perseverance, more often than not, we will have found out that we were better in whatever it was than we thought we were.

We need to trust in our own ability. Not because we trust in ourselves alone, but because we trust in the God who made us who we are and has given us the gifts we need to serve Him. It is the trust to believe Jesus’ words when he says ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me’. Again, this theme also arises in Paul’s letter, when he admonishes the Galatians not to grow weary in doing what is right.

And lastly, we can ask ourselves, what is our ultimate aim; a question related to what is our harvest? We read that the seventy come back to Jesus with joy, sharing their successes. As more often in the Gospels, instead of rejoicing with them, Jesus rebukes his enthusiastic followers. He warns them not to focus on the celebration of their success, but on their own relationship with God: rejoice that your names are written in heaven.

That is important for us to remember too: never to stop being thankful for what God has given us. It is the only vouchsafe against trusting in our own ability for our own sake, as well as against dividing the world into those who are in, and those who are not. We are as much part of the harvest as anyone else, and ultimately it is God who give the growth, to use one of Paul’s other famous sayings.

So, to conclude, I think that the key message of this morning’s passages is that we need to trust in the God who has sent us into this world. Trust that we have been given what it takes to do His work. And ultimately, trust and rejoice that we will join him at last in our heavenly home, where our names have been written, and our joy will be complete.

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