“The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few”, says Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that text quoted over the years I have been involved in the church, but it is nearly always in the context of evangelistic campaigns and is usually accompanied by dire warnings that if we don’t get out there and spread the word, the church will die.
And of course that’s true. We are always only one generation away from oblivion, and the Church nationally doesn’t have anything like the numbers and influence it had back in the 1950’s. It is no good us being complacent about its survival. People won’t just fall through the doors by magic. It is up to all of us who love the church to invite and to welcome others into it – use it or lose it. It’s a message we need to hear.
The problem is, though, that it isn’t actually the message Jesus is trying to convey here.
Jesus sends out seventy of his followers with a task to do. But it’s not a recruitment exercise. It’s not about getting people into church, or synagogue, or even to get them signed up as card carrying members of the Christian faith. When we look at his instructions more closely we find that actually they are far more to do with receiving than giving. He isn’t calling them to take the light they have out to a world of darkness, but rather to open their eyes to the light that is already shining beyond the protective walls of the safe enclosure of faith, to spot and to nurture the signs of the kingdom wherever they find them.
Jesus starts by very deliberately stripping away from them the props they might be tempted to take with them on their journey. They aren’t to take any money – they will have to rely on the hospitality of those they meet. They aren’t to take a bag, so they can’t accumulate anything along the way that they think might come in useful in their encounters with others. They aren’t even to wear sandals to protect them from the ground on which they tread. It’s a very exposed and vulnerable mission.
All they are given to offer to others is a greeting of peace. There is no great secret or clever idea or carefully constructed programme of teaching. There aren’t any superstar preachers or celebrities to draw the crowds. They don’t have a handbook of “Ten Simple Ways to Spread the Gospel and Answer Life’s Tricky Questions” to refer to. There will be no bells and whistles, no gimmicks to impress people, because that’s not what this is about. It is just them as they are out in the world as it is, looking for God wherever they might find him.
Isn’t this approach a bit risky? Yes, it is. As Jesus says “I am sending you out as lambs into the midst of wolves” Lambs among wolves! Won’t they just be eaten up? Maybe they will, but Jesus knows what he is doing. This is, after all, the pattern of his own life. He was born, naked and helpless, as any child is, and without even his own crib to lie in,utterly dependent on the generosity of others, and he will finish it on a cross, a lamb eaten up by the wolves of hatred and suspicion in the hearts of the Roman and Jewish authorities who crucify him. And yet, out of that powerlessness will come rich blessings. It’s no surprise that those he sends out in his name are sent in the same way.
They are told to heal the sick, it’s true, but they aren’t told how, and the impression is that somehow that healing will simply follow on naturally as they share their greeting of peace. That makes sense if you understand healing as the Bible does. Peace – Shalom in Hebrew - was about far more than the absence of noise or strife. It was about wholeness and justice and reconciliation, healing in its broadest sense, physical and spiritual, for individuals, communities and nations. We can see that imagery in our first reading, from Isaiah. The greeting of peace they were to use as they met people was a sign of their commitment to that vision of a world set to rights. If those they met shared the vision, then healing was bound to be the result.
Of course that greeting of peace might not be welcomed and reciprocated, but that wasn’t their concern. Their job was simply to offer it. That injunction to shake the dust from their feet if they weren’t welcomed might sound harsh to us, but actually what it says is that it isn’t their responsibility to coerce or cajole people into responding to God. All too often Christians – and especially church leaders - panic when they think their message isn’t being heard and simply shout it louder in the hopes that will produce the right response. Insisting on the rights of Christians to wear symbols of their faith or have public prayers at the beginning of council meetings, whether others want them or not, seems to me to be a modern manifestation of this, and it rarely wins us any friends. At least it is fairly mild, though. In the past we have resorted to forced conversions, burning at the stake and public pillorying of those who differ with us in an attempt to make them see the world as we do. This is not your business, says Jesus – offer peace, and work with any who are prepared to work with you.
There is a lovely detail in Jesus’ instructions which, it seems to me, says it all. When they are welcomed into someone’s house, they are to eat what is set before them. The first Christians would have heard a very specific and literal message in this. Most were Jewish and observed Jewish food laws, but as the Gospel spread out they were forced into close contact with Gentiles who ate things they’d been brought up to shun. What should they do? Eat it anyway, says Jesus, because these people, however strange they seem, are your brothers and sisters.
For us, it might not be food that is the problem, but we are still called to deal with the world as it is – whatever it is that’s on our plates, the people who are standing in front of us, the issues we have to deal with. Differences of culture, social class, sexuality, gender or political outlook can blind us to the blessings other people bring to us because they don’t come in the package we expect. We only see the differences, and not the gifts. Or it might be that what is on our plates just looks too ordinary to contain the seeds of God’s kingdom, too insignificant for God to show up in. But Jesus’ words to these seventy as he sends them out remind us that the kingdom of God is close at hand, ever-present, in all the places where we are, in all its ups and downs, in the petty quarrels and set-backs of our lives, in the small acts of kindness and the unexpected reconciliations, in the everyday words and actions which affect our communities.
So this great mission on which the seventy are sent out is not about the church at all. The harvest Jesus talks about is not a harvest of souls to be gathered into the protective bubble of a congregation where they will be safe from the world. Quite the reverse. It is about learning to spot God and work with him wherever we happen to be, whatever we happen to be doing, and to spot him in others and work with him there as well.
But if that’s the case, you might be wondering, what is the point of the church at all? Haven’t I just argued myself out of a job?
Well no, I don’t think I have. This task Jesus gave to the seventy, and to us, is one which is far from a stroll in the park. To be as open and vulnerable as this is no easy task. To love others enough to leave your comfort zone takes some doing, and it probably isn’t going to come naturally. Where do we find the strength, the courage, the inspiration, the support to do this? Like most things, it is practice that counts, and the church is the place where we can, quite literally practice our faith, learning and deepen it. The stories and symbols of faith equip us with tools to help us see our own lives more clearly. The relationships we build, and those we struggle with, help us to learn what it is to love and be loved.
The church isn’t an end in itself, but just as those first disciples needed the time they spent with Jesus and with one another to be ready for this task, so do we. In fact the more we are committed to living out our faith in action in our everyday lives, the more we need to make sure we are fuelling and focusing it in the church. What we do here on a Sunday matters, because what we do out there from Monday to Saturday matters even more. Neglect this, and we impoverish that.
I don’t know what is on your plate this week, what situations you will find yourself having to deal with, who you will meet as you go about your daily life, but one thing I am certain of. God will be present in those people and situations somewhere, and if you have eyes to see him you will find yourself richly blessed in ways you could never have predicted.