Sermon - 3rd July 2016
Calling and sending
Scripture - Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
If you’re anything like me, you will have puzzled over whether, in your life of faith, you are being ‘called’ or ‘sent’. I read the stories of the disciples and deacons and messengers in the gospels, and I hear the challenges that Paul laid before his congregations in his letters, and I ask myself, ‘What are the focus points of my faith?’ Where am I expected to be? What should I be doing? Can I do more? Should I be doing less? Is what I do fruitful, or really rather pointless? Push forward, or pull back? If I push forward too fast, will I be going too fast for some? If I pull back, will I lose the interest of others?
Am I being called inwards to be a servant of our community here, or am I being sent outwards to share the Christian foundations of my ethics and values in the world beyond our community?
In today’s reading there is little doubt that Jesus sends his workers out as an advance party, to be witnesses and messengers of the good news which Jesus brings. His rules for the mission allow for no delay, distraction or half-heartedness. Basically Jesus says where you and your message is valued, bless them and heal them. Where you or your message is rejected, shake the dust from your feet and move on.
And did you wonder why Luke tells us there were exactly 70 of these messengers? (Some gospel manuscripts say 72, but the earliest and most trusted ones say 70.) It is because Luke is saying something symbolic in this passage to his Jewish readers. In Genesis, chapter 10, there is a list of all the nations of the world - and there are 70 of them. So Luke is saying, in a codified way, that Jesus was sending his messengers into the whole of the known world to share the good news.
So this reading describes a push forwards and outwards: messengers are commissioned, briefed and sent into the world make preparations for the coming of God’s kingdom. When Luke writes his second book, the Book of Acts, the emphasis is very much on pushing forwards and outwards, very much on being commissioned and sent. So here in his gospel are Luke’s foundations for his later theme - the followers of Jesus are to look outwards and be ambassadors for the gospel message.
But just one chapter before he describes the sending of the 70, Luke records the calling of the 12 disciples. This is the scenario that we are more familiar with, and it clearly has a flavour of people being pulled inwards into a close and committed community. If we imagine the 12 disciples standing in a circle around Jesus, I always picture them looking inwards towards him, not looking outwards to the world around them.
The stories even suggest that many of them put their everyday ‘worldly’ lives on hold so that they could be with him as much as possible. For that brief period of his active ministry, the twelve responded to a call to watch, and listen, and learn, and reflect on what the Master taught them.
So, within two short chapters, we read of a call inwards towards community, shared values, common understandings, and spiritual renewal, contrasted with a challenge to push outwards and be a messenger of the gospel to all the world.
So who are we expected to be in today’s context of our Christian faith? In the deepest spiritual stirrings of each one of us, are we ‘called’ or ‘sent’?
Well, the only possible answer is that we are both called AND sent. We live lives of many dimensions and facets and, if we understand what Jesus requires of all who follow him, there are times when we are called to engage with community, shared values, common understandings, and spiritual renewal, AND there are times when we are challenged to push outwards and be a messenger of the gospel to all the world.
When we stand in a circle around Jesus among the 12 disciples and look inwards:
- we come together in this place for a time of spirituality which is holy and focused on Jesus;
- we share each other’s lives and deepen our bonds of friendship by being together;
- we open our minds, and give our time and our energy, to learn about the life and teaching of Jesus, by reading the accounts of his life and by reflecting on how that teaching can inspire us today;
- we follow the rhythm and seasons of our faith’s history as we observe, week by week and month by month, the broad timeline of Jesus’s earthly life;
- we express our need to give praise to God in word and song and silent reflection;
- we pray for the church, the world, our communities, friends and families, and ourselves;
- we connect with the practices of the early church when we use the prayer which Jesus gave us, and when, during communion, we re-enact the sacramental actions of Jesus at the Last Supper.
When we stand in a circle around Jesus among 70 messengers and look outwards:
- we share the good news of Jesus with the world by how we live our lives, as well as by what we may say about our faith when suitable opportunities arise;
- we choose love over hate, and we choose trust over fear when we face decisions and choices that matter;
- we speak truth to power and we challenge injustice and inequality;
- we heal more people than we ever realise by simply coming alongside them, praying about them, walking with them through their troubles, grieving with them, rejoicing with them, and listening to them;
- we give our time and energies to campaigns, groups, and activities which have the hallmarks of our values running through them;
- we declare to the world that Jesus teaches a coming Kingdom of love, inclusion, justice and equality, and we do this by being visible in modern communications media, by being seen in parades, campaigns and action groups, and by being heard as witnesses to our values in the conversations we have with others.
Neglect the inward spirituality and our bonds of community, and we lose the rhythm of our Christian story; our connections with our worshipping community start to work loose; we begin to feel spiritually underfed; relationships begin to crumble, and eventually we feel disconnected from the holiness of our call to stand with the disciples.
Neglect the outward message of justice, peace and social action, and we risk being seen as exclusive and self-serving; a circle which is closed to new arrivals; a clique of worshippers who tend to themselves as their first priority and who are resistant to change; a community which feeds its own spiritual needs but has little to say to the world beyond its own doors; a church which blames the world for not engaging with the faith of Jesus, without recognising that the message of that faith has to be lived and shared and witnessed before it will become an invitation which the world may find appealing.
When I think it through, I conclude that I am both called and sent. I believe that we encourage people in this church to engage with an understanding of the Christian faith in which we are all called and sent. The challenge is for each of us to find the right balance which suits our particular gifts, our temperament, our personality, and our circumstances.
These are the variables that make us wonderfully diverse, that make us blessings to each other, and that give us authentic lives in which the world discerns the faith and values by which we live.
And if we have one message that we share in this community, it is that God blesses all of our diverse journeys towards his dream for each of us.
I hope you may have just heard me speak about Christian community, Christian spirituality, and Christian social action? Those values have always been the lifeblood of this congregation, and they still very much are.
We always come back to them when we are challenged to define our particular mission; and if Luke’s insights into what it means to follow Jesus are to be accepted, those foundations of this church’s mission are not there by chance.