The mission of the seventy is no mission I could ever imagine accepting. It sounds more like orders received from central command on the series “Mission Impossible.” “Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.” No provisions, not even a decent pair of walking shoes, danger abounds, and by all means, don’t stop to ask for directions.
Like the story from Luke last week, Jesus intimates that our tendency is to put all kinds of stipulations in place before we feel secure to go out and witness to what we know about God and to how we have experienced God’s love. While last week was a list of things to do before accepting the mission, this week is a list of things we think we need to have along before accepting the mission.
While Jesus’ demands may seem rather extreme, they do make us pause and think — and maybe that is exactly Jesus’ point. Stop and think — what is it we think we need? What are those things we suppose we just have to have for a life lived in service to Christ?
At the same time, Jesus’ mission should make us stop and think that maybe we are asking the wrong question. The question is not what you need but who.
A rather obvious, yet overlooked detail in this tale of discipleship is the number seventy. That’s right — the sent were not sent out alone, but two by two, and 69 others. Each apostle had sixty-nine fellow disciples, friends in the faith, on whom to rely, to depend. That’s a lot of bodies, a lot of somebodies, on which to count if the going got rough. No one was going this alone. Jesus is teaching his disciples already this early on in his ministry the importance of the reliance on each other, especially in his absence.
We don’t do this alone.
But what are the things we put in place of people? What are the objects we hoard so as to avoid dependence on the other? What are those items we deem necessary for our survival, when our abundance is actually already abounding in the people around us?
I like that this is so early on in the travel narrative in Luke. There’s going to be a lot of traveling when it comes to spreading the gospel — Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The disciples need to know what will be necessary to carry out this mission — and as it turns out, when they return with joy, all they need is the name of Jesus and each other.
This is a great story to preach about the necessity of community, of your particular community sitting in the pews or chairs on this Fourth of July Sunday. Likely a small crowd, I suspect. But ask them — why are you here? They don’t have to answer, of course. But you can help them realize that one of the main reasons they come to church is to know that this is their group of seventy. They are not in this alone. They don’t just have a few fellow apostles, but seventy, or some such equally extraordinary number.
The nature of faith is radically communal. Too often, our claims about faith and spirituality are isolationist and independent — “my own faith, my own religious system, even my own God.” Or, on this Fourth of July weekend, “my own freedom” to do or say whatever we choose, to conceal and carry, to give credence to opinions because every one is entitled.
And, too often our leadership in the church is dangerously autonomous. Yet, the nature of our role as pastors as preachers is also radically communal. Leadership as communal means the constant realization of the public nature of leadership for the good of the whole. Your leadership shapes the ethos of a gathered community which happens primarily in preaching. Leadership that does not embody the essence of discipleship, a mutuality between leader and believer, to which this story from Luke testifies, first by Jesus and by the returning apostles, is not leadership that belongs in the church.
And, we forget that actually, the number is really seventy-two, and I am not talking about on which variant in the Greek manuscripts you decide to base your translation. The thematic first lesson from Isaiah 66 and the reading from Psalm 66 remind us of the promise of God’s constant provision and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
We are never, ever alone.