Luke 10:111, 1620
Several colleagues at the Cathedral, when asked what they plan to do for summer vacation, respond, “Visit colleges.” These colleagues have sons or daughters who will be high school seniors come September. Anyone involved with high school or college students knows that the pressure, competition, and angst about college admissions have reached a magnitude that seems pathological. Of course, that’s easy for me to say; I’m not a parent. So as I watch and listen to the pressure-cooker that teenagers, parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and school administrators live in—all pointing fingers at each other for causing this environment—it’s perhaps too easy to stand back and be judgmental about values run amok in our I-am-what-I-do-and-accomplish, self-absorbed, overly competitive culture.
Last fall I wrote a letter of recommendation for a young man whose six-page high school resumé included four years of A’s, outstanding achievement in athletics, music, science, and student leadership, film direction, three summers of building schools in Latin America, and published articles that he wrote in two languages. All this by 17 years old! Yet he still did not get into his first-choice college. So I do empathize with the unrelenting pressure. And to any high schoolers in the congregation this morning, I apologize if I’ve just now added to your anxiety, having become guilty of participating in what I’m preaching against!
Well, all of this seems a quite different world from what we see Jesus doing in this morning’s gospel. He sends out seventy followers as an advance team to all the towns he will visit later. He doesn’t require them to attend any seminary training or church growth seminars. There are no entrance requirements or examinations given. Jesus simply expects them to go out and heal the sick and care for the marginalized in the same way he does. Malinda Berg writes in Sojourners magazine that “he sends them out to embrace the prophetic nature of caring for others.” Jesus’ ministry belongs to regular folks who are willing to make a difference where there is sickness and pain in the world. Faithfulness seems to be the only requirement. The sending of the seventy recalls the seventy elders appointed to assist Moses in the Old Testament. And of course, earlier in Luke’s gospel, we see Jesus sending out the twelve disciples with similar instructions.
A few years ago, with a grant from the Lilly Foundation, a group of theologians got together to devise a means of measurement to determine when people were ready for ministry. Their list of competencies was dizzying. Church history, knowledge of biblical interpretation with a preference for being able to read it in one of the original languages, training in psychology, pastoral insight, and on and on. I am certainly not arguing for an uninformed or intellectually uncurious church ministry in our complex world, where so much pain is exacted in the name of religion. But Jesus’ actions in today’s gospel suggest that he is concerned about practice over doctrine or professional qualifications. There is a gift item in our museum store with a saying perhaps you’ve heard: “Go live the gospel, and use words if you must.”
This past spring, Wesley Seminary held its graduation service here at the Cathedral. In a powerfully prophetic sermon, the Methodist bishop of Ohio admonished the newly minted seminary graduates to immerse themselves fully in the messiness of humanity and not to become professional church types who hide behind the trappings of ecclesial office, mostly removed from the physical, spiritual, and justice needs of God’s one family. Discipleship calls us to lives of engagement and interconnectedness with the world. In our self-sufficient culture, discipleship calls us to acknowledge our dependency upon God and one another.
Another thing Jesus tells us in today’s gospel is that discipleship requires letting go of a lot of our baggage. John Wesley insisted that his Methodist circuit riders travel light. He knew that our accumulation of stuff has a way of hindering us. This is a hard directive for many of us. Our culture preaches relentlessly that our happiness and identity are found in the accumulation of our things. Our consumer “gospel” legislates worth based on material success. This affects and controls each of us to varying degrees. I don’t think you can live in this culture and escape this focus on the material. This “gospel” represents the greatest competition against the kingdom of God as the primary motivation for our lives. It is why Jesus says in the actual Gospels that we cannot serve two masters.
Jesus also warns that his disciples are sure to face resistance. They are like lambs venturing into the midst of wolves. As they enter another’s home, they are to say “Peace to this house!” They are graciously to accept the hospitality of their hosts and not to get caught up in scruples concerning ritual cleanliness of the food provided. In places where they are accepted, they are to cure the sick and proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near. But in towns where they are not welcomed, they are to move on. There are not to argue or attempt to coerce people into discipleship.
Steve Kelsey, an Episcopal priest who has written extensively about the difference between ministry and discipleship, reminds us that the word ministry is rooted in the concept of servanthood. Jesus’ instructions to the twelve and to the seventy are primarily about servanthood, rather than a specific set of skills needed for ministry. Too often in the church today the notion of ministry is understood as supporting the institutional work of the church, usually by trained professionals. A colleague of Kelsey’s writes, “The ministry model of hiring a few folks to do ministry while the rest are ministered to, is the most ungodly and unbiblical model I can think of, and it exists throughout the Church. We will never mature as Christian congregations, or carry out God’s mission, so long as we neglect the gifts and ministry of all believers.”
Discipleship, on the other hand, is about all of us, regardless of our status in the church. Discipleship is about daily living out our baptismal vows to proclaim by word—and by example—the Good News of God as we know it in the life and ministry of Jesus, to love neighbor as self, and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.
Discipleship is a lifelong journey. The apostles surely bear witness that it doesn’t happen all at once. They didn’t get what Jesus was about much of the time. And we can take some comfort in that—not to rest on our laurels, but also not to beat ourselves up when we fall short or don’t get it. And while we have no record of Jesus giving periodic examinations or demanding resumés for service, he did expect faithfulness and discipline. There is an association between the words disciple and discipline.
This summer, as we work our way through the Gospel of Luke, is a good time to make a decision to engage in some regular practice or spiritual discipline and to stick with it even when you don’t feel like it. You might make a commitment to read one or two chapters of the Bible every day. That might seem like a small thing to do. But such a regular discipline will surely deepen your conversation with God and influence your understanding of discipleship. You will begin to be transformed by the revelation of God in Jesus that promises to set us free. Or maybe this summer you will decide to increase the percentage of your giving to work that helps incarnate God’s compassion, inclusion, and justice in the world, whether through your church or some other organization to which you are committed. The important thing is to trust that you can do with less. In that discipline you will begin to experience God’s abundance, you will begin to be set free from the gospel of materialism that too often imprisons us.
Maybe you will grow in discipleship by committing to a time of daily prayer and quiet. Or maybe you’ll spend some time each week or month in work that immerses you in the messiness of humanity—which is often with people of circumstances very different from yours. Reflecting on her summer intern experience at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, a young college student said, “I suddenly understood the painting on the outside of the soup kitchen, ‘Christ of the Breadlines, ’ much more deeply after serving oatmeal for the first time. And by the end of the summer I understood that I was not serving oatmeal, but people.”
A seminary professor used to say, “The way to be a Christian is to go out and start acting like a Christian.” That’s just what Jesus is sending the 70—and you and me—out to do in today’s gospel.
When we start to act like Christ in the world, when we engage in the discipline of discipleship, each in our own way, the source of our identity begins to change. In his book, The Finality of Christ, Lesslie Newbigin writes, “Conversion means being turned around in order to recognize and participate in the dawning reality of God’s reign. But this inward turning immediately and intrinsically involves a pattern of conduct and visible companionship. It involves membership in a community and a decision to act in a certain way.”
This summer, I urge us all to act more like Christ in some very intentional way. It will begin to set us free from all that binds, oppresses, and imprisons even us, the freest people on earth! And like the 70, we will have hearts filled with joy because in ways big and small, seen and unseen, the kingdom of God will be more fully realized. Amen.