We are baptized into a community that exists for each other and for the world, preparing the world to encounter Christ and the infinite, welcoming love of God Christ brings. Faith is only lived fully when it is lived in community and when all are included in God’s grace.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 14, year C; texts: Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
In one of her reflections for our spring hymn festival of the National Lutheran Choir, which we repeated again last weekend, Susan Cherwien quoted a familiar friend of Mount Olive, Jewish teacher Earl Schwartz, when he said that if the Hebrew Scriptures repeat something three times one would be wise to pay attention.
The lectionary’s plan of readings may not carry the same weight as the Old Testament itself when it comes to repetition, but we could go ahead and say that if the lectionary repeats a theme three times we might at least want to consider that there is something to which we need to pay attention. Last week from Paul’s letter to the Galatians we heard his declaration that to love one’s neighbor was to completely fulfill God’s law. Next week we will hear Jesus’ paramount “neighbor” parable, his story of the Good Samaritan. And in the middle today, Paul once more talks about fulfilling the law, this time the law of Christ, and says that is done when we “bear one another’s burdens.” So it looks like we need to consider this question of neighborliness a little bit, or at least try to pay attention to what we might need to learn.
I suppose the question is whether or not this is old stuff for us. We all know we are called to love our neighbor; goodness knows I’ve preached about it here, because God’s Word has spoken of it so often. Is there anything new here for us, any value to paying attention?
Well, there seems to be an obvious answer to that. The reason it comes up so often, even apart from this three week stretch, is that it is a pervasive and important theme for Jesus, for Paul, and really for the rest of the New Testament writers. To say nothing of the Hebrew prophets, for whom it also is a deep concern. The somewhat obvious answer is the great frequency with which this theme is repeated in Scripture suggests this is a message either we need to hear a lot or one in which we struggle to live a lot. Apparently the early believers needed this reminder early and often. So unless we’re certain that we’ve learned this lesson, incorporated it into our psyche and our faith and our actions as individuals and a congregation, we could at least hear Jesus and Paul out today.
There seem to be three key areas where we are asked to pay attention today, and so learn more about our discipleship.
Today we learn that we are paying attention to Christ Jesus when we recognize that salvation is only complete when all are welcome, all are included.
Luke is the only evangelist who tells of a second mission Jesus sends out, this time with more than the twelve. Seventy are sent out, and seventy was the traditional number for the nations of the world. So in effect Jesus is sending his followers to the whole world, and their job is to prepare people for their coming encounter with Jesus.
They are sent out with his authority, and they bring his gifts: healing, driving out of demons, and proclaiming the coming reign of God. As they go, they are his official envoys, almost as if he’s a head of state sending out diplomats; Luke even uses language which is suggestive of that status.
There’s great urgency to the sending, too. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and his death. And, in his words, the harvest is great. There are many who need to meet him, hear him, follow him. So the consistent message here is that this reign of God is not what it is supposed to be until all are included. And Jesus’ urgency shows how important it is to him that all are reached.
And that’s Paul’s point, too, as he concludes his letter to the churches of Galatia. There’s much he is saying in this letter, but what becomes clear in his conclusion is that life in Christ is not and cannot be lived alone.
To love one’s neighbor is to fulfill the law, he said in the part from last week. Now he spends time encouraging his congregations to stay together, to bear each other’s burdens, to not grow weary in doing right, even if it looks like things aren’t working.
Whenever we have the opportunity, Paul says, we work for the good of all. And especially for the family of faith, he adds. But isn’t that interesting? Working for the good of all is clearly bigger than the local congregation or he wouldn’t have to add that on. The family of Christ is called to be neighbor to all, and to each other, not either/or.
And this is the letter of grand inclusion, as well, isn’t it? Earlier Paul has declared that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus. Like Jesus, Paul envisions a faith that is not individualistic but communal, where it is only lived fully when it is lived together. The community of faith is not an insider’s club, but a sign of God’s grace for the whole world.
We should pay attention to that.
We are also paying attention to Christ Jesus when we bear one another’s burdens.
Paul echoes Jesus when he claims in these last chapters that the only sign of discipleship is love of the other. Paul’s spent this letter describing new life in Christ, where all are included, and arguing against fulfilling an Old Testament law as way to be right with God, that is, circumcision. In the previous chapter Paul has said that the only thing that counts is faith active in love. Love of neighbor is the only sign of discipleship, Paul suggests, not any outward observance of God’s laws.
So you don’t follow Jewish law to be made right with God, Paul says. You are already made right with God, and the only thing that matters is that you live as if that’s the truth. This is because we are given new life freely in Christ, and are freed from the law of God, another great theme of Galatians.
It is in that new life that we find life lived according to God’s reign, a life where we are called by God and given the fruits of the Spirit to love our neighbor, and bear one another’s burdens.
In our Gospel we also have a reminder why the disciples and we need to hear this message again and again. Remember last week, when the disciples and Jesus are rejected by a town of Samaritans and James and John want to call down fire from heaven on those people? Luke says Jesus “rebuked them”. Three years into his ministry and they still aren’t getting him.
So today Jesus needs to make it clear when they go out on their own, the twelve and the other 58: do not punish those who reject you. Go into a town and proclaim the good news of the coming reign of God. Heal. Bestow God’s peace. If they welcome you, good.
If they don’t, then do two things. First, shake the dust off your feet as you leave, a symbolic prophetic gesture. Some who read Luke’s Gospel might imply from this that this town is seen as ritually unclean. But perhaps we might read something else into it: don’t carry away anything of this town to your next visit. Let it go and move on.
Because the other thing they’re supposed to do as they leave such a place is to once more solemnly declare that the reign of God has come near. They may have rejected Jesus’ envoys, but they are to hear once more the Good News before the envoys leave.
So the center of our life in faith is bearing the burdens of others, loving others in Jesus’ name, and nothing else.
We should pay attention to that.
And we are paying attention to Christ Jesus when we rejoice in the right things, and remember who’s really bringing life to the world.
This is kind of an interesting part of the Gospel, the disciples’ joy on their return, and Jesus’ correction. They come back from this mission thrilled that even demons submitted to them. Jesus’ authority in them had done what he promised it would.
Jesus turns it around on them, however, reminding them that it was he who gave them that authority. In effect, the reason they were successful is that Jesus’ power was with them. So they aren’t to rejoice in their skills, their brilliant mission, their saving power. That all belongs to God.
Rather, Jesus says, rejoice that you’re also someone who belongs to God. Your names are written in heaven. He focuses them away from the success of their mission after they return as much as he focuses them away from potential failure of their mission when they go out. In neither case are they to worry about results. They should simply continue to be glad they belong to God, are part of this new reign.
There’s something important in this for us. It can be easy for us to assume we know what it looks like to be successful as a Christian congregation, or even as individuals. And conversely, what it would look like if we failed.
That person, perhaps even a beloved member of our own family, who doesn’t see the need or joy for regular participation and mission in the life of a congregation, whom we just can’t seem to convince to come, or even to find their own church. Or that person whom we touch with an action of grace and who comes to faith as a result and whose life is changed, an occasion of great joy.
Neither ultimately are our concern, Jesus seems to suggest. They’re both God’s concern, God’s work, God’s salvation. Our job, our call, is to seek the fruits of the Spirit to become changed children of God who live a mission of love of neighbor in the world preparing the world for their encounter with Christ Jesus.
And in our own bodies and lives, they are in fact encountering Christ Jesus. That’s our joy: we belong in Christ and we have a mission to share. The rest is up to God. Which is why we can rejoice in our own salvation: it’s not our doing, so we can completely trust that it is real and true. And continue to do our calling in the world.
We should pay attention to this.
Maybe, in the end, Jesus and Paul and the others are repeating themselves a lot. But maybe, in the end, they need to.
Until we are able to embrace our true calling to be neighbor to the world and to each other, to be signs of God’s saving grace which includes all and which is not complete until all are included, until we are able to do that as second nature, we’ll need this message.
And so we pay attention to it, as to light in the darkness. And we pray that Christ our Lord would fill us with the same Spirit as the seventy, that we might go out into the world bringing healing, bestowing peace, and telling the world of God’s coming reign in which all are welcome and loved, all.
Because when that happens, there will truly be cause for rejoicing in heaven as well as on earth.
In the name of Jesus. Amen