You are sent with specific tasks of evangelism to prepare people for the Spirit’s coming: God does all the rest of the work.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 14 C
Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The most important person in Naaman’s story is also the most insignificant person to everyone else in it.
This little Israelite girl, torn from her family by war, like so many children today. Not a refugee, she’s a captive, living apart from her loving family, in a foreign land, with foreign customs, and foreign gods, and a foreign language. But she sets in motion the movement of kings and prophets and even the God of the universe.
All she does is see her master’s suffering from a horrible skin disease, and quietly say to her mistress, “The God of Israel could heal my master.”
That’s it. And the ripples of her witness changed the course of her master’s life, and very nearly the affairs of nations.
Maybe she opens a door for us into this sending Jesus does.
Jesus sending out seventy women and men to proclaim God’s reign causes us a lot of anxiety. In our pluralistic society we just don’t know what to think about our call to be evangelists anymore.
It’s good many Christians are no longer comfortable with the centuries-long arrogance of the Christian Church claiming that those who do not know Christ are condemned forever. For more than a millennia and a half the call to share Christ’s Good News with the world has been warped by our need to control others and dominate them. The Church endorsed war, colonization, appropriation of indigenous lands, and destruction of rich, beautiful cultures all over the world in the name of “making disciples.” It is good, wonderful, that some of us at least have moved past that.
But if we aren’t doing evangelism to save others (because only God saves), or to control them (because Christ says we must not), how do we know what to do? With neighbors who are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, and any number of other positions of faith or spiritual paths, we know our job as the love of Christ is to be gracious and kind neighbors. To respect differences, honor other peoples’ faith, seek dialogue between faiths.
But is that enough? Do we run from this Gospel story just to be good neighbors? A better question is, can this little slave girl help us hear Jesus’ call better? She knew the God of Israel could heal her master, so she told her mistress. She had no other goal than sharing the grace of God.
And if you look at the four things Jesus actually asks the 70 to do, it’s pretty much the same.
The first thing they are to do, every time, is speak a word of peace.
To greet the people in whatever house they enter with “Peace to this house!”
Isn’t that beautiful? Our Muslim friends do this. They greet others with this instinctively: “Salaam-alaikum,” “Peace be upon you.” And they respond: “Wa-alaikum-salaam,” “and peace be upon you, too.”
Why have Christians abandoned this key part of Jesus’ instructions? How might Christian witness in the world have been different if our first words wherever we went were “Peace be with you”? At the very least, maybe it would have prevented the Church from killing millions of people over the centuries.
What would it mean for you? Begin there with your neighbors. Offer the gift of peace to whomever you meet. Jesus says sometimes it will be returned, and that’s a blessing. Sometimes it won’t, but Jesus says the peace of God will still be with you, even then.
How do you be an evangelist? First offer peace.
The second instruction sounds a little strange as an evangelism tactic.
When you go anywhere, Jesus says to eat what is set before you. Receive your neighbor’s hospitality. Don’t bring anything, he says. Don’t have money, or you’ll be tempted to offer to pay, and act as if you’re the benevolent one. You’re not in control. Receive whatever you get. Receive their customs, their blessings, even if it’s strange for you.
That alone would be a new thing, for us to literally let our neighbors feed us, love us.
But it also is true figuratively. Take what is given you, and don’t bring anything, Jesus says. So, set aside your prejudices and pre-conceived notions and just let your neighbor be who they are. Set aside for now the theology that feeds you, and just receive what you’re given.
We’re so used believing evangelism is having something to give others. What if the Church had done what Jesus says here instead of triumphantly bringing in our culture and ideas and teachings as if we were the benefactors of all? It would change the world today if we could set aside our own stuff and simply let our neighbor offer us kindness and hospitality. Sometimes you won’t be welcomed or given anything, and Jesus says that’s OK. Keep going until you’re offered sustenance, and then stay there. Live in relationship. Let the love of your neighbor be a blessing to you. That’s evangelism, according to Jesus.
So, speak peace. And receive love. Next, Jesus says, heal and drive out evil, where you can.
This must have been frightening to these women and men. They’d seen Jesus heal and drive out evil. Now he expected they would be able to do such things.
But imagine if this had been the goal of evangelism for the whole Church throughout the years: to be the ones who offer healing. To be the ones who stand against evil. Now, many Christians in history did exactly that, and changed their world. Far too often, though, the official approach was domination and control. What kind of a witness to God’s love in Christ could we have made if everyone had done what Jesus says here, not just some?
This is such a clear place for us to work. Whether it’s working with all our neighbors of all faiths to dismantle systems of oppression and violence, or standing individually against evil or embracing our neighbor with healing kindness, there is no end to work we can do. Evangelism is being out in the world as God’s love, both as communities and individuals in Christ, bringing hope and courage to face evil, bringing love and grace to heal the hearts of those who suffer.
Finally Jesus says, say, “God’s reign is near to you.”
This is the last piece of the disciples’ evangelism task. Say what the little girl said: “God is near and can heal. God’s reign is real and will make a difference.” Say, God has come to this world of evil and war and hatred and grief in person and is offering life and hope and grace.
The first three things are how you do this. Offer peace, receive hospitality, work against evil and bring healing: these are visible, real signs of God’s reign being near. In your body and life you witness in this way. Just as Jesus witnessed in his body and life – teaching, loving, even dying and rising.
And it doesn’t matter if you’re rejected, Jesus says. He will be. Even in rejection, you still do all these things and always declare this good news: God’s reign is near. God’s love is near. God’s peace is near.
That’s it. these are your instructions as an evangelist. The Triune God will do the hard work.
You see, Jesus sent these 70 to places he himself intended to go, to prepare people for his coming. Now it’s the Holy Spirit who’s going. But you’re still sent ahead to do those things to prepare people for the Spirit.
Naaman actually ends up converted from his former faith, and worshipping the God of Israel exclusively. It’s lovely. But the slave girl never intended that. She just said God could heal him.
Likewise, your job is not converting. It’s not making any theological assumptions about anyone’s eternal status. Your job is to be part of Christ’s advance team with all of us, someone who by your grace and love opens a door for the Spirit to enter and bring people into the resurrection life of God.
Now that’s evangelism that’s not only faithful to Jesus’ calling and to the hope of God’s love we know in Christ, but one that’s respectful and gracious to our neighbors of all kinds as well.
Funny, isn’t it, how Jesus always knows how best to do things, if only we’d listen?
In the name of Jesus. Amen