How many disciples did Jesus have? Twelve of course! The gospel writers record Jesus appointing the twelve. (Mark 3.13-19 & parallels) On a good day we might remember the names of the twelve apostles although some are known by more than one name. In many churches, you will see them commemorated in stained glass windows and statues. We have all seen Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the last supper with the twelve all picked out around the table. There is a good reason why Jesus had ‘the twelve’. Every good Jew knew that Jacob had twelve sons whose descendants in turn became the twelve tribes of Israel. So, as Jesus taught about the new Israel, the kingdom of God, it was natural that he should call twelve men to replicate the twelve sons of Jacob.
However, when we delve deeper into the gospels, we see much greater diversity amongst Jesus’ disciples than a rigid group of twelve. There are some disciples about which we know quite a bit like Peter, James and John who obviously played leading roles while others on the list remain in relative obscurity. After all, John’s gospel does not record the appointment of the twelve at all but includes several them in its accounts of Jesus life. It is also evident, especially from Luke’s gospel, (Luke 8.2-3) That there were many women who can be included as close followers of Jesus. Indeed, it is only the women who stay close to Jesus at the cross and are first to the tomb to dress his body.
In today’s gospel reading (Luke 10.1-20) Jesus commissions another group of followers; the seventy. (or seventy-two according to some translations) The Lord appoints them and sends them out in pairs as an advanced party into every town where he intended to go. This shows that Jesus must have had a considerable number of committed of followers in addition to the twelve to call upon. He uses these people to take the message of the kingdom of God to other towns and villages. He gives them a set of specific instructions. These rely on the conventions of hospitality which existed in the region in Jesus’ day. Life in twenty first century Britain is very different, but our country desperately needs to hear the message of Jesus once again. Jesus is calling us all to that task today and there are some things which we can learn from his instructions that he gives to the seventy.
The first principle is that’s hard work. ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’ (Luke 10.2) Today, we see farmers sitting in the air-conditioned cabs of vast combine harvesters listening to their favourite music as the machine tracks back and forth across the field. Harvest seems less like hard work, but in 1st century Palestine, fields were often small set on terraces on steep slopes. The only tool to hand was a sickle which had to be wielded in the heat of the day. It was hard work. In the same way, teaching people about Jesus and calling them to faith is also hard work. Part of that work is maintaining the infrastructure of our church. It involves making worship and events attractive; putting on courses such as Christianity Explored to teach about Jesus. For all of us, it involves the commitment time; following up those who show interest, being prepared to pray for them and journey with them in their questions and doubts. For people in the diocese at present, it is about developing the former Burton’s shop in the town centre into place where students and young people who have no experience of Christian faith at all can be engaged and learn of the risen Jesus.
The second principal is that there will be danger in this. Jesus tells the seventy: ‘Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.’ (Luke 10.3) No shepherd in their right mind would send lambs into a pack of wolves yet this was exactly what ‘the good shepherd’ was doing here. When we begin meaningfully to talk of the good news of God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus with those who do not share our love and knowledge of him, there is danger. In a country where for the most part we still have freedom of speech, that danger is not physical but there is always spiritual danger. The devil does not want to willingly give up those whom he tempts. The work of the Church Army ‘Tin Can Youth Centre’ in the former Rhosnesni Methodist Church has started to make real strides with young people who previously knew nothing of Christ. Now the bad behaviour of a tiny minority has caused issues with local neighbours which are having to be addressed. Can I encourage you to pray that a good work in young lives is not hindered? It is a spiritual battle.
The third principle is the need to be single minded. Jesus gives specific instruction: ‘Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, and greet no one on the road.’ (Luke 10.4) Again, there is a cultural context to take note of here, but behind these stern austere words lies a call to be single minded; to concentrate on the task in hand. It is easy for us living in an affluent society to be deflected by our attachment to things; to our purses, bags and sandals. If we are concerned about Jesus’ mission, then we need to make purses for ourselves which do not wear out, we need to store our treasure in heaven as Jesus says elsewhere. (Luke 12.33) Our treasure in heaven are those who through our love, our testimony and our giving have come into a loving relationship with God. We need to look for the opportunities when our greetings on the road are not confined to the weather or the price of fish but touch on the things eternal.
The fourth principal is proclamation. Our diocese has been encouraging all its churches to engage with a process called: ‘Leading Your Church into Growth’. At the heart of it is the call for all of us to take up four P’s: Prayer, Presence, Proclamation and Persuasion. At a recent diocesan meeting, people were asked which of the four does your church need most help with. The answer was proclamation. Proclamation is to reach out with the Christian message and make it known beyond the walls of our churches. For the seventy on their mission, they could use the cultural norm of their day that everyone was expected to provide travellers on the road with board and lodging if asked. For those who welcomed them, this afforded the opportunity to converse over the meal table in those places where they were welcomed. No doubt news spread, and many shared the conversation. I guess the modern equivalent is social media. We need to use the opportunities our culture affords to proclaim not only in words but deeds. These seventy were also involved in a healing ministry. Our proclamation needs to be prayerful and expectant that God will heal at the deepest level.
You might just be feeling at this point that these principles of hard work, danger, singlemindedness and proclamation are only for vicars and evangelists. But how many disciples did Jesus have? A symbolic 12 for the twelve tribes, but many others besides. Indeed, the number 70 is thought to be symbolic too representing the whole household of Jacob as they went into Egypt (Genesis 46.27) and the number of elders who left Egypt for the promised land. (Numbers 11.16) There is a real sense that the seventy represent all the people of God. All of us have our part to play in making Jesus known.
I close with a story doing the rounds about Canon Michael Green. Michael lived his life as a prolific exponent of the Christian faith. One-time vicar of St Aldates in Oxford he lectured across the world and wrote many books which have inspired a generation. For all his learning, he never passed up the opportunity to share his faith with ordinary people. Michael died earlier this year but in hospital he laid out some of his books and leaflets about following Jesus on his bedside table with a notice saying in effect ‘If I am compos mentis talk to me about these things if not please take anything on the table for free.’
He surely lived out the final verse of Wesley’s great hymn: Jesus the name high over all:
Happy, if with my latest breath
I may but gasp his name
Preach him to all, and cry in death:
Behold, behold the Lamb!’
Trinity 3 07.07.2019