Followers who make followers
Last week, looking at the end of Luke Chapter 9, we had a series of interactions between Jesus and potential followers in which, as we reflected, Jesus didn’t go out of his way to make it easy. He warned one man that following him might mean not even have a fox’s hole to sleep in; challenged another to step out of the safety of his family and social setting, and another not to look back, not to try to have both his old life and the new.
Perhaps many of us would have taken a more gentle, progressive, approach: to welcome the partially committed, the not-quite sure, the not-quite yet followers, and gradually lead them into a deeper commitment.
In our reading today I think we start to get a bit of a sense of why that wasn’t the approach Jesus was taking. For here we see a growing sense of urgency, a sense of time running out. Jesus has “set his face to Jerusalem”, he is moving inexorably towards his confrontation with the political and religious powers that will kill him. He’s spent three years, perhaps, gently and slowly growing followers, sharing the news; now it’s time.
So we see this urgency in Jesus’ opening words: “the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few”. There is much to do, but too few people, too few sufficiently committed to the cause to be willing to give it what it takes.
And so he chooses 70 (or maybe 72) of those who’ve been following him, listening and learning, and sends them out as labourers into the harvest.
The story is an obvious echo of the start of Luke chapter 9 – only one chapter ago, but before the transfiguration, the turning point in Jesus’ ministry, the turn towards Jerusalem – in which Jesus sent out the 12.
Now I’m not big on the whole symbolism of numbers thing – sometimes seems a bit of stretch to me (for instance, I read somewhere “Seventy has a sacred meaning in Scripture that is made up of the factors of two perfect numbers, seven (representing perfection) and ten (representing completeness and God’s law)”) – but 12 certainly seems to carry with it a strong sense of the people of Israel, of the 12 tribes – and 70 was, in Jewish tradition, the number of nations of the world (based on a count of the descendants of Noah in Genesis 10). So perhaps there is a foreshadowing here of the inclusion of the gentiles in the Kingdom of God. Or maybe there just happened to be 70 suitable volunteers…
But surely more interesting for us is what these followers of Jesus were sent to do – what their message was, and how they were to bear it.
And there are lots of little details in here that we might follow down a rabbit hole (like we just did with the number 70). But at least what comes out for me as I read this account are three broad themes together making up the vibe of the thing: that they were sent with purpose, with peace, and with the Kingdom.
They were sent with purpose. We’ve already alluded to this: Jesus’ cry that there was such a potential harvest, and so few to work it. And there are two ways you can deal with that sort of problem. The first is to spread the word far and fast and wide – tell as many people as you can. And the second is to go deep – to tell a few, but bring them onboard, get them involved.
I guess with COVID, and R factors, we’ve all learned about exponential growth (although the maths geek in me is still horrified when ‘exponential’ gets used to mean ‘rapid’! ‘Rapid’ isn’t the point – ‘accelerating’ is much nearer). But it still astonishes us. If it takes a year to bring one new person to the point where they can join the work, it takes ten years to get to 1000 – but in 20 years it’s a million, and in 30, a billion.
Now I don’t think for a moment that Jesus’ work was shaped by this sort of mathematical analysis. But I do think there is something of a sense of ‘deep, not wide’ in his words here, just as there was in his challenges in chapter 9. Go with purpose. Don’t stop and talk on the road – why not? Isn’t that another chance to share the gospel? And don’t go from house to house. Why not? Don’t you want to tell as many people as possible?
But no – when you find the household that shares in peace, stay. Take the time with them. Go deep.
I actually think there is a real encouragement in this for those of us who find the idea of evangelism, of inviting others to follow Jesus, freaks us out. Because it says we don’t have to be people who take every chance to turn the conversation to Jesus, to tell everyone we meet about the gospel. There are people who do that, who share the good news everywhere in such a gracious, generous, engaging way that it draws others in.
But if that isn’t you – and it certainly isn’t me – here’s an invitation to another way. Find the one or two who share the peace you offer and take time with them. Go deep, if you aren’t going wide.
So they went with purpose – with focus, deep not wide – and they went with peace.
First say, Jesus told them, “Peace on this house”. He describes it almost as if it was a test, a filter, a way of finding the right place to go deep. Offer your peace. If someone there shares your peace, it will rest on them. If not, nothing lost, for your peace will return to you.
Peace. Most likely that Hebrew word “Shalom” that carries so much meaning that I often feel we would be better off not translating it. “Peace”, yes, but a peace which is rightness, reconciliation, flourishing. Peace that is the life well lived, the life in all its fullness Jesus spoke of bringing. Peace that is living in harmony with God, with creation, with one another. A powerful image for a troubled world, and one that maybe makes sense to the spiritual but not religious zeitgeist of our time.
When we go with the news of Jesus, we offer peace. “And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person”. I’m sure these words could be heard a thousand ways, but the image they conjure for me is this – that you let others know that this is what you offer and what you seek, what you bring to share with them and what you hope to learn from them. And sometimes you will find someone who resonates with that, who shares that heartfelt longing – and that, perhaps, is your cue, your person of peace, your invitation to take time, and go deep.
And I guess it’s important to know that for someone to share your peace doesn’t mean that their life is already a life of “Shalom”. I think we know that even in the most messed up life, the damaged life, the most misguided or chaotic or over-filled life – perhaps especially in such lives – there can be a yearning for peace, for Shalom, that connects, that resonates, when you share it, declare it, demonstrate it.
So they went with purpose, to share peace, and, when that peace connected, to go deep.
And they went with the Kingdom. With the reign and realm of God.
So many sermons in that phrase, that idea that is so central to Jesus’ proclamation. Far too big to be relegated to the third point of three.
But I’m just struck in our reading today how that phrase, “The Kingdom of God has come near”, used twice – as an assurance to those who receive the message, and a rebuke to those who do not – exactly echoes Jesus’ words describing his mission, at the start of Mark’s gospel: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near”. The words that the 70 were given to describe their work are identical to the words Jesus used to describe his mission.
Which sort of bring us full circle. Back to the idea of the size of the harvest and the need for labourers. To the sense that Jesus is inviting people to share in his work. To the image of the mustard seed, growing like a weed. To the maths of exponential growth. To Jesus’ example of going deep with his closest friends, equipping them to do the same in turn.
To the idea that the followers of Jesus are called to follow him, not just in declaration of belief, not just in personal goodness and worship of God, not just in lives of love and justice – yes, in all of those things, but also follow him in his mission of inviting others to follow him. Of sharing Shalom, and where it finds a willing recipient, taking the time, going deep. That the followers of Jesus are followers who make followers.
So I invite you to ask yourself – who are the people for you; the few who might share in Shalom, who might have a longing for it, and might be able to hear of it from you? Can you find that person, those few people, and seek out the chance to go deep with them?
If you don’t know who they are – offer peace. Speak of the Shalom, of the life of purpose, of peace, of meaning, and look for those who seem to be paying attention.
For the fields are ripe to harvest. People want good news. And we have good news worth sharing.