Proper 9 (July 3-9)
Texts: Luke 10:1-11, 16-20;
Gal. 6:1-16; Isa. 66:10-14
A MESSAGE OF URGENCY
In Racine, we had an older member, Wally, who had a life-changing experience. (1) Late one night he was driving, and he began to feel something funny happening in his body. I’m not sure of the exact details, but I think he was close to the hospital so he drove right to the emergency room. Whatever the exact details, I know he sought medical help very quickly. And it was a good thing, too, because he was starting to have a brain aneurysm — a treatable one, as it turned out. Had they waited another day it might have been too late.
Something of that mood hangs over the story of Jesus’ second sending out of followers. This time, when Jesus sends messengers to the places he intends to visit, there is a note of real urgency. He knows he will not pass this way again. Last week’s gospel, remember, tells us that Jesus made the decision to “set his face toward Jerusalem,” toward his going to the cross. He’s leaving his home territory of Galilee. So if people don’t respond to his mission now, it may be too late. He is the last herald before the great debacle that will come on the nation if they don’t pay attention. If they reject him, there can be no subsequent warning. If they delay, it may be too late.
At the heart of Jesus’ call was the message of peace. ‘Peace to this house,’ the messengers were to say, looking to see whether there was a ‘child of peace’ there. Jesus’ contemporaries were for the most part not wanting peace — peace with their traditional enemies the Samaritans (about whom one of Jesus’ most famous parables will occupy us later in this chapter), or peace with the feared and hated Romans. They wanted an all-out war that would bring God’s justice swiftly to their aid and get rid of their enemies once and for all.
But Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom was going in the opposite direction. Many or most of his contemporaries saw a hoped-for military victory over Rome as justice. As far as Jesus was concerned, though, such a military solution was only fighting evil with evil. Other movements had tried the way of violence, with disastrous results. But Jesus’ rejection of that way was not based simply on pragmatic considerations. It grew directly out of his knowledge and love of Israel’s God as the God of generous grace and astonishing, powerful, healing love. This was the God whose life-giving power flowed through him to heal; this was the God to whose kingdom he was committed.
His messengers therefore had to go with a word of warning as well as of invitation. To refuse this message would mean courting the disaster of going the opposite way from God himself; and that would mean, as always, throwing oneself into the hands of a pagan power like Rome. Didn’t they believe in the power of steadfast love, the power of life itself, which God had been revealing to them since the days of Abraham and Sarah? They, of all people, should know better. They should be beginning to get the message that there is — that there must be — a better way to peace.
In fact, Jesus says exactly that. They should know better. It’s in the verses which the lectionary left out. The sense of urgency that I’m talking about this morning is especially in these verses of judgment which Jesus speaks. I’ve recorded them for you on your notes sheet. There’s also some background there as to the geography of the cities Jesus is talking about. [briefly explain]
In short, Jesus is saying that they should know better. The judgment that would fall on Chorazin and Bethsaida in central Galilee, and on Jesus’ own town of Capernaum, would be more terrible than that suffered by the wicked cities of the Old Testament, but it would not consist of fire falling from heaven. It would take the form of Roman invasion and destruction. Rome’s punishment for rebel subjects would be the direct result of God’s people turning away from God’s way of peace. Within thirty years of the first Easter, Judea tried to fight a war with Rome and was utterly crushed. Their temple in Jerusalem was destroyed for the last time, and their way as a people, as a nation, was drastically changed for many centuries.
This explains the urgency and sternness of Jesus’ charge to the 70. He was about to leave his home territory of Galilee for the last time. And he and his messengers were not offering people just a new religious option which might have a gentle effect on their lives. They were holding out the last chance for people to turn away from Israel’s flight into ruin, and to accept God’s way of peace. God’s kingdom — God’s sovereign and saving rule, longing to enfold his people and the whole world with love and new creation — had come close to them. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for the showdown with the forces of evil. To reject him now, or even to reject his messengers, was to reject God’s way of peace. This is definitely a word of judgment, but a loving word of judgment. On the notes sheet, I’ve recorded for you similar words from the scene where Jesus enters Jerusalem. It is a word of judgment at which Jesus weeps. [read Luke 19]
I want to make this clear for us this morning. Having faith in the power of God’s love as the only ultimate way of peace doesn’t mean that there are no longer words of judgment. Some may have been listening in recent weeks and thought, “Pastor Paul, isn’t it naive to think that everything from Jesus is about love? That there are no words of judgment?” Well, here’s my answer: we should know better. After two thousand years have Christians learned God’s way of peace yet? Last century, the so-called Christian nations killed one another in world wars to the tune of over forty million. Can you see Jesus weeping still?
Four summers ago, I made the trip to Atlanta with Joel and Matthew to the ELCA gathering. [briefly tell story of buying T-shirt at the King Center] “Nonviolence or nonexistence.” This is the message of judgment with which I believe Jesus is still trying to get through to us. For Jesus’ own Jewish people, their non-attentiveness to his message led to their destruction thirty years later. Two thousand years later, have the stakes even gone up?
So what do we do about it? Start somewhere. I mentioned in starting this morning that the experience of nearly dying from an aneurysm changed Wally’s life. Do you know where he started? He became one of our most frequent and hard-working volunteers at the homeless shelter we helped run in Racine. He reached out to the poor. That’s where Jesus started — especially in Luke’s Gospel, where he begins his ministry with a sermon in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth [read Luke 4:18-19].
Martin Luther King, Jr., who studied Gandhi’s way of nonviolence, who studied Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, believed Gandhi’s dictum that “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” And so his movement was not just about civil rights for People of Color. It was more than an anti-war movement. It was itself a war on the powers of evil in this world. It was a War on Poverty. Two thousand years later I believe that we are truly in a better position to win such a war. What it takes is faith — faith in the power of love that Jesus shows us on the cross. Faith in the power of love that we are fed with once again this morning. Faith to go out and get started on following Jesus in preaching and living God’s Good News to the poor and oppressed. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, July 8, 2007
1. This paragraph relates my own experience, but it mirrors the opening paragraph of N. T. Wright’s opening to his commentary on this passage in Luke for Everyone. Some of the subsequent paragraphs, then, are a reshaped version of Wright’s commentary.