If anyone here today wishes to write a first novel or produce an off- Broadway play yet struggles in finding an extended narrative, boy do I have a pitch for you.
Who knew that Jesus had an advance team?
Check out our first sentence in Luke’s Gospel: “The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.”
Jesus is going viral, and in the blink of an eye he scales up his team from the 12 disciples to 70 ‘others’ with faint parallels to Moses in the book of Deuteronomy.
If you were calling the shots, whom would you pick for this advance team and—if you were honest—would you appoint yourself?
Seriously, whom would you select for the team, and how would your story unfold?
In 1960, Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis wrote The Last Temptation of Christ, where he goes on a non-canonical riff about Holy Week (a book that had a major impact on me some years later as a high school student)—it became a movie in 1988.
Kazantzakis grabbed that phase of Jesus’ life but missed a great opportunity to tell the back-story of these 70 advance-team members.
You have a blank slate to pick the characters, develop their foibles and human stumbling, all with the generally upbeat ending of today’s lesson.
To prime the pump, here are a few of my candidates:
Two high school grads with ambiguous life trajectories whose parents have pressured them into a gap year.
A burnt out hedge fund manager who is loaded financially but.who struggles to claim anything like a human soul.
A slick evangelical who fast-talked his way out of a misconduct claim at his church but took a severance package and wants a second chance.
A beautiful mid-life woman who just departed a god-awful marriage and wants to start over.
An Iraq war veteran still trying to shake off PTSD.
Other candidates? Would you go with spiritual elites or more colorful, textured life stories?
Once we have selected the characters, imagine where you could take them?
Does the team of 70 stay in close touch and speak with unified voices, or do things fall apart quickly with internal strife, alliances, dysfunctional romances and petty jealousy?
Do you try to track all 70 as they move from town to town, or do you focus in on some lead stories within the pack?
How do the original 12 disciples feel about being upstaged by 70 upstarts?
They go out in pairs—quite convivial—so which dyads fall in love and which pairs throttle each other along the way?
What’s it like to stay as a guest in a stranger’s home, and what could possibly go wrong with a biblical version of Airbnb?
Do the actors focus on Jesus’ message, or does hubris set in once they cure some sick folks and stomp some scorpions?
Do any of the 70 turns out to be slackers who exploit their hosts?
Where would you take this luscious story of proactive outreach?
Would you recommend to our vestry a comparable model of engaging the Upper West Side?
As Luke tells the story—and we find it only in Luke’s Gospel—we findsome elusive but tantalizing clues with still plentiful opportunities for you to fill in the gaps.
First, Jesus bucks up the troops as he sends them on their way, stating, “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”
Awesome! Sign me up.
What the heck does this mean, and why would I go down that road?
I can only guess that Jesus had an incredibly persuasive way
So in your novel or play, you must decide who eats and who gets eaten in the narrative—which would you be if you wrote yourself into the drama?
Who is the implied adversary in this story—the wolves—and why can’t any Jesus story ever become more like a quiet Sunday at the petting zoo?
We also learn that Jesus prizes agility—a heroic challenge for any who are weighed down by life’s stuff and its burdens.
Is Jesus joking or exaggerating when he demands that we carry no purse or sandals?
What’s this with the radical asceticism to which no one here today—including yours truly—has any hope of accomplishing?
We’ve airbrushed this demand out of Christian witness, for if it were the main criterion for discipleship; the Jesus Movement would not made it to Holy Week, let along the 21st century.
So your homework assignment for this morning: decide if Jesus is exaggerating to make a point or whether we throw in the towel because we will never get that rigorous.
Now we get to a fun part of dealing with aggression on the road.
Let’s assume that some of these home visits contained in your novel go quite well—great kumbaya evenings with ample opportunity to share faith stories.
But Jesus predicts that something might go awry—I cannot imagine how that would happen.
Jesus equips the 70 with a biblical version of a digital salute.
If your host fails to welcome you—and we do not know how they were paired up in hundreds of possible home scenarios—Jesus tells them to step out of the house, stomp their dusty feet (again, no sandals) and wipe off their feet in protest to their host—keep Jesus’ admonition in mind for any upcoming family reunions.
Finally, we get to the good stuff, which we Episcopalians have never seemed to embrace.
When the 70 return joyous with amazing stories of vanquished demons and the wretched made whole—remember those two kids in their gap year, how are they doing—Jesus reminds them that he has given them authority to tread on snakes and scorpions.
I’ll check with Andrea to see if that scenario is written into our Godly Play curriculum.
We do not know if the gig is up for the 70 or if they simply come back for an interim report to Jesus before returning to the field, but imagine how they must have balanced good days and bad, from being tossed out of their lodging to scoring victory as demon wranglers.
We have an exotic earthly-ministry story from back in the day with Jesus.
Beyond testifying to Jesus’ divine authority, it challenges us to think about the Jesus Movement of our own day.
Beyond showing up for church and its beautiful liturgy, how does it inspire us for mission in our own day?
Have we domesticated the Gospel with tepid admonitions to be kind, like a new episode of Mr. Rogers?
As a faith community, how do we discern God’s will and share joyful or challenging stories of discipleship in the world?
In our postmodern world—where every voice or social-media post seemingly has equal weight—what does the Church have to say to the Upper West Side, and who are the wolves that might devour us for lunch if we are not sufficiently savvy?
Two sleeper passages in this vignette give us hope and context for today’s ministry.
A favorite theme for Luke, Jesus reminds us that the Kingdom of God has come near—not in the great bye and bye but right now.
God’s reign currently surrounds us, and it fuels us for holy living as wildly textured but mercifully forgiven souls.
Notice the final sentence and almost becomes lost in the drama: “But rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
Wow. That’s a whole sermon—and more—that speaks to an age-old debate about how we make amends with God after a bad day or challenging life.
Deserve it or not, God chooses whom God chooses.
Our names are written in heaven.
Which begs the biggest question of our Christian journey: what will we do with this joyous news?