The Gospel for today begins, "After this 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. He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest."
Look around you in the church today and count the people present. My guess is seventy, more or less. Apart from the apostles, Jesus appointed seventy others, and here we are.
The harvest is plentiful. A recent census found that a quarter of Sydney’s population, about a million people, have no religious affiliation; they attend neither church, nor mosque, nor synagogue nor temple. The harvest sounds pretty plentiful to me. But, said Jesus, “The labourers are few.” I have included a picture of Hugh McKay’s Sunshine Harvester in the pew sheet to show what we need for so great a harvest. Incidentally, this harvester was made three years after this church was built.
Jesus did not have a Sunshine Harvester, nor was he gathering grain. Jesus told Peter to go and fish for people, but he didn’t mean catch them in a net. Jesus told the seventy to go out in pairs, and some take that instruction literally, like the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But Jesus never asked people to join an organisation, he never said, “Go and make Anglicans of all people.” He didn’t even say, “Go and make people come to church.” Jesus’ real mission is to open the Kingdom of God to all people.
In our gospel today the message carried by those seventy people is very simple, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Some people may accept this with joy; others will reject the good news, and some will be hostile.
Jesus says quite plainly, “I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” There will be people who prefer the kingdom of greed, or the kingdom of hatred or the kingdom of indifference to the Kingdom of God. They may make the choice to reject the kingdom of God and they will suffer the consequences. Jesus says to the seventy, “It will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.”
This is not a threat, it is a warning. The kingdom of God is open to anyone, absolutely everyone. It is a kingdom without boundaries, a kingdom of God’s giving and our thankfulness, as I said last week. Those who accept the kingdom of God take on a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Those who reject the kingdom of God, reject God’s gifts as well.
But we cannot say that some people are saved and some people are damned. First of all, we do not know the full glory of God’s plans for ourselves, let alone other people. Secondly, no human being is perfect, so these gifts are not fully developed in anyone. We cannot say that the Kingdom of God has fully and completely arrived; but we can say, “The kingdom of God has come very near.”
We hear that the seventy returned. Obviously their task has been completed, so now we have a sneak preview of the future, when the kingdom of God has fully and completely arrived. The seventy are filled with joy because the demons submitted to them and Jesus declares that he saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. The battle is won and the forces of evil are destroyed. But Jesus reminds them that the destruction of demons is not the point. The whole mission and purpose of Christ is to include all creation in the kingdom of God. “Do not rejoice because the spirits submit to you,” says Jesus, “but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” The kingdom of God will only be fulfilled and Jesus’ mission will only be completed when the names of all creation are written in heaven.
When we think about where we fit into this picture, we see first that the purpose of God’s people, which we call the church, is to be part of Jesus’ mission to the world. The church exists to be Christ’s hands and eyes, ears, mouth, feet and heart in the world.
To be effective, the church needs to be a growing, committed community. Our reason for coming together is to encourage and support each other. Our Sunday worship is a time of building commitment and growing in understanding of Christ’s mission. Matthew reports Jesus saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” All nations? We’ll need more than seventy to reach even our own little corner of the world. Our worshipping community must grow to be effective.
Jesus told the seventy to be part of the community of the towns they visited, taking part in the activities of that community, building bridges of trust and acceptance. Only then will people understand what it means when we show, by our words and actions, that “The kingdom of God has come near.”