The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dr. David D. M. King, OSL
We find ourselves at the beginning of Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem. Toward the end of chapter 9, Luke tells us, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” For the next 10 chapters, Jesus travels toward the holy city, in something scholars call the Travel Narrative. Jesus knows that he is not headed to Jerusalem in order to be accepted by adoring crowds, despite the impression one might get from his triumphal entry on Palm Sunday. He knows that his journey is going to lead to the cross. Many people tell Jesus that they want to follow him, that they are willing to follow him. But how many will be willing to follow him all the way?
Early in the journey, as we heard this morning, Jesus sends out missionary teams ahead of him. He sends out seventy-two of them—or seventy—ancient sources vary. If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it’s happened before. Back in chapter 9, and also in Matthew 10 and Mark 6, Jesus sends out twelve disciples, two-by-two, to spread the good news. Now he does it again, but with a larger group of followers.
He sends them out vulnerable. “Like lambs among wolves,” he says. No wallet, no bag, and no sandals. They have no provisions to support themselves. They have to rely on the hospitality of others. But he doesn’t send them out alone. They go in pairs. Always in pairs.
Wherever they go, they are supposed to greet people with a word of peace. That is, they are told to be open, welcoming, non-confrontational to all, regardless of any biases or preconceptions they might have. They should greet everyone hoping to find friends. They are to offer peace and healing.
But, Jesus knows, they are not always going to be received with peace. Not everyone they encounter is going to be interested in hearing what they have to say. Some are going to argue. Some might be downright hostile. Some are going to reject them. They may even be greeted with violence.
So what are Jesus’s disciples supposed to do when they meet resistance? What are they supposed to do when they come up against opposition? What are they supposed to do when their message of peace and healing is rejected? Should they argue? Should they get into a shouting match? Should they call the opposition names? Should they curse their opponents? James and John came across opposition once and had the idea to call down fire from heaven, like Elijah did, and destroy the people who rejected them. Is that what Jesus’s followers should do when their message is rejected?
Jesus has some very specific advice for what to do if their message of peace and healing is met with hostility. “Whenever you enter a city and the people don’t welcome you, go out into the streets and say, ‘As a complaint against you, we brush off the dust of your city that has collected on our feet. But know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.’”
I find this response fascinating. At first glance, it can seem a bit mean-spirited. It almost seems like a curse. It seems like something we wouldn’t expect Jesus to do. It’s a rejection of the people of that town. And sometimes we read it as being rather permanent. If you don’t accept Jesus’s message right now then you’re no better than dust on my feet.
But as I’ve lived with this story longer and read through it again and again, it’s grown on me. Yes, there is an element of public protest. There is this sign-act of brushing the dust off of one’s feet. But as a protest, it’s pretty mild. It is not a permanent rejection of these people. It’s simply saying, I’m not going to let your rejection stick to me. I’ve got a job to do, and I’m going to keep going.
It’s basically the same message as JAY-Z when you says you have to brush that dirt off your shoulder, or as Taylor Swift when she says that she’s going to shake it off. If someone disrespects you, if someone rejects you, don’t let it pull you down. Haters gonna hate. You just have to shake it off. Brush that dirt off your shoulder and move on.
Interestingly, though, shaking the dirt off your feet isn’t the end of what Jesus recommends. After they have brushed the dirt off, Jesus’s disciples are supposed to say something. They’re supposed to say, “Know this: God’s kingdom has come to you.” God’s kingdom has come near. God’s kingdom has come to you. That’s exactly the same thing they supposed to tell the people who do receive them. It doesn’t matter whether they find people who are receptive or people who aren’t receptive, the message they are to share is the same: “The Kingdom of God has come near.” Even in the midst of their little protest, they are still to offer a world of grace. They are still to proclaim the kingdom of God. And they are still to make it clear that God’s grace is for you. It’s not just for me or for the people I like. God’s grace is for all. Even if you’re rejecting me right now, God’s kingdom is for you. The kingdom of God has come near to you.
And notice that Jesus doesn’t say that the kingdom of God is going to come near, or even that the kingdom of God is coming. No, Jesus says that the kingdom of God has come near. It is already present in our world. God’s transforming grace is breaking into our present eality, so that, as we pray in the Lord’s prayer, things on earth might be made like they are in heaven.
Jesus’s message is of a God who is intimately involved in our lives, a God who cares about every part of creation and who is actively working in the world. We don’t worship a God who is far away off in heaven, distant and inaccessible. We worship a God who’s kingdom has come near. We worship a God who is active, who is present, who is accessible. We worship a God who came to earth in human form, our Lord Jesus Christ, who became like us so that we might know the extent of God’s love for us, the lengths to which God would go in order to reach out to us.
The kingdom of God has come near. And that is good news. Good news that no matter who you are, you are loved by God. Good news that no matter how distant you may feel from God, God is reaching out to you just hoping that you will say “Yes.” Good news that whatever trouble you might be facing, God wants to help you, God wants to be a part of your life.
The kingdom of God has come near. And you and I are called to share that good news. We are called, like those seventy-two disciples, to let our world know that God is real, that God wants to be a recognized reality in each of our lives. We are called to share peace with the world, even in the face of hostility. We are called to offer healing. We are called to live lives that testify to the truth of God’s love and grace.
And we are called sometimes to take risks for the sake of the gospel. Jesus said he was sending his disciples out like lambs into the midst of wolves. And it can seem like that to us sometimes. Leading a Christian life can be a risky thing. It is counter-cultural. It can open us up to attack and ridicule. And it is a hard thing to do in the face of so many distractions, so many temptations, so many barriers.
But we are called to take courage and to go out into the world in faith. We are called to declare peace to a world that so often prefers conflict. We are called to offer healing in world that so often seeks to wound. We are called to prepare the way of the Lord. We are called to testify with our words and with our actions, “The kingdom of God has come near. It has come to you.” Thanks be to God.