Agents of an alternative reality

Agents of an alternative reality

Image: An ancient Roman road. Wikimedia Commons.

This post is part of the ON THE WAY sermon series at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Casino July/October 2022

This is the first of a series of sermons at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Casino as we step inside the story of Jesus as crafted by Luke and walk with Jesus “on the way” to Jerusalem.

The journey will be incomplete as I am only serving as locum until Wednesday, 5 October.

However, during the next 13 weeks we shall open our hearts and our imagination to reflect on one question: What does it mean to be Jesus people here in Casino now? Week after week we shall be engaging with that question, using the weekly Gospel reading as a prompt for spiritual wisdom.

Good news by design

Let’s begin by zooming out, as it were, so that can see the forest and not just a handful of trees.

The “forest” in this case is a major literary project undertaken towards the end of the first 100 years after Easter. That project involved two volumes. Both volumes found their way into the New Testament, but in the process they were separated from each other and for a long time their original connection was overlooked.

The first volume tells the story of Jesus. We now call it the Gospel according to Luke, and this year it is the chosen gospel for our reflections almost every Sunday. Last year we especially listened to Mark’s version and next year we shall focus on Matthew, but right now we are listening especially to the way that Luke described Jesus.

The second volume tells the story of what happened with the project Jesus started. We call it the Acts of the Apostles, and it traces the spread of the Jesus message from Jerusalem to Rome; to the very heart of Empire.

For convenience we refer to the complete two-part document as “Luke-Acts.”

In Luke-Acts the “good news” (an official Roman political term for an official announcement) moves from Nazareth to Rome; from the edge of empire to the very centre of power.

Very soon after it was published, the Gospel of Luke was put into a convenient collection of Gospels alongside Matthew, Mark and John. That is where we still find it in our Bibles today.

Part two of the project, the Acts of the Apostles, became separated from the Gospel of Luke. Today we find it in between the Gospels and the Letters, where it forms a kind of a bridge between the story of Jesus and the letters of the Apostles: Paul, and then the “big three” of Peter, James and John.

In this sermon series we shall focus on the Gospel part of that ancient Christian project, since this is the text we shall be working with over the next few months.

Unlike the other gospels, the Gospel of Luke begins with a statement by the author/editor:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. [Luke 1:1–4]

Interestingly, this preface tells us the name of the person for whom the project has been prepared, but not the name of the person doing the work! It is traditional to call this anonymous author, “Luke.” We shall do that for convenience, although we do not know anything about this person even if that was their name.

The author of this two-volume account is aware that others have prepared similar documents before him, and it seems that “Luke” was able to undertake investigations to assist him in his own project. While he does not expressly say he read and used the earlier documents, we can see that he certainly did so.

More importantly Luke indicates that his goal was to provide Theophilus with an orderly account. I understand this to mean that Luke was choosing what information to record and how best to arrange the material for the benefit of his reader. In 1:4 Luke uses a Greek word, catechesis, to describe the instruction which Theophilus would acquire by paying attention to Luke-Acts. We know that same term from our word, Catechism.

The Great Journey

One of the ways that Luke arranges his instructional material for Theophilus was to use the simple fact that Jesus needed to relocate from Galilee to Jerusalem, but he develops that into a meme that forms the central section of the Gospel.

From 9:51 through until 19:44, Luke describes Jesus as being on the way to Jerusalem.

This relocation is given a special significance by the way that Luke notes its commencement:

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, 
he set his face to to go to Jerusalem.
[Luke 9:51]

This is no routine trip south. This is the journey Jesus had to make “when the time came.” As Luke tells the story, in choosing to start this journey at that time Jesus was embracing the call of God upon him. As Jesus takes the first steps south he is saying, “Yes” to God.

The Gospel of Luke has 24 chapters and almost half of them are allocated to this journey that Jesus makes. In the previous chapters (3–9) Jesus has been active in Galilee, and in the following few chapters (20–24) Jesus will encounter the authorities in Jerusalem who seek to destroy him, but for now he is on the road, making his way to Jerusalem.

The first Gospel writer—Mark—dealt with that transition with a very brief statement:

He left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan. And crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them. [Mark 10:1]

A little later Matthew developed that simple statement a little further as he prepared a revised edition of the brief document prepared by Mark:

While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” [Matthew 20:17–19]

The Gospel of John famously has Jesus make several trips to Jerusalem, but Luke has developed the historical fact that Jesus made a final one-way trip to Jerusalem from Galilee into an extended reflection on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

During the weeks between Trinity Sunday and Christ the King we join Jesus on that journey which Luke has developed in such detail.

Seventy people on mission

In the first part of today’s Gospel we have Jesus choosing 70 people from the crowd of people travelling with him, and sending them ahead in pairs to each of the places he planned to visit on his way south.

Let’s pause and think about that.

From Nazareth to Jerusalem is about 100 km as the crow flies.

It needed about 4 days to walk there, unlike the 2 hours needed to do the trip by car today.

Jesus could get to Jerusalem in less than a week, but he is making arrangements to visit 35 villages on along the way. Maybe more than that, since each pair of people will visit several towns before Jesus gets there. This is a major operation which Jesus potentially gathering support from 100+ villages along the way.

As Luke tells the story, Jesus seems to be in no hurry to get to Jerusalem.

As Luke tells the story, it was as much about the journey as the destination.

As Luke tells the story, this trip will take quite a while. There will be time for reflection, questions and insights. No one gets to ask, “Are we there yet?”

The instructions to the 35 sets of advance teams are not exactly encouraging:

He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. [Luke 10:2–6]

Those instructions, by the way, are very similar to the words when Jesus sent out the Twelve at the start of chapter 9, but the Twelve had been given authority over all demons and to cure diseases. The 35 advance teams are being told to make do with what they have, and to pray that God will send more people to help.

These 35 advance teams are not commissioned to heal the sick or cast out demons, but it seems that is what they did anyway. We note their conversation with Jesus when they returned after completing their tasks.

What they are told to do is to offer the gift of God’s shalom to each of the homes they entered, and tell people (regardless of their response) that God’s reign has drawn close to them.

And that was even before Jesus got there!

As soon as these folk turned up with a message of peace the kingdom of God had arrived.

Simply by sharing a message of peace the reign of God was becoming active in those villages.

They were not asked to sign them up as supporters of the Jesus campaign. They were not asked to baptise people. They were not told to instruct them in the parables and sayings of Jesus. They were not asked to collect money from them. They were not asked to organise a church.

They were simply to be messengers of God’s peace, the rule of God. Right now. Right here.

Regular folks with an amazing mission

And notice who these people were.

At least 58 of them were not the Twelve and maybe none of them were!

These were just regular people who had been hanging around Jesus for a bit, and were now on the road to Jerusalem with him. Not even regular folks. These were most likely the marginal folk who had embraced the message of Jesus after an encounter that changed their lives. As much as anything, they were on the road with him and heading to Jerusalem, because they had nowhere else to be and no other place to call home.

These are the people Jesus sends ahead of him.

Not the Twelve but the rest. The Seventy.

And maybe that is the task Jesus gives us here in Casino as well.

We are called to be people whose own lives have been touched in some way by God in Jesus, and we offer a taste of that to others. We wish them well (peace, shalom). We share the secret that God is here among us and that they can choose to welcome the kingdom of God. The choice is theirs. And ours.

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