The Seventy

“The seventy returned with joy….”  (Luke 10:17)

Here in the City of Philadelphia we have an organization known as the Committee of Seventy, whose mission, they will tell you, is to conduct a “permanent campaign to improve the Philadelphia region by demanding ethical conduct of public officials, promoting government efficiency, educating citizens and safeguarding elections.”  They are best known, by their own account, as a “watchdog during election time.”  The committee includes a lot of lawyers.  They are all about the rules.

And it’s fair to say that this city needs someone to keep watch over the rules and the people who are supposed to govern by those rules – more than most cities.  The Committee of Seventy is not, as far as I can tell, limited in number to seventy members.  Its website cites the Book of Exodus as the source of the name, and while “seventy elders” are sometimes mentioned in Exodus, the actual account of God’s instruction to Moses to gather seventy elders is found in the Book of Numbers.  There we find that the seventy are to share Moses’ spirit and assist him in leadership – not keep an eye on him.  Nevertheless, it’s nice to think that principles of justice, good ethics and fairplay in this city are somehow rooted in the Scriptures.  If someone is going to be a watchdog of the rules that govern the rule-makers, these are good shoes to fill.

Is it a coincidence that in the Gospels we find Jesus appointing seventy helpers to send on ahead of himself as he proceeds with his ministry of teaching and healing?  “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few… Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves….”  And then comes what sounds a lot like a set of rules:

“Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and salute no one on the road.  Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’…  eat what is set before you; heal the sick… say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.”  And then: “Whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet , we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’”  What a set of rules!  What a set of rules to follow.

But if we look more closely, will we see that Jesus’ instructions to his seventy are not really a set of rules at all, but a set of promises?

If they are to carry no purse, no bag and not even any sandals, are there not promises embedded in those instructions: that their needs will be provided for, their wants will be met, even the soles of their feet will be protected from the stones on the road, their toes protected from stubbing?  Will they glide from town to town on a cushion of air?  Is this a secret promise?

If they are to greet no one on the road, is there a promise there of safety, as well as an undercurrent of urgency?

And is the greeting of peace to every house a promise – at the very least of the intention of the greeter, but also of God’s intention that we should know his peace, which passes all understanding?

Eat what is set before you: because I promise you that you will not go hungry.

Is the instruction to heal the sick a promise that there is healing to be had in the Name of the One who sent them out ahead of himself?

“The kingdom of God has come near you!”  This, too, is a promise: a promise that what has come near is not to be forever elusive, not forever far away in the skies.

Even the dust from their feet, wiped off in protest in the face of unwelcome carries with it a promise, leaving behind the footprints that lead to the ongoing message of the kingdom of God, which has come near even though it was not welcome.

Jesus has called the seventy to go ahead of him with a mission of promise.  And if the writers of the gospels heard in that story the echoes of the seventy with whom God shared the spirit that once rested on Moses alone, then so be it; it is no coincidence.  

But remember that in neither case are the seventy sent out to enforce the rules.  In neither case are the seventy appointed as the watchdogs of Moses or of Jesus, prowling around to enforce the rules of the rulers.  This drift is understandable and, I am sure forgivable, in the Committee of Seventy here in Philadelphia.  But it may be less forgivable among latter-day followers of Jesus who take the role of watchdog upon themselves.

The seventy, like the Twelve, were never called to be watchdogs; they were called to be harbingers of promises, forerunners of the dawning of the kingdom of God.

And they went out without their purses; they went out without their bags, without tunics, without staffs to lean on as they went; they went out with no sandals on their feet, those poor, silly men and women who listened to Jesus’ promises, they went out without sandals!  And did they glide from town to town on cushions of air?

You know, they might have.  Because look what happens: the seventy returned with joy.  They returned with joy!  What church did they belong to?  Have you ever heard of such a thing?!  No purses, no bags, no sandals – NO SANDALS! – but they returned from their work proclaiming that the kingdom of God had come near, and they returned WITH JOY!  What were they smoking?!?

My brothers in sisters in Christ, there is a lesson for us here today.

First, we are part of a church that is tying itself up in hideous knots – the kind of knots you could strangle yourself with – over rules, when we have paid precious little attention to the promises.  Even in Jesus’ wonderful instructions to Go our way, even though we remember that he told us that we were like lambs in the midst of wolves, even though he promised there would be healing.  Even though the very footprints we would leave behind when we shake the dust from our feet would proclaim the promise: The kingdom of God has come near!  Even though we have inherited all this promise, we are choking on rules.

Second, we can see how easy it is to hear a promise as a rule and to miss the promise altogether, so that we just keep stubbing our un-sandaled toes and never get to glide on the currents of cushions of air.

Third, we are shown that there is something missing if we are not responding to the promises of Christ.  Because what ever happened to the joy?  The seventy returned with joy!  They’d been given nothing to work with, told to leave their gear at home, sent out barefoot, identified as lambs in the midst of wolves, as too few laborers in the face of a plentiful harvest (read: a lot of work)… and yet the seventy returned with joy!

Yes, there is a lesson for us to learn today.

As we come together week by week, we are a community of people called together by God, and also sent out, week by week, in his Name.  We, too, are sent to be harbingers of promise and forerunners of the kingdom of God.

We know that the laborers are few, but do we remember that the harvest is plentiful?

We know that it sometimes seems that we have not enough: not enough resources, not enough faith, not enough gear, not even enough to put spiritual sandals on our feet, so to speak.  And what does God expect?  That we are going to glide through life on cushions of air?

God sent his spirit: to seventy elders who shared it with Moses.  He sent his spirit, like cushions of air, if you ask me, to the seventy that Jesus sent out proclaiming the kingdom.  He may even have sent his spirit to the Committee of Seventy, for all I know (though it often seems hard to believe this).

And God has sent his spirit to us – more than seventy of us gathered in this place.  He is sending his spirit to us day by day to strengthen and encourage us.  He will send us cushions of air, if that’s what we need –if only we can hear the promises he makes!  The seventy returned with joy saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”  Even the demons!  Don’t we have demons we need to quell in this world?  Don’t we have plenty of demons?  Yes, we are just lambs in the midst of wolves.  But we will be carried on cushions of air – not so much as a stubbed toe – if only we can hear the promises: the kingdom of God has come near!

Lately I have been talking with the Vestry and others about several guideposts for our collective ministry here at Saint Mark’s.  Some of them are very practical: the need to study the Scriptures, for instance.  But one of the guideposts I’ve suggested we need to use in planning and organizing our mission and ministry is the idea that a parish community ought to be a community of irrepressible and inexhaustible joy.

To some people in the world, - especially those who are aware of all the conflict in the church - such a suggestion is as ludicrous as the idea that we should go out to do our work without so much as a pair of sandals on our feet.

But I believe that we can glide on cushions of air that God sends us by his Holy Spirit, if only we can hear the promises every time he tells us to go, go, go out into the world as harbingers of promise and forerunners of his kingdom.  If only we realize that it is perfectly alright to be lambs in the midst of wolves, with God beside us and beneath us and above us.  If only we can see that God means for his mission to be carried out and nothing will prevent it if we go in faith.

The harvest is plentiful, the laborers are few, which is all the more reason we need to go, confident that it is God’s spirit that will get us where he calls, God’s spirit that will carry us on cushions of air if that’s what it takes, God’s spirit that casts down every demon that threatens his mission of peace in the world.

And it is you and I, my friends, you and I who are sent, week by week, to do his work and to proclaim his promises.  And it is you and I who can expect – if only we hear the promises and not just the rules – you and I who can expect to return with joy: irrepressible and inexhaustible joy!  As though we had been carried along on cushions of air.  Joy that is born not from our careful application and adherence to the rules; not because we are somehow superior to those whose dust we have shaken off our feet; not even because the awful demons of this world have been vanquished in the Name of Jesus.  Our irrepressible and inexhaustible joy will be born of the very promise we proclaim: that the kingdom of heaven is very near to us, and the promise that your name and mine – no matter who we are – are written in heaven!

Thanks be to God!

Reached by Fr. Sean E. Mullen
8 July 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on July 9, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.