Only Luke among the evangelists tells of this second mission of disciples. He probably means it to have special significance for the missionary activity of the church after the departure of Jesus. According to rabbinic teaching, there were seventy nations in the world. The disciples are to go “ahead of him,” therefore not announcing themselves or their own message, but preparing the way for Jesus. The missionaries are sent in twos in order to give a witness that can be considered formal testimony about Jesus and the reign of God. Jesus urges prayer for more harvest workers. The Lord of the harvest is concerned about its progress, of course, but he has made his own response to the need somehow dependent on the active concern of those sent into the mission. Because the proclamation of the gospel is the word of God, it is not to be treated as a merely human message—“take it or leave it.” There are harsh consequences for closing ears and hearts to the news of God’s reign. On their return, the seventy are amazed at the power that has been given them through the name of Jesus. They have driven out demons, furthering Jesus’ attack on Satan’s dominion in this world. Jesus envisions Satan falling from the sky through their ministry, another way of saying that the eschatological or final battle between good and evil is taking place now; the victory is being won in Jesus’ name (John 12:31; Rom 16:20). But the disciples must not lose their perspective. The prize is not human glory through feats of power but heavenly glory through following Jesus to Jerusalem, to Calvary.
The beginning of the journey. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is a march toward exaltation (“to be taken up”) in fulfillment of God’s plan. The earthly journey of Jesus serves also as the framework for the progress of the church in the time after the ascension. We find ourselves on the way toward Jerusalem with the Lord. But the march to glory, as Jesus has already warned, is a path through suffering. The disciples must expect to be treated no better than the Master. The cost of Christian discipleship is clearly stated as the journey gets underway. The hostility of the Samaritans is not the personal hatred Jesus will meet in Jerusalem. It is evidence of the national or racial prejudice between Samaritans and Jews. Jesus’ disciples cannot expect to be free from this treatment, but the answer is not retaliation. James and John must learn to avoid useless clashes and to look for new places to spread the kingdom. Illusions are dispelled for would-be disciples. The person who offered himself with absolute availability (v. 57) is told the cost: you will be less secure than the foxes and the birds. Another responds to Jesus’ call with the request that he be allowed to take care of one of the most sacred duties under the law, the burial of a parent. The urgency of the gospel supersedes this claim. Jesus’ saying means that those who do not respond to the gospel call will be spiritually dead; they will have time to bury the physical dead.
After exhibiting his power over the storm, Jesus demonstrates his authority over the demons in Gentile territory. Further, he works a dramatic transformation in a human life. The man is said to be “possessed” by demons. The unclean spirit turns out to be a regiment (“Legion” was an imperial army term), which recognizes Jesus as did other demons. The man’s condition is dangerous to himself and to others, and has persisted over a long time. This is no ordinary exorcism. Its lasting effects could be doubted, which is probably why Jesus agrees to send the demons into the swine—for visible proof that the demons have left the man. They ask not to be sent to “the abyss.” The word used could mean the dead (see Romans 10:7), but here it means the prison of evil spirits (2 Peter 2:4; Rev 9:1-11). The local people are terrified by what has taken place. Their fear does not lead to praise of God (5:26) but to the rejection of Jesus. The loss of the swine impresses them more than the transformation of the man, who, when the people arrive, is sitting at Jesus’ feet in the attitude of a disciple listening to his word. The man wants to follow Jesus, but his vocation is to share what happened to him with his own people.
Today there is a common notion that acts and attitudes are sin only if they hurt people. If no one is hurt, it is not sin. This belief is a misunderstanding of the nature of sin. Sin is basically a rebellion against God. It is a rejection of God’s rule over our lives. We know God’s will. It has been revealed particularly in Jesus. Many of our little offenses are insignificant enough except that they form a pattern of rejection of God. As sin is against God, so forgiveness must come from God. David understood that. The Pharisees saw that clearly. The announcement of God’s forgiveness is the greatest blessing which the Christian church brings to a sinful humanity. The world today takes God’s forgiveness lightly, because it takes sin lightly. Sin is explained away as anything except rebellion against God. Sin is explained away as being merely the result of a bad environment. And so it goes, on and on. The age-old attempt to explain away sin short of rebellion against God is repeated at every age. We cannot heed the truth about ourselves, how can we receive forgiveness? There is a similarity between David (2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15) and Simon’s (Luke 7:36-8:3) offenses. Both had power to do as they pleased, and both did just that. Who was to tell them they could not? In David’s case, it was Nathan the prophet, the mouthpiece of God. In Simon’s case, it was Jesus, speaking also the word of God. No person is above or beyond God’s judgment!
In both the First Lesson (1 Kings 17:17-24) and Gospel (Luke 7:11-17), widows are walking to the grave and grieving deeply. In their society, the loss of husband and son left them helpless and hopeless. Neither widow could snap out of her grief. Nor could those around them do anything to change the deathly situation. Dealing with death requires the work of God. Only God can handle death. Death has been done in by God! And only by God’s power! When Jesus said, “Young man, I say to you rise” (Luke 7:14), the people knew “God has looked favorably on his people” (Luke 7:16). We are all desolate and helpless in the face of death. We cannot undo it. Sophisticated technology may prolong death, but we cannot do away with it. We may deny it. We may respond in anger. We may even come to accept it, but that does not erase it. The greater reality is that Jesus’ compassion for a dying world has brought us to life again. While we were dead in our sins, Christ died for our sake. Luther reminds us that when we are lowered into the grave, we are sunk deep in our Baptism. Baptismally bound to Christ, we die to sin daily, finally, and wonderfully in resurrection hope. God’s last word to death is life!
From New Testament times, the Christian church has been concerned about its outreach. God is concerned about all persons, and the church is the mediator of that outreach. How can the world hear of God’s great name unless the church speaks clearly? How can the world know of God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm unless the church acts? The Gospel speaks of God’s concern for the “foreigner,” a concern expressed through the church. This is the church at its best. One of the enduring problems of the church is to strike the proper balance between guarding the blessings of chosenness and being the mediator of God’s outreach. It is possible to guard the purity of doctrine and life to the extent that the church becomes irrelevant to the world and its problems. At the other extreme, it is easy to compromise essentials to meet the world until we fall for everything because we stand for nothing. Neither attitude is foreign to the church. The church is the body of Christ, and as he is the mediator between God and mankind, so must the church be. The outreach of Christ must be shown in the outreach of the church. It is only through the eyes of faith that we can see Jesus as the Christ, the mediator of God’s will and power. The centurion’s faith saw Jesus as God’s mediator, and therefore merited Jesus’ words of praise. Jesus, the Christian church (as the body of Christ) and Christians (as members of the body of Christ) all share in the mediatorship of Jesus.
This text affirms that the Spirit will continue Jesus’ ministry and lead the disciples “into all the truth,” meaning the full understanding of God’s act in Christ. The Spirit will also “declare to you the things that are to come” (16:14), that is, the promises of God for the future. The fullness of God is Christ’s, and so as the Spirit reveals Christ, the disciples will come to know God. Trinity Sunday commemorates a doctrine which seeks to define the mystery of God’s nature. Christian experience has asserted that the God of mystery and might has revealed himself in his Son, the historical Jesus. However, God is more than a person. God is alive, empowering, saving—this is the Holy Spirit. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one God! Do not try to reason it out as a logical statement. Rather, it is a statement of faith based on experience. If all attempts at explanation end in the confession of the mystery of the Godhead, so be it! Our hope can lie only in a deity beyond our feeble understanding. Ultimately the doctrine of the Trinity is not to be explained but to be accepted in awe.
The Bible speaks about the Spirit of God right from the beginning of the Bible. Two important terms for the Spirit in the Bible are ruah (in Hebrew) and pneuma (in Greek). The Spirit of God as described in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible gives life to the entire creation. For St. Paul, creation is not yet completed. It is still longing for its liberation from whatever holds it captive and prevents it from living fully the new life Jesus has brought (Romans 8:22-23). Through the Spirit, it is God himself who is present and active. Earlier on Jesus had foretold that all who believe in him would receive the Spirit (John 7:39). Now in his farewell speech Jesus promises again the Spirit of Truth to come and stay with the disciples (John 14:15). There is continuity between Jesus and the community of believers, the Church. As Jesus was guided throughout his ministry by the Spirit, so the Apostles and the first Christian community felt strongly that the Spirit of Jesus was present in them and among them. The Acts of the Apostles describe how the Spirit made them understand the deep meaning of the message of Jesus and gave them courage to proclaim it openly without fear. The Church still lives in the faith that the Spirit will continue to show it how to continue the mission of Jesus today.
The “Ascension of our Lord” recalls that after the risen Lord appeared to his disciples (Luke 24:13- 35,36-43), he bids them farewell, blesses them, and promises them the Holy Spirit. At this final moment he helps the Apostles to understand the meaning of his death in the light of the Scriptures. For Jesus it is the end of his journey in this world. For the Apostles it is the beginning of a long journey into the world to take Jesus’ message everywhere. But they are not sent to go alone. Jesus promises them a companion on the road: the Spirit. Through this Spirit they will realize that he is still with them. Luke has two versions of the Ascension. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Ascension to heaven happens only after appearing to the disciples for forty days which is a symbolic figure. During this time Jesus prepares his disciples to be his messengers. Their missionary journey will start in Jerusalem and reach Rome, the center of the Roman empire. The Gospel of Ascension tells us that like the Apostles we are all sent out on a journey into the world to take Jesus’ message of love to all we meet on our road of life. As followers of Jesus, we have also to be his messengers. The task of evangelizing all peoples is the most important mission of the Church. Every Christian is called to tell the Good News of Jesus to others by word and action. Ascension reminds us also that—as for Jesus—our life is a journey home, to our Father’s house. Although God has given us the important mission to transform this world into his kingdom, we always remain “strangers and foreigners on earth” (Heb 11:13). Our true home is heaven.
Monica Folk, is a deacon, discipleship, and ministry leader at Trinity in Kissimmee, FL and living out her vocational calling to care for Creation as an environmental consultant. She sent this follow-up to Earth Day last week:
A bunch of good articles and info came out last week as part of Earth Day celebrations. Here is one from the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) on recycling that might make good up-to-date content for the 7 Habits webpages.