A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on July 7, 2013 (Proper 9, Year C)
Everyone knows about those twelve apostles; the ones Jesus hung out with and traveled with and ate the Last Supper with. They were his inner circle, the true believers, the ones who had literally left everything behind to follow Jesus. We know their names — some of us even had to memorize them in Sunday School. Peter, Andrew, James, John, Matthew, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, another James, Thaddeus, Simon, and the infamous Judas who was later replaced by Matthias. We’ve read stories about them in the Bible, they’ve been depicted in art, they have churches named after them.
So who are these seventy others Jesus appoints to bring his message of salvation out into the world? They certainly don’t get much press. There’s even dispute over whether there were 70 or 72 of them — the translations differ. But who were these people that Jesus trusted enough to send out two-by-two into the surrounding towns?
Well, on the surface of things we know that they were early followers of Jesus, or as we might now say they were “early adopters” of Jesus’ message of salvation. We only hear about them in Luke’s gospel and we have no idea what happened to them after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Presumably some were martyred for their faith, others fell away, and still others were instrumental in forming those earliest Christian communities. We don’t know.
In fact Eastern and Western Christianity even differ on what to call them. In the west we refer to them as the 70 disciples while in the Orthodox tradition they’re known as the 70 apostles. In a sense both traditions are right if “disciple” means student and “apostle” means one sent out on a mission.
One of the things going on here is something that every good leader must ultimately do — give up control. That’s hard enough to do in our daily lives but if you’re the Son of God you’re surely not going to be delegating authority to anyone who can hold a candle to your divine competence. You could understand Jesus thinking to himself, “I’ve worked hard to get this message out, my time on earth is limited, and I’m expected to entrust the salvation of the world to these people?”
But of course he doesn’t; not just because Jesus is Jesus but because he loves the church — and those men and women who helped share the Good News of God’s kingdom even before it officially became the church. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some days when Jesus must just shake his head. But he knew the moment he sent out disciples in his name that they would do both great things and embarrassing things. They would point people toward God and place them on a spiritual arc of redemption. And they would do things in his name that would be less than enlightening and sometimes even harmful.
But he lets go. He knows we’re not perfect but he also knows that the church itself isn’t about perfection. Rather it points us in the direction of perfection; in the direction of the God of all hope.
In the end, Jesus doesn’t give the church to twelve people or 70 people; he doesn’t give the church to a bunch of folks who wear collars and fancy vestments. He gives the church to us; to you and to me. The church universal as well as this very parish has been entrusted to us. And that’s both a privilege and a responsibility.
I learned a long time ago about what makes up a church. When I grew up in Baltimore my family ended up at two churches, both beautiful worship spaces in their own ways. Then in 1982 when I was 13 we moved to New York — to a small, quiet (by New York standards) neighborhood just over the 59th Street Bridge into Queens. One of the first things we did was start church shopping as a family. We visited some incredible parishes — St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue; the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; Grace Church in Greenwich Village. The architecture was spectacular, the choral music was divine, the liturgy was grand. But somehow something was missing.
Out of desperation we finally tried the little, neighborhood Episcopal Church — All Saints’ in Sunnyside. If you drove too fast up 46th Street you’d miss it. It was a nondescript red brick building tucked in amongst apartment buildings. We walked in and I, for one, was not impressed. There were very few people there, the music was played on an electric organ, there were no Tiffany windows, and the floors were all bright red asbestos tile. In other words, it didn’t look like a church to me. Oh, it had all the usual churchy things: an altar, pews, bulletins, coffee hour but it all seemed rather, well, ordinary.
The people were friendly enough — I remember it being a pretty diverse crowd but it was the dynamic young rector who showed up at our house the next week to talk about his vision for the church that made my parents return the next week. Suddenly I was acolyting every week, my brother and I were sucked into the tiny youth group, my father started reading lessons and my mother joined the choir. We became a part of that small yet growing parish just as it became a part of our own identity.
And somewhere along the way, I learned what church is. It’s not about stained glass windows or flying buttresses or pipe organs or vestments or any of the other trappings we so often identify with church. Rather, it’s about the people. It’s about a community of disciples striving to keep Jesus Christ at the center of their lives. It’s about a community coming together to worship and to rejoice and to celebrate and to weep and to bear one another’s burdens. It’s not about being perfect but being perfectly willing to be vulnerable and flexible and open to the gentle tug of the Spirit.
This is what Jesus was initiating when he sent out those 70 disciples. He was letting them test out the notion of what it would mean to be a community with him spiritually but not physically at the center. This brief mission out into the world turned them into CITs — the Church in Training. And in a very real way we’re still the Church in training. We fumble around, we don’t always represent Jesus in the world to the degree he deserves, we focus too much on our own needs rather than the needs of those around us. And yet Jesus stands among us at the center guiding us, exhorting us, interceding for us, perhaps sometimes shaking his head at us but always and primarily loving us.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013