Under Sealed Orders – A Communion Meditation
Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20
by Thomas R. McKibbens
July 7, 2019
Say that again? Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. There goes the greeting time in church! And if we can’t carry a purse, it will definitely do some damage to the offering. What can we make of such advice in our day?
To explain this text rightly means that we pay attention to the number 70. Sending out 70 was no coincidence, especially when we remember that he has already chosen 12 disciples. It is clear that the 12 are symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel. But what about the 70? What is the symbolic importance of that number?
The answer is the key to understanding this baffling text. To Luke and his readers, the number 70 had a special meaning. It referred to the ancient Jewish belief that there were 70 nations in the world. To them, the earth was clearly divided: there was Israel, composed of 12 tribes, and there were the Gentiles, composed of 70 nations. Jesus has already sent out the 12; now he is sending out the 70.
Therefore, this number represents the church’s mission to the whole world. And the 70 represent not the ordained, credentialed, specialists we call ministers, but the entire church whose mission it is to announce God’s shalom to the whole world. So whatever else this story may mean, we can be sure that it is not directed to a few specialists in ministry, but to the entire church.
So we should confirm two things: first, the mission is to the whole world; and second, it should include the whole congregation—all of us. For the church’s mission to be authentically Christian, it can be neither limited by region nor limited by specialists in ministry. When you sign up to be a Christian, you sign up for ministry.
Now let us try to make some sense out of these strange instructions. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. One thing is clear: they are to travel light, and they are to travel in haste, for they have an absolutely vital mission to accomplish. They are to spread God’s shalom, God’s peace, and to do it with a sense of urgency.
It is not without some significance that the first task of this group of 70 is to announce peace in every home. The implications of this are breathtaking! The task of the 70 was to broker peace among groups who were not at peace. Suddenly the task becomes dangerous! Brokering peace between nations, between political parties, between religions, between theological positions, between management and labor, between town and gown, between conservatives and liberals, among adults, children, and youth…the list could go on and on, but you see what I mean. Brokering peace is a high-risk calling!
Jesus told them to go into the house and broker peace. What happens when you go into your corporate or institutional house or your workplace to broker peace? What happens when you go into your academic house to broker peace? What happens when you go into your denominational house to broker peace? No wonder Jesus warned them: I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Their first task was not to preach, not to collar someone and say, “Do you love Jesus?” It was not to get people to join the church or embrace a particular theology. Those things could come later, but the fundamental task of these 70 people was to broker peace.
And they were to do it under sealed orders. That is to say, they knew only their little bit of the mission. They did not have the total picture; only their little part of it. We are part of a great movement that spans the centuries and encompasses all the nations of the world. It is the ultimate multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-generational movement. And we are a part of it. This church has a unique ministry that is particularly suited for this congregation in Sturbridge, MA in 2019.
Like any church, this church faces common objections: not enough time, not enough money, not enough volunteers, the list goes on and on. But success was never guaranteed to the 70. In fact, it was guaranteed that some would meet failure. That is what he means when he tells them that whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.” Couched as it is in first-century imagery, the message is entirely clear: we do not have the choice of not trying. There is an urgency to move out in ministry.
How do we do it? Well, the sealed order comes in two parts. First, heal the sick. Second, proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God. How do we interpret that in or day? Heal the sick. Sick people? Sick institutions? Sick economies? Sick moralities? Sick homes? Could it mean any of those? And what about proclaiming the nearness of the Kingdom of God? Could that be another way of saying that our task is to bring the spiritual dimension of life into a secular culture?
That is precisely our contemporary calling: to heal, to broker peace, to bring spiritual depth to the shallowness of our times, and that calling is as urgent now as it was when Jesus sent out the 70.
Whenever I pronounce the benediction on a Sunday morning, I am confident that as you leave this place, you are like the 70…brokering peace, healing conflict, and living out the calling to follow the Way of Christ.