Vulnerability that allows the kingdom of God to break forth as love and healing
Liz Stuart, 17 October 2021
Isaiah 35: 3–6; 2 Timothy 4: 5–17; Luke 10: 1–9
A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to take part in the dedication of the new hospice in Winchester. The vicar of Christ Church preached a top-notch sermon in which he said to the congregation gathered, which included of course hospital and hospice staff, ‘You are now the centre of the hospitality industry in Winchester’. They looked slightly bewildered at that. But he was pointing out that ‘hospice’, ‘hospital’ and ‘hospitality’ have the same root word, hospes, meaning ‘stranger’. The hospice, McDonalds, the Trinity Centre and the Hotel du Vin are all in the business in their different ways of welcoming the stranger.
One of the dominant themes of the gospel of Luke is hospitality. Hospitality was one of the building blocks of Ancient Near Eastern culture. Travel was a dangerous enterprise, and so welcoming a stranger or friend into your home, providing them with food and safety, was regarded as a sacred and reciprocal duty. You were a good host because you knew that you would soon have to be a guest. And you were a respectful guest because you knew that soon you would have to host someone. A violation of hospitality was considered one of the most serious sins. The author of the gospel of Luke portrays Jesus’ life as that of God in the form of a guest who comes among us, vulnerable and dependent upon others to be his host. And now he sends his disciples out as guests into the world.
In our gospel reading Jesus appoints 70, or 72 – the ancient manuscripts are about equally divided on whether the number is 70 or 72. And the number is significant. The Hebrew manuscripts of Genesis 10 say that 70 is the number of the nations of the world. In the Greek manuscripts of Genesis 10 it is 72. Also, you will remember a few weeks ago we heard that the Spirit of God which rested upon Moses fell on 70 others. Jesus’ disciples share the same Holy Spirit that descended upon him and they are not confined to any particular race or nation. God’s reach is vast and his Spirit is generous.
You will note that they are, in our reading, sent ahead of him to every town and place where he intended to go. The Greek doesn’t quite say ‘sent ahead of him’; it says that they passed before his face, which may be a sort of commissioning. Jesus commissions a large number of people representative of all nations and shares his Spirit with them, sending them to go where he intends to go.
Jesus commissions a large number of people representative of all nations and shares his Spirit with them.
He sends them as guests in need of hospitality and he pulls no punches as to how vulnerable they are to be: no purse, no bag, no sandals, no talking to people on the road. There is an urgency to get to a city, to a house, and to be received there as a guest so that the kingdom can come near. The kingdom does not come in power; it comes as a stranger asking to come in, defenceless like a lamb in the midst of wolves, and when welcomed its power breaks forth as love and healing. The 70 or 72 are to do just what Jesus did and go into the world as guests. To be an evangelist of the kingdom of God is to go undefended into the world as a guest to eat and drink and be loved and cared for by people willing to welcome the stranger. That somehow releases the power of the Spirit to bring in the kingdom of God.
Here at St Paul’s we rightly focus on how to make ourselves a Christian community that has an outrageously hospitable heart. We want to make this space welcoming for all people – that’s part of our mission. We want to be good hosts. Quite right! Jesus was often a host. Hosts have the power to welcome strangers.
But perhaps we need to spend some time thinking how effective we are as a community at being guests in the world, engaged as undefended strangers with our neighbours. Our Green Group helps us to understand ourselves as late-arriving guests on this planet. Our parish visitors go as guests into people’s homes. But how as a whole community do we consciously go into spaces where we do not control the narrative or the dialogue? How do we make ourselves as a body of people dependent upon the kindness of strangers, so that the kingdom may come upon them? Amen.