Your name is written in heaven | Jeff Nowers | July 7, 2019
The Gospel text from last Sunday, if you recall, presented three anonymous figures who had a desire to follow Jesus but were perhaps unclear about what that entailed. Jesus is wandering about with his inner circle from town to town in the region of Galilee. But now he’s determined to venture south toward Jerusalem—which, as we know, will result in a fateful confrontation in the Temple followed by his arrest and execution. And as he begins the journey to Jerusalem, he encounters three people who each express a desire to join him. The first one was a bit naïve; the second one had some distractions to deal with; and the third one was indecisive. Jesus informs them that naiveté, distractions and indecision compromise one’s desire to be a Jesus-follower. To follow Jesus with integrity, you’ve got to be all in. We don’t know what happened to these three would-be disciples. Maybe they joined Jesus after counting the cost—or maybe they succumbed to second thoughts.
In any case, today’s Gospel picks up from where we left off last week. We can surmise that Jesus already has a crowd of devoted followers. We’re told by Luke that, from among the crowd, Jesus chooses 70 (or maybe 72—there’s a textual debate about that). He sends them off in pairs, ahead of him on the way toward Jerusalem. Why? I think Jesus is wanting to get a sense of the political lay of the land. He wants to know the extent of opposition or receptivity to the Good News that he proclaims and enacts. So he sends out these teams of pairs, 35 or 36 of them, with a specific mission. They are not to carry with them any luggage, not even their wallets, because they are not to rely on their own possessions or power but on God. As they go ahead, they are to announce peace to whichever house offers them hospitality. They are to receive that hospitality gratefully and cure the sick, declaring that the kingdom of God has “come near.” They are also to take careful note of those places that do not extend welcome.
What happened next? We’re told that the 70 went ahead and then returned to Jesus amazed and joyful. They discovered that even demons were submitting to them. I find it curious that the submission of demons was not mentioned by Jesus when he initially gave the 70 instructions. And equally curious is that the 70 did not report back that they were widely welcomed in the towns and households they encountered. Instead, the sum of their report is about demons being forced into submission. One way to understand this is to link the submission of demons to the work of curing the sick. Accordingly, the demons mentioned would be demons of illness and sickness. But another way to understand these demons is to view them as evil powers and forces of opposition—which would suggest that the mission of the 70 was a rocky one. It was met by opposition of the highest order—such that Luke describes it as demonic, as an opposition of spiritual intensity. And rather than move on to the next town, as Jesus recommended they do, the 70 engaged in confrontations that saw evil and opposition put in check. Jesus had given them instructions before they set out, which seemed rather straightforward. But what was anticipated or expected on their mission did not exactly transpire. They had to improvise, trusting that the same Spirit who was empowering Jesus would also empower them.
We all know life can be very uncertain. A couple of weeks ago I was talking to Lucy about her sabbatical pilgrimage from Lindisfarne to Iona. Before she and David began the trek, they had everything planned out—the route they would follow, where they would sleep, etc. But that quickly changed. Some variables weren’t anticipated, like aches and pains and unforgiving weather. So the pilgrimage became a work of improvisation. In the end, they arrived at their goal. But it didn’t quite happen the way they thought it would.
I experienced the unexpected this past Friday night. I received a call shortly after midnight from a police officer informing me that someone had broken into the church by smashing a window downstairs in the runway. I quickly drove over to the church and opened up the doors for the police. They combed through the building, with guns drawn, looking for any intruders. No one had entered the building, and nothing was missing. In the end, it was simply an act of vandalism, and we’ll need to replace the broken window. But, still, it’s not something I was expecting to happen.
Many Anglicans in Canada are bracing for the unexpected. This week General Synod convenes, which is the church’s chief governing body made up of delegates from all dioceses across Canada. Many of you are aware that a major agenda item is a proposed amendment to the church’s definition of marriage that would reflect marriage equality. Anglicans in Canada are bitterly divided over this amendment. Those who identify as LGBTQ and their allies celebrate it, while others lament the erosion of the meaning of marriage as between a man and a woman. What will happen in 10 days after General Synod has ended? Will the church’s definition of marriage remain the same? What will become of gay and lesbian Anglicans who may feel further alienated? Perhaps marriage will be redefined, as I believe it should. But will that prompt a greater exodus of traditionally minded people from our churches?
I think it’s human instinct to attempt to control the unexpected when it comes our way. This is what those 70 followers of Jesus did. It appears that they didn’t anticipate the opposition they’d meet. Their response was to force those demonic powers into submission—and to their amazement and joy it worked. But what if it hadn’t worked? Whatever our capacity to conquer evil, even through the empowerment of God’s Spirit, this is not the basis of Christian joy. We learn this from Jesus’ reaction to what the 70 had done. He says to them, “do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In other words, in all the flux of life, through its uncertainties and blind corners, it is not overcoming the unexpected that gives us joy. It is rather the assurance that we are children of God in the first place, that we can know God and God knows us.
No matter what happens to our church—in this parish of St. Aidan and in the wider national church; no matter what decisions are made about sexuality and marriage equality; no matter what may come your way… remember this: your name is written in heaven. Our joy is in God—the God who creates, redeems and sustains. We need not go far to find God, for God permeates all things—in the sun and rain, in the Scripture we read, in the prayers we offer, in the bread and wine we share, in the faces of each other, and especially in the face of the destitute neighbor. If we can glimpse that, we will taste joy—and that will carry us through any uncertainty.