Sitting in the intern’s office in the Pastoral Care department of Hendrix Hospital, I spent most of my first day as a hospital chaplain intern filling out paperwork, trying to get a handle on the layout of the hospital, and learning how to read patient print outs. On my second day, however, my supervisor took me to the 3rd floor, introduced me to the nurses at the nurse station, and then said, “Okay, good luck.” and he handed me a patient print out of everyone on the floor. “Wait! What?” I responded, “aren’t you coming with me?” He responded that he was not, and although he quickly became a trusted mentor, in the moment I was not a fan of his, but he went on and said, “You were chosen for this internship for a reason, now go figure it out.” And he turned around and walked back to the elevator, as I went to make my first visit, being sent out to be a witness to God’s presence in some of people’s darkest times.
I was excited, but concerned: what would I say? what if I messed up? And I wonder if the 70 sent out in our gospel passage today might have felt a similar way. Jesus sends out the 70, two-by-two to go to different towns that he would eventually visit. In his sending, he talks about the plentiful harvest and the lack of laborers. He warns them that it won’t be an easy journey; they will be like lambs in the middle of wolves, and on top of that they were to not carry money, luggage, or extra shoes. Should anyone have stopped them on their journey to see if they needed help, Jesus advised them to keep going. Once they arrived, they were to greet the household with the peace of Christ, and if welcomed in, they were to stay there, enjoying the hospitality, curing the sick, and being a witness to the good news of God in Christ. If no one in the town would extend hospitality to them, they were to shake the dust off their feet, and leave town, yet still, they were told to share the good news that kingdom of God has come near. Soon, the 70 returned amazed at all the good work that was able to be done in Christ’s name.
In the church world, there is often much hand wringing about the decline of the church, and while there is certainly concern to be expressed, the move away from a Christianity that is assumed as part of the culture and entered into without thought can open up new opportunities. Christianity, no matter how it has functioned in the past, isn’t a legacy faith, one that we are born into, but rather one that we choose, and we have to make the choice to follow Christ every day. What we can celebrate in the statistical decline of Christianity isn’t less Christians, but the opportunity to go out and to share the good news of God in Christ with folks who haven’t yet experienced it yet. It’s the opportunity to get to experience what Jesus told the 70 before he sends them out: the harvest is more plentiful than we can even imagine.
Like some of you, I am a little uncomfortable with the word evangelism; images of proselytizing folks who are ready to use God’s holy scriptures to shame and guilt others into following their own understanding of the Bible says comes quickly to mind. But if we take a step back from evangelism as we may have experienced it and think about what it’s like to have good news you want to share. Because if you know of something good you want to share it, which is why many people in my life have heard me talk about the Enneagram, or Hydro Flask water bottles, or the podcast No Such Thing As A Fish; I wouldn’t call myself an evangelist for these things, but I do think your life will be enhanced by their addition to it. And to share something good with folks who haven’t yet heard about it is evangelism.
And I’m not interested in evangelism for evangelism’s sake, but for all that is good and holy, if your faith and experience of the good news of God in Christ has changed you; if the unrelenting hope of the resurrection is a glimmer of good in a time in which so very much in our world is bad, then why wouldn’t you share it? This is what Jesus sent the 70 out to do, to share the good news. But this passage isn’t just about sending out and evangelism, it’s also about hospitality. Jesus sends out the 70, but he also tells them to receive the hospitality of those strangers to whom they will soon come to know.
It is curious to me, that when this passage is talked about in churches, the focus is often on the 70, those being sent out; we see ourselves as the ones who have been sent by Christ to share the Good News. But I wonder how our understanding of evangelism and hospitality would shift, if we begin to identify more with those to whom they go. What if instead of placing ourselves in the role of the deliverers of the good news, we also thought of ourselves as those who were to receive those bearing the good news of God in Christ. Because, let us never forget that we don’t own the market when it comes to the good news, that belongs to God alone. What if, instead, it us who sets the table and welcomes the stranger and receives the peace that they have to bring?
Because evangelism and hospitality work in tandem, and really, you can’t have one without the other. Evangelism isn’t just a tactical plan to win souls to our religion, but it’s about sharing with others how following Christ shapes and forms us – it’s sharing how we are better people because of the baptismal promises we try to live up to everyday. And hospitality is not merely someone who has something giving another who does not some sort of tangible resource, but it is really about the relationship. Because neither evangelism or hospitality are just exchanges of goods and services, but it’s about connection; they are both about sharing and receiving. It’s not just the food at the meal, but space at the table. It’s not just welcoming in, but going out and finding folks where they are. It’s not just saying, “I have good news!” it’s asking, “Where have you seen the good news recently?”
In your work and in yours prayers, go out like the 70; go and share the good news of God in Christ, share the peace of Christ, and be a witness to the hope of the resurrection in the world that demands Christ’s crucifixion. And on the way, remember that we aren’t just sent out to take the good news into the world, we are called to be a witness to the good news that is already out there; we are called to share our faith and we are called to receive the stranger. We are called to build relationships with hospitality and share the good news with evangelism. We are called to prepare the food, but also to sit at the table with those whom others won’t sit. We are called to share God’s peace and to receive the gift of relationship as we respond to God’s call to go out and share the good news of God in Christ.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green,, KY on July 7, 2019 for Proper 9C.