Receiving the Apostolic Witness

Luke 9:1-6, Luke 10:1-20

What if, in reading the stories of the twelve and then seventy disciples Jesus sent to preach and heal on his behalf, we saw ourselves first as the villagers whose fate depended on how they received the apostolic witness, and not as the disciples chosen by Jesus for a special mission?

We all want to imagine ourselves as the hero of the story. In our vanity, we want to see ourselves at the heart of the narrative. How can I be like those courageous individuals Jesus personally chose to share his power and authority? How can I make my life more complete by applying lessons from their lives? In other words, how can I make this story about me?

But the story is not about me. I could imitate parts of it. I can proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God and encourage people to respond to this unique moment of grace in their lives. I could surrender all my possessions and walk from village to village, asking for a place to stay and some food to eat, although that would be a very strange way to engage people in my cultural context. But what I can’t do is what Jesus did: heal the sick, cast out demons and raise the dead. I can do good things for people, but I can’t do that. I can pray for people, but I can’t unfailingly heal them with the words of my mouth or the touch of my hand. That’s exactly what Jesus did, and that’s what he appointed a group of disciples to do in the context of his Galilean ministry.

The first question that I ask of every text is this: what has God done for us? Only that is good news. Luke tells us that Jesus sent (“apostello” in Greek) a selected group of disciples to the villages of Galilee with the Lord’s own authority to proclaim the good news of the kingdom and to demonstrate the kingdom’s presence in miraculous deeds of healing power. And for that, I should give thanks. The apostles didn’t personally walk into my town to preach and cast out demons, but the apostolic church did. And just as the fates of ancient Galileans hung on how they received the apostolic witness, so does mine.

We thank God first of all for what he has done for us in Christ, making possible our salvation. Jesus didn’t encourage his chosen disciples to exult in the extraordinary circumstances of their mission, that in this unique moment the demons were subject to them. Rather, Jesus told them to rejoice that their names were written in heaven. Like the people of the villages they visited, they too were the beneficiaries of God’s gracious deeds in Christ.

The Work of Salvation

To understand what Luke is telling us about the disciples, we first need to understand what Luke is telling us about Jesus. Healing and casting out demons were signs that the Kingdom of God was breaking into the world (Luke 11:20). In his love, God graciously offered his Kingdom to a sinful world. Someday, the Kingdom would come in power bringing peace, justice, reconciliation and healing for all creation, but even now – in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples – the power of the kingdom was evident.

The first apostolic missions – those that occurred during Jesus’ own earthly sojourn – were in effect a continuation of Jesus’ own mission to save the world. Jesus extended his work of salvation by deputizing his disciples and sending them on the road under his own authority. Those sent by Jesus essentially replicated his own ministry: traveling from village to village in abject poverty and vulnerability, relying on the hospitality of strangers, performing acts of power by healing the sick and casting out demons, all as signs of the salvation Jesus announced.

The gospel authors did not tell these stories about Jesus and his disciples primarily so that we could imitate what they did, but so that we can know and give thanks for what God has done for us.

Jesus came to achieve our salvation, something we cannot do for ourselves. The fact that Jesus and his disciples cast out demons and healed the sick – and that Jesus calmed storms, fed the hungry and raised the dead – are signs of hope for our world. They are a promise of a coming day when evil, sickness, hunger, poverty and death are no more. The fact that Jesus and his disciples submitted themselves to suffer hunger, poverty, abuse and martyrdom are signs of the depths of God’s love for us. For the sake of our salvation, God goes to the extreme, pays whatever price is necessary, suffers whatever must be suffered.

Receiving Jesus

God’s grace demanded a response from those who heard Jesus’ words and saw his actions. In the same way, the disciples acted directly in loco Jesu, in Jesus’ place. They were not just inspired by Jesus or acting under Jesus’ direction. In a very real sense, they were Jesus to the people on the receiving end of their ministry. “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.”

Those on the receiving end of Jesus’ ministry – both in person and through his emissaries – were forced to make a decision. Would they believe the message proclaimed in word and deed and align themselves with Jesus, or would they reject it and the one who brought it? To welcome Jesus and those whom he sent brings you into the realm of God’s salvation, now and in the age to come. Conversely, rejecting Jesus brings condemnation on the coming day of judgement.

Jesus’ decision to travel without resources of his own provided his hearers with a means of responding to God’s grace in their lives: offer Jesus a bed and breakfast. Within Jesus’ cultural context, people were expected to offer hospitality to travelers, but they were also expected to shun blasphemers. Those who welcomed Jesus and his message received him – and those he sent – into their homes. Those who would not or could not accept Jesus’ claims to speak and act for God slammed the door in his face, and in the face of everyone associated with him. How the villagers responded – by offering hospitality or withholding it – indicated how they were responding to the work of God in their lives.

In one respect, then, we are in the same position as the people who lived in Galilee. Jesus has come into our lives. In the apostolic witness of Christ’s church, we’ve heard the story of Jesus’ power and his love. So how will we respond?

The people of the villages which Jesus and his disciples visited either welcomed them and offered them hospitality, or turned their backs, locked their doors and ran them out of town as quickly as possible.

Ever since Jesus rose from the dead and God poured out his Holy Spirit, the gospel has called for a slightly different response, one that includes repentance, baptism into Jesus’ name, receiving the teaching of the church, fellowship with the saints and the worship of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. It also still calls for supporting the apostolic work of the church in the world. God has shown us how to welcome Jesus into our lives, and our place in his kingdom depends on it.

The Apostolic Church

Only after we have welcomed Jesus in faith through the witness of the apostolic church will we rightly see ourselves as members of the sent community. In baptism, we are incorporated into the apostolic community that began with the twelve. Those who have been baptized into Christ are part of the church God is building upon its apostolic foundations. And Jesus continues to send his church into the world so that he can continue his saving work through it.

Jesus’ death and resurrection, however, have occasioned a change in the mission. The mission of Christ’s disciples is no longer to walk as penniless beggars from town to town in order to cast out demons and perform miracles of healing. The first disciples participated in Jesus’ redemptive acts of suffering and kingdom power for the sake of our salvation. Now, the church’s mission is to announce to the world what Christ has already done, to deliver the faith laid down for us in the apostolic witness and proclaim the power of Christ’s presence among us.

This is the work of the whole church as a corporate body. For most of us, as individuals, God’s call on our lives is going to look pretty ordinary. Jesus calls most of us to belong to him in the midst of raising a family, getting an education, working a job, and so forth. Even in the gospel stories, we find that Jesus encountered very many people whom he did not call to join his itinerant band of disciples. Most stayed at home, not because they were less faithful than the traveling disciples, but because Jesus’ required something different from them.

In the Book of Acts and the letters of Paul, we see that some Christians traveled throughout the world to proclaim the message of Jesus and plant new congregations. Most, however, lived more settled lives in towns and cities. They worshiped God, loved their brothers and sisters in Christ and supported the church’s mission throughout the world. These stay-at-home Christians were just as much a part of the Christian movement as the go-on-the-road Christians. The settled church became the power-projection platform and sustaining base (to borrow some language from military institutions) for the itinerant church.

The church continues Christ’s work today as it proclaims and lives the apostolic faith. Regardless of their individual vocations, all those who belong to Christ’s church are called to exhibit Christ’s sacrificial love and manifest a confident hope in the saving power of God.

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