What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? Now there is a question to get a conversation going, or perhaps prevent a conversation from starting. It’s a question that does not have a simple answer. It’s actually a very complex question because being a disciple is challenging but not in ways that we tend to think of challenge. When we think of a challenge we generally think of something that is difficult to do and takes all our attention and skill to accomplish it and makes us feel good if we succeed even partially. Jesus challenges us in more uncomfortable ways. Jesus challenges us to let go of our attempts to be in control, at our attempts at competency, and to trust the news he is announcing to us. Jesus challenges us to trust him.
In the Gospel story of Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20, Jesus sends seventy of his disciples out in pairs. What does this say about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus? I doubt that all of the seventy felt prepared or adequate to do what he was asking them to do. Sometimes Jesus asks us to do things that are outside our comfort zone. Maybe even things we would prefer not to do. Jesus has sent them out with a message. Disciples are messengers sharing a message of faith. Disciples are those who have come close to Jesus and are then sent out. God calls us close to send us out. God calls us into intimacy, into a relationship, to live for others not for ourselves. It is as if God says to us before I met you, you were creating your own sense of worth and adequacy. But now God says I have met you, I have revealed my love for you, you have no excuses to be absorbed in your own problems – go, go into the world. Jesus sends us, on a mission out into the world. But we are not just sent, we are sent with a message. Our message is the opposite of the prevalent world view. The growing world view of our time is that we are here by accident. We are the result of random cosmic forces over billions of years. But our message is that we are no accident. We have a purpose and we have a mission and a message. Jesus sends them out into the world and says to them to tell those that they are encountering “the kingdom of God has come near to you”. “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
We are sent to communicate the gospel. It’s a term we frequently hear. What does gospel mean? It is news of an objective history changing event. We use the word gospel to refer only to the news of Jesus Christ but the word gospel was a common term used in the world at the time of Christ. It is found in some of the Roman historical writings. There is a Roman historical writing that starts – this is the beginning of the gospel of Caesar Augustus. It was news about a history changing event. The beginning of the reign of a new emperor. It was news about something that everyone had to deal with. News about something that was going to affect everyone. Gospel is a term that refers to the news about a history changing event. So to go and proclaim the gospel is to proclaim the news about the history changing event brought about by the person of Jesus Christ. This news proclaims to us that Jesus was not like anyone else in history. Jesus said to them “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening.” That is an astounding claim. Jesus is saying I was there before the foundations of the world. Before the material world was created. If Jesus was simply a prophet or a wise teacher or sage then what we would have is advice. Advice that would be saying to us here is how you can live, how you can pray, how you can find God, how you can be more enlightened. We respond to advice by asking ourselves the question, should I listen to this advice or not? Is it useful to me or not? But if Jesus is who he says he is, the one who was there before the foundations of the world, then his birth in time changes everything. Jesus is the history changing event. The disciples going out are to say to those they encounter – the kingdom of God is coming near to you, the kingdom of God is coming to you, because Jesus Christ is coming to you. This is something that is happening and you must respond to it. This is news; not advice. The gospel is news about the person of Jesus Christ. About the word becoming flesh and living among us.
This claim creates a problem. News of this magnitude is not something we can ignore because it is history changing news. But the message pushed back on us is that it is OK to believe in Jesus but don’t try and convert others. Don’t insist that the reality of Jesus is news. But to say you can believe in Jesus but don’t try and convert others is to say don’t believe in Jesus. It is saying he can’t be the unique God broken into history. It is to reduce him to a prophet. But he is not just a prophet who gives advice. He saw Satan fall from heaven! He is God. He is history changing news. To say believe in Jesus but don’t try and convert anyone, don’t treat the message as gospel, don’t treat the message as good news treat it as good advice, is to say don’t believe in Jesus. It is saying believe in my cosmology and abandon yours. This idea that God became flesh abandon that idea and take up mine. What we constantly bump up against is that everyone is actually trying to convert others to their cosmology, to their view of the universe.
The disciples returned with joy saying “Lord in your name even the demons submitted to us.” Jesus responds to them “saying do not rejoice at this.” Don’t rejoice that the spirits submit to you. Don’t let that be your motivation. Don’t let that be your joy, your energy. Don’t rejoice because you have power and authority so that spirits submit to you; rejoice that your names are written in heaven. What is this saying to us? There is a motivation that is helpful and a motivation that is not helpful. There is a motivation that is life giving and a motivation that draws you away from the source of life. Do not rejoice that spirits submit to you. Why not? Why not be excited about that? They are not excited about liberating people; they are excited about their power. They are excited because they think that they are really something and they can accomplish amazing things. Jesus is saying don’t feel like a somebody because you can exercise power. Don’t feel like a somebody because you have great resources at your fingertips. Do not let power, gifts, accomplishments, performance be your identity and your security. That will lead to the same thing that made Satan fall – pride. Don’t rest in that; rest in Jesus. When self image becomes built on performance and your record and people reject you, which they will, then you will want to prove them wrong and prove your worth because your sense of worth will be shaken and challenged. Jesus says rejoice not in your power, your accomplishments, your abilities, your gifts. But instead rejoice that your names are written in heaven. What does that mean? How would they hear that? A common world view that in many ways transcended culture and religious beliefs in the world at that time was that in the end there would be a judgment day. Books would be open, your life displayed and if you proved worthy, if your good deeds were sufficient, then you would earn getting your name written in the book of life. Actually that is still probably the most held belief system even to this day. In the Old Testament story we heard, Naaman, the court official with leprosy comes with a display of power and wealth seeking healing from the man of God. Elisha does not even come out to greet him but through a messenger tells him to go wash in the Jordon seven times. Naaman’s response is to stomp away furious. Why? Any idiot can go wash in the Jordon. That takes no skill, no great show or feat of power, or wisdom. Naaman, like all of us wanted to earn his right to be whole, wanted to earn his right to life. Jesus says, the gospel says, the good news is, you do not earn getting your name written in the book of life, your name is already written down. How can that be? How can their name already be written down when their life is not yet over? How can your name be written in the book of life before your life is over? Jesus says don’t rejoice in what you can do, rejoice in what you are in me. The gospel, the good news is, that your name is already written in heaven; you already belong, not because of what you have done but because of who Jesus is. It does not matter how people react to you. Your name is written in heaven. If people do want to engage with us when we invite them to share life with us. When we say peace be with you, which is an invitation to hear and embrace the grace and mercy of God, then we are not to take it personal, we are simply to move on. It is true that religious absolute claims can hurt the fabric of many lives because they demand that our lives line up with the claims. There is no claim that makes room for all and that welcomes all except the claim of Jesus. Rejoice not in your ability, rejoice that the one who was there before the foundation of the world, the one who saw Satan fall like lightening, is assuring you that your name is written in heaven and that he has gone to prepare a place for you. Rejoice in grace; rejoice in the gospel, the good news of grace. This history changing event has taken place; the word became flesh and lived among us. Go out into the world healing, loving, serving and rejoicing that Christ is with you. If you rejoice in your actions or your accomplishments they will in the end abandon you. The only thing to rejoice in that will reweave the social fabric and never fail you is that the Lord of heaven and earth says your name is written in heaven.