What do I do with a set of free evenings? Every Thursday evening in this Summer term was free for six weeks – what a great opportunity! I know: I’ll go to the pub! Enjoy some company and a drink, wear my collar and be visible. A little bit of gentle evangelism perhaps.
But I felt God nudging me towards something else. He seemed to be saying: ‘Evangelism is great – develop that. This pub idea is good, but there’s just one of you, and it’s only six weeks. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had a dozen people sharing their faith? Use that time to train people – it will be good for you too’.
So we ran the Lost for Words Course on how to share our faith confidently and sensitively. It must have been God’s idea because he really blessed it. There were so many people wanting to do it that we were virtually sat on each other’s laps. The course material was so good that I want to do it again. And hopefully, instead of me having spent six evenings nursing a pint in a variety of quiet pubs, we now have over a dozen people who are willing and ready to share their faith.
Multiplication works. It’s the key lesson from today’s reading. Jesus did it and calls us to. Jesus sent out 70 people to prepare the way for him. Why 70?
When Moses was in the desert, having a tough time keeping up with his workload, his father-in-law suggested that he appoint leaders and delegate. The number chosen was 70 – Jesus is consciously copying Moses. Also, 70 is a traditional Jewish figure representing the number of the nations – symbolically there is an evangelist for each nation. Jesus hints that these first missionaries are a sign that one day the gospel will go throughout the world. That also is a clear signal we can apply it to our own time. The lessons in this passage are relevant to us today.
In v.2. He said to them: ‘The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few, therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers.’ I wonder if you’ve ever seen the combine harvesters working round the clock? The headlights sweeping up and down the fields in the small hours of the morning, rushing to get the harvest in? When the corn is ready it must be gathered, contractors and extra equipment are hired to make sure it does not go to waste. It is urgent.
God’s harvest is made up of people who are ready to respond to the good news and become active Christians. And there are a lot of them. It may feel like much of our work is sowing the seed, but there are also many who are ready to respond, given the right invitation. Research shows that between 10 and 20% of people are what we call ‘Open Dechurched’. In other words, they used to come to church, don’t any more, but crucially they would be open to coming back.
They’re not closed or bitter about bad experiences of church. They’re open – they’ve just lost touch or not got round to it. Imagine what 10% of the population of Hullavington would look like. That’s130 people. Imagine the difference they could make. To the church. To the village.
There’s some research from 2007 which indicates that 3 million people – about half of that 10% – would come back if they had an invitation. They’ve said that’s all they want. Someone they know and trust to invite them back. Simple. I wonder if you could be that person?
Can you think of someone who might respond to an invitation? If so, please start praying for them, because on September 22nd we’re going to be having a Back to Church Sunday. The idea behind this is very simple: do your usual Sunday service, but make it more accessible for people coming back – make sure the hymns are well known, give out page numbers, that kind of thing.
Encourage everyone in the congregation to pray and ask God to show them some people they can invite. See who comes to mind. Pray regularly for them. And then invite them using a professionally made invitation. It’s so simple: pray, identify and invite. Many churches have done it and seen people come back. We’re doing Back to Church Sunday on the 22nd September – so start gearing up now!
The problem, according to Jesus, is not that there isn’t interest in the world. It’s a shortage of labourers. He has two answers. Firstly, pray that the Lord of the harvest will send out more labourers. Do we pray for that? That God will send people out into the harvest field?
Secondly, Go! In other words, you are part of the answer. You don’t have to be ordained, specially trained, a full time paid worker to be a witness to Christ. You can do it as you are, where you are. Calling is about knowing Christ and serving him in your circumstances. We have heard the good news about Jesus, and we too are called to share it with those we know. To be an introduction agency to help people meet Christ. We may not be called to go and share the gospel in new places – most us are called to stay and help those we know.
Now you may be thinking ‘I don’t feel up to that’. But remember, God can use you as you are. It’s not rocket science to invite someone to Back to Church Sunday. It may be you want to be more confident in your faith, if so, I’ll be running the Foundations course here in the Autumn. If you want help in sharing what you believe, I hope to run Lost for Words again.
And learn from what Jesus does. He sent out the 70 in pairs, so they could help each other. Have you ever tried meeting someone regularly to pray for one another, for accountability and support? A prayer partner or triplet can be a great strength – pluck up the courage to link up with someone.
Jesus also sent them like lambs meeting wolves, saying in v.4 ‘Carry no purse bag or sandals’. Imagine heading off on foot into an unknown town without your wallet, no mobile, no change of clothes! Why did he do that? Part of the answer is in v.7: ‘Eat whatever is set before you’
They would have to learn how to receive as well as to give. I heard a story about a couple who went to live and work on a tough estate and share the gospel by living amongst the people there. They stayed for a decade and made little progress. One day the woman was speaking to a neighbour and she referred in passing to her own mother’s death six months earlier. This was the first time she’d mentioned it to anyone on the estate. The neighbour was angry: ‘How can we be your friends and not know that? How can you call us your friends if you can’t share something that important with us?’
Perhaps a bit insensitive, but it made that couple think. They realised they’d thought of themselves as heroic missionaries, giving all the time, but not burdening people with their own needs. Yet their neighbours saw them as unreal, distant, even dishonest.
That couple had to learn to receive, and as they did so, their ministry took off. If we want to share our faith we need to be able to receive help from the people we’re amongst. We can’t be totally self-reliant. If you receive graciously from other people it builds a relationship with them and they’re much more likely to hear what you’ve got to say. So don’t be proud. Be willing to receive. For that’s one way God provides. Jesus sent the 70 out with nothing so they would learn to trust God.
Nonetheless, there is no guarantee that people will respond. V.10 to 11 give guidance in how to react if the 70 are rejected. They are to shake the dust off their sandals: in other words not take it personally, not take revenge, but a prophetic action which says: ‘you are free to make your own decision, free to reject what we say, but be aware it is God’s Kingdom you are rejecting.’
How might that apply to us today? It says we must be willing to let people go if they want to, be prepared that some will reject the message. There comes a point where you have to let them go, and put your own energies elsewhere. But the disciples are to acknowledge it, and in the same way the church today must never just let people drift. We mustn’t let anyone slip away from faith unacknowledged. Surely love for people means we follow them up and even if they do decide to go, they need to know it is their decision and that we still care for them.
That may happen from time to time, hopefully not often. Certainly it was not the majority experience for the 70 disciples. Verses 17 to 20 end our reading by describing the joy the disciples felt when they returned. ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us’ they rejoiced. ‘Don’t be glad about power and success,’ said Jesus, ‘but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’
So Jesus calls us all to join in the work of sharing our faith. Together, supported by one another, giving and receiving. He urges us to pray for more workers in the harvest field, to gather in those who just need a little help. And if there is one thing I’d like you to take from this sermon, it’s this: go home, shut your door, and pray that God will show you someone you can invite for September 22nd.