September 12, 2016
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Jesus' disciples really did not get it. After three years of walking with him and having become witnesses to the resurrection, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1.6).
Jesus turns the tables on them when he responds, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (1.8). Then, he ascended into heaven, a cloud hiding him from their view.
The ascension was not Jesus' act of abandonment; he would soon send the Holy Spirit to be with his disciples until his final return. Through the Spirit, Jesus will always be with us.
However, it raises a question: The disciples clearly believed that it was Jesus' job as messiah to bring the kingdom. Alone, by himself. Jesus had a different idea: Jesus clearly wanted his disciples to participate in the coming of the kingdom.
This is a key theme in the Acts of the Apostles. The disciples' role was not simply to prepare piously for Jesus' second coming. Rather, empowered by the Holy Spirit, they were to be active witnesses that the kingdom is already present and that it will be completely fulfilled at the end of human time.
When Jesus sent out his 70 disciples, he was urgently trying to overcome a crisis of discipleship among the 12 apostles.
Look at how Jesus commissions his disciples. At the start of Chapter 9 in St. Luke's Gospel, "Jesus called the Twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal" (9.1-2).
Luke records the instructions that Jesus gave the Twelve sparsely - take nothing for your journey, stay in only one house in each town, etc. The mission of the Twelve was successful: They "went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere" (9.6).
Despite the apostles' success, a few verses later, we find them urging Jesus to send away the crowd of "5,000 men," so they can find themselves something to eat. The lesson of the mission has not sunk in, and Jesus has to say, "You give them something to eat" (9.13). When they claim that they can't feed so many, Jesus shows them how.
Still, a little further on, a man begs Jesus to cast out the demon bewitching his son. "I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." An exasperated Jesus sighs, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?" (9.40-41).
Finally, Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem. Trouble immediately ensues. Heading off from Galilee, he and his entourage must pass through Samaria. Jesus sent messengers ahead, but they were immediately rebuffed by the Samaritans who wanted nothing to do with a group of Jerusalem-bound pilgrims.
As the long march proceeds, various people approach Jesus, saying they want to follow him. All, however, have reasons why they cannot follow Jesus immediately.
CRISIS OF DISCIPLESHIP
The story of Jesus is now in crisis, a crisis of discipleship. Jesus organizes another mission, this time sending 70 disciples out, instead of 12.
This time, Luke's account of the sending is more effusive. While he used only six verses to narrate the mission of the Twelve; now he uses 24 to describe the mission of the 70. Jesus commissions the 70 with much greater urgency.
The instructions to the two sets of disciples are similar, almost identical, but now they are delivered in an expanded, more urgent form. "The labourers are few," Jesus adds (10.2). Twice, Jesus tells the 70: "The kingdom of God has come near" (10.9, 11). In other words, understand the point of what you are doing. You are full participants in the work of the messiah.
HOPE AND ACTION
That work is primarily one of bringing the kingdom to fruition now. We wait in hope, but we also act diligently "to bring good news to the poor, . . . to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free" (4.18).
When the 70 return, they are filled with rejoicing. "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us" (10.17). Jesus has a vision: "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning" (10.18). The mission has been an enormous success, and Jesus' role was merely to send them forth. The disciples, empowered by the Spirit, were the agents of the mission's success.
Jesus too "rejoiced in the Holy Spirit," thanking God for revealing his ways to "infants." Turning to the disciples, he says, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!" (10.23).
In Luke's Gospel, the mission of the 70 is the high point of discipleship. Finally, it seems, the disciples have got it right. In "getting it," they have brought down Satan from heaven, putting the power of evil to flight. They have not only proclaimed God's kingdom, but have realized it in the here and now.
Much has been done over the past 2,000 years to make God's kingdom more of a reality, and people of faith have had a profound positive impact on the twists and turns of world history.
However, too often, our witness has been tainted by half-heartedness or even outright betrayal. We have tried to use the ways of the world to help realize God's kingdom rather than the way of unconditional discipleship. Too often, Christians have put our hands to the plough and looked back longingly to the ways of the world.
What would our world be like if all Christians had followed the simple instructions Jesus gave to the 70 disciples he sent on mission? Would the poor have received good news, the blind sight and the oppressed be set free? If so, we would all be rejoicing in the Holy Spirit.