In our present moment, the word Christian is a very conflicted, polarizing term. If you call yourself a Christian, does it mean you identify with the Christian Right? Or does Christian mean that you identify with the Christian socialist tradition of Tommy Douglas, the architect of universal public health care in Canada? Many Christians today are on the defensive, finding it necessary to explain that they are this kind of Christian and not that kind.
I find it helpful to think of a Christian as an ambassador of the Good News of Jesus. What is the Good News? Jesus described it, in a nutshell, at the outset of his public life, when he declared in the Nazareth synagogue, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Shane Claiborne, a Christian peace activist, has summed it up this way: “Jesus lived to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
If that’s the Good News in a nutshell, the story in today’s Gospel shows what’s at stake in being a Good News ambassador. In this story, Jesus has finally decided to go from Galilee in the north down to Jerusalem. He knows that if his message is really going to have wide transformative effect, then he needs to go to the epicenter and confront the oppressive Temple culture head on. Jesus is fully aware that he’s putting his life on the line, and that means time is of the essence. He wants his message to reach as many people as possible. So we’re told that he sends out 70 of his followers to go to various towns that he hasn’t had opportunity to visit. He says that the “harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” The situation is urgent. And it’s still urgent today. I think that’s the first point we can learn from today’s Gospel: being an ambassador of Jesus’ Good News is an urgent undertaking. There are too many people right now facing housing and food insecurity, people needing better health care than they’re receiving, people imprisoned for no good reason. The Good News we share is that it doesn’t have to be like this. There’s a different way of existing, of extending care and compassion—if we have the will to imagine it and realize it.
A second point to take away from this story is that we are all invited to be ambassadors of Jesus’ Good News, not just a select few of us. It’s significant that Jesus didn’t send out only the 12 apostles as ambassadors; he sent out 70 of his followers. Whether it was precisely 70 is up for debate, but the number 70 is nonetheless symbolically significant. In the book of Genesis (chapter 10), for instance, a list is given of all the nations of the world descended from Noah after the great flood—totaling 70. The number 70 is representative of the whole world. I think we can read the 70 who Jesus sent out as representing everyone—all of us. It doesn’t matter what part of the world you come from, or any other mark of identity. The Good News of Jesus is for the whole world, and everyone everywhere who believes it is invited to share it.
But Jesus’ Good News is not always received as Good News. That’s a third point we can learn. One the one hand, it comforts the afflicted. But on the other hand, it afflicts the comfortable. In sending out the 70 ambassadors, Jesus explains that what they’re doing is like gathering in a harvest. The symbolism of a harvest implies judgment, separating the wheat from weeds. In fact, Jesus instructs the 70 to move on and shake the dust off their feet from anywhere they go that isn’t welcoming. I think the lesson here is that Jesus’ Good News is not always welcome in some places—in civic halls of power, in executive board rooms, among certain people who enjoy luxuries that others can only dream of. If we’re going to be serious ambassadors of Jesus’ Good News, we need to be prepared for opposition and blowback. His message is comfort to the afflicted, but it’s scandalous to the comfortable and powerful.
Let me mention a fourth point to take away from today’s Gospel. Jesus instructs the 70 ambassadors to leave behind their travel bags and their wallets, even to go barefoot. They are to be totally dependent on the generosity and hospitality of all those who may welcome them. It’s very difficult for us in our day to take these instructions literally—and I don’t think that’s the point. I think the deeper lesson is that being an ambassador of Jesus’ Good News requires a life of simplicity, not of excess. Embodying Good News to the poor means that our lives exemplify sharing, fair distribution, and a concern that everyone has enough, not more than is necessary. That kind of simplicity is what we’re called to embrace if we’re to be effective ambassadors of Jesus’ Good News.
A few minutes ago I mentioned the name Shane Claiborne. In his book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, he offers a number of practices that Christians can undertake to cultivate simplicity of living. Let me close by sharing three. 1) “Track to its source one item of food you eat regularly. Then each time you eat that food, remember the folks who made it possible for you to eat it.” 2) “Look for everything you have two of, and give one away.” 3) “Look through your clothes. Learn about one of the countries where they are manufactured. Do some research to discover the working conditions of the people who made them, and commit to doing one thing to improve the lives of people who live in that country.” I think that’s important to hear, especially on this Canada Day weekend when we might be tempted to celebrate the “true north strong and free.” There are other places in the world—like Bangladesh, for example—that we’d do well to think about. Many of my own clothes were made there.
The work of being a Christian—an ambassador of Jesus’ Good News—is as urgent now as in Jesus’ day. We’re all invited into this work. As we do it, we’re sure to meet opposition because Jesus’ Good News is a challenge to the pursuit of profit and excess. That’s why it’s important for us to embody simplicity, demonstrating to all those around us how Jesus’ Good News has impacted us. If I can leave you with some summer homework, it is this: find new ways to embrace simplicity. That’s how Jesus’ Good News can be shared more authentically.