The Mission of the 72 Today, 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C), July 7, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Fourteenth Sunday in OT, C
July 7, 2013
Is 66:10-14; Gal 6:14-18; Lk 10:1-12,17-20

Over the past few weeks, there has been a trilogy among the Gospel passages, all focused on what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus. Two weeks ago we focused on Christ’s identity as the Messiah and Son of God and our call not just to confess him but to follow him along the way of self-giving love until death. Last week, the Gospel featured the various types of excuses by which people refuse to follow Christ right now with all their mind, heart, soul and strength. Today we encounter the crowning of what it means to be a disciple of Christ: to follow him so closely that his priorities become our priorities, his message our message, his mission our mission, his zeal for the salvation of others our own.

Jesus appointed seventy-two of his disciples and sent them out in pairs to proclaim the Gospel he himself had been proclaiming to them. A short time earlier (cf. Lk 9:1-6), Jesus had sent out the twelve apostles, those who would become his first priests. But to share the Gospel was not meant to be the task of priests alone. So he appointed 72 — probably the twelve apostles and 60 of whom we would call today lay people — and sent them out to the neighboring towns and villages. “The harvest is abundant,” he said, “but the laborers are few.” Jesus not only instructed them to pray to God the Father to send more laborers, but was showing them one way the Father responds to that prayer, by sending them out as laborers for his harvest of souls.  I’ve always thought that the 72 was more than a symbolic number, but probably implies that the Lord basically sent out everyone who was a willing, consistent follower. He wanted all hands on deck.

Just as the Lord Jesus in this Gospel scene sent out basically everyone he had, so today he wants each of us to grasp that he intends to send us out as well. In this Year of Faith, it’s crucially important for us to grasp that our willingness to pass on the faith is a sign of whether we really have faith, whether we know, love and are living it.

The Message of the Popes

On Friday, Pope Francis published his first encyclical, called “The Light of Faith.” In it he said very powerfully, “Those who have opened their hearts to God’s love, heard his voice and received his light, cannot keep this gift to themselves. … The word, once accepted, becomes a response, a confession of faith, which spreads to others and invites them to believe. …The light of Christ shines, as in a mirror, upon the face of Christians; as it spreads, it comes down to us, so that we too can share in that vision and reflect that light to others, in the same way that, in the Easter liturgy, the light of the paschal candle lights countless other candles. Faith is passed on … from one person to another, just as one candle is lighted from another. … It is through an unbroken chain of witnesses that we come to see the face of Jesus.”

We are part of that beautiful chain of witnesses, binding us all the way back to Christ and the first 72 he sent out. Whether others become part of that chain depends on whether we do our part like those ahead of us have.

On Friday, Pope Francis also announced that he was preparing to canonize Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II. Both of these soon-to-be saints likewise called all Catholics to recognize their mission to be hardworkers in the Lord’s vineyard.

  • It’s Pope John XXIII who convoked the Second Vatican Council, one of the most important teachings of which was that all Catholics are called to be harvesters in the Vineyard and with enthusiasm in spreading the faith. The fathers of Vatican II wrote a decree on the laity focused above all on intensifying their apostolic activity. (Apostolicam Actuositatem). The fathers wrote, “The Church was founded for the purpose of spreading the kingdom of Christ throughout the earth for the glory of God the Father, to enable all men to share in His saving redemption, and that through them the whole world might enter into a relationship with Christ. All activity of the Mystical Body directed to the attainment of this goal is called the apostolate, which the Church carries on in various ways through all her members. For the Christian vocation by its very nature is also a vocation to the apostolate.”
  • Blessed John Paul II in his pastoral plan for the third Christian millennium, published in 2001, said that the “priority for the Church at the dawn of the new millennium” is the “work of evangelization.” He stressed: “We must rekindle in ourselves the impetus of the beginnings and allow ourselves to be filled with the ardor of the apostolic preaching that followed Pentecost. We must revive in ourselves the burning conviction of Paul, who cried out: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). This passion will not fail to stir in the Church a new sense of mission, which cannot be left to a group of “specialists” but must involve the responsibility of all the members of the People of God. Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep him for themselves; they must proclaim him. A new apostolic outreach is needed, which will be lived as the everyday commitment of Christian communities and groups.”

Our everyday commitment as Christian disciples is to be among the 72 the Lord calls and sends out. All of us are supposed to be laborers in the fields helping Christ bring in the harvest. The same Holy Spirit that transformed the first disciples and strengthened them to proclaim the Gospel wants to ignite the same fire in us and, as soon-to-be St. John Paul II stressed, we need to allow him rekindle in us that apostolic ardor.

How are we to carry out this apostolate of sharing the Gospel that Christ gives us? In the Gospel today, Jesus gives us three principles that are valid in every age, which we need to examine for us to accomplish our mission. After that, we’ll apply those principles to three practical ways we can do this urgent work of harvesting today.

The principles valid for the work of harvesting in every age.

First, Jesus sent the 72 out with a message, which had two elements to it: “Peace” and “The kingdom of God is at hand!” The two are allied. The “peace” they were to announce was precisely the peace that Jesus had been preaching — peace with God through the forgiveness of the sins by which human beings cut themselves off from God. The way to enter into that peace is to enter into God’s kingdom, to allow the Lord to be the king of one’s thoughts and actions. So they were supposed to be heralds of the joy that comes from peace and reconciliation with God, which has an enormous potential to attract others who are so obviously not at peace with God and others.

Second, Jesus sent them out with a certain “packaging” for that message as well. They were sent out as “lambs in the midst of wolves,” not wolves in the midst of lambs. They were sent to propose the Gospel in a compelling way to others’ freedom, not to impose anything. They were to proclaim the Gospel with confidence, but with meekness. They were not called to proclaim it with force of weapons or the power of threats, but with the persuasive power of their faith, goodness and holiness. That was why Jesus instructed them to go out with no purse, no bag, no sandals. How could they possibly proclaim effectively that the kingdom of GOD is at hand if they were trying to increase the size of their purse and build an earthly kingdom of their own — or if others even suspected them of doing so? How could they proclaim a trust in God’s providence if they didn’t live by that trust and seemed rather to rely on mammon? Jesus carried no purse, bag and sandals in his proclamation of the Gospel to the poor, and he called us to follow him. Jesus went on to tell them that if they were welcomed by a household, they were to stay there, lest they ever start to look for a “better deal.” They were sent out two-by-two — even though they could have covered twice as much ground if they had been sent out individually — in order to show through their interaction with each other the love and forgiveness that is at the heart of the Gospel. Even the way Jesus prepared them to handle rejection — by wiping the dust off their feet as a witness of their rejection rather that carry the pain of their rejection with them to another town — shows that they were to carry only Jesus’ message rather than one of resentment. This was all part of the packaging to reinforce the proclamation of the peace of the kingdom.

That brings us to the third point, that Jesus was sending them out as lambs of God among wolves with the message of a true revolution. We have heard the words, “The kingdom of God is among you!” so many times that perhaps they no longer startle us. We need to think back to the context. The seventy-two were sent to proclaim this kingdom at one of the times of greatest strength in the Roman empire, an empire that didn’t take well any challenges to its authority and could be more brutal against insurrectionists than a pack of wolves against injured animals. In the midst of Roman dominion, the seventy-two ordinary disciples of Christ were commissioned as ambassadors of a different kingdom, a different type of allegiance — the kingdom of God. The two kingdoms did not necessarily conflict, as Jesus himself pointed to when he said, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21). But he also said that when there was a conflict, we were to “seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness” (Mt 6:33). Likewise Jesus’ disciples in every age are sent out to proclaim the priority of the Kingdom of God, a priority they are supposed to be modeling and not merely mouthing.

Jesus wants to send each of us out to our neighboring villages and towns — to Fall River, Westport, Assonet, Dartmouth and beyond with the same message, the same packaging, the same priority for the kingdom of God.  Every single one of us is called to be a missionary, a few of us to far away lands which have never heard the Gospel, the rest of us to our own locales, where, although they have heard of Jesus and most have been baptized, they really haven’t lived in or for that kingdom and for that King. Jesus needs us all to live up to this vocation and mission because there is such a harvest waiting and so few who are harvesting. The fields, he said elsewhere, are ripe, which means that unless we got out now to reap the harvest much of the “produce” will perish. If we don’t do our part, people for whom Christ died won’t experience his salvation, his friendship, his kingdom. The reality is that many of us come to comfortable air-conditioned Churches on Sunday morning, but few leave to go hunt down Christ’s wandering sheep, the sheep for whom the Lord we love gave his life. Christ once gave the parable of God’s love, saying he would leave the 99 sheep behind to go after the one lost sheep and bring that person back to the fold. Pope Francis said in an interview that now the numbers are inverted and we need to leave the one sheep behind and go out after the other 99. There are so many lost sheep out there, so many lives not being harvested for God. The Lord calls us to pray for laborers and to become those laborers.

How the Lord is calling us, practically, to evangelize today

So let’s get concrete about how to do this in 2013 and beyond.

The first way is by the way we live truly Christian lives. Back in 1975, when Pope Paul VI wrote his great encyclical on Evangelization (Evangelium Nuntiandi), he gave us a beautiful passage that refers basically to the way the Gospel was brought to many parts of Africa in the last 130 years when there were nowhere near the amount of priest and religious missionaries necessary to spread the faith. The missionaries would just ask for a volunteer family to go to one village, and another to a second, and so on, and just to live out their faith. They did so to such a degree that so many people came to be attracted to what made them different that they started asking questions, questions that led them to Christ. Listen to Pope Paul VI:

“Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness. Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good. … Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst? Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one. Here we have an initial act of evangelization. The above questions will ask, whether they are people to whom Christ has never been proclaimed, or baptized people who do not practice, or people who live as nominal Christians but according to principles that are in no way Christian, or people who are seeking, and not without suffering, something or someone whom they sense but cannot name. Other questions will arise, deeper and more demanding ones, questions evoked by this witness which involves presence, sharing, solidarity, and which is an essential element, and generally the first one, in evangelization. All Christians are called to this witness, and in this way they can be real evangelizers” (EN 21).

We are called to that type of evangelization through the witness of a truly Christian life. Many times today, Catholics, rather than being witnesses, behave, as Cardinal O’Malley has famously said, as if they’re in the witness protection program. Very often we act as if we’re Catholics by accident rather than by conviction. Our faith is supposed to have an impact on our family members, our neighbors, our coworkers, our fellow students, our teammates, and fellow citizens, but often it doesn’t. Our living of the Good News with joy is meant to show them what the Good News really is and how they need it just as much as we do. God sent Isaiah out in the first reading with a message of comfort greater than the comfort a mother gives to her beloved children; we’re sent out with the Gospel to comfort others with the comfort we have received in Christ and through the peace of his kingdom. To make our mission concrete, each of us needs to be living our Christian faith in such a way that others would be able to write a Hero of Faith reflection on us, just like most of the submissions in this Year of Faith series in the bulletin describe the resplendent example of the faith of parents, grandparents, godparents, coworkers, fellow parishioners and friends. Are we living our faith in such a way that someone could write such a reflection about us? Do we want to live it in a way in which many might be inspired by our example to come to a deeper relationship with Jesus?

The Apostolate of Friendship

The second means to spread the faith is one-on-one by friendship.

When we look at the way Jesus spread the faith, sometimes he did it with vast homilies and miracles before the masses, but much of his work was done one-on-one, as he did in calling the apostles, or interacting Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman, Simon the Pharisee, his friends in Bethany and more. Paul VI asked, “In the long run, is there any other way of handing on the Gospel than by transmitting to another person one’s personal experience of faith?”

The former pope’s question should lead us to ask: Am I doing this one-on-one apostolate? Am I concretely seeking to bring Christ to my friends and my friends to Christ? Who was the last person I invited to Church with me? If we truly recognize the treasure who God is, the treasure we have in being able to receive him, to hear his Word, to receive his forgiveness, to live with others who are his friends, we would seek to make our friends rich in these same great gifts. Don’t we want them to join us on the path Christ himself has shown us is the way that leads to eternal happiness with him? If we’re not inviting our friends prayerfully, patiently and tenderly, it’s either a sign that we don’t really love God or don’t really love our friends.

The use of the New Media in sharing our faith

Finally, we should be creative and use all means available to us to share our faith with others.

On Friday I was editing a book my twin brother has been writing on Catholics and the New Media. My brother is in charge of Communications for Cardinal O’Malley in Boston and he has written the draft of a book about how Catholics should use new media — websites, email, Facebook, Twitter, texting — to spread our faith. Our Sunday Visitor asked him to write a book about it to try to wake up Catholic believers, parishes and dioceses, because Catholics are so far behind those who belong to bigger Protestant Churches in using these tools in the vineyard.

One of the many great ideas Scot shares in the book is that Catholics should be encouraged to “tithe” our social media use, spending ten percent of Face Book Messages or Twitter or emails mentioning the faith, trying to spread it with a soft-sell of happy, engaging, enthusiastic Catholic witness. It can be as simple as sharing the message, “I just attended Mass at St. Bernadette’s and left uplifted,” or, “It’s awesome to receive Holy Communion,” or “I just heard the Gospel in a way I never thought before.” Likewise people can send out something saying they love Pope Francis, or how happy they are at the upcoming canonization of John Paul II and John XXIII, or announcing a social or educational event at their parish open to the public, like the Parish Picnic or the Adult Bible Camp both coming up in August. If you’re not using email, or Facebook or Twitter, perhaps you can ask a grandchild to set you up, which might be a means by which you’re able to talk about the things of faith with your younger family members and show by your zeal to learn something new how important your faith is to you. Or, if you’re not using this technology, you could adapt the same principles to your phone calls and letters, trying to mention how you live your faith more. If someone calls and asks how you’re doing, you could say, “Great. I went to Church on Sunday and I left strengthened.” Or if they ask you what your plans are for the afternoon, mention, “After I spend some time praying, I’m going to run some errands.” The point is to take advantage of the opportunities you have to show that your faith is a daily reality. The mere mention of things like this might allow others to open up a conversation with you that will lead them, and you, to great faith.

The privilege of sharing in Jesus’ mission

Our mission territory, our vineyard, is the Greater Fall River area, but through these means of social communication, we can even harvest far beyond these local boundaries. Jesus is sending us, all “72” of us, to proclaim that God’s kingdom has come, that Jesus welcomes us and calls us to himself. Like Isaiah, who heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, who will go for us?” and stood up saying, “Here I am; send me!” (Is 6:8), so each of us needs to stand up now and say, “Here I am, God; send me!” The Lord trusted the 72 so much that he sent them out with the message and mission God the Father gave him. That same Christ trusts us that much to give us this mission today. Some will respond to the apostolate as if it’s a great burden, but it’s a tremendous privilege, to share in Jesus’ mission of the salvation of the world.

At the end of today’s Gospel, the 72 disciples returned rejoicing at the power of Jesus they experienced as they were carrying out the task of evangelization. Jesus replied that what they should be most happy about is that their “names are written in heaven.” None of us is a number. We’re all a beloved name to God and to the saints, just as those to whom God sends us are beloved as well. But God wants more than our and their names in heaven. He wants us all to experience the eternal peace of his kingdom of which we’re able to have only a small foretaste here on earth. Let’s ask the same Jesus who commissions us anew today to strengthen us by his body and blood, so that we might live in communion with him, experience the power that comes from that bond, go out with courage to bring others into that same life-saving union, and so that we and they both may experience all that God has in store. The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few. That’s why God has chosen us. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work!