Brief synopsis of the readings: Isaiah, speaking for God, tells Israel to rejoice because peace is coming like a river and the people of Israel will be cared for like an infant who is cared for by his mother. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus sent out 72 of his disciples in pairs to proclaim the Kingdom. He told them that the harvest is rich but the laborers are few. He instructed them on how to travel to towns and villages. They came back rejoicing that “even the devils submit to us when we use your name.” Jesus then told them to “not rejoice that the spirits submit to you; rejoice rather that your names are written in heaven.”
I often talk about how discipleship can be difficult, and that we shouldn’t follow Jesus with the expectation that thing will go well for us. As a matter of fact, last week I spoke about the emptiness of what I called “cotton candy theology.”
On the other hand there are times when our desire to contribute in the building of the Kingdom of God does indeed reap results. In our first reading Isaiah rewards those who kept the faith through the dark days of the Babylonian exile and never lost hope that they would be restored.
And in Luke’s Gospel, things went exactly as they were supposed to. Jesus sent out 36 pairs to go before him and prepare his way. And they did. Jesus warned them that they may not be welcomed and what to do if they weren’t. Today the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) continue this practice. Many of us have mixed feelings about this, but many of them participate in two years of missionary work. After intense orientation they travel far from home and go (in pairs) from door to door evangelizing and hoping to bring others into the fold. Political junkies like myself find amusement in Utah Senator Mitt Romney. In 1966 he was sent to the wine country of France to encourage them to give up wine and become Mormons. To be fair, missionaries weren’t sent to convert large numbers of non Mormons, but instead to learn the skills to encourage their friends and neighbors once they returned home. And frankly, most attempts at conversion don’t succeed.
But instead of defeat, Jesus’ disciples came back with stories of great success. And to be frank, sometimes stories of success can be an dangerous as defeat. We all want people to believe what we believe and agree with the things we agree with but we can easily fall into the belief that our powers of persuasion say more about us than it should.
When the 72 returned they were jubilant in recounting their success: “Even the devils submit to us when we use your name.” But instead of joining in their delight, Jesus said something important to them: “Yet do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you; rejoice rather that your names are written in heaven.”
Let’s face it: we rejoice with winners. Former President Jimmy Carter once commented: “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” We like winners and we like winning, and that’s good when it comes to baseball or poker, but we need to rethink this when it comes to our faith.
Many Christians frame our faith as a battle between God and Satan where both of them are vying for our souls. Years ago I went on a retreat for men exploring a vocation with a particular community. On the way to the retreat I was asked to pick up another person at the airport; when he got off the plane he told me that he barely made his final connection and nearly missed the retreat. He then told me that Satan was behind his flight delay and only by the grace of the Holy Spirit did he make his flight. Frankly, I thought it had more to do with the weather, and I don’t know what happened to him as I chose not to join that particular community.
When something good happens in our lives and our ministry I don’t think it’s a win for God and a loss for Satan. but I also don’t believe we should think of it as a win for us individually. This may sound obvious, but when good things happen there are no losers. If we look back on our lives I think all of us can recognize times when we’ve shared the experience of the 72. Times when we were asked to be godparents or confirmation sponsors. Times when we helped save a marriage with our wisdom. Times when we brought Eucharist to a shut in who saw no other person that week who loved them. Times when we brought home a newborn child and knew this child would grow into a holy person.
Those moments should make us proud but they should also make us grateful. They should make us grateful because this happened because we were chosen by God to do that work. Granted we contributed the willingness and openness, but these experiences are not entirely on us. When I lived in Boston in the early 1980s there was a priest who claimed the power to heal. He did the circuit of retreat houses and held healing retreats. He developed a following of people desperate for healing, be it cancer, depression, or something else. And while he claimed that he was nothing more than a vessel of the Holy Spirit, he made a good living for himself. He spent much of the weekend praying for those gathered, but he also charged big bucks for the retreat and asked for additional “love money” from those gathered. He also published a book with picture of those he healed.
As followers of Jesus we are (more than we know) called to proclaim the good news, to heal, to build the kingdom. But like the 72 we don’t do this alone, we’re not in charge, and victory is not ours alone.
And so when these events include us, let us not “rejoice that the spirits submit to [us]; rejoice rather that [our] names are written in heaven.