Struggles

Luke 10: 1– 11, 16– 20
Be honest! You struggled a bit with the three readings we heard this morning. Didn’t you? I certainly struggled, looking at them earlier in the week. Because all three sound a bit, well, remote from our lives: from our joys and sorrows, our worries and our relationships.
I’m happy enough to rejoice with Jerusalem, as Isaiah suggests; but I’m not a Jewish exile in the 6th century before Jesus, returning to a homeland that seems not to live up to its promise, so I can’t just lift these words off the page. I’m not tempted to boast in my adherence to the Jewish law, the way the young Christians of Galatia are being tempted, because it never has governed my life in the way it once did theirs. I hope I’ve not yet grown weary of doing what is right. But I’m not returning from a great missionary endeavour, for which I took only the clothes I was wearing. So instructions about eating my greens when they were served up to me seem a little irrelevant. Telling people that they are cured, though I have no medical qualifications, might have landed me in court.
So if we’re honest, today is one of those Sundays when we struggle to connect with our Bible readings. What have these ancient words got to do with us?
Perhaps we should we look for allegory and metaphor. Perhaps we should try to extract the inner, ‘spiritual’ meaning from what, on the outside, seems a bit disconnected from our life and faith. Jerusalem stands for the mother church, obviously. Offering comfort and solace to God’s people, equipping them to flourish, promising them prosperity. It’s a reading that can make you feel warm inside, this one from Isaiah. Unless you are hurting in a different way. Or if you’ve read recently about Christians in other parts of the world having to flee their homes and leave their dead unburied because of persecution and hatred.
Are we lambs, sent out among wolves? There was a wolf in Allendale, once. There still is, down at the brewery. But is this a metaphor for the evils of the world around us? We know there is much in our world that is evil. Yet to move from that unhappy knowledge to picturing our friends and neighbours as wolves seeking to devour us? This seems to verge on paranoia.
And Jesus rejoicing that the demons submit to us as they did the first disciples, engaged as we are in a spiritual battle against the forces of darkness all around? Treading on snakes and scorpions? Clearly these symbolise the evils of daily life, over which as Christians, we claim complete victory in Jesus’ name. The trouble is that we know it isn’t always so. Life is not always victorious. We do hurt, sometimes. We do struggle to live up to our calling. And these religious words like ‘spiritual forces’, they are difficult to define unambiguously, or work out what people actually mean by them. And we might make entirely the wrong set of associations between, say, Jerusalem and the Church. Not so obvious, then. More of a struggle than it looks.
Perhaps we should stop prevaricating and making excuses, and just do as Jesus says, then. So line up in twos, please; our mission to Alston begins at the end of the service! What do you mean, you have plans for Sunday afternoon? Stop quibbling! Remember last week’s gospel about not turning your hand from the plough! You don’t need purse, bag and sandals. We’re about to be sent out to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near! The garden can wait! There are more important harvests than mowing the lawn!
This can’t be right either, can it? If it were, we’d be off on a mission every three years at the beginning of July, when this gospel reading comes round again in the lectionary: year C, proper nine. Whilst we recognise that the writers of the Bible are inspired, I’m not sure we accord such authority in the compilers of the lectionary, who selected this passage for today. Simply ripping a Bible text from the page and treating it as a direct instruction from on high can lead to all kinds of disasters: you’ll remember the story of the person who sought guidance from the Bible with a blindfold and a pin? Opening the Bible at random, his finger lighted upon Matthew 27:5, ‘Judas went and hanged himself.’ Thinking this a little less than helpful, he tried again, turned on a few pages, jabbed his finger once more, and opened his eyes to read Luke 10:37. ‘Go and do likewise.’
Spiritualising the readings on the one hand, or ripping them out of context on the other: neither of these seems to be a very helpful way forward. So how can we connect with our weekly readings? Sometimes the lessons do speak directly to our hearts. We meet a character in one of the gospels, whose experience or outlook parallels our own. And the way Jesus meets with this person and treats with them affects us directly. The peace, the forgiveness, the challenge he offers them, he offers us also; and we cannot but respond. If Jesus is risen from the dead two thousand years ago, he is risen from the dead now, and that changes me and changes the life I lead. The dramas we see played out on the biblical stage help us reflect on our own lives and relationships, and perhaps seek changes. We are encouraged, or convicted, or moved to tears by what Paul and the other epistle writers pen to the early church congregations in the first years of the church’s life.
But we don’t have a Damascus Road encounter every single week! Sometimes it is more of a struggle. A struggle not to misinterpret what we hear. A struggle not to shrug off the comfort offered. A struggle not to shrug off the challenge posed. And sometimes, we have to struggle to fit the particular readings we’ve heard into their historical setting before we can appreciate what they might mean for us.
Isaiah’s concern for his sorrowing, disillusioned people: this might not be our circumstance right now, but it has been, for God’s people, at different points in history. Paul writing to new Christians, throwing off an old way of life: quite a good passage to think about, if your church family is made up of students. Jesus reaching this particular stage of his ministry: inspiring, enabling, trusting his disciples with the message of his love? It might not be that he sends us out from church this morning into the wilds of Northumberland as he did with the seventy into the wilds of Galilee. But he does still inspire us, enable us and trust us.
We hear three short readings in our service each week. The struggle is to see how and where they fit into the whole story of God and his people, where they appear in the bigger picture. But it is a struggle worth struggling with.
© Jon Russell 2019