Two by Two

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost  |  Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Two by Two

[Note—This post is the text of a sermon prepared for the July 3rd, 2016, service at First Baptist Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. My thanks to them for being kind enough to listen to it.]

I begin with a confession. Were I not working from the Lectionary, I would not have chosen these verses as the basis for a sermon.

The Lectionary gives us the story of the sending of the 70 as found in the Gospel of Luke. In fact, this event only appears in the Gospel of Luke. In the previous chapter we read of the sending out of the 12, also found in Matthew and Mark, but in this Gospel the story is told a second time, with a larger number of followers.

We have all, if we’ve been in churches for any length of time, heard sermons and reflections on the sending of the 70 and their return. We often hear a great deal about the instruction to shake the dust from our feet. Maybe it is because that is the one thing in all of this story that we feel we know how to do. It’s recounted with some warmth and fervor, far more often than the instructions of going out side by side into the communities around us. And nobody talks about going out to heal people.

Shake the dust from your feet, leave them to their fate, pronounce the judgment of God upon them and watch for their destruction.

There is something in us that likes the idea. We get to go out there and be right—who doesn’t like to be right? And we get to pronounce judgment on the hard headed heathens who don’t listen and disagree with us—who doesn’t enjoy that?

It just doesn’t feel very Christ-like, does it?

Let’s take another look.

There are some parallels to this passage, such as in Acts where we read of apostles going here and there in pairs. The idea seemed to stick with them. The most notable parallels are in Genesis and the ancient stories of Noah. In the great story of the flood, Noah brings the animals two by two to save them in the ark. We assume they are in pairs for the sake of making more of them. Here, Jesus sends followers out into the world, again two by two. Once again, there is an idea that in the future there will be more disciples. Although in a different way, the command to go forth and multiply still applies.

In chapter 10 of Genesis, we read of the descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japeth, the sons of Noah. It’s a long list, a table of the nations, a story offering a symbolic explanation for the range and relationship of different people groups in the ancient near east. There are 70 nations listed, unless you are reading the Septuagint, the first century Greek translation of what we Christians call the Old Testament, in which case there are 72 people groups listed.

As it happens, there is a small textual variation in some manuscripts of Luke, where Jesus sends out 72 disciples instead of 70, another parallel.

A fact like that can cause problems. We see the small differences in ancient manuscripts, and we begin to wonder what the truth is. Or we notice big differences, like the story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple. Matthew and Luke, based as these two gospels are on Mark, place the story near the end of Jesus’ ministry–it is one of the things that anger the powers that be, leading to the crucifixion. John, an altogether different gospel, places the story near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Did it happen twice? If not, which version is true?

Luke wants us to remember the story of the ark, and how the world was saved. In this Gospel, Jesus is himself the new ark, and all the nations are saved through him. We miss the meaning, and become fascinated by the facts.

That’s where we fall down. We tend to think that facts are true. The sun rises in the east, for example, and sets in the west. Most of us would accept that as a fact, something that is true, but it turns out not to be a fact at all. The sun does not rise each morning, except from our perspective. The fact is that the earth is whizzing through space like a ball on a string, a string called gravity, and while the earth whizzes along it spins, and the spinning of our planet is what makes it appear to us that the sun rises every morning. We’re like a kid on a merry go round, catching a glimpse of her parents each time the thing goes around.

The sun rises in the east. It’s not a fact. And yet, for us and for the way we live our lives, it is true.

In the field of science, facts are extremely important. In astrophysics and biology, facts and the theories based on them are what we use to find a different kind of truth, scientific truth.

When Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” he probably wasn’t talking about quantum physics or geology, and he wasn’t talking about scientific truth, though in many ways the same thing applies.

Like Jesus, we are talking about theology and matters of the spirit. We have to use a different set of definitions, and we have to be mindful that we are using our limited vocabulary in different ways. In our hearts, in our daily lives, the most important truths may not be based on a fact. When we are dealing with the things that are true and lasting in our lives, this kind of truth matters more than those sorts of facts.

It is a difference the church does not always get right. NASA’s Juno spacecraft is approaching the planet Jupiter right now. Over 400 years ago in 1610, Galileo looked through his telescope and discovered the 4 moons of Jupiter. The church, confusing spiritual truth with scientific fact, forced the brilliant scientist Galileo to recant his observations of the way the earth moves around the sun. The story is that Galileo did recant, being an intelligent man who valued his life, but that he quietly said, “And yet, it moves.”

And yet, it moves.

I mention that story because it is important. It is vital that we remember the times when we, the church, were wrong, when we did not get it right, when our understanding of God and of what God is doing and of our relationship with God and with each other—the only things that the Bible talks about—is wrong. Incomplete. Unfinished. We tend to think of scripture as something that is as unchanging as the rising and setting of the sun, but our understanding of it does change. There is an arc, a trajectory of understanding, that travels through scripture from beginning to an end we have not seen yet. We religious folk do not stone witches, not any more. That may be a good thing for a few of us. We do not stone adulterers, not any more, which is a good thing for many of us. Here in the south we eat barbecue, often and enthusiastically, despite what the book of Leviticus says about it.

We can get lost in the numbers, the details. We can get so close to the painting that we can see the brush strokes but miss the whole picture.

That happens a lot. It happened to these 70, or 72, followers. The truth is not in the fact of how many there were—12 or 70 or 72. The truth is in what they experienced.

They came back excited that powerful things happened when they preached the good news– the Kingdom of God is at hand–out in their communities. They barely had an inkling of what it meant, not at this point in Jesus’ ministry, before the crucifixion, before the resurrection. We might suppose that Jesus sent them out more to help them learn than to teach anyone else, but they went out anyway, and they came back excited. “Lord,” they said, “even the demons submit to us in your name.”

That must have been amazing, but it behooves us to see what they got wrong, and likely what we get wrong.

10.19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. 10.20 Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.

They were happy about their power, and why not? Most of us like having power, even if it is usually an illusion.

Plenty of Christian groups, many more than 70 or 72, have taken passages like this one about authority to heart. Some of them take the verses quite literally—either thinking that these early disciples literally had the miraculous power to handle poisonous snakes and scorpions with impunity, or worse, thinking that we should do same thing.

There’s problems with such thinking.

First of all, it’s a metaphor, and as we all know, symbols and metaphors are much more powerful than snakes, and much more dangerous. Serpents and scorpions—we can think that Jesus was literally talking about snakes and scorpions, which might have some limited practical application, but it does little to advance the gospel. Or we can take a step back, always a good idea when encountering a snake or a scorpion or a metaphor, and see the big picture. These are symbols representing what is out there in the world. It’s not easy to be a messenger of peace. There are powerful forces that resist the Gospel, people and powerful groups of people, including everything from terrorist groups to governments to greedy corporations run amuck, who do not want to hear the Gospel.

You may have heard the old story of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion asks the frog to take him across the river on his back. The frog says, “No, you’ll sting me.” The scorpion says, “No, I won’t. If I were to sting you, we’d both die—you from my sting, and me by drowning.” Thinking of how sensible the scorpion’s answer is, the frog agrees to carry the scorpion across. Halfway over, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog says, “Why did you do that? Now we’ll both die!” The scorpion answers, “You knew what I was before you agreed to give me a ride.”

Here we are, messengers of a gospel of peace, and we are supposed to take that message out among the scorpions and the snakes. A message that is no less than a God-spoken imperative to go out and help the poor, feed the hungry, take care of the sick, make life better for the less fortunate—are we kidding? Don’t we know that if Christians went out there in the world and actually did that stuff, actually fed the hungry, clothed the poor, brought medicine to the sick, that it would take the wind out of the sails of every single radicalized group in the world? Don’t we realize how much it would reduce the profits of giant pharmaceutical companies that have become more interested in paying dividends to stockholders than in producing new medicines at reasonable prices?

There are plenty of demons out there. Plenty of snakes, plenty of scorpions, plenty of fallen angels. Most of them have nice shoes. All of them have agendas. None of them sees any future in the Gospel.

There is another verse in this Gospel of Luke, “To whom much is given, much will be required.” We often act as though it says, “To whom much is given, much more will be given,” and that does seem to be the way of the world. Money begets more money, power begets more power, and all for itself.

That is not the way of the gospel.

Sometimes we get tired of it all. We know that we should speak up, or engage with the world around us, but we want to pull back.

Icon of Simeon Stylites. Historic museum, Sanok, Poland.
Icon of Simeon Stylites. Historic museum, Sanok, Poland.

In the 5th century, in Aleppo, Syria, a monk named Simeon felt that way. He tried living in caves, but people found him. Eventually he came across a stone pillar, about 9 or 10 feet high, and he climbed up to the top, made himself a small platform about a yard across, and made up his mind to stay there, away from people. It didn’t work, of course. When people saw a man standing on top of a pillar, they went over to see what the deal was.

Eventually, his attempt to withdraw turned into a community effort of its own. People got into the idea. They built him a taller pillar, about 55 feet high, and Simeon climbed up and stayed there for 37 years. Some sources say 47. A mighty long time.

A few moments of reflection can supply you with a long list of problems with living on top of a 50 foot tall pillar. By yourself, you’d get thirsty and hungry, and things would get generally unpleasant. Fortunately for Simeon, people of his time and community recognized that crazy as he was, he was trying to live a life closer to God. And they helped him. They put a ladder up so they could bring him food and water and buckets. And people started coming to see him, to get his advice or to ask for his blessing and prayers. And he lasted at least 37 years before dying up on that pole, his body found folded in prayer.

My point, if I have one in telling you about Simeon, is that his weird expression of faith was only possible because of the community around him. Although it was his intent to withdraw, and in a way he managed it by 40 or 50 feet, it was only by engaging with the community that he survived, and they were all blessed by a lunatic Saint on a pillar of stone.

Jesus says that we are to go out there. We have the authority to speak the truth to power, to speak peace to the world around us. We have the power to give rather than take away, to build up rather than tear down. We have the power to help people who need it, to tend to the sick, to make a better path for the poor.

But there are so many obstacles, we say, so many details, and we know who lives in the details.

“Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you,” Jesus tells them. “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

What is heaven? How do we describe it? Streets of gold, one day, far away, on the other side? Perhaps that is so. No one here knows for sure, not yet. Whether we think of literal streets of gold or gold as a metaphor for the path that leads us back into community with the ones we love, we hope for it. But here Jesus isn’t talking about one day, someday, far away.

Rejoice, he tells them, right now, right here, in this life and this time. Rejoice, right here and now, that your names are written in heaven. Rejoice that you are right this moment part of a community of saints—saints here certainly not meaning a bunch of perfect people; the saints of the gospel are, of all things, people like us.


A whole community of saints run through this passage. Disciples. Followers. And of all the ideas contained in this passage, the idea of community is the one I urge us to carry out of this place today.

Jesus sent these people out in pairs. Why? Couldn’t they have covered more territory if they split up? But anyone who’s ever seen a horror movie knows you don’t split up. Bad things happen when people split up. The boogeyman gets at least one of them every time.

So if Hollywood knows that splitting up is dangerous, why don’t we get it? We want to go it alone, cowboy evangelism, but Jesus sent them in pairs.

He sent them two by two, and we might note that nothing in this gospel says he let them pick their partners. It sounds like he picked them, paired them up, as he sent them out. He sent them to communities, to share the road, to share roofs, to share food. He sent them out and told them, very particularly, to depend on one another and, oddest of all, to depend on the people they went out to find. Depend on the people out there—the people you’re going to tell the Gospel to, the people you are going to help. That sounds crazy, depending on the people you are going to find, depending on the ones who need your help, but God works in crazy ways, and depending on one another is how we build a Community. It is how we invite people in rather than keep them out.

And in the end, he says, rejoice that you are part of a community, that your names are listed among them.

And remember that there are different ways of going out, different ways of contributing to our community. Simeon managed it, despite himself, standing on a pole 50 feet in the air.

And our community, the Christian community of the Church, is different than other groups, different than civic groups and charities. Those are fine organizations to support and to participate in, but we make some very peculiar claims, we Christians. For one thing, we claim that life continues beyond the portal of death.

It is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

That means that Simeon is still part of our community. He still contributes. For all I know, he nudged me to include a mention of him in this sermon—I had thought of him, dismissed the idea, but then kept returning to the notion of him standing up there on that pillar, praying for all of us.

Sometimes we Protestants look sideways at our Catholic or Orthodox brothers and sisters, with their icons and statues, praying to Mary, Theotokos. At the same time, we think nothing of sharing prayer requests with those of us who are still sitting here, wondering when this sermon is going to end. What is really so odd about asking those who have gone before us to join us in our prayers? After all, they may have a better idea of what they are doing at this point. And who among them would have a better idea of how to pray for us than Mary?

A word about snakes and spirituality.

This may sound strange, but I’m afraid that we have made Christianity too spiritual. What do I mean by that? It’s reasonable question. The New Testament letter we attribute to James puts it this way:

If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?

Or, at the other end of the spectrum, we get side tracked by literal thinking, making snake handling a thing while the sick and the poor and the needy people of the world, the people Jesus sent his followers out to find, wait for the side show to be over. Many Christians would rather pick up a snake, real or symbolic—not all snakes slither in on their bellies—than go out there and help anyone.

Proclaim peace, Jesus said. Heal the sick, he said. Show them that the kingdom of God has come near.

The next time someone comes and wants to argue about whether we should take a passage of scripture literally, I suggest we steer them to this one first: Heal the sick.

That is what Jesus commanded. He wasn’t vague. He didn’t beat around the bush. And he didn’t say, “If you can…”

You may remember a sermon a couple of years ago, I think, when Glenn Phillips told the story of the man who came to church for the first time and was so excited. He asked, When do we do the stuff? You know, the stuff that’s in the Bible. Healing people, and turning water into wine, and stuff like that?

That man was in for a disappointment.

We preach to people. Sometimes we preach at them. We tell them all about the spiritual aspects of Christianity. We tell them why they are wrong, why their choices are wrong, sometimes why their very identity is wrong, and if they don’t listen, we shake the dust off our feet. And we do those things because those are the things we understand how to do.

That’s a big deal—realizing that people do the things they do at least in part because those are the things they know how to do. Why does anyone persist in ignorance? By definition, because nobody taught them a way out. Why do people keep making choices that lock them into poverty, or addiction, or mediocrity? Maybe they need a teacher, or better tools to think with, or just a safe place to sleep. Meanwhile, those bad choices are the ones they know to make, the choices giving them some payoff, a feeling of control, or pleasure, or even simply escape.

There’s us, and there’s them. We know about them. They are different. They look different, smell different, dress different, maybe speak a different language. Maybe they even think they are different. Maybe they act like they are better than we are. Maybe they are poorer, or richer, or better dressed, or more arrogant.

All those people who make up “them” are out there. Some of them even look like Jesus.

Remember what Jesus told those followers as he paired them up and sent them out. Go out there to them, he said. Heal them, Jesus said. Feed them. Clothe them.

I expect that everyone here knows about this church and the annual warm the world project, where people needing help get warm clothing for themselves, their children. I put it to you that giving away those coats and blankets may be the most spiritual thing this congregation does. It’s more spiritual than me standing up here preaching. It may even be more spiritual than praying—don’t you think God already knows what we’re going to say?

Heal the sick, Jesus said—if not by a miraculous touch, then work the miracles of medicine and practice the ministry of presence. Feed the hungry—if they aren’t at our door, let’s pair up our dollars and our bags of rice and send the aid to them like Jesus sent those disciples. Clothe the poor—if they aren’t in our community, we can send help to theirs. Buy more wells. Support more doctors. Build a school. Support a teacher. Share a kind word—never underestimate the power of a word—that is the tool Jesus used the most. Take the time to listen. Share one another’s burdens.

Go out there and do those things, and we will be treading on the scorpions and treading on snakes. Do those things, and we can rejoice that our names are written in the community of heaven. Do those things, and the kingdom of God is at hand.

Mary Theotokos
Mary Theotokos