Proper 9(C): The Church of the Seventy
By: The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell
“The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” –Luke 10:1
When artist Bob Kane created The Batman in 1938, the so-called Dark Knight was a solitary figure. But in 1940 Kane decided that his nocturnal detective needed a partner. So, hoping to draw in younger readers, Kane introduced Robin: the Boy Wonder. Together Batman and Robin would become the icons symbols of justice in Gotham City: the Dynamic Duo. In the years since, it is safe to say that these two caped crusaders have become one of the most recognizable teams in all of popular culture.
There is something special about a great duo—a team. Comics have Batman & Robin; baseball has guys like Alan Trammel & Sweet Lou Whittaker. Like the Dynamic Duo, Trammel and Whittaker, teammates with the Detroit Tigers, worked perfectly in tandem, combining for more double-plays together than any other shortstop and second base duo in baseball history. There is so much that a good duo—a good team—can accomplish when they work together.
I suspect that Jesus had this in mind when he sent out the seventy. It’s true that seventy is a significant number for the Jewish people—there were seventy elders elected to assist Moses, and the Jewish council, called the Sanhedrin, was made up of 70 people. But I like to think that Jesus didn’t think so much about the theological significance of the number. Rather, he understood the importance of forming teams to go out and do his work. It’s possible that they could have covered more ground or preached to more people had Jesus just let them go at it alone, but Jesus sees something in this idea of sending them out together.
By sending the 70 out in pairs, Jesus made sure that they could be there for each other, hold each other accountable, and remind each other that their mission was not to be cluttered by unnecessary baggage (carry no purse, no sandals, etc.). Heading out together would mean they could lift each other’s spirits when times got tough or tell stories to each other to pass the time on their long journeys. But above all, by sending them out in pairs, Jesus reassured them that they were not alone. This work to which they were called—and the work to which we ourselves are called—would not be a solitary endeavor. “You’re going to need each other,” Jesus was telling them. We’re going to need each other, too.
Here is a piece of Gospel truth that certainly speaks to us today. Oftentimes we feel like we have to do everything on our own; to be our own self-made man or woman. We live in a society that champions the individual, but oh how lonely this attitude can be! How lonely it is to face life’s many challenges by ourselves. What a comfort it is, then, to hear Jesus tell us today that we’re not alone?! Yes, life does at times feel like we are sheep in the midst of wolves, but we do not have to face the wolves by ourselves; after all, Jesus sent the seventy to places that he himself intended to go. It is no different for us. Not only does Jesus send us out with someone by our side—be they a spouse or partner, a sibling, a best friend, a loyal dog, or the community of a church—he promises that he will follow behind us and work in those mysterious ways that we cannot ever fully understand. Yet we can understand this: Jesus does not call us into solitary ministry.
Still, this does not mean everything is always going to be rainbows and unicorns when we step out into the fearful world of ministry. Sometimes teams have a tough time working together, and plenty of bumps in the road pop up. Try reading All Star Batman & Robin by Frank Miller. In that book the heroes are constantly at each other’s throats, but in the end they support each other in coping with their respective personal tragedies. In 1984 Alan Trammel made 10 errors at shortstop and Sweet Lou made 15 at second base. Yet they still managed to lead the Tigers to their first World Series title in 36 years! In our own lives, we make mistakes and we clash at times with our spouses and partners, siblings, friends, dogs, and (especially!) our church communities. I’m sure the seventy didn’t always get along, either. Still, they knew they needed each other. Batman needed Robin. Trammel needed Sweet Lou. And we need each other. We were never meant to go through life completely alone. We were made for each other; made for relationship. Those relationships are grounded in the first relationship: that covenant that God made with humanity at that first dawn. Just as God has made us to be in relationship with God, we embody that same relationship with one another, working together and taking part in God’s unfolding promise to mend the entire universe. We dare not undertake such a task alone! It is only by holding one another, supporting one another, and sharing one another’s burdens that we can accomplish this (with God’s help, of course). We find meaning in our relationships with one another because God first found meaning by forming a relationship with us, and it is through those relationships that we form a team with one another and with God. And there’s no telling what this team can achieve!
We are in this thing together, brothers and sisters, and we need each other for the work of bringing about the Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. This is not solitary work. It must be shared. It is not a clergy thing or a lay thing; it is an everyone thing. This is what catholic faith, universal faith, is all about—the assurance that we are not alone, that it is not about just me and my personal relationship with Jesus and whether or not I’m saved. Instead, it is about all of us working together toward salvation. That work is done through our prayers and actions, with bread and wine shared in a holy meal, anthems sung in praise to God, and hands that reach out to pull our brothers and sisters up from the gutters to show them the love of the One who first loved us. When we say in our Creed that we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church, this is what we mean. We believe in a Church without walls, where everyone has a role to play. We believe in a Church that reminds us that we are not alone. We believe in a Church where everyone belongs. We believe in the Church of the seventy. We believe because that’s the Church we are called to be!
Jesus is calling us, as he called the 70, to join together to proclaim the good news of the kingdom; to walk and work with each other; to be a team. You. Me. Us. We are in this together, brothers and sisters. And together, with God’s power working through us, and Jesus promising to back us up, we will do wonders!
The Rev. Joe Tyler Mitchell is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (www.fatherprime.blogspot.com), where he wishes and works for a world transformed.