Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 4, 2021
Dear friends, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Oftentimes homecomings are wonderful occasions. Think of kids coming home from college for the summer. Or think of those joyful reunions on the tarmac just down the road at NAS Whidbey when a squadron returns and a family is reunited.
Oftentimes homecomings are wonderful occasions, but this most certainly NOT the case for Jesus when he came home to Nazareth. Jesus preached at his home congregation, and the scripture tells us his hometown crowd was astounded – but not in a good way! It goes on to say they took offense at him! This was already pretty obvious in the way they were referring to him after his sermon. “Isn’t this the carpenter?” This apparently was Jesus’ vocation when he left Nazareth, and so they were having a hard time receiving him as a Bible scholar and rabbi. “Who does this carpenter think he is teaching us about God?” Even worse, they said, “Isn’t this the son of Mary?” You see, in Jesus’ time people were usually identified by their relationship to their father. To refer to him as Mary’s son was to call the identity of his father, and thus his so-called “legitimacy,” into question. It was intended as a terrible insult to both Jesus and Mary.
So the people in Nazareth took offense at Jesus. They rejected him. They dishonored him. They didn’t believe in him – in what he said and who he was — and Jesus was amazed at their unbelief.
And in response, Jesus moved on to other villages, taking his message there. Moreover, he looked at his twelve disciples and said, “OK, now it’s your turn!” He paired them up two by two, gave them authority over unclean spirits, told them to travel light, and sent them on their way to carry on his mission.
Much has been made over why Jesus sent the disciples out two by two. Many scholars have said this was to bolster their witness, referring to a passage in Deuteronomy which says that a single witness in a court setting was not enough. You needed at least two. Maybe Jesus thought the witness of two people would carry more authority with people.
Another creative interpretation which I like is that this is an echo of the story of Noah’s ark. Just as the ark was unloaded after the flood with all the animals stepping out two by two to repopulate a devastated world that had rebelled against God, so too now was Jesus sending out his disciples two by two to bring restoration and new life. This is a bit fanciful, I think, but I like it!
But I think that more than anything else, more than any other reason, Jesus sent the disciples out two by two because he knew they would need each other. He knew they couldn’t do it on their own.
We’re celebrating Independence Day today, commemorating the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence. And as we do so I am mindful of something Benjamin Franklin said as the members of the Continental Congress signed their names to that document, making them all publicly open to charges of treason against the British Empire. He said: “We must all hang together, or surely we shall all hang separately.”
In a similar way, our partnership, our unity, as Christians is essential to our mission. We need each other! We need each other across denominational lines as we form strategic partnerships for the sake of extending the gospel and strengthening our witness. We need each other across congregational lines as we support one another in mission. And we most certainly need each other on a personal level. Christians need personal relationships with other Christians. Church isn’t something you can do alone or online indefinitely! We need each other! As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in a quote I’ve been pondering throughout these past months of the pandemic: “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” We’ve seen that, haven’t we? We’re seeing it now! We need each other! Especially in the face of a culture that is growing increasingly hostile to Christian faith, we must all hang together, or, well, you never know.
Jesus knows we will face opposition. He knows that as we bear witness to him we will open ourselves up to insults. He knows we will be rejected. The cancel culture and the hostility to Christianity we see today is nothing new and it was not unexpected! And Jesus not only encourages us to hang together, he also advises his disciples, then and now, that when that happens, to “shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
You see, in Jesus’ time, when a Jewish person had to travel through Gentile territory, it was very common for them, once they had set foot back on Jewish soil, to make a big show of shaking the dust off their sandals, so nothing of the unclean, unholy Gentile world would cling to them.
In a similar way, Jesus says, we are to shake off the rejection of those who do not believe. We are to shake off their insults. We are to shake off their offense and move on. It is just like the great theologian Taylor Swift has said, “Players gonna play, play, play, play, play, and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Baby, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake. I shake it off, I shake it off. (Whoo-hoo-hoo.)
We too are sent out to bear witness to Christ. We too are sent out to share the gospel with others. This has always been hard. It has always been an uphill battle. But we are sent out into the world together, that we might be sources of joy and strength to one another. We are sent out into the world expecting rejection. Jesus himself was rejected! Do you really think you can do this better than him? But when we know it is going to happen, when Christ himself tells us to expect it, we avoid becoming overly discouraged. We are less likely to be crippled by our fear of rejection. We can more easily shake it off.
Jesus’ rejection was not only a foreshadowing of the rejection his church would face. His rejection at Nazareth by his own people was also a foreshadowing of the ultimate rejection he would endure on the cross. On the cross, Jesus endured the rejection of the entire world. Jesus endured the pain and humiliation of that ultimate rejection, and then three days later he emerged victorious from the tomb, shaking off the shackles of death. As cruel as this ultimate rejection surely was, it has become the very means of our salvation! The death and resurrection of Jesus has opened the way for a joyful homecoming, the most joyful homecoming of all, as sinners are welcomed back into the home of our heavenly Father, both now and forever.
Jesus has done all this to bring you home to God. And now that he has, he calls you to help him bring others home too. Let us hang together in this mission, unafraid.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church