2 Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, Gal 6:1-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
“Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” What does that mean? That you will go to heaven? Maybe you know that I don’t think so. That’s not what the Bible means by eternal life. What the Bible means by eternal life is your sharing in the new creation of the world, whenever that might be.
So then what does Jesus mean by saying that? He means that your name is registered on the roll of the citizens, in the capital of that Kingdom that you are loyal to. Like if you’re a US citizen, your name is written on some list in Washington DC, but that doesn’t mean that you plan to live there. That your names are written in heaven means that your names are registered in the capital of the Kingdom of God, which, as we pray, will come on earth, as it is in heaven.
And that’s what’s happening in this story, that the Kingdom of God has come near you. How near, how close? Well, what do you imagine? What do you see when you imagine the Kingdom of Heaven? Something distant, faraway, or close? How far away is heaven? Way up there? I want you to imagine heaven as starting already an inch above the ground, and then it’s heaven all the way up. It’s heaven all the way up. Heaven is faraway and so close. The Kingdom of God has come near you.
Do you take this as mystical or practical? I hope you take it as both, as both mystical and practical, and as both spiritual and ethical. That’s always the concern of St. Luke’s Gospel. Although this story is a strange one, especially for Luke. Of the four Gospel writers, St. Luke is the most historical, almost modern. And yet a few of his reports don’t fit, and they lift us out of space and time. Today’s story makes no sense geographically. Last week we saw the Lord Jesus set his face to Jerusalem and begin his final journey to his doom. But now he zigzags all around the villages of Samaria and then back to Galilee and makes no headway, and this mission of the 70 is a timeless intermezzo.
And to what purpose? What does this mission of the 70 accomplish? If the kingdom of God was near it only disappears again. Peace came to their houses momentarily, and then they’re back to the same old grind. If you were thinking that only purpose of our religion is to escape this bad dream of a world and flee to heaven, you might read that into this passage, as many have.
But if we read it the other way, that the Kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven, including us, then you’d have to say that this Kingdom seems to have no staying power. It certainly does not compel us to accept it.
You see the same in the story of Naaman the Leper. If you were Naaman you’d have no reason even to respect the Kingdom of God. His own gods were more successful. The God of Israel was the god of a two-bit loser nation who apparently could not get victory for his people in war, and was so unimpressive as a god that not even the King of Israel worshiped him. A loser god of a loser nation.
The Kingdom of God is apparently weak and powerless and it compels no respect. Which is symbolized in the little slave girl. Her name is not written anywhere. She’s a person of no respect. And yet it’s she that gets the story going. As powerless as she is, she knows where power is found. This story is full of ironies. We should expect the irony if the Kingdom of God is contradictory to the expectations of all the other powers of the world.
Naaman is a big deal, so of course he goes to the King of Israel to find the prophet in Israel. But the King doesn’t know what the slave girl knows, and he assumes it’s war. The prophet Elisha has to rescue the King from his predicament, and his letter makes a joke of the King, who also can’t accept the lavish gifts that the King of Aram has sent him.
Elisha summons Naaman, but then treats him as no big deal. He’s doing his crossword puzzle and can’t be bothered to come out. This no-respect insults Naaman and he calls the whole thing off until the servants speak up. Their names are not written either, but they are just as pivotal as the little slave girl at the start.
Does the Kingdom of God have any power? Does it have power to heal and power for peace? If it does, it’s a strange power that never forces itself on us. It never compels us. It invites us and then waits for us to say yes to it. And that makes sense if the power of this Kingdom is most revealed in love. Because love waits. Love is patient and kind, and bears all things and endures all things. Love invites but never forces. This Kingdom of God conquers you only by making sense. The sovereignty of God compels you only by your conviction and belief. Your surrender to it is not the usual kind.
Look at the surrendering of Naaman. He had to agree to the terms, the strange terms of the invitation by the prophet. He had to surrender to the advice of his servants. And then he had to surrender to the shame, the shame of being naked in front of his underlings. In that culture to be naked was shameful. It was a surrender.
As he gets into the water they can all observe him. He comes up the first time, and they can see the leprous patches still on his skin. He comes up a second time, it’s still there. A third time, a fourth time—this is getting dramatic—a fifth time, a sixth time, and the seventh time they’re afraid to look. Who is the first one to shout, “He’s clean?” “I’m clean, I’m clean!!”
His flesh was clean like the flesh of a little boy. He could rejoice in his flesh, but having had to submit to his nameless servants he would know better than to boast about his flesh. The mighty warrior had surrendered, he had died and rose again, he had been baptized. “May I never boast of anything but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” That’s the surrender, to agree to the terms, to accept the invitation on its terms.
When the Lord Jesus sent the 70 out, it wasn’t an evangelical mission but an ironic military campaign. What a conquering army does is quarter its troops in the homes of the people it is conquering, and the families have to feed the troops. But these troops have no weapons, no supplies, no boots, no sandals even. They can’t fight, they can’t defend themselves, they’re lambs among wolves, and their only campaign is peace. Because the foreign policy of this Kingdom of God is peace.
And no one has to accept it. They can turn you away. There is no compulsion, only invitation. But if they do not welcome you, don’t engage, don’t force, don’t plead, disconnect, their dust off your feet, be free of them, protest, but the only judgment is that the unwelcoming judge themselves.
Many Christians have read this gift of freedom to accept or reject the invitation as meaning that God does not claim full sovereignty over all the earth and all of our lives, that the Kingdom of God is only a private choice and a personal option. But the Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of Heaven, and if heaven is near and here and an inch above the ground and then all the way up, then the Sovereignty of God claims relevance over every single aspect of human life and culture, what we spend our money on, our civil rights and our citizenship, our systems of justice and economics, our criminal injustice system, and how we treat our planet.
The Kingdom of Heaven envelops the planet as an atmosphere, from the ground up. It claims everything, and yet it is so patient that it will not enforce its claims, and is willing to look soft and weak in order to never be anything that is not also Love.
It is both contradictory and ironical. Our relationship with God is often ironic. God loves us but is not impressed by us. God esteems us but knows we are unwise. God gives us freedom but has no illusions about our use of it. In a way, the joke’s on us, and that is to our good. This kind of surrender means laughing at ourselves and at the fools we are. But not a laughter of mockery. A laughter of sudden recognition and release, a laughter of reconciliation and of love.
Where will you find the knowledge that you need for the power that heals you and gives you peace? Well, who are the nameless slave girls in your life? Who are the underlings whom you take for granted but who are on your side anyway? Who are the shoeless visitors who come to your house uninvited? Listen to them. Eat their food, whatever they set in front of you. They may not even know that they represent the Kingdom of God, but you can see it because of how close it is.
As I said, it’s a very strange way for this Almighty God to exert God’s power and sovereignty. Unless God never does anything that is not also Love. And that is what I invite you to believe today, that the motive behind everything that God does, or doesn’t do, is God’s love for you.