Earlier in his gospel Luke tells us the intention of Jesus as he begins his ministry: “To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God because for this purpose I have been sent”(4: 43). Later when he was accused of driving out demons by the power of Beelzebul he responded, “But if it is by the finger [power] of God that [I] drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you”(11: 20). Now Jesus appoints seventy-two others whom he sends out with the same mission and purpose as his own. The disciples receive instructions about how they are to carry out their mission: for example, they are to “carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals.” There is also an ominous word of warning. Jesus says, “I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” He assures them, however, that Satan has fallen. Yet the disciples are to rejoice, not because the evil spirits are subject to them, but because their names are written in heaven—they belong to God.
We try to bring the implications of Luke’s gospel to consciousness at a time when many people in the church seem to have lost hope. They are weary, intimidated by the power of secular culture, and often contentious with each other. People feel helpless in face of the pervasive violence and a sub-culture of dehumanizing poverty while the stock market continues to climb. John Paul II called the life-destroying aspect of our modern world the “culture of death.” The false value-systems of the world still seem to have control over the way we think and treat each other.
It is also important to remember that the church of Luke’s time was much like our own—contention within and persecution without. Peter, Paul and many early followers of Jesus had been executed in the Roman Empire by the time Luke wrote his gospel. Paul’s experience, a few decades earlier in Athens, could well have happened in any modern city. After he had proclaimed the resurrection of Christ to the Athenians, the response was mostly ridicule or indifference. Some said, “We should like to hear you on this some other time”(Acts 17: 32). A few men and women, however, came to believe.
If the celebration of the Eucharist today is to renew our beleaguered hope, we like the Twelve and the seventy-two must hear Jesus speaking the words of the gospel personally to each of us. It is we, either as successors of the Twelve or of the seventy-two, who are being sent for the same purpose that Jesus was sent. The seemingly impossible mission to do what Jesus did would paralyze our spirit unless today we also hear Jesus say to us, “Rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” We rejoice because we are members of the household and family of God.
What is the reality to which the biblical expression “kingdom of God” points? The expression is richly multifaceted in meaning. The kingdom of God comes into being wherever God reigns, and wherever God’s will is done. The kingdom of God is present in persons through whom God acts. It is no surprise that in the early church the kingdom of God soon came to be identified with Christ himself. God reigns in Christ. God’s will is done in Christ. God acts through Christ. To proclaim the kingdom of God is the same as to proclaim Christ. In fact, the church from its beginning, by proclaiming the good news of Christ, was being faithful to his mandate to proclaim the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God has come upon us if God reigns in our hearts, if God’s will is done in us, if God acts through us. Sometimes one can sense God’s presence in a person or in a community. Thus what the Second Vatican Council says of Christ may also be said of us: “The presence of the kingdom is seen in the words and works, but above all in the person, of Christ himself” (Lumen Gentium, #5).
There is a sense of urgency in the words Jesus addresses to us. Even though we are urged to action, it is equally clear that by our own strength we cannot subdue the evil powers of this world and cure its ills. So that we do not forget to trust in God’s power in all we do, Jesus tells us to “carry no money bags, no sack, no sandals.” We will be able to continue Christ’s mission in the particular circumstances of our lives with audacious hope only if we believe that whatever good we do, it is by the finger of God. And when this happens, we can say with Christ, “The kingdom of God is at hand for you.”
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.