Two people walking the dusty roads of the land arrive at a village. It is dusk, or morning, or in the heat of the day. Who are they? What do they carry with them? What will they find in the village?
Hospitality or rejection?
They greet the people they meet there. The young, the old, the men and women. And they say, “Peace be with you.” Shalom aleicheim. Salaam alecum.
An ancient greeting. Meaning no harm, but good. Like a raised hand in greeting, between people of no common language.
Here though people know what it means - what it is supposed to mean.
Maybe they turn them away. We know what that’s like. No welcome.
Maybe they’re afraid. These could be soldiers in disguise, or drifters, here to assault our young girls. Or just crooks. We don’t know them. We don’t want the trouble they might bring.
So the travelers clean off their sandals, in a ritual way, and prepare to move on.
But before we go, they say, there is something we want to leave with you. It is this: “God’s commonwealth of peace and freedom has been very close today.”
Suppose though the travelers are greeted with Middle Eastern hospitality. “And also with you.” (They take the risk.) Come sit down leave your sandals by the door. Here is water. Share our food. Break our bread.
And now the story is quite different. The travelers, known or unknown, have a message, something they want to give to the people of this place.
“The commonwealth of peace and freedom for which we have longed is being established by God - now. Here. Among us.”
Justice is coming to a land parched with the thirst for it.
Free to worship God without fear.
And so they receive the hospitality of that household, eating what is set before them. And as guests they have something to offer.
It comes with the assignment they have been given. “Heal anyone who is sick.” A special gift indeed! And it is a sign: that the one who heals is nigh.
And the travelers, the messengers, tell them the portent of the sign. It points to this: “God’s kingdom - the commonwealth of peace and freedom - is right on your doorstep!”
The travelers took a risk in coming. They were sent with next to nothing - nothing but the message and the power of the Spirit. The power of love.
Go! Get out there and speed the word, prepare the way. Travel light. Take nothing extra and do not linger to pass the time of day. There isn’t much daylight left.
And so they went, to spread the news. They had no power, no right, to coerce anybody. They were not troops, or machete carrying thugs. They brought with them only empty hands, hands that were extended in peace.
What they had was authority - the authority of the love of God that they showed. And that built relationship with the people they came to on their journey.
There is a kind of power that has a coercive element to it. Authority, by contrast, has a non-coercive element. “You can do what I ask of you because you have to do what I have the power to make you do. Or you can do what I ask of you because you want to do it out of respect for who I am to you. The difference between the two motives is huge.” (Peter Marty)
And this coming reign of God is not like the empire of the world the people of the Holy Land knew so well. It comes without coercive force. It comes only with love, with care - shown in that sign of healing - and with the message.
So the travelers are sent, like lambs traveling through the midst of wolves. They carry this good news. And they are received - or not. Received or not they have delivered the message and done the sign. Their task is done. The outcome is not theirs to own. That belongs to the Spirit.
Later in the story of the church that is the Acts of Apostles we hear how the Spirit moves people and guides them. Philip is on the Gaza road, and he sees a chariot headed toward Egypt. Go up to that chariot and see what’s going on, he feels prompted. And he goes, and finds a man, an Ethiopian, reading and pondering the words of Isaiah. He interprets them in light of the gospel. And soon he finds himself in quite another part of the country, preaching that gospel to village after village.
The Christians at Antioch, a burgeoning faith community, send two of their number, Paul and Barnabas, out on mission, to spread the word of the good news they have experienced together.
Silas, Paul, and Timothy, coming along through the west of Turkey toward Istanbul, have a plan for where to head next. But the Spirit redirects them. Through a dream they feel the calling: “Come over to us and help us,” a Macedonian voice calls. And so they cross to Europe and bring the gospel there.
All these cases, in the confidence and the vulnerability of the Spirit, show the spreading of the message. A message that began with a simple word, heard or unheard, left outside or taken to heart, a simple word:
Peter W. Marty, "From the publisher: The secret of authority" (The Christian Century, June 22, 2016) 3.
Zadie Smith, "Two Men Arrive in a Village" (The New Yorker, June 6 and 13, 2016) 44ff.
Ryan Marsh, sermon series on the Spirit, The Church of the Beloved, Edmonds, WA (June 26, 2016).