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Friday, August 17, 2018

Luke 9:1-17

Luke 9 is a watershed chapter. We'll see in the next verses the climax of Jesus' ministry followed by a decisive turn toward the cross. It's important to realize that like a good play, the action here is rising and the conflict (which has been present all along) is intensifying.

Jesus sends the twelve out to do what he himself has been doing. This is classic discipleship -- you watch me do it, then you do it with me, then I send you out on your own to do it. By the way, churches could learn a lot from this simple model about equipping leaders for ministry.

I want to riff for a moment on one way the evangelical movement of Christianity has abused language to its detriment. Notice that Jesus sends the twelve out specifically to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal (verse 2). That content is very specific. And in verse 6, Luke says that they went out "preaching the gospel" and healing. It is not a stretch to say that Luke equates "the gospel" with "the kingdom of God." Study this throughout the gospels and you will find the same equivalence. But evangelical Christianity has a different definition for "the gospel." We make the gospel = turn your heart over to Jesus so he can forgive your sins so you will go to heaven when you die. I am convinced that much of the weakness and malaise of today's church, especially in the United States and other consumeristic western democracies, is due to this misunderstanding of the gospel. What Jesus proclaimed about the authority and kingship of God -- and his own authority and kingship as God's chosen agent, the "Son of Man" -- and the dynamics of the kingdom he came to inaugurate, including healing for the lepers, recovery of sight for the blind, release for the prisoners, hope for the despairing, life for the dead, has been reduced down to "say a prayer so you don't spend eternity in hell." Instead of being a God-centered kingdom, we've made a self-centered insurance policy. Instead of being a set of values and lifestyles that turns this world upside down (see Acts 17) we have made it about us being eternally safe.

Thus endeth the riff. If you want to dig further into this topic, I strongly recommend N.T. Wright's excellent book, Simply Good News.

Notice the first ripple that happens because of the mission of the twelve: Herod is rocked by the impact of their message. Herod, the king. Herod, who has made his bed with the Romans and has a stranglehold on the Jews and their nation. The kingdom of God shakes the rulers of this world and all their power. It turns their systems and values on their heads.

The next section -- the feeding of the five thousand -- echoes two major themes that would have been obvious to Jesus' original audience. First, it is a major reprise of the Exodus story and the manna God provided the Israelites in the wilderness. In that "desolate place" (verse 12) Jesus provides bread for everyone to eat, and there is more than enough. As God set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt, Jesus' movement leads people not to freedom from physical hunger (though that is one element of it) but spiritual hunger and thirst. These themes come back again and again in the gospels. This echo of the Exodus story rings throughout this chapter and will find its climax in the Transfiguration later in the chapter.

The second theme that would have been so obvious to anyone in Jesus' original audience is that of Caesar's claim to godlike kingship. The Caesars won the people of Rome (and the empire) by providing "bread and circuses," though that is a later term. Still, Caesar's claim to be the provider of stability, including trustworthy food supplies (largely due to Rome's domination of the Nile delta and its rich, dependable grain producing fields, along with dependable networks of transportation to get food to various parts of the empire), won the support of famine-fearing people. Jesus' kingship flies in the face of Caesar's claims.

We tend to be amazed by the actual demonstration of divine power in multiplying food, and this story becomes a punch line at church suppers when attendance is greater than expected. But there is so much more going on in this narrative -- Jesus is proclaiming himself the Messiah, the representative of the God of the Exodus, as well as the rightful king in the face of both Herod and Caesar.

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