An Unsuspected Missionary Evangelist

From a classical perspective missionaries are those who are sent out as announcers of God’s grace. In a very real sense they are evangelists.   These missionary evangelists that go as Jesus’ representatives in Luke 10 are told to declare that “the kingdom of God has come near (to you)”. Have you ever noticed how such a message is upsetting? Actually it’s divisive. The theme appears As early in the Jesus narratives as when Simeon blesses the infant Jesus and declares that he “is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed”.  And of course the theme continues as Jesus tells his disciples about his going to Jerusalem. Both Jesus’ own ministry and the story of the church’s early mission in Acts play this out this theme.   Some who hear the message respond positively, and others, for some reason, oppose it – bitterly. Some of the verses in our New Testament reading anticipate the rejection Jesus will experience, others accentuate the positive by celebrating their own missionary experience. Taken together, the positive and negative aspects combine to emphasize that the gospel message calls for decision. Now were God’s kingdom exclusively future focused maybe there would be less opposition but, as our text declares, the Kingdom of God has come near, and is here and begins its work in this present moment. That means change.


Despite the divisive character of the message, Jesus’ instructions disclosed to his followers that the intended result of the gospel message is peace—God’s Shalom. This was the message of the angels in Luke’s birth story at the beginning and in the nineteenth chapter, near its’ end where Jesus mourns Jerusalem’s rejection of “the things that make for peace.” Although the gospel intends to unite all people in harmony, the choice of true peace—the peace that results from an acceptance of Jesus and his word—will set those who choose it against those who reject it. And, as Jesus says, those who accept it will be like lambs among wolves !


Jesus’ instructions to his seventy missionary evangelists have a fascination all their own. Alfred Plummer suggests that the prohibition to the missionary from carrying purse, bag or an extra pair of sandals, comes from the way the Talmud requires that no one is to go into the Temple Mount with “staff, shoes, scrip, or money tied to him in his purse”. Christ’s messengers are to go into the world in the same way as they would go to the services of the temple, “avoiding all distractions.”   Culpepper thinks that the injunction against moving from house to house was to discourage seeking better arrangements for oneself.


The simple goal of mission is to enable God’s kingdom to flourish in the present as persons hear and accept the gospel message. This brings with it a commitment to live in love, which flows into God’s life and thus affects the world both directly and indirectly. The emphasis upon peace in the passage reminds us that to experience God’s Shalom is in fact to experience God’s kingdom.


Luke 10 is a call to share good news simply and without attachment.  Jesus’ followers are called to go out into the world without a safety net, trusting that God will provide inspiration, energy, and power.  One really good thing to remember, Jesus’ followers were called to be faithful. They didn’t need to worry about results.  If they follow God in the present moment, they will bring good news to strangers and receive grace adequate for every challenge.  God will always give us the energy and insight we need, providing us with possibilities for growth and healing every step of the way.


Since Naaman the Syrian General most evidently was not an Israelite, the Old Testament story of his healing connects in an interesting way with the gospel lesson’s theme of mission. It clearly illustrates the universality of God’s grace. The healing of Naaman from a skin disease suggests that healing can occur anywhere, by any practice, through any mediator, and at any place.  Through the compassion and witness of an unexpected source the powerful Naaman finds healing in am Hebraic slave girl who testifies to the power of her God.  Naaman also encounters an unexpected healer, Elisha, a Hebrew, who points the general to an unexpected healing modality, a dip in the nearby and rather undistinguished Jordan River.


The story invites those of us living in a world of chaos and complexity to trust God’s presence in the ordinary, simple, un-dramatic, and accessible realities that support and nourish us.  The healing and transformation we need may be as simple as wading in a nearby muddy creek .Our healing might be right in front of us. We don’t need to do anything spectacular beyond accepting the grace in which we live and move and have our being.


The story of Naaman’s healing doesn’t begin in Israel, it begins is Syria. Read II Kings passage Then as now the territory of the Golan Heights was a place of unrelieved hostility. Naaman would be like our General Petraeus, a military hero and officer who holds press conferences, a great man who is held in high favor with the political leadership. It was interesting to me to learn that Naaman, the recipient of God’s grace, was, according to Jewish tradition the warrior who shot the arrow that took the life of Israel’s King Ahab. The story writer is determined that we understand that Naaman is a great man in his nation. In the next phrase we learn that our hero suffers from leprosy.   When it is discovered that he is a leper, it won’t matter whether he is a great man or that he is in great favor with his King. He will be banished from the country club, lose the attention of the media of his day. Leprosy respects neither rank or class. It is a scourge that is beyond control. This great man, known for being able to take control is helpless. What do you think? Do you imagine that he was depressed, sad, needy, resentful – maybe in denial?


With all his military, political and public renown he represents, in our story, a world desperate for rescue, yet unwilling to admit its neediness and utterly without hope. To acknowledge such powerlessness is to admit the emptiness of existence without the gift of life that can only be accepted, never owned or grasped.  


Walter Brueggermann in his development of the story turns his attention from the General to the General’s wife.   He imagines that she is getting ready for the next social event that this honored couple are to attend. They are still circulating among the rich and powerful because Naaman’s diagnosis hasn’t yet become public knowledge. Naaman’s wife is sad. She knows that her happy world will soon come spinning to an abrupt end. Standing behind her is a young woman, quietly and deferentially attending her. As is common, this servant already knows about the diagnosis and she sees the sadness in her mistress. Though a captive of war pressed into servitude she is not mean spirited. She is making the best of her situation and demonstrates her sincere care for both the general’s wife and for the general.


Never would she speak to the general’s wife in public, but here, in the privacy of the dressing room, moved by the sadness in the general’s wife’s face, she dares to speak. She speaks only once. She will utter ten Hebrew words, sixteen in English: “If only my lord were with the prophet in Samaria. He would cure him of leprosy.”   That is all. When she spoke, she spoke quietly and with a certain authority. She spoke against the sadness she sensed in the general’s wife and the impotence of the general to be cured. She is the true missionary evangelist. If you would see yourself as an evangelist or a missionary, pay attention to her.


She isn’t into loud, aggressive religion. She isn’t into church growth or friendship evangelism or power encounters. She speaks anonymously, quietly and only once. But look at what she does. She attends to the acute need of the sad woman and helpless man. The work of evangelism takes concrete form in responding to the need of the world. She remember who she was and from where she came, and how it was back there and did not permit herself to become overwhelmed by the show of opulence or the desperate needs of her new world. She remembered the remarkable stories of renewed life, energy, transformation and newness at the hands of God’s prophet Elisha. She didn’t understand or seek to explain. She simply bore witness and in doing so she offered transformative possibilities for the general and his wife, even though they were alien to the faith of Israel. As evangelist the young woman redefined a situation of despair into an occasion of hope. She spoke from her experience: that is what she did; that is all she did. Her utterance inserted a new factor into the present circumstance and it opened a new future for the impotent general and his despairing wife.


The balance of the story has political intrigue, deals with expectations, anger pride and reluctance, and is fodder for a great many more sermons. But mainly it is a great story about there being only one God, and that a God of hope and healing. It reminds us that sometimes our notions of from where wisdom and wholeness come are quite misguided. For Naaman to find healing required him to forgo his need for the spectacular and become awake to the simplicity of God’s healing presence.


When we say “yes” to Jesus’ question, “do you want to be healed?” new pathways of mind, body, spirit, and relational healing become visible.  Healing can come from any sector – a gentle touch, taking your medication prayerfully, medical treatment, exercise, meditation, counseling, the ritual of laying on of hands, caring acceptance, and a change in lifestyle and diet.  We don’t need to go a far distance when God is right here with us providing resources for our wellness in every situation.


We never hear of this slave girl again. Her work is done. But missionaries and evangelists don’t expect to be noticed or celebrated – or even thanked. It is enough to have shared words that opens another’s life to newness and transformation.


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