Reflections on Luke 10 Two Years After the Death of James Pyles

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. … “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’” (Luke 10:1, 8-11)
Two years ago on this very day, my only college roommate at Wheaton College, James Pyles, was killed in a car accident on the streets between Israel and Palestine. He had left a month earlier to experience what it might be like to serve as a missionary in that region. He had hoped to eventually live there, learn Arabic, and work with Palestinian Muslims. His funeral was on the July 4 weekend of that year, and I flew to Toronto to speak at his memorial service. Two years later, there is still a gaping hole where James once was. I remember him telling me in emails he sent from Jerusalem that he was always willing to eat whatever people offered him due to his own eating habits, which—to say the least—were unstoppable. The man was an eating machine, though he was smaller than I am! Dinners for him would usually last a couple hours and require three to four plates stacked as high as possible. He was truly prepared to eat whatever was set before him, to be the presence of the kingdom in a faraway land.

I think of James whenever I think of people being sent out. Before he left, he recorded a video for churches who were supporting him. In it he said he was prepared to die for the gospel. I wonder how many Christians can actually make that statement and mean it, or, to put it another way, would they go if they knew for a fact that they were going to die by going?

But in reading this passage from Luke 10, I was struck by one thing in particular. These seventy disciples could say in complete honesty with every visit, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” That’s an incredible statement. In other words, they are saying, the kingdom of God has come near to you because we were here in your presence. These disciples are making the bold claim that God is with us, and because we are with you, God is with you as well. The question for our church and churches around the world today is whether or not we can make this claim. Can we honestly say that God is with us? Can we actually say that we are the embodiment of the kingdom? That when we go out into the world, we could leave our places of work, our friends’ homes, our schools and say, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” I don’t know about you, but I would feel silly and ashamed to say such words. Not because I am ashamed of the kingdom, but because I am ashamed of myself.

I think we get a clue about what is necessary for us to actually embody the kingdom from Lesslie Newbigin, who writes in his book, The Household of God:
At the centre of the whole missionary enterprise stands Christ’s abiding promise, ‘I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto myself’, and its goal is ‘to sum up all things in Christ’. When the Church faces out towards the world it knows that it only exists as the first-fruits and the instrument of that reconciling work of Christ, and that division within its own life is a violent contradiction of its own fundamental nature. His reconciling work is one, and we cannot be His ambassadors reconciling the world to God, if we have not ourselves been willing to be reconciled to one another. (Newbigin, The Household of God)
And T. S. Eliot writes the following in his “Choruses from The Rock”:
What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.
The idea of unity, of “life together” (the name of Bonhoeffer’s classic book on the church), of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” from Ephesians—all of this seems very distant from the picture of the church that we see today. What we experience is fragmentation, division, bickering, anger, politics. Right now some of the major denominations in the United States are holding their annual conventions, and some may look back on this summer as the beginning of the end of whatever unity these denominations once had. A seminary professor told me that he expects that our generation will see the end of the major denominations within our lifetime. Not that these denominations were ideal to begin with, but we are only heading downhill.

Eliot writes more on the subject of the church in this lengthy poem. He writes:
The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without.

Many are engaged in writing books and printing them,
Many desire to see their names in print,
Many read nothing but the race reports.
Much is your reading, but not the Word of GOD,
Much is your building, but not the House of GOD.
Will you build me a house of plaster, with corrugated roofing,
To be filled with a litter of Sunday newspapers?
We build in vain unless the LORD build with us.
One could use that last line as a commentary on the passage from Luke 10. Unless the Lord goes with us, we will never be the aroma of the kingdom. As Newbigin says, though, how can we bring reconciliation to the world when we are not ourselves reconciled to each other? This is just one of many contradictions which the church has to face today. Another is the issue of comfort, the ease of our life, our possessions and wealth. Again, T. S. Eliot is right on. He writes:
It is hard for those who have never known persecution,
And who have never known a Christian,
To believe these tales of Christian persecution.
It is hard for those who live near a Bank
To doubt the security of their money.
It is hard for those who live near a Police Station
To believe in the triumph of violence.
Eliot could then have said, “It is hard for those who live near a church to believe in the sufferings of those in the Third World, the trials of those in the inner-city, the poor and needy down the street.” It doesn’t have to be this way, but where I grew up, people went to a church to feel surrounded by loving people. Church was about comfort. It was basically an extension of their already comfortable lives at home, at school, and at work. Unfortunately, the history of the church shows that when people seek comfort, the church ends up dividing.

So in closing, I return to the thought of James and his willingness to be uncomfortable for the sake of the gospel. Uncomfortable and in unity with his brothers and sisters over in the Middle East. I will close by reading one more section from Eliot’s poem, a section which I read at his funeral two years ago:
Remember the faith that took men from home
At the call of a wandering preacher.
Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And of moderate vice
When men will not lay down the Cross
Because they will never assume it.
Yet nothing is impossible, nothing,
To men of faith and conviction.
Let us therefore make perfect our will.
O GOD, help us.


This was wonderful David. I am sorry for the loss of James, as it sounds like he was an incredible fellow. Never having lost someone in such proximity, I have become increasingly beset by anxious worst-case scenarios that spell "death" the older I get. At the same, a robust theology of the resurrection is hammering me from all sides during my lonely commutes to and from work, thanks to our mutual friend and his 10,000 pages, and the One he so consistently points to.

Again, many thanks for sharing this and letting it sit in the company of Newbigin, Eliot and Dr. Luke.
Anonymous said…
David, thanks for sharing this the other night.