The Strange New Ways of God Sending the Seventy—a New Set of Practices
Here I want to argue that Luke provides us with a concrete response to the Gentile Christians for whom he is writing his Gospel. It can be stated this way: the primary way to know what God is up to in our world when the boundaries as we know them seem to have been erased is by entering the ordinary, everyday life of the neighborhoods and communities we live in.
So, framing this in terms of the way we are to function as a church in our time, we can say: in these times of huge transition where the way we understand and imagine things are being overturned, we will not know what God is up to in the world by huddling together inside our walls or looking to so called experts. The old way of figuring out answers in the once dominant European modeled church was to study and do analysis, we ask what is the biblical nature of something or what is the essence of…,(Missions, Discipleship, Evangelism…) then come up with a strategy or a program. Many times we did this denominationally and ask what within “our” confession of beliefs the answer was. Many millions maybe billions of dollars have been spent to answer the question, what makes a church healthy, what are the 7 or 10 steps to turning a church around, or inside out or whatever.
And all of these activities are focused on the church and how to make church work, which is the wrong focus. At the risk of being misunderstood and misinterpreted I’m trying to restate Luke’s restating in a radical way. …If we want to discover and discern what God is up to in our world right now, we must stop trying to answer this question from within our walls. Like strangers in need of hospitality who have left their baggage behind, enter our neighborhood and community where we live. Sit at the table of the other, and there we may just begin to hear what God is doing.
The Seventy were sent out into the communities where Jesus would be coming. A part of Luke’s response to the question of identity is that discerning what God is doing is tied to entering and becoming present to the people of the neighborhoods and communities where we live. The way this entering is to be done is critical. See, those of us who are part of the churches that once held a dominant place in the religious life of the people in our communities are being invited to become like strangers, with a willingness to enter the world of the other to receive the hospitality of our neighbor. It seems to me that in this act of becoming like the stranger and being willing to receive hospitality, we stand a chance of understanding what God is up to. And, we must explore deeply the meaning of this strange reversal.
I pray you are with me because I believe Luke is articulating a gospel insight that we have for the most part lost. If these second and third generation Christians living in communities all over the Roman world that have little or no idea of the gospel of Jesus are confused and anxious about both the speed and depth of the changes in their situation, then part of Luke’s response to them (and us) is that they are going to rediscover the meaning and the shape of the gospel as they enter into the communities where the Spirit of God has sent them to live.
God’s Unexpected Direction
Is Luke 10:1-12 an echo of Jeremiah 29 where the prophet sent a letter from the Lord to Jerusalem exiles? …These are also a people who assumed God would act in certain ways and history would have an outcome that supported their understanding of reality. And all of that had been shattered by the destruction of Jerusalem and the first temple. Jeremiahs letter instructs the exiles to stop seeking a return to Jerusalem. They are given strange, hugely counterintuitive instructions that would have made little sense to Jewish people…they were to settle in the city of Babylon (Meaning “the gate of the gods”…implying that this city is the place in all the earth where the gods….of the other…come down; it’s hard to imagine the shock of this city on the exiles.)
Jeremiah’s letter suggests that the only way for these exiles to rediscover their identity as God’s people is by dwelling in the very place where they imagined God could never be. This is a stunning reversal of their understanding. Nothing could have prepared them for these instructions. Yet there it was…a word from the Lord telling them to embrace and enter this city they had learned to despise.
In a very similar way, is Luke suggesting here to Gentile Christians that they must take their focus off what Jerusalem represented and live among people who know nothing of the Gospel story? Is this the only way Christians will be able to answer their questions about what God is doing? Is this what Luke would be writing us today, people who are confused and disoriented by the massive implosion of current church systems that seemed to work so well for so long? Could it be that this is the Spirit’s boundary-breaking invitation to us today? Even…even while there is still a lot of focus on trying to make our churches work again….making them “healthy” or turning them “inside out”, is the Spirit inviting us to reenter the neighborhoods to discover what God is already doing there? For many of us, this is as shocking and as radical an invitation as the one Jeremiah sent to the captives in Babylon.
Is God calling us to enter deeply into the neighborhoods and communities where we live and/or where our churches are located? Perhaps…Luke is suggesting that a primary way of discerning God’s plan is when, like the exiles, we reenter the life of local people, listen to their stories, and love them deeply without feeling the need to “sell” or make some sort of “sales pitch” or assume we already know what they need and what the gospel ought to look like in this time and place. What would happen if we started in this way rather than with the prearranged designs and assumptions about how church ought to look?
I’m convinced we can’t continue any longer on the path we are on if we truly hope to enter our local neighborhoods to be cross-cultural missionaries. Now, I am not suggesting we don’t or should not have traditions. Which is the point where I’m most misunderstood. I’m not suggesting we throw away our traditions. These traditions carry with them a rich heritage; they shape us in ways of the gospel. It is our traditions that give us our understanding and imagination within which we live, and we can’t pretend or deny that this is not the case. I’m shaped by many traditions such as the way I read my Bible. How I pray, the confessions I profess about who God is, about God’s Word, and the Mission of God. I don’t enter the community and my neighborhood where I live as a blank slate. I am who I am because of the practices and beliefs of Christian life within a tradition. We shouldn’t give these up.
When the exiles found themselves in Babylon, they didn’t give up the reading and study of the Torah or the practice of prayer. They didn’t fail to gather at the gate or around the fire. But in this new place that challenged so many of their assumptions about what God was up to, they could discover a way forward and a new way of being God’s people only by entering that place. It was the entering and the listening that new understanding, and new way of thinking and imagining what it would mean to be God’s people emerged in God’s mission.
Entering the towns and villages, the communities where Jesus intended to go was not an aggressive evangelism strategy. In fact…the opposite. It was a willingness to enter and be present as the stranger in need of hospitality. Then it became possible to announce the kingdom of God and heal the sick.
A New Text for Our Time
Our way of thinking, our imaginations are constructed around many primary images. In the twentieth century, as an example, when Christians thought about the word “home”, their imagination was shaped primarily by the idea of a single family dwelling with two parents and a number of children, usually two. Just think of the popular television series from the 50s through the 90s. From Father Knows Best, to Leave it to Beaver, and the Cosby Show and Rosanne. A “home’ was depicted this way. Even today, when members are asked to describe their church, they often describe it as a loving or caring family.
This is a powerful image that comes out of church in the 20th Century. But it has very little correlation with the reality of life in the US today. In the US today, the largest percentage of adults live alone. The ideas of home and family are being radically reshaped. There are more singles and single parents than ever before. But we remain trapped by our understanding of “home.” The ideas of home and family are being radically reshaped, but too often the understanding of the churches remains locked into a traditional understanding, an outdated imagination.
The same can be said about the idea of being God’s people on God’s mission. American churches have lived in an understanding and imagination of what it means to be God’s people and on God’s mission that may no longer be adequate or appropriate in terms of the interpretation of a specific text and its meaning for our time.
Let me illustrate…the model text that shaped the missionary movement and much of the formation of evangelicalism was Jesus’ message in Matthew 28:18-20. …. Western Christians took up this text in a time of political, economic and global expansion and vast empire building. The understanding of power in that context was one that matched the sense of place, privilege, and authority. There was a sense of moving out with the right answers for all other people because it was through the west that God was shaping the kingdom of God on earth.
Now, this is not in any way to diminish in any way the passionate, courageous work of so many missionaries. It may be that many of these missionaries went out with these understandings of power and position, but the most creative ones had learned a different story and a different way. They let go of their power and their sense of position and entered the communities as strangers in need of hospitality so that the gospel could be heard in fresh, meaningful ways.
Overall though, the interpretation of Matthew 28 came directly out of the sense of power and authority that we in modern, western culture have. Why did this text become so central to our imagination? …Could it have been, again, that for most of the twentieth century, when evangelicalism was in a defensive posture in the culture, this text seemed to endow us with power and authority from God, actually affirming what we already had? We read this text, not as a challenge to go out into all the world, but rather as an affirmation of the power and authority God had given us.
What might it mean to us if this rendering of Matthew 28 can no longer be sustained? What would it mean if we simply no longer have the power and authority to know how and what the gospel must look like among the peoples of a radically changed time and place? …So here is the question I want us to explore: what if God is saying to us that the imperialism, authority, and control that have been behind our use of Matthew 28 are over and that the ways in which we will rediscover the gospel is by becoming a Luke 10 people? If we believed this, it would transform us from a one-way-dialogue people into those who reenter the conversations with the gospel and our cultures without needing to ask “church” questions all the time. This means a massive culture shift for many churches and their leaders. It involves practicing Luke’s description of entering houses.