Monday, August 4, 2014

The Strange New Ways of God Sending the Seventy—a New Set of Practices

August 3rd, 2014
Part I-Entering Houses

Luke 10:5-8

Luke 10:1-12 uses the understanding of a stranger who receives hospitality. It’s important here that those who go two by two are the ones who receive hospitality and the gracious goodness of those who live in their community. Luke repeats the command to enter and stay, along with the parallel command of eating what is set before them, indicating this entering and eating lay at the heart of his message. Those sent are not to enter just for some coffee and conversation; they are to stay in the same house and not jump from place to place.

Several things seem important:

First, understand, those being sent, in terms of our situation, represent the churches seeking to make sense of their situation, as boundaries are broken and the Spirit is doing things over which we have no control. In this Luke 10 setting the location of the “church” if you will, is in the homes and at the tables of the people in the communities, and the stance of the “church” (its posture or position) is that of recovering her, hospitality, actually her communities that is, gracious hospitality. (So then, what is happening here.. is at least part of the command not to carry extra provisions that make us independent and, then, never in need of hospitality of the other.)

Second, this is not, it seems to me, a hit-and–run event…there is a strong sense that these disciples stayed with the people for quite some time. Entering the house would not carry the same meaning that it does for us (entering single-family dwellings)….. “House” here should be understood as “household,” which meant not only an extended family but an economic unit. The implication is that, in some way, the “church” is to go in such a way that it enters, indwells, and joins the social and economic rhythms of the household (so then, now we have the meaning of the strange comment in verse 7 that the “worker deserves his wages”) …This is so much more than a door-knocking excursion to evangelize or invite a neighbor to a special event or service. …This is about entering deeply into the life of the other on his or her terms, not our own…thus the ”eat what is set before you.”

Third, these disciples are not to run about from place to place looking for just the right kind of people to be with. It would seem that Luke is aware of the belief that the “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” syndrome, which attacks many. …But here, staying put among people is a critical element to being a gospel people and rediscovering the gospel for ourselves. There is no room given here for an understanding of meeting with only my own kind or being drawn to those who share my values and my politics. Our neighbors across the street or next door could be from any part of the world today, and chances are they don’t share our worldview. This, right here is where we are being invited to plant ourselves in the local, making a commitment for the long haul. This is not a get in and get out mission in an attempt to get our kind, those who look and think like us into our church. …And it seems to me that for Luke the long view, one of commitment, is a prerequisite to engaging the question of what God is doing in our world.

This is a very different way of going about discerning God’s purposes from the usual ways where people who share all the same values, have known each other for a long time, you know, who can finish each other’s sentences, …there is something wildly radical and different happening here.

So, what does all this say about our local flocks and the crisis of identity faced by so many of the churches in America? …What might be the implications for the kind of transformation that people are eagerly seeking right now? …Luke is reorienting the past few decades in his time to invite these Gentile Christians into a new way of understanding and imagining the Gospel and God’s purpose.

So, could it be that God’s Spirit is inviting us on a similar journey? That we, Ridgecrest and all the churches in America, are being called to reorient ourselves, to be converted all over again in a way that may be more radical than the 16th Century Reformation. …In our days of confusion, and boundary-breaking, we are called to practice becoming like the stranger who needs to be received as a “guest” and welcomed to the table of others who may be very different from us.

Our calling is to enter into their homes, dwell among them, and stay with them for quite a period of time without any plans to take off if they or their ways don’t suit us. This is going to mean learning how to actually listen to people without making them objects of our goals and desires.
…It’s going to mean a readiness to inter in to a conversation with the others in our community, seeking to listen to their stories and conversations in a genuinely human engagement. This is going to feel very strange and disrupting for many Christians, even, or maybe especially those in church leadership, because it will mean we are no longer in control of the conversation. God’s Holy Spirit is. …This kind of engagement will not be about getting something from the other or deeming the other a potential customer for our “holy sales pitch.” Instead they are to be the other in a relationship with Jesus through us.

And this leads to another element of what I think Luke may have been communicating to these Gentile Christians whose world was being turned inside out. He wrote that part of Jesus’ instructions was to eat what was set before them.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Strange New Ways of God Sending the Seventy—a New Set of Practices

(Booklet 2)

The Strange New Ways of God Sending the Seventy—a New Set of Practices

Luke 10:1-12

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.

The Strange New Ways of God Sending the Seventy—a Guide for Our Times Part III

Luke 10:3-4

Journeying Sentness

For Luke, our faithful God sends the boundary-breaking Spirit of God to form communities of Jesus characterized by a journeying sentness. This means that Luke, in writing what is today the two separate volumes of Luke-Acts, used the mission of God in the world as the lens for interpreting events to these Gentile communities. In one sense this is part of the question with which these Christians were wrestling, namely, what had gone wrong with the mission of God? His telling about the seventy is part of Luke’s vigorous counter-narrative, which says that mission is still central but not in the ways they had anticipated.

The overall sense of this story is that Jesus sends his followers out on a counterintuitive journey of mission for the sake of the kingdom. This was a difficult image for these second and third generation Gentile questions. End of time expectations had faded. The heroes of the church’s birth, leaders like Paul and Peter who drove the mission of the kingdom across the Roman world, were gone from the stage, creating anxiety about who was leading and what the next steps might involve. Most have grown up in small churches in homes linked together by the reports of an expanding movement in which they had seen lots of people coming into the faith.

But, toward the end of this first century followers did not share the same fervor of the earlier generation, so they were characterized by a loss of energy and enthusiasm for the mission of God. They had taken the mission of God, the Good news of Jesus Christ that in Him, the Kingdom had come, and turned it into a religion. … In the light of these realities, we see Luke returning to the founding stories of Jesus and the disciples to provide these Christians with a new basis, a new foundation, for being faithful communities of Gospel witness. This will mean reshaping their imagination about how the Spirit of God was moving this witness of Jesus forward.  

This metaphor of journeying faithfulness in the midst of opposition must have made for struggle for them to hear. By this time they expected Jesus to return. By now God’s future should have been all wrapped up rather than this situation of crisis, conflict, and confusion and persecution. They were communities that had been waiting, expecting; they had a predetermined conviction that there was but a short period of time before the end 0f time future dawned. What would these changes in expectation mean for their formation as communities of Gospel witness? ….How could they go about discerning what God was doing? Luke’s metaphors of discipleship and conflict, of journeying and entering communities without baggage, painted a wildly different interpretive framework from the one into which they had settled. The implication is that  in this setting of crisis and identity, it is journeying people who are ready to risk entering the ambiguous and vulnerable spaces of mission that follow the contours of God’s engagement in the world.

Ordinary People

So, by the later part of the first century the heroes of the initial outburst of missionary fervor were gone. What happens when the heroes, the great figures of the faith who pioneered an immense movement of the Spirit, are gone from the stage? Where do you turn to find new heroes who can lead into the crisis-ridden future? …. Luke’s answer is different from anything that could have been expected. His message was that God’s Kingdom is announced and lived in the midst of ordinary people, not the heroes, the professionals, or the stars of the faith.

The seventy who are sent out are nameless, but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant, just used to make a point. I think Luke is saying something important to his little church communities and us about the nature of the gospel in the midst of their confusion and lostness. These people are looking back to the first generation of Christians and to the stories of the apostles their brave deeds, and their amazing miracles. But these heroes of the faith are all gone-that time is over and this new generation feels lost and a little lost.

In the nameless seventy, Luke is saying something about how the gospel indwells a time and place as well as the nature of the community and its tasks. It is among ordinary men and women, whose names will not be recorded or remembered, that God shapes a future. And, contrary to the way we set everything up in the modern world we live in, it will not be from the stars and professionals, the so called great leaders and church and spiritual gurus, that the direction of God’s future is discovered. It will not be through some who get to the top of some proverbial mountain and come down with the directions and solutions of what God is up to in the world emerge. It is through the ordinary people of God, the nameless people who never stand on stages and platforms like this one or get this, that the gospel will indwell our world. This is the strange, counterintuitive imagination Luke seeks to give to these Gentiles and, over thousands of years to us Ridgecrest. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Strange New Ways of God Sending the Seventy

Leaving Baggage Behind

    A number of elements need to be explored for us to understand what is happening in this passage. In the first place, the number of disciples Jesus sends gives us clues about Luke’s intention. In Jewish tradition it is seventy elders who are commissioned to translate the law and the prophets from Hebrew to Greek; in Luke’s hands this is an allusion to the mission of God to the whole world. In other Jewish texts, such as Genesis 10, the number of nations in the world is seventy. So the setting of the sending is the anticipated mission of the gospel to the whole world (in the book of Acts).

    Jesus’s instructions (Luke 10:3–4) to his disciples strike readers as weird. He says, “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road”. They were not to take a lot of baggage with them on their journey. In essence they were not to depend on their own resources. In the context of the first century, these followers were sent out on their mission as strangers who would be in need of hospitality from people of the towns and villages. Luke is suggesting that the mission of God moves forward in the world when disciples of Jesus choose to become like strangers in their communities so they will be dependent on their hosts.

    The story of this sending, then, is not only to illustrate the mission of God to the whole world but also to show the manner in which this mission is to be carried out. It is radically different from the conceptions of mission that characterize the churches of our time. In the ancient Middle East, strangers were an important part of the overall cultural mix. They were the outsiders who, for one reason or another, were dependent on the hospitality of others for their survival, and there were strict laws about how the stranger was to be treated. But this was a two-way street. In such a culture, the village people took in the stranger because they knew that at any time in the future they or their children might become strangers themselves and need to be taken in. There was a deep sympathy in this relationship to the stranger. It is important to understand what lies behind the suggestion here if we are to have any idea of God’s intention. It appears there is a connection, a link between being in the place of the stranger in need and being able to discern God’s working in the world. This story is suggesting that the one is a forerunner of the other.

    In the Old Testament story of Elijah, this dynamic is at work (see 1 Kings 17). After Ahab and his Baalist wife, Jezebel, kill the prophets of Israel, Elijah flees to the Kerith ravine where he is fed for a time by ravens …note the connections ….that of being in the place of a stranger in need and finding the place where food is given…these are also connected in Luke’s story. …Elijah must move on because there is no water in that part of the desert…he is genuinely a man outside his own context (Surroundings) and in need of help from someone. ..The Lord directs him to the city of Zerepath (a Gentile city of Baal worshipers-Jezebel’s very own people), where he meets a widow who provides hospitality to this Jew. ….Elijah, with nothing, dwells in the house of the widow and in that context, discovers again, anew, what God is calling him to do. …Elijah must dwell with the other to discern God’s purposes. It meant that this Gentile woman could not be seen as the “enemy,” as the outsider who has nothing to give, but as the one who will provide the table around which Elijah might reimagine his calling. This is boundary breaking!

    This is the way in which Luke frames Jesus’ sending of the seventy. The fascinating characteristic of Elijah’s story is that he finds himself pushed outside his own community. He becomes a stranger because the world of Israel has been taken from him. In this new and dangerous place, Elijah is forced to ask difficult questions about God and about the relationship between God and Israel.

   This….was also the situation of the Gentile Christians to whom Luke was writing. The parallel can be made in this way. ….Elijah’s world was fundamentally confused when the assumptions he had about what God was doing were challenged….. This also happened to the Gentile communities to whom Luke was writing. ….Elijah found answers to these questions of confusion as he was forced outside his established world and placed in situations where he became dependent on the hospitality of those who should have been in need of his ministry…. Is it the case that the boundary-breaking Spirit is placing these Gentile Christians in similar setting? I think so.
 So,…. bridging the context to our time, in our city, in our communities, is He, the Spirit of God doing a similar thing with us?

 Will the church discover answers to our crisis of identity as we become willing to enter a similar experience of becoming like strangers who, without baggage, must enter the towns and villages to receive hospitality from the other?

Leaving baggage behind is a key part of what Luke is saying. This leaving baggage behind is about a radical reorientation of how to answer the question of what God is doing in our world. This is unfamiliar to and far from the ways in which most churches “send” people into the communities in which we live.

Take the way we evangelize as an example. Our current ways of evangelizing calls for many different ways of engaging people. Usually we develop categories that we put people of our community into then we make plans based on what “seeker” type of events and programs we think, “outsiders”, we call them “they” would be interested in joining or attending. We ask, what needs do people have that a program we can institute might address? …

  …. the church sends people into the neighborhood fully loaded, fully armed with research, and methods for assessing someone’s readiness for the next step, and with nice programs to offer. In other words, churches send out people with plenty of prepacked baggage.

   We go with a huge amount of baggage. All of this baggage will continually blind us to what God is doing in the communities where we live, because when we take baggage, we assume we already know who the people are and what they need. All the questions of what God might be doing are we have already answered, compiled and turned into sellable programs and strategies.

    When we send people out with baggage, we lose two things-the ability to see people and their needs as they really are and an openness to what God is doing.

     So, first we objectify people. We put them into our categories. They are not the other who we must dwell among and be present to, but they are a category, for which we have plans. When this is our focus, we can’t listen to the person who stands before us as a human being…he or she is the object of our plans. And that, I believe, is baggage of the worst kind.

    Secondly, we have already determined what God is up to and, so, what needs to happen. But, in the boundary-breaking work of the Spirit, this is precisely where we need a different approach. We cannot ask the question of what God is up to in our neighborhoods and communities when we think we already know. And it seems to me that Luke is trying to tell us something of critical importance in these brief instructions. That in a time of boundary-breaking, when established assumptions about how it is all supposed to turn out are no longer practical, then we must take a radically different road. We must leave our baggage behind and be willing to become like a stranger in need of the welcome and care of the other…. if we stand any chance of answering the question, what is God up to in our world today.

    Most of us are trying to figure out all the best, seeker-friendly ways to get someone to come to something we are offering. And, “our” plans and what “we” want to achieve are what’s most important. But these are huge pieces of baggage, which prevents our listening to and receiving from the other.

But, Luke points us in a different direction. …This is a text that helps sketch a new map of the road ahead. The thoughts and imaginations of the past cannot provide when the boundary-breaking Spirit of God breaks through with a new meaning for what being God’s people means in our world today.

I believe that this is exactly what is happening in our time….I believe Luke is trying to help us understand just that. Ridgecrest, we need to release our baggage. God want us to listen and receive from the “others” in our neighborhoods and communities. Luke is trying to point us in a direction. He is providing for us a map, a blueprint of the road ahead. An old way of thinking and imagining will not provide when God’s Holy Spirit is breaking through as He is in our city and community and neighborhoods with an understanding of what it means to be God’s people in our world today. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Strange New Ways of God Sending the Seventy—a Guide for Our Times Part 1 Luke 10:1-12

A Proposal for Understanding Our Time of Crisis

   As I have said often, the Spirit of God breaks boundaries, a work that can be for us confusing and disturbing and well, painful. The well-worn patterns and traditions of Christian life that shaped once dominant churches are eroding as our whole world enters a new and as yet undefined time. The patterns of Christian life that shaped and gave meaning to Christian life in America for much of the twentieth century, especially convictions about the place of the church,… are breaking apart. How do we figure out what God is doing in the world? …It is only as we focus attention on this primary question that we can ever ask what it means to be the church in this new time—but honestly this is a secondary question at this point. Luke may not have had just these questions in mind when he wrote his Gospel. He did, however, write with an eye toward Gentile communities in crisis that needed help in reorienting their thoughts and imaginations with the times they found themselves in. Together,… we will imagine what Luke’s response would have been to these questions as he tells the story of the sending of the seventy to all the places Jesus intended to go as he set his eyes toward Jerusalem and his suffering. Luke’s readers already knew the outcome of this journey with its rising opposition toward Jesus and then the post-Pentecost communities.

    What I propose is that in retelling this story, Luke is shaping for these Gentiles the question of what God is doing in the world and, therefore, how to be the church. The proposal to be offered in the sermons to follow is that Luke 10:1–12 describes a way of breaking the “church” conversation and opening up to us a radically different way of being God’s people. …Stated very simply… It is about becoming cross-cultural missionaries in our own culture. …Such a missionary steps out of the conversation about church. …. He or she isn’t preoccupied with themselves. …When entering a different culture, this missionary knows that he or she can’t begin the conversation with church questions.
    As a missionary who has gone into the international mission field with all the educational training and culture of university and Seminary life, I realized I would be of no good to the kingdom unless I learned to enter the culture and dwell among the people to whom I had come. … I made a practice of living with and sitting among the people in the towns and villages to which I had been sent. This sitting in their midst was one of the ways I sought to be present to them and attend to their stories, because I knew that until I did this, I would not be able to understand the gospel in this new place God had sent me. In the midst of these listening dialogues, I learned to be present to the other, to hear, read, and perform the gospel in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined.

Dwell in the Story

Luke 10:1–12 speaks into our crisis in a similar way. It’s important to read this Scripture, because we might assume we already know it. I invite you to read this text as often as possible, over and over again, until it starts to live inside you. Dwell in this story, seeking to hear what the Spirit of God might be saying to us through the text.

I assure you that the ways this text shapes our responses to the questions of what God is up to in the world and what it means to be the church will surprise us. This narrative asks us to turn away from deeply held patterns of response (Our Traditions); ways of doing things a certain way simply because it is the way we have always done it. And so I’m asking you to listen to the Spirit, and not to respond out of custom, comfort or tradition but as a Disciple, as a follower of Jesus Christ. 

Radical Discipleship
      Now, the narrative begins in the setting of discipleship. In other places in Scripture, we read of numbers of people coming up to Jesus and asking what they need to do to become disciples. His responses were so counterintuitive (not customary, not comfortable, not traditional) to their expectations and desires that they turned away from Jesus. (For example, he tells a rich, young ruler to go and sell all he has and then come back and follow him. He tells a Pharisee that he must be born again, to die to his life as he knows it) this discipleship is more radical than anything anyone has imagined. Hear me, it is not about fixing something or adjusting some small area of one’s life. This discipleship requires a very different kind of response and it will probably not align with our expectations or fit with the categories of meaning that have shaped many of us to this point in our lives.

    It is after these kind of encounters with would-be disciples that Jesus sends out seventy followers ahead of him to all the towns and villages where he intends to go in Galilee of the Gentiles. This story is set in the midst of Jesus’s journey down to Jerusalem where he will lose his life. Almost the entire Gospel from this point forward is built around the journey south, its results, and the resurrection. While we now know the story well, for those listening to its first readings, it was filled with huge surprises and turns that no one could have imagined. The events that were foreseen in the story were unexpected; nothing seemed to fit their established ways of thinking.
    For Luke this had to do with the why and the way these seventy are sent out. For the second-generation Gentile Christians spread across the empire who were reading the Gospel, what must it have meant for them, as they were reading about their Lord’s journey to Jerusalem and death, to come upon this story? What would it have been saying to their questions about the crisis of identity and meaning they faced?
    In Luke 9:51–56 Jesus and the disciples encounter opposition from a Samaritan village. They were not welcomed because “he was heading for Jerusalem.” Old hostilities between these two people who hated each other flare up. The disciples respond with the same old formula from a thought process and imagination that instinctually reacts to Samaritans: “Call down fire on the village and blot out these no good Samaritans! Teach them a lesson of power and authority; show them who’s in charge once and for all.” And, Jesus will have none of it; he will not get involved in the fight despite the Samaritans hard opposition and lack of recognition of who He is.
    See, Luke is helping his readers understand that opposition is the norm, it is normal when the Spirit of God breaks the boundaries of expectations and predictable ways of relating to people. At each turn of this story, Luke is providing these second-generation Gentile Christians with a radically different way of thinking from which to reframe their imagination about the promises of God and their place in the movement of Jesus.

    Following this encounter with the Samaritan town, which is a foretaste of Jerusalem—it’s not just Samaritans who don’t get it and resist—Jesus talks to the disciples about the cost of discipleship (vv. 57–62). There are going to be lots of people who want to follow the Jesus movement as long as it fits in with their expectations of how things should turn out. …. But when the directions Jesus takes, deviate from peoples “expectations” of what God is doing in the world, resistance is prompt and fierce. Luke does not hold back in orienting these Christians as they look back over half a century of the church’s young life and wonder why it’s no longer working the way it did for the first generations. This is the setting in which he sets the story of the sending of the seventy. A setting not so different from where we find ourselves in 2014.

    At the conclusion of this story, immediately following their return from the towns and villages, Luke tells a very different story about Samaritans. This story, that of the Good Samaritan, asks questions about welcoming the stranger and who is my neighbor. Luke is pointing to and anticipating that, in regard to the new experience of the seventy, the Spirit of God is working even among the Gentiles; and for us, it means we have to be open to the strange new ways of God as boundaries are broken and expectations have to be reoriented.

    Luke writes these stories of the sending of the seventy and the Samaritan on the road to suggest that what God is doing in the world has a lot more to do with being the stranger and receiving hospitality than being in control of the resources and having all the answers. Here expectations are turned upside down as it turns out that the strangers who need to be welcomed are those being sent. What could this mean for those of us asking confusing questions about what God is up to in the world and what it means to be the church? We must and will unwrap the story further.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Strange New Ways of God Sending the Seventy—a Guide for Our Times

Luke 10:1-12

In Acts and then in his Gospel, Luke is writing a narrative about God’s actions in the world to fulfill hopes that had energized Israel and, then, the young Christian church. He is shaping an account of God’s redemptive purposes for the entire world in a way that shows the faithfulness of God. This is intended to invite Gentile communities facing a crisis of identity to trust the actions of God in the face of what appears to be a failure of expectation. Luke will show that the issue is not God’s faithfulness but the narrow ways in which the gospel had been understood. In Acts he does this by emphasizing the boundary-breaking actions of the Spirit in the midst of resistance and conflict from religious and civil authorities as well as from within the young Christian community.

The backdrop within which Luke writes, then, is one of conflict. From the birth accounts to Jesus’s struggles with the Jewish leadership to his arrest and crucifixion, this theme of struggle and conflict shapes Luke’s work. The young Christian community also struggles. Too quickly it is propelled into similar conflicts that run through Acts; in the final chapters the outcome is far from clear and nothing is wrapped up and tied with a neat bow. And so outside of Luke, Acts and the Epistles we know very little about the early Christian community and its ability to adapt to and follow the leadings of the Spirit. 

In both Luke and Acts the conflict continues and the uncertainty about the outcome is not removed, but through it all Luke’s story line shows that God is at work shaping a whole new world. Some of the conflicts internal to the young Christian community in Acts were born of expectations and assumptions of how and where God was going to work, especially the taken-for-granted conviction that the Jesus movement, as a completion of Judaism, was an essentially Jewish movement. In describing the work of the Holy Spirit as the boundary-breaking presence of God who will not permit these Christians to define, settle, and manage the little boxes into which they placed the movement of Jesus, Luke is inviting his Gentile audience to embrace an alternative narrative of thought and imagination to the one they had been given in terms of their hopes.

I want to suggest this same pattern of events is at work among American Christians today, and the Spirit has continued to be boundary-breaking. The churches formed from the European religious reformations of the sixteenth century established forms of church practice and theologies that have been assumed foundational not just for European–North American cultures in a specific time but for all cultures in all times and places.

This sense that the important questions about the church and its relationships with the cultures have all been addressed in the reformations of that period created a situation that assumed the importance of “the church” to the point that, all else, (the gospel and our cultures even people, for example) are about the development of tactics to adjust and engage changing circumstances. This is the thought and imagination in which churches continue to live.

We will be looking at Luke-Acts as a means of assessing how we might find fresh ways to understand our own situation. We can understand our own time as one in which the Spirit of God is breaking the boundaries within which the Christian movement has operated in the Western context. Not only is this boundary-breaking about a preoccupation with the church as the central idea we have to get right (the so-called “essence” or “form” of the church issue), but it is also about the tradition of theologizing that came out of the sixteenth-century reformations in Europe. In a rapidly globalizing West, now characterized by new and massive people movements from many other parts of the world, this “Reformation” boundary may also be one the Spirit is breaking.

In Acts, Luke is reorienting the hope and expectation of Gentile believers. In the midst of confusion and a crisis of identity, it is possible to read the circumstances in a very different manner. The established thought for understanding their hope in terms of Jerusalem, temple, Jewishness, and the empire’s embrace was too small a box in which to place the radical announcement of good news in Jesus and the birth of the Jesus community. The good news is that God is doing something far bigger and more imaginative than can be placed in these small, narrow categories. The crisis of identity is not a crisis concerning God’s purposes but comes as a result of the narrow ways in which early Christians experienced and structured God’s purposes after Pentecost. Luke is inviting his Gentile readers into a different way of thinking. While it opens up a new space for hope and a radically new context for theologizing and practicing the gospel in towns and villages, it also raised a whole new set of questions.

Raising New Questions

Within the old understanding of expectation, certain questions could be easily answered in terms of the Jerusalem/temple/empire narratives. But in this different economy of God’s actions that the Spirit has burst open for the first-century Christians, how does one know what God is doing in the world? How does one decide what it means to be the church in this new way of thinking—where the old explanations of how things work no longer cohere? These were questions that needed answers if the Gentile churches were to address their crisis of identity. They are also the questions we have to answer in our day.

If it is the case that God’s Spirit is breaking the boundaries of church life in the Western churches because they can no longer contain the ways in which the Spirit is at work in the world, then these non-church questions of what God is doing must be addressed. If the church-centeredness of our conversations is now, in fact, a barrier and boundary the Spirit is in the process of breaking apart, then it is urgent that we answer these other questions.

The boundary-breaking Spirit is making it clear to a growing number of people that church-centeredness has little future. The hope in this difficult discovery is that there are also new, strange questions we haven’t needed to think about before. When the church lay at the center of the conversation, it was relatively simple to name what God was up to, and we had endless books that defined and described what it meant to be the church. In this new space, where the church is not the central focus or question, how do we go about addressing these new questions? How will we know what God is doing when the answers can’t be taken for granted? How do we know what it means to be the church when the church is no longer the central preoccupation?

My next several sermons will propose that we can discover answers to these questions in Luke’s Gospel. Rather than engage the whole Gospel, we will initially focus on Luke 10:1–12. The proposal is that in these sermons we can discern a way in which Luke continued to frame a response to Gentile Christians faced with their own crisis of identity, and it can, therefore, offer us a way of understanding how to be faithful to the gospel in our time.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Lighting Up the Darkness; Becoming a City on a Hill

Cultivating Missional Living
Lighting Up the Darkness; Becoming a City on a Hill
Matthew 5:14-16

Lighting Up The Darkness

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

It takes a community to reach a community. Communities of faith, sustained by a collective vision for reaching their culture, are a vital means to the Gospel going into the entire world. As we have, I pray, learned in previous sermons, God doesn’t have a mission for His church. He has a church for His mission. Hear me, our relationship with each other is the measure the world uses to judge whether our message is true….Christian community is the ultimate defense. So, the best proof of the Gospel of the kingdom of God, is a people who are living out that Gospel.

The first Christians embraced their new birth from the perspective of being born into a new family. Jesus interlaced the idea of family into His crafting of the early community of Christ followers. In fact on one occasion things were getting somewhat dicey for Him, Jesus’ mother and brothers came to intervene and bring Him home. When they arrived outside the house He was in, someone told Jesus they were calling for Him. In response he pointed to His disciples and said “Here are my mother and my brothers.” Matt. 12:47-49. …Early Christians understood they had passed from death to life, from the kingdom of darkness to the Kingdom of God’s dear Son, and that…they were not bringing their old life into His. That life was dead. They were not bringing their old sense of cultural entitlement into this new life. Those rights had passed away. This was a new society, a new culture, and a new community. To be in this new family meant you were no longer an individual but a member.

These believers did not have to think up ways to attract people to join them, the faithful community of believers was attractive enough.

In the New Testament, repentance means renouncing our old self-centered life and adopting the new lifestyle of love (Agape) demonstrated by Jesus. This same community, which exists, by grace through faith, is also the community of witness….it has the character of a movement always remaining in and for the world. Jesus described it as “a city set on a hill,” whose light beckons and guides the weary and lost traveler to the security and fellowship of a civilized society. In this city there was safety from the bandits who took advantage of the darkness to rob and kill. In a friendly city foreigners could find protection and hospitality. So, Jesus used the city as a symbol of the saving community, whose light shines in the gathering darkness, inviting the traveler to find salvation.

God created the family to care for one another. A functional family will not allow suffering to take place without breaking out all means to relieve and heal it. But today, most of our families, including our spiritual families are dysfunctional. In the weeks and years to come, we are going to see in the book of Acts, Christians who were ‘one another’ people, they called each other brother and sister because they considered one another to be family. The early Christians’ love for one another was a huge part of the collective light that was emitted throughout their cities and neighborhoods, causing Christianity to flourish.

Missional Habits
Getting into a rhythm is extremely important for missional communities. Committing to a common set of habits is one of the best ways to get started and to persist in mission. It is a way for each member to live out the apostolic commandment in Heb. 10:24 to “to stir up one another to love and good works”

As we read already in the most famous sermon ever preached, The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told His followers:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

Back in the second sermon in this series I used an acrostic for the word Bless, to help us bless people in our community. Today I want to close this first half of this series with another. An acrostic for the word light, to help you develop a set of habits and practices for our community.

L-isten to the Holy Spirit
Commit to at least one hour per week of listening and prompting of the Holy Spirit. Some may choose to take a prayer walk or carve out a time of solitude and listening to God for an hour once a week. Others may break up the hour into daily segments of maybe ten minutes per day. The point is to have a specific time of just listening in silence, not speaking or asking for anything just letting the Lord speak to you. (We will certainly talk more about this as we break down Luke 10:1-12 the next few weeks.)

I-nvite others to share a meal.
Share meals each week with others. Think both in terms of people who are part of our faith community and who are not yet. Don’t just spend this valuable time with people you know to already be followers of Christ. The idea is that around the table, good things happen.

G-ive a blessing.
Seek to do several acts of blessing a week. Again this can be within our community of faith, but make an emphasis to bless those outside our community. This might be a gift, a card, a help in some way. The idea is to be a blessing.

H-ear from the Gospel.
Commit to read from the Gospels every week in order to specifically learn more about Jesus, His ways, and His means. The Gospels are always included in the weekly routine in order to constantly stay Jesus’ focused and Jesus centered. It is vital to read from other books of the Bible as part of our spiritual formation while including Gospel reading as part of our regular habits.

T-ake inventory of the day
Why, because when we do, it is a consistent reminder that we are God’s sent people. As a community we want to stay mindful of opportunities to engage in mission on our day to day journey. To do this, maybe keep a journal of how you worked with Jesus during the day. Ask yourself how you responded to his promptings. Reflect on whether there were any missed opportunities or instances when you resisted Jesus during the day.

The Lord is the Creator and He lives in each of us. So, there is no lack of creativity in any of us. We should actually ooze with imagination and ideas for missional living as believers and the community of faith. A sanctified imagination is a powerful missional tool because the fundamental job of the imagination in life is to produce out of the society we have to live in a vision of the society we want to live in. If…we can just keep ourselves awake to the fact that we are God’s good news people, life takes on renewed significance every single day. Much of what we call mundane and routine can spark to life if we will allow our imaginations to come alive in a missional orientation.