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Witnessing to God’s Reign

Two and a half years ago, my congregation in Hollywood, California, embarked on a journey guided by a question: “What would it mean for our church to have a genuine missionary encounter with our neighbors?” This question itself suggests a whole load of other questions. What is meant by “missionary”? So much of Christian history is the record of colonialism passing as “missions.” What would mark the genuineness of our encounter? Who are our neighbors? What is the “good news” that God wants to share with us in this time and this place?

Rather than falling back on assumptions and accepted cultural norms, we decided to do something revolutionary: listen to Scripture. We began doing something we call “dwelling in Scripture.” It is very much like the traditional Christian practice known as lectio divina, designed to help us think deeply about the text in question, get past our knee-jerk assumptions, and hear a “word from the Lord” for our present circumstances. We chose as our guiding text Luke 10:1–12, similar in many regards to Matthew 10, which was the key text for last week’s Adult Bible Study Guide. We have now spent nearly three years with this text, ruminating on it in a wide variety of contexts with a vast array of different people, from very diverse walks of life. One question is beckoning us. “How is God sending us, as he sent the twelve apostles of old (or the seventy/seventy-two in Luke 10), to be witnesses to his kingdom?” What can we learn from this text about our “sentness”?

Three years of learning is too much for a short piece like this, but in broad strokes here are some key discoveries we’ve made along the way, which derive directly from our time spent in this text.

First, and perhaps most importantly, we have a lot to learn about being God’s witnesses in our context. I and my fellow “Westerners” have assumed that we know what it means to be Christian in our modern, and now increasingly postmodern world. When we think about “foreign missions” we know we need to grapple with issues like contextualization and language. In the United States, we still assume that the culture is basically Christian and can be simply reminded about their latent commitments. We also have tended to operate as though telling is the best way to witness to God’s reign. This is also a heritage of our modern upbringing in which reductionism was the order of the day. Take something complicated and mysterious, reduce it to a propositional statement, and tell it to someone else. So we have a lot to learn, like any good missionary.

We have also learned of our need to be continually converted to the gospel. Little by little, the gospel that Jesus gave the disciples to share, recorded in Matthew 10, has been replaced by a disembodied, abstract gospel about going to heaven after you die. But notice in Matthew 10 that Jesus doesn’t commission the disciples with anything like a gospel of “going to heaven.” He says, “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matt. 10:7). If anything, this is a gospel about heaven coming to earth, not us going to heaven. It’s obvious, too, that this gospel is more about demonstration than presentation. Jesus does tell them to “proclaim” the good news. But how? “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (Matt. 10:8). We have discovered that to be God’s witnesses we need to be re-converted to the gospel of the “at-hand” kingdom of God.

Thirdly, we have learned that conversation is key to a genuine missionary encounter with our neighbors. This differs radically from a crusade of conversion. Notice that in this missionary instruction, Jesus tells his disciples to enter a house and exchange peace with the inhabitants of that house. In Luke 10, Jesus instructs the Seventy to eat what is given them, implying that the missionaries are engaged in the household economy and the ordinary life of the community. This deep engagement is the calling of the missionary.

Challenges to Being Missionaries in Late Modernity

So we presently face some serious challenges in light of these texts. I am convinced that what passes for evangelism in the church today is nothing more than pragmatism, expediency, and good old-fashioned laziness. This work that Jesus gives his followers to do is a life work. It is deep engagement with people, neighborhoods, and culture. Space prohibits a full explication of these challenges but here are a few to think about this week.

Forget the gadgets and gimmicks. Both Matthew 10 and Luke 10 instruct the would-be missionaries to leave their resources behind. “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.” (Matt. 10:9–10).

As our community has spent serious time with this instruction it has become clear to us that Jesus is sending his disciples out vulnerably. They are not in control of these relationships. They go empty-handed to the towns and villages where Jesus sends them and depend upon the hospitality of the people to whom they are sent. We have also understood God sending us without our usual “bag of tricks.” We have playfully translated this text, “take no gold or silver, no tracts or Bible study guides, no power point presentations and carefully crafted answers to frequently asked questions.” This is part of the genuineness of the encounter. We enter into relationships with people as equals. We are not better than them. We have no privileged access to the divine. Indeed, they have many answers for questions we haven’t thought to ask yet. This is a grave risk for many Christians and churches. But Jesus also addresses the issue of risk.

Lambs in the midst of wolves. In both Matthew 10 and Luke 10, Jesus warns his missionaries that they are being sent out into dangerous territory. “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).

What kind of shepherd does this? Isn’t this the opposite of what a “good shepherd” should do? Yet here is Jesus intentionally sending his sheep into packs of wolves. This should get our attention and cause us to ponder long and hard.

In our modern obsession with safety and security, we have somehow gotten the mistaken notion that God cares about our safety. I once heard Leonard Sweet put a very helpful twist on the old, “in the world but not of it” teaching that Jesus relates in his famous prayer in John 17. He said, substitute the word water for the word world and we might get a better idea what Jesus was doing and saying. As air-breathing mammals, we frequently like to be “in the water,” but we should never “of the water.” To be “of the water” is to drown in the water. But, he said, if you get in the water, you will get wet. Just so, if we get in the world, we’re going to get the world on us.

As Jesus sent his missionaries out in the towns and villages, there were risks facing them. Serious risks. But Jesus sent them anyway. The risks inherent in modern mission should not deter us from going, as Jesus instructs, but should rather drive us to a closer relationship with the shepherd.

Stay put! This is more explicit in Luke 10 than Matthew 10. “Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house “(Luke 10:7).

I remember as a young person reading this text in outreach training seminars and being told to go door-to-door, two-by-two. What I finally noticed in the last five years is that this text teaches precisely the opposite practice. “Do not move about from house to house.” What can this mean?

At the very least, it is a gospel challenge to our increasingly mobile culture where place has lost all meaning, people are like wandering, rootless nomads and we all live in subdivisions that could be “anywhere.” Jesus’ instruction, while not a mystery to those who have spent time in “overseas mission,” is to stay put. Invest your life in a neighborhood, a community, a place. Understand that place matters. People matter. Our mission is not to convey an abstract truth about the afterlife to just “whoever.” But to be the gospel to “these people” in “this place.” The ancient monastics referred to this as stability, something we’ve lost in our world today.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. These texts of Jesus sending missionaries are deep and fruitful for any community willing to spend time with them and suspend all their “right answers,” and listen. Here are some questions to guide your thinking.

  1. According to Matthew 10, what is the “good news” that you and your congregation are called to share with your neighbors?
  2. How is this text inviting you to do that?
  3. In what ways can you imagine your congregation being invited to enter your neighborhood vulnerably? What would it take leave your answers and techniques at home? What kind of conversion do you need to experience in order to make that possible?
  4. What kind of wolves did Jesus predict would confront the disciples? Are these the kinds of wolves you usually think of when you read this text? What kinds of wolves face you in your work?

Ryan Bell pastors the Hollywood, California, Seventh-day Adventist Church.

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