So I am continuing to read Alan Roxburgh's Missional: Joining God in the Neighbourhood with a smile on my face and sense of anticipation in my spirit. It's not that I agree with everything he says but that he provides a way of thinking about the mission God calls us to that is rich and plausible and rooted in scripture in a way that so much missional thinking isn't.
He argues - as I've already noted - that we need to base our call to mission in texts other than Matthew 28. It's not that Matthew's account of the Great commission should be ditched, just that it should be heard alongside other texts that similarly call Jesus' followers to mission. Roxburgh chooses Luke 10 (the subject of my next post on the book and, coincidentally, the subject of next Sunday morning's sermon) and seeks to place Luke's writing in a plausible historical context to answer the question why he recounts this story of the mission of the 70 at all.
Following Bosch and Green, Roxburgh dates Luke to the second Christian generation, a time when the first wave of apostolic leaders have quit the scene. He also notes that Luke isn't just interested in recounting history; he is writing to help his first audience of small, scattered gentile churches see what God is up to in their world as well as the world of Jesus and the first apostles. Luke chose to tell his story in a way that would resonate with and offer help to his first hearers. He is also right to highlight the sense of disillusion some of these churches would be feeling. Many would have expected the second coming to have happened by now, instead of which, the power of Rome is growing and the claims of Caesar for quasi-religious allegiance ever stronger. With the first generation of eye witnesses now dead and gone, the small gentile communities of Jesus followers were asking questions about what God was really up to. I certainly agree with him on Rome, I'm not sure about expectations of the second coming being so strong in the late first century - but it's a minor quibble.
Roxburgh argues that Luke attempts to address these concerns by compiling a two-volume story that aims to locate his first hearers in a new narrative understanding of God's actions in the world. Luke shows that God took a Jewish renewal movement and grew it into a vehicle for bringing his reign to the whole world. Roxburgh uses this insight - commonly held among scholars - to question our western (he's writing for a North American audience) reliance on the Euro-centric Reformation reading of our faith. This is a vital insight. It comes at a time when New Testament scholars are questioning some of the Reformation's emphases in its reading of Paul and the nature of the gospel; in particular the intense, almost exclusive, focus on justification by faith being the be-all-and-end-all of it.
So Roxburgh retells the narrative of Acts as the story of how God breaks boundaries between peoples so that everyone can share in the good news of Jesus. He points out that this involved the conversion of the earliest Christians as they came face-to-face with the Spirit of God pushing them into mission among people they thought were not included in God's plans. This otherwise excellent chapter contains an uncharacteristic clanger referring to James, the Lord's brother, being killed in Acts 12 when it is James, the brother of John, who is executed by Herod (p111). But that doesn't in any way detract from the force of Roxburgh's argument.
Drawing a parallel between the situation of Luke's first hearers and we who live in a Reformation settlement, Roxbugh articulates the question many church leaders think, even if they don't ask out loud: what's gone wrong? How come when we are faithfully proclaiming the gospel that has come down to us from our European forefathers, is the church declining like there's no tomorrow? Roxburgh's answer is that nothing's gone wrong, the Spirit is breaking out the box in which we have confined him for countless generations and that is both scary and exhilarating.