An Alternative Vision of Christian Mission
There’s a story that comes at the end of Matthew’s gospel that has been central to the understanding of Christian mission in the world. It’s known colloquially as The Great Commission, the moment when the risen Christ meets his disciples on a mountain in Galilee (back where the whole movement began) and charges them with making disciples from all nations. Here’s the text:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (Matthew 28:16-20, CEB)
The truth is that these four verses have been the prooftext for many, if not most, of the atrocities perpetrated by Christians throughout the last two thousand years. Forced conversions, colonization, the Doctrine of Discovery, and what has now become the Christian Industrial Complex all have their roots in an understanding of this command of Jesus. The Christian Tradition has a body count, and it’s not just a problem of the past. Vast numbers of Christians to this day believe that their particular interpretation of the faith is the right and exclusive path to God. Those who refuse to accept, believe, and enter into their religion will be tortured by God for all eternity. Is that really what Jesus had in mind? Or, for that matter, Matthew? Let’s walk through these verses, explore the larger context of Matthew’s gospel, and see where we end up. What might be on the other side of a deconstructed Great Commission?
First, when they meet Jesus on the mountain (which has all sorts of significance for Matthew, as he seeks to cast Jesus as Moses 2.0) “they worshipped him, but some doubted.” Based on this translation, which is a pretty common approach to the text across many translations, it seems that among the eleven there were some who worshipped and some who doubted. The Greek doesn’t really indicate the idea of “some.” What it seems to imply is that among those present there was both faith and doubt. Like the father who asked Jesus to liberate his son from an oppressive spirit in Mark 9, faith and doubt coexist; they aren’t opposites or enemies. Yet even with that being the case, how many people have been shamed and excommunicated for asking honest questions? Doubt is not an act of unfaithfulness. It’s part of the human experience that, so often, is an integral part of a growing faith.
Next, Jesus talks about authority—that he has been granted all authority in heaven and on earth. This seems a bit odd on the surface. Why does the risen Christ show up and immediately talk about authority? There are two reasons, I think. First, that question has come up before. The religious leadership ask the question of Jesus, “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things? Who gave you this authority?” Jesus is offering teaching and prophetic action that challenged conventional wisdom. Who empowered him to do such a thing? Second, Jesus is about to call his disciples to a task that will be controversial, and someone might ask them, “Who gave you authority to do this?” The answer is the Jesus who has all authority.
Finally, Jesus charges his disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations. What did he have in mind with this command? Did he imagine all that has unfolded throughout Christian history?
If we go back to Matthew 10, we will find an interesting contradiction to this particular command of Jesus. In this context Jesus is sending the twelve out to proclaim the kingdom of God, and to invite people to enter into that kind of life.
Jesus sent these twelve out and commanded them, “Don’t go among the Gentiles or into a Samaritan city. Go instead to the lost sheep, the people of Israel. (Matthew 10:5-6, CEB)
This is a surprising difference, isn’t it? Jesus’s vision of his message is particular to Israel; Gentiles and Samaritans are excluded from the good news proclamation. What happened between Matthew 10 and 28 that widened the scope of Jesus’s mission?
Put simply, Jesus had an experience that changed his mind. He encountered a gentile woman (Matthew 15) whose faith was so compelling that he could not ignore her plea for help. He healed her daughter, and went on to heal and feed a large group of gentiles. I believe that experience was dramatically transformative for Jesus’s understanding of his work in Matthew.
In that context, what if the Great Commission isn’t a command to convert the world to Christianity…or else? After all, God isn’t a Christian. Neither was Jesus, or his first followers. Christianity as a separate religion from Judaism seems to have happened sometime in the 80s, 50 or so years after Jesus’s death. It seems anachronistic to say that Jesus is calling them to a conquest or colonization project for a new religion.
What if the call here, the real Great Commission, is for the inclusion of gentiles into the growing community of Jesus’s disciples? This idea is central to the case Matthew is making; Gentiles being welcomed and included is one of the core themes of his gospel. The tragic irony is that in its original context, the Great Commission calls us beyond the boundaries of insider/outsider, clean/unclean that we use to carve up the world, but in our practice of it, it has become a tool for exclusion. Instead of being a reminder that God’s love will always compel us toward inclusion and generosity, it has become a source of exclusivism and harm.
How might this reframed vision of the Great Commission inform our understanding and the future of Christian mission? What if we aren’t called to the task of converting everyone, but the task of including anyone and everyone who is drawn to this Jesus and his message? How does this reimagined interpretation land for you? Feel free to share in the comments, and share the post if you found it helpful!