No conversation about Christian mission can go far without addressing its most famous text. The Great Commission is Matthew’s rhetorical denouement to his Gospel: Go ye therefore.
This week’s lesson puts these verses center stage and invites continued conversation about the interpretation, history, and contemporary meaning of Matthew’s text and its relevance to contemporary conceptions of mission.
A note of caution is due, given the weight that this single gospel passage is often asked to carry in constructing a vision of mission. In fact, the interpretation of these verses may not be as straightforward as it is often treated. Interpretive debates focus on whether this message was added by a later redactor; whether the imperative was for just the apostles or for all believers everywhere; and the meaning of the central verb “make disciples,” which only appears four times in the New Testament (Matt 13:52, 27:57, 28:19, and Acts 14:12).
A close reading also troubles the claim that Matthew’s mission imperative sits easily within a neat set of parallel commissions in each of the four Gospels (Mark 16:15–20, Luke 24:45–49, John 20:21–23). Mark’s message is even more debated than Matthew’s—so much so that contemporary translations include a footnote reminding readers that the most reliable Greek manuscripts do not include it. That aside, the debated passage also focuses its commission on acts of miracle-working, like handling snakes. Luke’s Jesus tells his Emmaus friends to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit. John’s Jesus breathes the Spirit on his surprised disciples and commissions them to forgive and not forgive sins.
Textual questions like these don’t undermine the authority of Matthew’s passage or the value of mission, but they should trouble the claims that the meaning of this text is “obvious,” simple, and speaks for itself. Close readings can help to preserve the multiplicity, complexity, and expansiveness of mission, and comparing and contrasting the four gospel imperatives could make an interesting Sabbath School exercise.
Readers should also be cautious of interpreting this text as if Matthew’s world was just like ours. It is likely that Matthew’s gospel-receiving community could not have imagined the situation of power and dominion many Christians would find themselves in a mere two centuries later, much less two millennia. Matthew’s lofty language of authority and commission would likely have been heard as a subversive parody of the Roman Empire’s global designs. If Rome sought to go into all the world and bring a gospel of peace through military, economic, and political might, then Matthew counters with a crucified Jew, the true Son of God, who has been given all authority and power (Matt 28:18).
This gospel about life in the inbreaking kingdom of heaven, not empire’s, should be sent into all the world. The poor, the meek, the peacemakers, those who mourn—they are the ones among whom incarnated grace and blessing are to be found.
Much as I appreciate the desire to make mission clear and accessible, we simply cannot afford an uncritical, uncomplicated conversation about Christian mission. An unfortunate slip in the Teacher’s Comments shows why. Matthew’s verb “make disciples,” the lesson suggests, is “essentially a call to engage in mission and duplicate one’s self.” There is hardly a more succinct way to capture precisely the imperialist problem that has plagued otherwise well-meaning Christian mission for centuries—duplicate one’s self.
Much of Christian history has experimented with closer alignment between these two “gospels”—the mission of the empire and the mission of Jesus. The alignment reflects a slippage from Matthew’s declaration that all authority is granted to Christ (Matt 28:19) to a confidence that all authority has been granted to Christians. This history makes receiving Matthew’s visions for mission now anything but simple or obvious.
The continuation of this verbal slippage within the study guide grates against the quarterly’s deep desire for a conception of mission that is theologically rich and expansive. For example, the lesson states,
We learn from this that the mission is not ours. It belongs to the triune God. (Sunday)
By demonstrating a new way of living, multitudes were attracted to this new community of faith (Acts 2:46, 47). (Teacher Comments)
Mission is to the church what air is to our lives. (Wednesday)
Mission, the opening two weeks have insisted, is grounded in the very nature of God's trinitarian, self-emptying movement toward creation. Mission is centered in God's unquenchable desire to be with creation. Our view of mission stumbles, though, when we feel compelled to stuff this complexity into a narrow and lifeless strategic process by which one “duplicates” one's self—where efforts to enact and embody a reconciling community of belonging are seen as “confusing interruptions” and distractions.
Building on the quarterly’s theological better angel, I’m highlighting some constructive proposals from Methodist theologian Joerg Rieger. He suggests that we think about mission in our postcolonial context less as “outreach” and more as “in-reach.” Because those terms are often used to differentiate ministry to outsiders from ministry to members, some may think he’s advocating for a sort of cloistered navel-gazing. Rieger means something much more robust, though. He means that our movement outward and our movement inward are deeply interdependent. He wants to disrupt the notion that “we” are taking something—God, truth, charity, health—to “them.”
Instead, we are going—sent—because we are seeking an encounter with the God who dwells in surprising, hidden places. We go with our experiences of divine grace and gospel transformation in hand, to be sure. We have stories to tell. But we also go expecting that the Spirit has been at work elsewhere and hoping we might be graced by bearing witness to that work. We go seeking encounters that open up a Revelation of the principalities and powers that shape our postcolonial relationships. We go trusting that God’s mission just might be to convert us.
The following two quotes from Rieger’s chapter serve as starting points for further reflection and conversation on this week’s lesson:
As long as we are preoccupied with helping others—with all the temptations of trying to shape them in our own neocolonial image and make them conform to our world—we will not raise nosy questions about ourselves. As long as we continue to celebrate our own generosity, nothing can really challenge us. (543)
Mission begins not, as is often assumed, with the conversion of the other. Mission begins with the conversion of the missionary self—in light of God's own mission. Such a conversion includes repentance, a confession of what distorts God's mission, and a turning away from these things, particularly from our own attempts to form the other in our own mirror image (neocolonial authority) and to direct economic and other affairs to our own exclusive benefit (neocolonial power). (550)
In your learning and growing together, may you be graced with life-giving encounters with the God of mission in unexpected places.
Vaughn Nelson is Spectrum editor of Adult Sabbath School commentaries for this quarter. He can be reached at vaughn[at]spectrummagazine[dot]org.
Title image: Duccio di Buoninsegna, Maestà, Altarretabel des Sieneser Doms, Rückseite, Altarbekrönung mit Pfingstzyklus, Szene: Erscheinung Christi auf den Berg von Galilea (1308-1311), Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.
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