“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16–20 NRSV)
The Great Commission
This text is known to many who grew up in the church as the “Great Commission.” So let’s think for a moment about what a commission is in this context?
- an instruction, command, or duty given to a person or group of people
- a group of people officially charged with a particular function
Maybe that’s what Jesus is up to here, give a command and laying out the duty of every single person who wishes to be his disciple.
But unlike Matthew 22:34-40, where Jesus argues that Love of God and Neighbor are the most important and essential commandments, he doesn’t use the word “commission” anywhere in this passage.
The name “great commission” is something Christians added to it later to describe this as a great sending out into the world.
But one of the issues with seeing this as a commission is that if this is our great duty as Christians, these are the orders given from our commanding officer (go, make, baptize, educate), then my guess is that all of us, myself included, we haven’t done real well at following these orders.
Was Jesus laying the ground work for an epic guilt trip here in Matthew 28? Aren’t we afraid that someone is going to ask us, “Why haven’t you been making disciples anyways?”
What Does it Mean to “Make Disciples” Anyways?
One way is through conquest. Conquest is the use of whatever means possible to make people into disciples. The worst of which was all those really bad years of the crusades, when Christians thought that to make disciples one be baptized with a sword at their throat.
Luckily most church folks don’t do that kind of evangelism anymore, but there’s still plenty of really bad behavior going on in the name of “making disciples.”
Today this kind of evangelism often comes in the form of a bullhorn. Whether it is emotional manipulation, an angry bumper stickers on a car, disgruntled and damning quotes and photos on Facebook, talk about “those people” and “their agendas” and “just wait till judgement” as a method by which Christians hope to “make disciples” we’re talking about this method of conquest.
A second way we have witnessed the church try and interpret this passage is through what was known as the “church growth movement,” and what I call the walmartization of church. The church growth movement adopts capitalist economic theory and applies it to the church. Unending quantifiable growth is the goal. Ignoring of course, the fact that Jesus’ world had no knowledge of capitalism and never mind the fact that Jesus’ often denounced the tactics of the rich.
The walmartization of the church operates under the assumption that people are consumers and the church has a spiritual product to sell. If we can advertise good enough, if we can market our product well-enough, if we can treat people like good consumers and give them what they want, then we can build a department store of spirituality.
In fact, the worship spaces begin to either look exactly like department stores, or they begin buying old stores and turning them in to church buildings.
Now is this what Jesus had in mind when he said these few words at the end of Matthew? Was Jesus revving up the crowds for conquest? Or was he trying to get all business savvy with the latest economic theory?
Both of these models ignore completely the other 28 1/2 chapters of the Gospel.
Building A Compelling Community of Love
Parker Palmer gets much much closer to what I think is behind not only these last few verses of Matthew 28, but the entire life, death and resurrection of Jesus:
The mission of the church is not to enlarge its membership, not to bring outsiders to accept its terms, but simply to love the world in every possible way – to love the world as God did and does.
People don’t need manipulation or a sword at their throats to come to witness God at work in their lives. People don’t need a spiritual grocery store, or to be whittled down into numbers.
Instead, as Friends, we believe that we don’t bring God to people, God is already at work loving and drawing all people into awareness of Him. Our role as Friends then is to midwife that work, to offer unconditional love and support and walking alongside us people as they give birth to a life in Jesus.
Therefore, instead of these first two models (conquest or church growth), Jesus calls in Matthew 28 towards the building up on a compelling community of love.
A few years ago I read an article in the Oregonian about the new phenomena of secret bars in Portland. Secret bars are similar to Speakeasy during the prohibition, with the main difference being they’re not doing anything illegal. And just like the earlier speakeasies, these secret bars are often hidden from plain sight, they are down alleyways, in New York you have to go into a laundromat, pick up a phone in a telephone booth, the booth turns into a entryway into the pub.
Why go to all this trouble?
“Their owners disdain self-publicizing, preferring news of their existence to be passed by word-of-mouth.”
As one owner put it,
“I want to be sought-after, not advertised.” “I didn’t do any marketing,” he says. “There’s no signage. And I have the most arrogant belief that I built something good enough that people will just find it.”
I’ve thought a lot about this in reference to the church. I don’t want to be a part of a well-advertised, slick community. I have no interest in “evangelism tactics.”
I want to be a part of a compelling community. To live compellingly, I believe is a way of living your life so authentically, truthfully, lovingly that the community that develops from that generates curiosity and inspiration.
This kind of community isn’t worried about becoming the size of a department store, it’s more interested in being good at what it does.
This is what is behind the Quaker saying to “let your lives speak.”
When I first came to Camas Friends one of the things we talked about quite frequently was that we knew there were a lot of things we couldn’t do, given our size and make up, but we knew we felt like we can be the Quakers in Camas.
And that’s something we not only ought to be really good at, it is something we should talk about and be excited about.
If I hear anything resonant in Matthew 28 this morning what I hear is this invitation to being a compelling community. The question behind this text is: are we living in such a way that our lives are speaking to that which we have experienced in the risen Christ?
Jesus isn’t interested in us competing with every other church, and Jesus isn’t interested in what kind of building campaigns we can muster up, or how many services we can cram into a Sunday.
I believe Jesus is interested in Camas Friends being faithful to what Camas Friends are called to, no more and no less.
What are the things that are real for us, what are most authentic and life-giving forces among us? That’s what we want to lift up and nurture.
To let our lives speak is to learn how to grow into the Way taught to us by Jesus through things like the Sermon on the Mount.
To let your lives speak is really to become apprentices of this way of seeing and thinking.To learn what it means to live a life that listens and loves others, especially when it costs us something.
To let your lives speak, means to walk alongside the weak and the broken, to stand with those on the margins, and the build the fellowship of the disqualified, just as Jesus did.
To let your lives speak is to find yourselves already in the middle of being loved by God, and to begin living out that transformation. It also means that you will discover the same truth for enemies and neighbors alike.
To let your lives speak is to be more concerned about love than doctrine, and people more than law, and to never get those two things confused or the order switched.
To let your lives speak is a lot like a bucket full of seeds that has tipped over and the seeds have poured out onto the ground.
The bucket full of seeds is tipped over through the cross. Jesus’ body is broken open and the seeds poured out. And the seeds begin to spread and take flight in the resurrection.
Imagine with me birds of the air, picking up some of the dropped seed and planting it in other places. Rain water washing some of the seed down valleys, and drains, into other places where the roots begin to deepen. And when those roots deepen and begin to grow. This spreading of seed is already happening everywhere around us.
Each of you are one of those seeds. Spread throughout the world, being asked to grow, to survive the weeds, to thrive, and to spread further seed.
A little community here can tend to those seeds, build patience and hope for the life contained within those seeds, offer a space to listen, and to be a catalyst for the “motion of love” that God compels us too.
This is what I think it means to make disciples through love.
A great Commencement
So maybe it’s not so much a great commission as it is a great commencement.
Now, maybe it’s just that I’m thinking a lot about my own graduation in a month, but I like this framing. It is not a dogmatic command to conquest, it is not a sales pitch for Jesus, it is an invitation into seeing the world through the eyes of Resurrection Sunday.
A commencement is a new beginning. Not a starting over, but a taking with you what you have learned and carrying it out into every aspect of your lives. Letting all that came before bear witness on the present and the future.
For Christians, everything after the resurrection of Jesus is the first day of a new creation where the reality of Jesus’ presence and unconditional love for all people become the guiding force behind the burgeoning Jesus movement.
You have been given all you need not only to live faithfully, and grow in your own wholeness, to participate in a compelling community of love.
Like a bucket of seeds being poured out over the earth.