People seem to need mandates, marching orders, clear commands that fuel their missions. No shades of gray; just tell me what I’m supposed to do!
Many Christians, both historically and today, point to the Great Commission as their decree for evangelizing others into their faith. The verses are found in Matthew, chapter 28:18-20, Jesus’s final post-resurrection words to his disciples in that Gospel.
“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.” (NRSV)
It’s the ultimate manifest destiny, given by a God/Man who claims all authority, emphasizing baptism and obedience to commands.
There’s just one problem. I, along with many scholars, don’t believe Jesus ever said these words. Do the research yourself, but even if you don’t go down that rabbit hole, consider this. Why would a first-century carpenter who taught in simple parables suddenly lapse into the exact Trinitarian formula used by the Roman Church as it co-opted the People of the Way?
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit? In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti?
Really? I don’t think so. This is a scribal interpolation, an addition to early manuscripts that justified the expansion of Christendom. And where did that lead? Surely to much beauty and goodness, but also to untold misery. Ask those who suffered the Inquisitor’s tortures. Ask indigenous peoples stripped of their dignity and lives. Witness the wholesale plunder of riches and land under the banner of a cross. Witness the unholy alliances between kings and pontiffs. Look at the flag-waving aberration called American Evangelicalism. I know…it’s a litany we’ve all heard. It is nonetheless true.
Clearly, this regrettable legacy lives on today. I recently took a trip to meet church leaders in two African countries, and I heard it repeatedly. Their reason for expanding their mission, their evangelical touchstone, is the Great Commission. I cringed, because I also heard its corollary: “WE have the truth, not other faiths, and WE have an eternal obligation to share the ONLY way.”
God in a box. Anthropomorphism running rampant. Religion trumping unity.
Personally, I adhere to a different commission. Not a mind-calcifying mandate, but a lodestar for living. It stems not only from the world-overturning teachings of Jesus, but other enlightened human beings. It includes these qualities but is always evolving.
- A desire to love what we call God/Presence/Creator, and to love others as I love myself.
- A striving for life in the Spirit rather than a grasping of material things.
- A compassion that empties itself in service.
- A forgiveness that defies logic.
- A heart that longs to hear—and eyes that long to see—the often forgotten, silenced peoples of this world.
- A vision of unity that transcends religion, race, and national identity.
Though I often stumble, I’m trying to live from this vision more fully every day. I believe it opens the portal to a place Jesus called the Kingdom of God, a new way of being human.
Grace and peace to you on your journeys, my friends!