Chapter ll:The Call to Universal Mission (Matthew 28:16-20)

Returning God's Call: The Challenge of Christian Living
by John C. Purdy

Chapter ll:The Call to Universal Mission (Matthew 28:16-20)

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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."

—Matthew 28:16—20

All disciples of Jesus Christ are called by him to be involved in a universal mission. Both individual Christians and the various parts of Christ’s church stand under the Great Commission: "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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." As Eduard Schweizer correctly points out, the main verb in that sentence, to which all else is subordinate, is make. We who follow Jesus are commissioned to summon men and women of all races and lands to join us in his service. In order to accomplish that, we are to go, to baptize, and to teach. "It has taken [Matthew] a whole gospel to explain what being a disciple means . . . it means following Jesus by obeying his teaching, by accepting his fate of death and resurrection in one’s own life, and by proclaiming him as Son of Man, Lord of the universe" (Meier, p. 370).

If Jesus is indeed what he claimed for himself, the One to whom all authority in heaven and on earth belongs, then all are to be brought into submission to his sovereignty. "By his death-resurrection, Jesus has received from the Father. . . total power over the universe; this is what enables him to initiate a universal mission" (Meier, p. 369). It is this universal sovereignty of Jesus, risen from the dead and glorified, that dominates the final scene of Matthew’s Gospel. At his appearance some of the disciples fell on their knees in worship, while others were astounded and knew not what to do. But worshipers and doubters alike were charged: Make the sovereignty of Jesus effective over all creation. The earliest Christian confession was, Christ is Lord. The Great Commission is like unto it, Make Christ Lord. "The rule of Christ over the entire world is associated with universal discipleship" (Schweizer, p. 532).

That is not the reading of Matthew 28:16—20 that is familiar to most of us. We have been accustomed to a geographical rather than cosmological reading. It is the "go" in verse 19 that has been lifted up as the main verb in the sentence and as the central imperative in the commission. But while it is true enough that we are to "go into all the world" (Mark 16:15), going is just one dimension of the mandate. The aim or end is to "make disciples of all nations." The words that dominate the climactic scene in Matthew are cosmic rather than geographical: "All authority in heaven and on earth...all nations . . . all that I have commanded you" (emphasis added). Christ is the universal sovereign: All nations belong to him; all persons are his; all life is to be brought into subjection to him.

In the elect man, Jesus, not only all human beings but the whole creation has been elected to receive God’s favor and fulfill God’s will. And it is to be involved in this universal enterprise of God that we Christians are called.

A Drama in Three Acts

Christ summons us to complete the divine drama. For the Bible may be understood as a drama in three acts. In Act I, God sets out to restore the world to its original purpose. God calls Abraham and Sarah and promises to make them a numerous people and to establish them as a great nation, through whom all the peoples of the world will be blessed. At the end of Act I, the Hebrews are indeed numerous—but they are slaves in Egypt.

Act II sees the fulfillment of the promise to make of Abraham’s descendants, now called Israel, a great nation. The climactic scene in Act II is the making of the covenant at Mount Sinai, with the giving of the Law through Moses. Having been liberated in the exodus, Israel is now established as a nation with God’s Law. And with the Davidic kingship, Israel takes her place as one of the notable nations of the world.

Act III sees the blessing of all nations through Israel’s Anointed One (Messiah). This blessing is set in motion through the enthronement of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross. Through his resurrection he is declared Savior and Sovereign. And in Matthew 28:16—20 the risen and exalted Jesus appears, like Moses, on a mountain, and he sends his Law (teaching) into all the world through the agency of the eleven, who represent the tribes of Israel.

In this divine drama all Christians are called to participate; each has a part to play. Each, by virtue of his or her baptism into Christ, is an actor. None is excluded; all are included. It belongs to the very nature of the Christian life to be part of the universal mission. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations .... teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" applies just as much to each of us as does Jesus’ injunction to "love your enemies" or "when you pray, go into your room and shut the door."

The biblical witness is plain: From the call of Abraham to the call of Saul of Tarsus, God was choosing a special people as a divine mission to the whole world. None was chosen for his or her sake alone. The seeking, searching love of God is for all humankind, not just for those who know God’s name, God’s will, and God’s purpose. The God of the biblical drama is a God of intention as well as love, a people is chosen to be God’s own, both out of love and with a divine purpose. The love and purpose are not to be separated.

And what is true of God is true of the church: It is both the object of God’s love and the agent of God’s purpose. As has been truly said, mission is to the church as fire is to burning. Deny the church its universal mission, and you take from it what is essential to its nature. A church without mission is as unthinkable as God without purpose. The Great Commission is rooted in that purpose; that is its source and its legitimacy.

Say the word "mission," and to some it brings to mind the missionary going to convert the heathen and save souls. This implied imperialism grates on the sensibilities of many Christians. But there is a legitimate imperialism given the church that has little to do with universal truth or with who or who does not get into heaven. Christ said to the disciples, who represent the church, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (emphasis added). The mandate is to go with every sense of having been fully commanded by God, allowing no place or persons to be excluded, and making plain the whole of Christ’s teachings. The mission of the church is universal—worldwide, world-embracing, world-encompassing—whether or not we can prove that Christianity is universally true or superior to every other religion.

Given the history of wars of religion, it is vital that we resolutely deny to ourselves the notion that we engage in mission because we have the truth or that what we have is superior to what others know and believe. The energy of mission comes from obedience to Christ’s call and from our willingness to be the agents of God’s purpose to have mercy on all; it does not issue from our intention to do something good for God!

The difference between those two motivations is enormous. Where the later view has prevailed— the view that we have a superior truth to offer— there have been wars of religion, enmities between Christian and Jew, the denial in Christ’s name of human and civil rights, the burning of heretics, and worse! But where the motivations have been a devotion to Christ and a sharing of his love for all kinds of persons, the story has been quite different.

If despite our sorry history of bigotry and intolerance we are to hold to a worldwide missionary calling of the church, we need to be clear always about the context of that call. It comes to us in a world that has seen a so-called "Christian nation," Germany, set out resolutely to destroy its Jewish citizens. It comes to us in a world where Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland are at each other’s throats. It comes to us in a world where religion marks the division among peoples and defines them as enemies: Jew from Muslim, Muslim from Christian, Hindu from Muslim, Christian from Hindu. All too often religion has been used to justify the existence of nation-states and to justify hostility between nations.

But despite all of that, the call is to be involved in universal mission. No people, no institutions, no territories, no spheres of influence are to be regarded as not standing under the authority that Christ claimed for himself.

What Shall We Do?

Of course it is one thing to say that all disciples are to be involved in the universal mission. But what, in practical, concrete terms, are we to do? There are four ways in which Christians have traditionally been involved in universal mission. They represent a minimal obedience to Christ’s call.

1. We can tell the story. Beginning with the activity of the eleven disciples, there has been a thin red line running throughout the history of the church. At times it has wavered, sometimes it has grown very faint, once in a while it has broadened like a great river, but it has never ceased. It is the continuing story of the missionary outreach of the church. And we have the responsibility to keep that story alive. The missionary journeys of Paul, recorded in the New Testament, form a first chapter. In what follows, each storyteller might call the roll in a different way. But it ought to include Augustine (England), Columba (Scotland), Carey and Scudder (India), Livingstone (Africa), Zwemer (Arabia), Marquette (America), Judson (Burma), Moffett and Underwood (Korea), Ricci (China), and Grenfell (Labrador). Each name calls to memory a story of courage, sacrifice, patience, devotion.

One should not suppose that the story ended in the nineteenth century; witness the remarkable events surrounding the captivity and release of missionary Ben Weir in 1984 and 1985. And the story is continually being told in fresh ways. In 1984, Yale historian Jonathan D. Spence published The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, an account of an early Jesuit missionary to China. Ricci was an Italian who went to China in the late sixteenth century in hopes of winning the cultured elite to Christianity and of finally gaining an audience with the Chinese emperor.

We need to keep the story of missionary heroism alive, just as the civil rights movement keeps alive the story of Martin Luther King, Jr., and American democracy keeps alive the story of Lincoln’s birth in a log cabin. Our children and grandchildren deserve that much from us.

2. We need to share the wealth. There is a financial dimension to the universal mission of the church. Through the heroism of our forebears, there are churches on every continent and in nearly every land. People in all nations have been baptized, and the church is teaching them the commandments of Christ. But churches are volunteer organizations, requiring financial support. Paul took up collections in his congregations for the relief of the church in Jerusalem. And it remains one of the requirements that those who have more than they need share with Christians and churches whom have less. It is within the reach of all of us to answer the call to mission with financial support. It may be the least we can do, but at least we can do that much!

Some years ago churchwomen established the Fellowship of the Least Coin. Women all over the world took an offering for mission and ministry; they each brought to their church the smallest coin in their currency. It was a powerful demonstration that everyone can do something, and when everyone’s contribution was brought together it added up to a considerable sum.

3.We can work to heal the divisions in the church. A universal mission has as its corollary a church universal, what some call the church catholic. Surely it is part of our call to do what is within our power and our reach to heal the divisions in the church. There cannot be one Sovereign and several churches. There can only be one church, one people of God. And whatever we can do to make that a reality, we are called to do.

We did not invent denominations; we only inhabit them. But we can avoid the sin of denominationalism, which is surely as heinous as the sin of racism or anti-Semitism. We didn’t invent race or culture; we are born Anglo-Saxon, African, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic. But we decry racism—race raised to an absolute, a rule of exclusion, a theory of superiority. So it is with denominations; we were born Presbyterians, Baptists, and Anglicans. But we do not need to make those divisions absolute, to exclude others, to assert superiority, to be imperialistic. Rather, as we seek to diminish racism, we can work to diminish denominationalism.

4. We can make friends across national boundaries. That may sound simplistic and unheroic. But it is something that a great many Christian people have done with surprising results. All of us have the capacity for friendship. And to many of us the opportunity is given to establish friendships across national lines. Communities have students from other countries going to schools and colleges. Many high schools are involved in student exchange programs. Americans travel abroad in increasing numbers; the number of tourists coming to America from other nations increases yearly.

Most of us have opportunities to make at least one friend from another country.

Salt and Light

These ways of being involved in universal mission are not particularly dramatic. On the face of it, they do not sound terribly effective. Not if one conceives of universal mission in metaphors drawn from military conquest, colonization, and business. But the history of missions ought to warn us away from military, colonial, and commercial metaphors. Such metaphors are not to be trusted.

Military metaphors, enshrined in hymns such as "Onward, Christian Soldiers," imply that the nations are to be subdued, conquered, defeated. But Christ did not command the eleven to go forth to conquer the world, but to baptize and teach.

The colonial metaphor, with its suggestion of occupation, plantations, and the eventual transformation of other cultures, also needs to be given up. In the southwestern United States in the centuries after the Spanish came, it was the practice of the church to send European priests to the Indian pueblos. The priests often acted like colonial governors. In Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather gives an unforgettable portrait of this colonial style of mission work. But Jesus did not say, Go and colonize in my name. He said, "Go and make disciples.... . baptize... . . teach what I have commanded you."

We also need to surrender the commercial metaphor, as though all the people in the world constituted a vast religious market, potential consumers of Christianity waiting for the right salesmen and saleswomen to arrive and convince them to buy the product. In the marketing metaphor, churches and church outposts then become like branch stores or branch banks, where everything gets quantified. And the successful mission is one that can point with pride to its many outlets and its host of customers. But Jesus did not say, Go into the world and sell Christianity to all nations. He said, "Go and make disciples.... . baptize...teach."

We shouldn’t be surprised at the ease with which we have adopted the military, the colonial, and the commercial metaphors for conceiving of the universal mission. Jesus did say, after all, "Make disciples of all nations" (emphasis added). As members of a nation-state we are accustomed to think of dealing with citizens of other nation-states in military, colonial, and commercial metaphors. It is a natural way of thinking. But it is not the biblical way of thinking of mission. So we are led to look for other metaphors.

Jesus gave us two figures of speech for mission, each of which is more compatible with telling the story, sharing the wealth, healing divisions, and making friends. He said to his disciples, "You are the salt of the earth. ..... You are the light of the world" (Matt. 5:13—14). His disciples are to be a visible presence in the world, which in some way seasons and preserves that world. Salt and light are not military, not colonial, not commercial metaphors. Nor are they very romantic or heroic. But they arise out of Christ’s command.

The metaphors of salt and light suggest that one can obey the Great Commission in quite ordinary, everyday ways. Both salt and light are domestic images: a pinch of salt to season and flavor food, a candle put on a stand. They imply a vital, essential role for the home-loving, everyday, garden-variety Christian. Not everyone is to go as a missionary to China; not every Christian has the skills or stamina to salvage the human wrecks in our major cities. But each of us can be salt and light. That is what we are when we tell the story, share the wealth, heal the divisions, and make friends.

Salt and light apply both to the church scattered and the church gathered. The congregation gathered for worship in its building on Fourth and Main is a light to the world; its members working in schools, homes, shops, hospitals, and offices are the church scattered in the world like salt. All we need to do is be willing to make a difference wherever we are in this needy world.

A word of caution: The phrase "needy world" is apt to lead us away from the essential meanings of salt and light. If you ask the world what it wants, it will not reply, Give us salt, give us light. John says in the prologue to his Gospel that when the Light of the World came, the world hated him, because its deeds were evil. The world does not think it needs light to dispel its darkness, nor does it think it needs salt to season and save it from rot. The world thinks it needs money, power, comfort, therapy, law and order, pleasure, beauty. To be salt and light in the world may, at times, be as difficult as taking a sailing ship to China or preaching to headhunters or living in a rain forest.

In sum, we may not find much honor in being salt in the office or light in the community. People will resist the teachings of Christ, whether we speak them aloud or silently act them out. People will resist the implications of Baptism, that they are sinners in need of cleansing, prodigals in need of coming home to the Father. Nevertheless, to be the world's salt and light is our call. And that call carries with it a promise: "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." The One who calls is the One who is also present. In whatever form it comes, our call is an invitation to be with Christ. That is why it is irresistible.