The Great Commission – Rev'd Canon Patrick Woodhouse

It’s a pleasure to be here in this wonderful chapel of yours.

On this Sunday evening the lectionary invites us to reflect on what must be, I suppose, one of the most influential and yet, for the thinking Christian, difficult of New Testament texts – ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’, a text that is sometimes known as ‘The Great Commission’.

More than any other this text has, down the centuries, defined Christianity as a missionary religion. It has been heard as a stirring command from Christ himself, and so has helped to foster in the church a crusading missionary spirit which led, in the nineteenth century, to the foundation of the missionary societies which took the Gospel to “heathen lands afar”. This crusading missionary endeavour led without doubt to some great achievements in terms of bringing aspects of Christian care to foreign countries (one thinks of medical care in south India); but also this missionary spirit has led to enormous conflict with other societies and other religions, and untold cultural damage.

Recently we have become only too painfully aware of the dark legacy of that crusading spirit, and, now, arguably, we are suffering something of the blowback … particularly in the Middle East.

‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’ Two imperative verbs in a text that creates huge difficulties for the thinking Christian. But it would seem that we cannot avoid it. There it is right at the end of Matthew’s Gospel – the foundation of the church’s missionary life. And yet we know that this text, and the attitudes of moral and religious superiority that have grown from it, have spawned terrible violence and aggression.

The Great Commission … the inescapable call from Christ himself to evangelise the world … … or is it? That is what I would like briefly to consider with you.

I want to suggest that there has been profound misunderstanding of this text – caused largely by the way it has been mistranslated and consequently misunderstood. And I believe we simply have to unlearn it as we have received it. And that should be no surprise. With faith we need constantly to be both learning and unlearning. Learning and searching for deeper meanings, and unlearning the damaging distortion of meanings that we have received. And if we do this we may find that the original meaning of this text can be recovered, so that instead of it being used to promote our faith and cause over against their faith and cause – whoever ‘they’ may be … Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists – it will point to a set of values and a way of being human that offers hope to all, whatever religion they may or may not belong to.

So let’s read and reflect again on these last words from Matthew’s Gospel searching for a more precise grasp of his hints, his clues and his language – so that we may arrive at a truer meaning.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. … 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 ….

The first thing to notice is the reference to place. I am married to a geographer, and I have learnt that where things happen is as important as what happens – that place really matters. Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. Here is the first big clue. The final meeting with Jesus and his disciples happens, he tells us, in Galilee, on a mountain. Galilee …? A mountain in Galilee …? Where have we heard that before? Where, Matthew wants us to ask, was there another meeting in Galilee, on a mountain? And what was said there …?.

By this allusion to place, Matthew is reminding us, as he approaches the end of his great work, of what lies at the heart of it – what its central message has been. He is reminding us of that great section which begins at chapter 5 and is called ‘the sermon on the mountain’. It is a sermon which begins with the teaching which is the clearest expression in the whole Gospel tradition of the way of Jesus Christ – the Beatitudes.

There in Galilee, on a mountain, Jesus of Nazareth taught the upside down values and virtues of the non-violent Kingdom of God. On that mountain he said that at the heart of the way of the Kingdom is not power and strength and certainty of conviction (those things which powered the missionaries), but … (remember the beatitudes?) … poverty of spirit, the capacity to mourn, a gentle mind, a pure heart, a merciful spirit, a deep hunger and thirst for justice, the courage to make peace. These are the values and virtues of his Kingdom, of his way of being human. So, by placing this last scene again on a mountain in Galilee Matthew is reminding us of them again, as he gives us the last words of the Risen One.

Then, having set the scene, Jesus comes to them and speaks. But before what we have come to call ‘the great commission’ Matthew puts in a preface – a preface which seems to underline the idea of great power and might lying behind the commission that is to follow: ‘all authority … Jesus says … in heaven and on earth has been given to me … go therefore …’

All authority in heaven and on earth has been committed to me. Here is the first big misunderstanding. Down the centuries we have understood authority almost entirely through the notion of power – power enforced if necessary by force. All authority in heaven and on earth has been committed to me. Notoriously in the crusades the Gospel was taken to Muslim lands with the cross in one hand and the sword in the other. Nearer to our own times, through the nineteenth century Missionary Societies, the Gospel was spread across the world hand in hand with all the political economic and military might of the world’s greatest colonial power.

That is how we have understood and still understand ‘authority’. But it is not how the Gospel of Matthew understands it. The Greek word ‘exousia’, translated ‘authority’ is in the Gospel not so much to do with power as truth; not so much to do with might, as authenticity. Matthew ends the sermon on the mount with the comment, …the crowds were astounded at his teaching for he taught as one having authority, and not as their scribes. He means he taught them with authenticity …with a kind of vivid reality which they had not known before and which went to the heart of them. He taught the truth.

So in Matthew’s mind – ‘authority’ is entirely de-coupled from notions of power and might. In this preface he is saying, that here, about to speak his last words to us, is, the Authentic One, to whom truth has been given.

And what does this Authentic One say? Does he say: ‘go and make disciples’? No. He does not say that. The Greek word normally translated as ‘go’ … as a commanding imperative, is a mistranslation. The verb is not an imperative at all, but a present participle – ‘poreuthentes’, literally it means … ‘as you are going along’, or ‘as you are passing from one place to another’ … that is to say: in the ordinary course of your daily life as you are going along …

… ‘make’ disciples??

Again, no. The verb ‘to make’, which has overtones of force and has so often been understood in terms of force – either physical force, or psychological force – is not there. But rather in the Greek, what is there is the word for a disciple now turned into a verb – and yes, an imperative … so the literal meaning is: ‘as you are going along, or as you are passing from one place to another, disciple all peoples’ .

The meaning is ‘lead all peoples – not just Jews – but all peoples into the following of, the discipling, the discipline of these virtues that were at the heart of my teaching: trust and poverty of spirit, humility and the capacity to mourn, gentleness of mind, purity of heart, courage in peace-making, the pursuit of justice, love of mercy … lead all peoples into this new way of being human … shape the lives of non-Jews also in these pathways of peace, these life-patterns of simplicity, these virtues of trust that I spelt out to you then – … and do it …simply … ‘as you are going along’ … as natural opportunities arise ….

So you see, accurately translated, the meaning is quite different. There is no hint at all of coercion here. And no great ‘command’. We are not told ‘to go’… not commanded ‘to make disciples’ in the sense that the church has so often preached. He simply says, ‘as you are going along seeking day by day to live the Kingdom way like lights shining in the dark … be yeast in the dough of the world … lead all peoples into a process of spiritual formation, in which their lives are shaped into my radical way of vulnerable trust, of mutual love, of peace-making, of the pursuit of justice, of gentleness, of humility, of purity of heart … and as they see the attractiveness of this way, many of them will want to be immersed in the God you reveal who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit …’

The key to chapter Matthew Chapter 28, is Matthew chapters 5 to 7 – his great passage in which the ancient law is re-interpreted for the new messianic age in which all humans of all races and all faiths are now through this Christ invited to belong.

As we read this passage again as Matthew meant us to read it, we are challenged to the very depths. Do we live this new way of being human? Do we walk his way of vulnerability and trust, gentleness, humility, truth and purity of heart, pursuing justice …? Do you? Do I? It is the way that will enchant and unite the world.

Lord have mercy upon us.

Rev’d Canon Patrick Woodhouse, Precentor of Wells Cathedral
3rd June 2007

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