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.”
Talk about God’s authority over all things can make people uneasy. “Authority” sounds like it might be a threat to our freedom, as when, in the movie “The Truman Show,” the director of the reality show that is Truman’s life controls every circumstance in his world. He finally speaks to Truman from the fake clouds in the set’s fake sky: “In my world, you have nothing to fear. I know you better than you know yourself….I’ve been watching you your whole life.” We cheer to see Truman refuse to live as a slave.
That kind of domination is what happens when humans try to be God, to control each other. The first reading shows us, by contrast, God’s authority in action: God speaks and life springs forth where there was only a void: abundant, varied, and fruitful; beetles and tulip poplars, rivers and penguins, comets and human persons. And it is good. It is very good.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Ps. 8: 3-4)
God is not merely mighty, like a champion weightlifter except much bigger. God does not dominate material from the outside, forcing it into a shape. Rather, God creates the growing in each thing into its own peculiar, free, wonderful life. At the divine word, order arises into a flow of give and take as each creature follows its own freedom: evening and morning, water and land, plants and animals. Each pursues its nature and contributes to the wellbeing of others.
But sin happens, and a long story of God’s work of redemption stands between that hymn of creation and the end of the gospel of Matthew. Across all that distance, though, it is that same creating God of Genesis whom we meet in Jesus. Having poured himself out for humanity and been raised, in his fullness of authority, he speaks a new life-giving word to creatures now made friends: “Go and make disciples of all nations…”
For us, “the great commission” has a ring of something other than good news. It may simply make us nervous: does Jesus really want me going door-to-door with a pamphlet? At a deeper level, though, given that the history of missions in the past six hundred years cannot be told apart from the history of European colonialism, racism, and economic imperialism, this text rightly evokes a moral horror in both those who have been subject to injustice and those whose forebears participated in them.
Nor is this only in the past: the habits of American exceptionalism, paternalistic justification for dominating other nations, are alive and well. This passage from Matthew can be proclaimed as a call to make everyone in the world “one of us,” which means getting control over them and wiping out all that is different about them, for their own good, of course. This “authority” sounds awfully close to permission for domination. How can this be good news?
But Matthew’s Jesus reveals the same God, who rejoices in allowing all creatures to live fully. These disciples are not an army ordered to make all nations subject, nor are they franchise owners sent out to increase market share for the brand. They are followers of the Crucified One, sent to welcome into their motley company (numbskulls, cowards, and squabblers that they are) all of the broken and beautiful people of the world.
Disciples, after all, are not slaves. They are a family learning through grace to love one another. Jesus’ friends are to teach everyone (and keep learning for themselves) to obey all he taught, which is to say to turn the other cheek when attacked, to go the second mile when dominated, to hand over their shirt with their coat when unjustly accused, and to give to all who ask. They are to love one another, to love their enemies, and now to welcome strangers and neighbors alike into their own community of mutual love.
Just how is this supposed to work? If even many of those who met Jesus during his ministry did not become his disciples, how are those disciples supposed to “make disciples of all nations”?
Apparently, the answer is “through God’s patience.” The building of broken humanity into a fellowship of disciples will happen one uncertain encounter at a time. Encounter is always fragile and risky. It has given us great saints and inspiring movements, artwork and hymns and scholarship and organizations for mutual aid, dancing and singing and drumming and strumming and horn-blowing and wise preaching in more than a thousand languages, all now carriers of the word of God. It has also given us both martyrdom and scandal, the horror of Christians “making disciples” by means that betray the one they claim to follow.
And so the most important part of the “Great Commission” is this: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew notes that some of those present, even after the resurrection, did not believe. We still struggle to believe: that this Crucified one was raised, that he can call all creation to full life, and especially, above all, that he is still with us. Mistrusting, we hear his call as a burdensome task of conquest done to prove ourselves, rather than as our sharing in the wave of love that overflows into all the world.
When, at the end of 2 Corinthians, Paul begs the believers to “Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace,” he is calling them to hear just this same good news: God is making all things new, including amazingly, even making all of us damaged and foolish and amazing people of the world, into disciples of the one who emptied himself, for the life of the world. Learning to love as Jesus does is the way we make and become disciples.
We are not commanded to conquer or manipulate, whether by marketing techniques or by enslavement. But we do touch each other, for good or ill. God’s creation, Jesus’ sharing in our human nature, the Spirit’s outpouring of love upon us all welcome us into the wonder God is growing within our world: an unpredictable and yet recognizable beauty. Only God can do that, and God is with us, to the end of the age.