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Jesus' Vision

Taking on Jesus’ vision was a bit like trying to put a whole watermelon in my mouth – perhaps a teensy bit bigger a task than can be truly handled in 20 minutes or so. Still, I gave it a try, using Matthew 28, known as The Great Commission, as my entry point.

So, first let’s get a little grip on some background information. We don't really know who wrote the gospel of Matthew. All of the gospels, in fact, were assigned a name in the second century. Modern scholarship believes that The Gospel of Matthew was written between 80 and 90 CE, some 50 to 60 years after Jesus' execution. In the year 70 CE, Roman destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, their primary place of worship and dwelling place of Yahweh, and killed tens of thousands of Jews. The response was to put a greater emphasis on Jewish identity and their social boundaries, laws, worship, etc.

Keep in mind that there was no Christian church at this time. The Jesus-following-Jews were still worshipping in the synagogues, but there was a growing conflict between them and the traditional Jews. While the majority of the Jesus movement people were Jewish, there was a growing number of non-Jewish followers. To try and maintain their purity of identity, there was growing persecution of Christ-following Jews, which typically meant expulsion from the synagogue and the Jewish community altogether. 

So, let's refresh our memories about the Great Commissioning. Mathew 28:19-20 says this:

[Go] therefore, and make disciples of all the nations. Baptize them in the name of Abba God, and of the Only Begotten, and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you. And know that I am with you always, even until the end of the world!

Interestingly, no other gospels have this same commissioning. Mark has no commissioning, and Luke and John are completely different. Because there is no consensus from the Gospels about what Jesus actually commissioned his followers to do after he was gone, scholars suggest this indicates that each author wrote their own commissioning to express their vision for the future of the Jesus movement. In addition, putting this gospel in the larger historical context, we can understand that the community Matthew was addressing was losing their worship places and perhaps even their families, jobs, friends. It was time to move out, find new places to worship, bring new people into the community, and share the teachings that had so changed their lives with people who might be inclined to listen, because they were hitting a brick wall at home.

Sadly, this passage has been used throughout the ages as justification to convert the heathens. John Shelby Spong, in his book, Unbelievable, throws a different light on this passage:

Matthew was, I believe, sounding the call to a universal humanity. “Go make disciples of all nations” meant, to Matthew, “Go beyond the boundaries of your religion, your security system and your fears.” It meant, “Go to those whom your religious tradition has defined as unclean, uncircumcised, unsaved, unbaptized and unbelieving; those denounced as infidels, heretics, agnostics or atheists.” 

What then are you to do? Matthew’s Jesus was quite clear, but only if we know how to translate the meaning of those early words: “You are to proclaim the gospel.” To Matthew, that did not mean that we are to provide our converts with a set of formulaic Christian answers. It meant rather that we are to make all persons aware that they are included within the infinite love of God.

Some scholars have suggested that the commission - to make disciples of all nations, to baptize, and to teach - was an early program adopted by the Jesus movement. If we look at it more closely, and if we take Spong’s words into account, this passage may truly give us a sense of what Jesus’ vision for the future of the movement might have been.

So, let’s flesh out the concepts of disciples, baptism and teachings a little bit.

A disciple is a follower or student of a teacher, and holds allegiance to their teachings. It was a little bit different from being a student today in that a disciple in ancient times strived to imitate the life and teachings of someone. This leads us to the core teachings of Jesus (what he said and what he did) which were loving God, loving others, including everyone, forgiveness, compassion, justice and non-violence. Jesus clearly treated everyone as a being of sacred worth.

Jesus never said anyone had to be Jewish to be a follower. When he healed the Roman centurion's servant, did Jesus accuse him of worshipping Roman gods and goddesses (which he certainly did) and insist he convert to Judaism? No. When Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well, did he insist her village convert to the Jerusalem way of Judaism before he'd stay and teach them? No. Did he ever insist that anyone believe in a certain creed, doctrine, or formula? No. 

Jesus was teaching people to live in alignment with a God of love. Period.

Becoming a disciple never meant becoming Christian (which didn't really exist yet) or believing Jesus died for your sins, or believing in the inerrancy of scripture (most of which didn't exist). Becoming a disciple meant imitating the life and teachings of Jesus.

So, what did baptism have to do with it? Well, it wasn’t about original sin, because there was no such concept until the 5th century. What was baptism about at the time? It was about cleansing of sin, about starting new, about dying to an old self and rising to a new, better self. Baptism in the context of creating disciples and then baptizing them meant that they were releasing an old way of being and an old way of knowing God and rising to a new, more compassionate, more loving, more inclusive way.

And the last piece was "to teach them everything I’ve commanded you." As far as I know there were only really two commandments Jesus taught. Love God. And, love your neighbor as yourself. Everything else, as they say, is commentary. There isn’t one other teaching of his that isn’t a subset of these.

Frankly whether this was truly something Jesus said, or whether it’s Matthew’s creation doesn’t matter a whole lot because it is a vision I can get behind.

Now it is our job to give it legs… to do what sometimes feels impossible and be the type of person that Jesus was, to lead with love, grace, compassion and a desire to understand. To bring acceptance, not judgment, to be willing to die to the beliefs, opinions, and theology that don't serve us anymore. To live the two commandments so that our very actions teach them to others. 

Love & Light!