This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, so that will be our subject. There is certainly a lot to be said about it. However, I want to take this space to touch on another subject that is raised by our lectionary texts. One of the only places in the Christian Testament that uses a clear Trinitarian formula (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) is in a passage that, in my original context, was most often used for a different purpose. That text is Matthew 18.16-20, “The Great Commission.” As a young evangelical, this was given as the guiding principle of my faith. Let’s just say I’ve moved away from that a bit.
Perhaps part of my issue with the Great Commission is the power language: authority, make, obey, command. Jesus has authority, so we should do what he says. More importantly, we should make others like us, so that they do what he says. Might makes right and right makes disciples.
But maybe we’re reading it wrong. There are other ways to read these words, other ways to translate and we can choose. Authority is power. It is used to describe Jesus’ teaching, that he speaks as one who has authority, who knows what he is talking about. We have all, hopefully, had powerful teachers in our lives. It is also used to describe his miraculous healings, which he gives to his disciples. And when he is questioned about the source of his power in the Temple, he does not claim it only for himself, but says that anyone who has faith can move mountains. Jesus’ power derives from his faithfulness; the commitment to doing good actually results in good.
We could go through similar exercises for the other power words. “Obey” could mean to keep in view, take note, or hold onto. “Command” could mean to commission or direct, as in to set aside for a special purpose, as we do in commissioning services. Perhaps it’s no accident that we call it the Great Commission and not the Great Command.
What I’m noticing is that these alternative readings point to a purpose beyond themselves that I think I was missing as a young evangelical. It seemed that the point of making people into Christians was so that there would be more Christians. (Given the political shift in the SBC at the time, perhaps that was the only point: strength in numbers.) But Matthew is after something else.
Matthew’s particular concern is righteousness, which, again, is a misleading translation. When we read it as “righteousness,” we focus on personal piety and it becomes a label. We use righteousness to separate ourselves from the unrighteous. It places a hierarchy of value on people’s lives and choices. We know that we are good and we are God’s because we are not like them. A better way to read it would be “justice.” God is not unconcerned with our behavior, but the measure of it is whether or not it brings about justice.
The same is true here. The purpose of making disciples is to spread the Good News that God’s dreams for the world are finally coming to pass. Notice Jesus’ eschatological spin: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (v.20). As Christians, we are set aside and given the power to accomplish a special commission if only we keep that commission close to our hearts. If we remain faithful to our purpose of bringing about God’s justice in the world, a world without war, without tears, a world where everyone has food to eat and water to drink, a world where people are healthy and whole, and everyone is included. To be baptized, reborn, into that life does not make us better or more deserving of the good. Rather, it requires us to ensure that everyone receives the Good News of peace and justice.
One final observation: Because many of us at Church in the Cliff grew up in these traditions that seek to overpower others, to submit them to our will and our culture and our values, we are leery of the evangelical portions of the Christian Testament, those passages that ask us to spread the Good News. That sometimes makes us reticent to invite others into what we are doing. We don’t want to be that kind of Christian. And maybe we will never be fully comfortable with the Great Commission. So let me offer an alternative invitation from the Gospel of John: “Come and see!” I can testify to the difference Church in the Cliff has made in my life. Seeing my faith with new eyes gave me reason to continue in that faith, to keep it close to my heart. I don’t know if it will do the same for you, but I hope you will come and see.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we discuss the Trinity, with all its peril and promise.
Grace & Peace,