Day 251: Matthew 28:19-20 – Part 3

I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.

[This is the third of four reflections on this scripture where Jesus gives his disciples their final instructions before he ascends into heaven.]

After Jesus is crucified he returns and gives his disciples some final instructions.  He tells them to go and “disciple” people by baptizing and teaching them.  Today I’m going to look at his second instruction – to teach people to obey Jesus’ commands.  We aren’t instructed to teach them to believe in him.  We are instructed to teach them to believe in what he had to say.  His commands.

What are Jesus’ commands?  Simple enough.  He pretty much outlines all of his basic teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.  I explored the Sermon on the Mount in depth on Days 7-63.  These are the commands that he thinks are important.  On that last day, he tells us to build our house on the rock (truth) as opposed to sand (delusions).  Jesus’ teachings are the rock solid foundation that will bring us peace, happiness, and fulfilment. They will also create a healthy, nurturing, prosperous society.  When we individually or collectively build on sand, we are in danger of being swept away.  For your convenience I am re-posting my Sermon on the Mount “Quick Start Guide” from Day 63.  Here it is:

Sermon on the Mount

I would also add another couple of foundational teachings to the basic commands Jesus presented in the Sermon on the Mount.  I think his very last teaching on Day 228 in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is also foundational:

  • Feed the hungry.
  • Give the thirsty something to drink.
  • Clothe the naked.
  • Take care of the sick.
  • Visit those in prison.

Finally, there is the “mother of all commandments” – the Great Commandment from Day 193:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40).

Look at that last line again and let that sink into your spirit. “The whole Law of Moses and teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Love, my friends, is what it’s all about.  Jesus wants us to go out and teach people how to love.  That’s his command to us.  He doesn’t want us to teach theology.  He wants us to teach people about the power and importance of love.  As followers of Jesus this is our mission.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 249: Matthew 28:18-20 – Part 1

I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.

[This is the first of four reflections on this scripture where Jesus gives his disciples their final instructions before he ascends into heaven.]

Jesus has died, and now he has been resurrected.  He predicted several times that he would rise from the dead and now it has happened.  His prophecy was correct.  Amen to that.  It must have been so very hard for the disciples.  The crucifixion was a terrible traumatic experience.  Sometimes in the “fog of war” it’s hard to separate the good guys from the bad, because people who push for social justice are usually not well received.   Very often the people who are the most hated in their own time turn out to be the biggest heroes from the perspective of history.  Like Abraham Lincoln, for instance.  Or Dr. King. Or Joan of Arc.  Or thousands of others who were misjudged by their contemporaries.

Jesus tells his disciples that he has been given “all authority” in both heaven and earth.  That’s a lot of power.  I don’t know what that means, but it’s certainly a statement of validates his ministry and his teachings.  It says, “All’s well that ends well.”  It’s also a big, fat, “I told you so.”  The very fact that he is speaking to them is a sign that there are mysteries that we still don’t understand.  It’s also proof that you can’t keep a good man down.  This time mankind was unable to silence God’s truth by killing the messenger.  The truth will out.

So, having been given all authority in both earth and heaven, what does Jesus do with it?  He gives it away, of course!  He doesn’t want them to sit around and reminisce about the good old days when Jesus was around.  He doesn’t want them to passively wait for him to come back one more time to rescue them.  He takes the authority he has been given and passes it on to his disciples by asking them to carry on his work.  This is often referred to as the “Great Commission.”

Does Jesus demand that his disciples “believe in him” so that they can “receive eternal life” and “be saved”?  No, has asks them to GO.  He wants them to DO.  And what is it he wants them to do?  This scripture says that Jesus wants them to go out and “make disciples.”  It’s interesting that the Greek word here is “mathéteuó” which is not a noun.  It’s a verb.  He is really asking them to “disciple” all of the people.  This, to me, is very different than “making disciples.”

I think we Christians have a lot of trouble with that phrase “make disciples”.  I’ve been to churches where they seem to interpret that as, “force them to be disciples, using any means necessary.”  These are the people who hound you about going to their church or making a confession of faith and threaten you with hell if you don’t comply.  They are the people who treat the church like a business and use high pressure sales tactics to get you to join up and commit your time and money toward the cause of reeling in more people.  They are the people who blithely dismiss anyone who is not in their own church as “lost”, all the while justifying their selfish, immoral, greedy, secularized lifestyles as acceptable because they are “saved.”  They are the people who believe the ends justify the means.  Their goal is numbers.  Butts in the seats, dollars in the church coffers, and notches “for Christ” on the collective belt of church leadership.

This is not something peculiar to our own day and age.  Conversion by coercion has been going on for a long time.  On Day 99 I discussed how Christianity spread throughout Europe and beyond largely as a result of conquest and domination. Examples are:

  • Romans used forced conversion after Christianity became the sole legal religion in the Roman Empire in 392.
  • Charlemagne forced the Germanic Saxons to become Roman Catholics in the late 700s.
  • In the 1300s Lithuanians were targeted and converted by the Roman Catholics.
  • Both Jews and Muslims were forced to become Roman Catholics during the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400s.
  • The Portuguese tortured and oppressed the Hindus in Goa, India to convert to Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries, destroying their temples and sacred books.  Resistance was punished with torture and imprisonment.
  • In the 1900s US Christians separated Native American children from their parents and forced them to adopt European-American culture and religion.

I don’t believe this kind of domination and coercion is what Jesus had in mind.  He never forced anybody to do anything.  He was smart enough to know that it never works.  You can never force people to do something they don’t want to do.  You can’t make them love God.  You can’t make them love each other.  You may be able to force them to say it, but you can’t make them to do it.  You can’t “make disciples.”

Conversely, what, does it look like to “disciple” people?  Jesus says that we act this out in two ways – baptizing and instructing them to do what Jesus said to do.  Those things will be the subject of the next couple of blog entries, so that’s it for today.  Check back tomorrow.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 199: Matthew 23:15

 How terrible for you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees! You hypocrites! You sail the seas and cross whole countries to win one convert; and when you succeed, you make him twice as deserving of going to hell as you yourselves are!

[Throughout Chapter 23 Jesus delivers a long and detailed critique of the religious institution and practices of Jesus’ day.  In this section I look at my own very subjective perceptions of today’s Christian practices and see how I think they measure up according to the words of Jesus.] 

Here is one that is totally applicable today.  Churches all over America continue to debate this issue:  What’s more important?  Evangelism or discipleship?

Evangelism is the process of preaching the Gospel for the purpose of securing conversions to one’s own faith. In the case of this scripture it was about converting people to Judaism, and to today’s churches it’s the activity of recruiting new Christians – “saving souls” from hell by exhorting people to pledge their commitment to Christ.

Discipleship is the activity of following and teaching the doctrines and precepts of one’s religion.  For Christians, it’s doing what Jesus did and sharing what he said.  It’s living a life that would be pleasing to Jesus.  It’s about walking the talk.  It’s about spiritual growth and transformation.  It’s about wisdom, faith, and love.

Traditional mainline churches emphasize discipleship.  Evangelical churches, as one might guess, emphasize evangelism.  Traditional churches say evangelical churches are shallow – “a mile wide and an inch deep.”  Evangelical churches say traditional churches are “turned in.”  Traditional churches say evangelical churches offer cheap salvation.  Evangelical churches say traditional churches scare people away.  Traditional churches say instead of encouraging their members in the faith, evangelical churches use people to support their own self-perpetuation.  Evangelical churches accuse mainline churches of being too “liberal” and “relativistic.”   Traditional churches say evangelical churches are all flash and no substance.  Evangelical churches say traditional churches are boooorrrrriiiinnnnngggg.  It’s really a case of quality vs. quantity.

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Of course, in a healthy church or denomination there would be both evangelism and discipleship going on.  A healthy church grows because the participants are excited about it so they naturally endorse it to others, and when people come in the door there are a variety of programs and activities that encourage participants to grow spiritually.  Most churches, however, are not very balanced.  They definitely tend to lean one way or another.  Either they spend their time and effort on getting new recruits, or they spend their resources on developing the people they already have.  It’s just the way it is.

Deep and Wide

I guess the inclination would be to say that both evangelism and discipleship are equally important.  Moderation in all things, right?  But wait….that’s not what Jesus says here.  Hmmmm….seems he has a preference.  In this scripture he is clearly saying that he’s not all that crazy about evangelism.  He says, “You sail the seas and cross whole countries to win one convert; and when you succeed, you make him twice as deserving of going to hell as you yourselves are!

He said that the Pharisees wanted to go wide rather than deep.  He said that they taught people the wrong things through their words and actions because they didn’t understand God’s will.  He accuses them of conversion perversion.

On the basis of this scripture I think it’s safe to say that Jesus would prefer that churches concentrate on going deep.  He is saying in this scripture that focusing on going wide is wrong. Because wide doesn’t work without deep.  You have to get the deep part down first.  Jesus was all about deep.

For a while we went to a Pentecostal church that really functioned as an evangelical church.  As time went on we saw that there was no real fellowship, no encouragement, no real spiritual formation, no compassion.  The only thing the leadership was interested in was “winning souls.”  All of the teachings were geared to recruitment.  Whenever they did a mission project the only thing they reported on was how many converts they secured in the process.  They thought it was a waste of time to give people things or improve their physical circumstances unless they were “saved” in the process. Week after week every sermon ended with an altar call for those who were not yet “saved” to come forward and get a metaphorical ticket to heaven.  In all the time we were there we only saw one person go forward, and that person was never seen again.

The pastor eventually put up a foam board on a display stand.  The board was divided in half horizontally.  People were encouraged to write down the names of their “unsaved” friends and relatives and tack them up on the bottom of the board.  The idea was that when the people at the church got these underachievers to “confess their faith in Christ” they could move the name to the top part of the board amidst great fanfare.  When we left the church the bottom part was full of names but that top section was still empty. Maybe there was one, I can’t remember.  It was easy to leave that church.  Everyone was kind of detached and grumpy and aloof.

I once heard someone say that churches should be sure they understand the Great Commandment (loving God and one another – Day 193) before they try to work on the Great Commission (making disciples).  I don’t know if the author of this statement was familiar with this particular scripture.  I certainly never noticed it until today and I’ve never, ever heard a pastor preach on it.

It kind of puts an end to the debate about evangelism vs. discipleship.  Well, to me it certainly makes a lot of sense.  Like they say, you can’t teach what you don’t know.  And if you are kind and loving and faith-filled and empathic and encouraging and accepting and peaceful and humble (like Jesus encourages us to be), then people will probably want hang out with you and learn from you and talk about faith issues and you will have the privilege of being able to share your innermost thoughts with them.

And it’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t evangelize like people do today.  He didn’t sign people up or ask them to commit to anything, nor did he coerce them into reciting creeds or making confessions of faith.  He didn’t even pressure them to make baked goods or volunteer to be on a committees or contribute to the youth mission trip.  No, he befriended them.  He ate with them.  He loved them.  He taught them and told them stories.  He traveled with them.  He healed them.  He fed them. He protected them. Yes, it seems pretty clear to me.   Jesus would prefer for us to go deep and leave the wide part to the Holy Spirit, who is, after all, the great evangelist.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 97: Matthew 10:37

Whoever loves his father or mother more than me is not fit to be my disciple; whoever loves his son or daughter more than me is not fit to be my disciple. 

[Jesus’ 12 disciples are sent out on a mission trip with these instructions.  For background see Days 83-84.]

I wonder how many people would become Christians if they were familiar with this scripture?  I wonder if they would claim to be followers of Jesus if they really understood that he didn’t think our family should be the centerpiece of our lives.

Not only does he say it.  He lives it.  Jesus leaves his family.  He didn’t have a wife, or even a girlfriend. He didn’t have any children, or grandchildren.  He didn’t like money.  He didn’t have a home.  He didn’t have any possessions.  He didn’t have a job.  He had other concerns.  He was consumed with a passion for God and the correct application of Jewish Law.  He wanted to liberate, heal, and educate people.  He was obsessed with God to the extent that all other things, including family, were superfluous.

Just to be sure, I looked up the words.  The word “love” is phileó, which means to love; to show warm affection in intimate friendship, characterized by tender, heartfelt consideration and kinship; to kiss.  And the word “fit” is axios, meaning of weight, of worth, worthy; deserving, comparable, suitable.  What Jesus is saying is pretty clear.  He is telling his disciples that if they love their families more than they love him, they are unfit (or unsuitable) to be his disciples.  He wants his disciples to be wholly dedicated to the ministry.

Jesus isn’t the first one in the Bible to deliver the first anti-family.  There are many stories that warn us that our families can be one of the greatest threats to our relationship with God.  Our love for family may lead us astray.

 “Even your brother or your son or your daughter or the wife you love or your closest friend may secretly encourage you to worship other gods, gods that you and your ancestors have never worshiped.  Some of them may encourage you to worship the gods of the people who live near you or the gods of those who live far away (Deut. 5:6-7).

This was certainly the case with King Solomon, who built the first great Jewish temple:

Solomon loved many foreign women. Besides the daughter of the king of Egypt he married Hittite women and women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, and Sidon. He married them even though the LORD had commanded the Israelites not to intermarry with these people, because they would cause the Israelites to give their loyalty to other gods. Solomon married seven hundred princesses and also had three hundred concubines. They made him turn away from God, and by the time he was old they had led him into the worship of foreign gods. He was not faithful to the LORD his God, as his father David had been. (1 Kings 11:1-4).

Eli, the father of Samuel the prophet, also offended the Lord because of his love for his family:

 I, the Lord God of Israel, promised in the past that your family and your clan would serve me as priests for all time.  But now I say that I won’t have it any longer!  Instead, I will honor those who honor me, and I will treat with contempt those who despise me. (1 Samuel 2:29-31).

Many people come to church solely for their children.  They believe that if their children go to church they will stay out of trouble.  Others believe that going to church together strengthens family relationships.  It is often said that “the family that prays together stays together.”  The Christian advocacy group Focus on the Family has been organized around this premise.  Here’s a description of their mission, taken from their website:

Focus on the Family is a global Christian ministry dedicated to helping families thrive. We provide help and resources for couples to build healthy marriages that reflect God’s design, and for parents to raise their children according to morals and values grounded in biblical principles.

We’re here to come alongside families with relevance and grace at each stage of their journey. We support families as they seek to teach their children about God and His beautiful design for the family, protect themselves from the harmful influences of culture and equip themselves to make a greater difference in the lives of those around them.

I’m all for families and I think this sounds nice, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with Jesus.  “Harmful influences of culture?”  Really?  What does protecting themselves against culture have to do with Jesus?  Have these people actually read the Gospel?  Jesus never avoided the “harmful influences” of culture.  He hung around with people whom others considered to be harmful influences.  He sought them out.  Also, in Christian-speak, “equip themselves to make greater difference in the lives of those around them” means converting their friends and family to join their particular Christian sect.

I always get the sense that Focus on the Family and all groups with a similar orientation use God to prop up their families, which are really their highest priority.  They want to use God as the glue to hold their families together in a world where traditional family structures are changing over time.

family-leaving-church

Conversely, the church has used its support of the family to attract new members and stabilize the institution.  Churches spend a lot of time and energy advocating marriage, promoting heterosexual sex, preventing abortions, and teaching both male domination and feminine submission as important components of a healthy family dynamic.  Of course lots of churches also encourage couples to have as many children as possible, which is one of the reasons why birth control and abortion are discouraged. This is an important element of church growth.

But families are good, right? But what harm can any of this do?

Well, first of all it doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus.  He wasn’t interested in families.  He wasn’t interested in bringing the good news to people who have everything all figured out.  Remember on Day 77 when Jesus said, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick.  Go and find out what is meant by the scripture that says, ‘It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.’  I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts.He came for the outcasts, the ones who are probably despised by their own families.  Those people with their “harmful influences” are the ones he came for.  Those losers are Jesus’ family.

Second, by making church “family oriented,” singles, divorcees, widows, and widowers no longer fit in.  In her book Quitting Church, Julia Duin (the Religion editor for The Washington Times) describes how singles over 35 are leaving the church en masse.  It’s kind of a shame because in the past, singles looked to the church to help them find meaning and purpose in their lives.  Today they are marginalized by the family-focused church.

Statistically, singles lead the pack in terms of people sliding out the back doors of America’s churches, and many singles never make it in the front door.   In October 2005 University of Virginia scholar Brad Wilcox released some statistics on single men and church.  Thirty-two percent of married men attend church weekly, he said.  Fifteen percent of single men do.  Thirty-nine percent of married women attend ch[SC1] urch weekly; 23 percent of single women do.

I’m sure that families who are “less than perfect” also feel alienated by this new, family-focused church that has emerged over the last 50 years or so.  And in reality, most families are indeed less than perfect.  Do single parent families really feel like they are welcomed in the family church, or are they treated like a “harmful influence,” tolerated but never really accepted?  Do families whose children are unruly or rebellious or unconventional feel comfortable in a church environment?  What about truly unconventional families like those headed by same sex couples?  Those outcast families are Jesus’ family. (Remember Day 77).

Which leads us to the church’s relentless efforts to eradicate homosexuality.  It is becoming increasingly clear that the main effect is an increased suicide rate among adolescents, and increased homophobia among both family members and peers. According to Charles Robbins, the executive director and CEO of the Trevor Project, the leading national organization focused on crisis- and suicide-prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth:

  • Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers (Massachusetts 2007 Youth Risk Survey).
  • LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide than LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection (Ryan C, Huebner D, et al., Pediatrics 123(1): 346-52).
  • Almost 85 percent of LGBTQ teenagers are harassed in high school because of their sexual orientation, with 61 percent of gay youth reporting that they felt unsafe in school and 30 percent staying home to avoid bullying (2009 Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network survey).

So how many people nowadays are led astray by their relatives like Jesus describes in this scripture?  I would guess that very few are tempted to worship the foreign gods of the Old Testament.  But how many are seduced by the notion that the Focus on the Family lifestyle is the epitome of a life that is pleasing to God?  How many believe that being a good American is the same as being a good Christian?  How many are taught that they are better than others just because they enjoy heterosexual sex? How many are taught that they are superior to the rest of the world because they go to a Christian church?  How many are taught to believe that worldly success is important?  How many are taught to idolize athletes or entertainers?

Jesus warns us to be very careful about family love.  Jesus wants us to love everyone – widows, orphans, tax collectors, outcasts, gay people, transvestites, gang bangers, ornery neighbors, welfare recipients, terrorists, politicians, Muslims, drug addicts, illegal immigrants, all of them – just as much as we love our own families.  He wants us all to be one big family with no one left out in the cold.  Instead of restricting our love to those in our familial circle, Jesus challenges us to expand that circle to encompass everyone.  He doesn’t want us to love our families less.  He wants us to love others more and regard everyone as family.  And he wants us to love what he loves, and make his priorities our priorities.  It only seems fair, if we claim to be his followers.  I’m not there, but it’s something to shoot for.  I love my family very much and this is a hard thing to digest.  I don’t think I have the capacity to love everyone equally, but I think it should be my goal as a follower of Jesus.   I believe that everyone loves one another equally in the Kingdom of God.

Another problem with family love is that it is transitory.  In the end, our families will let us down.  Our parents will eventually die and we will be orphaned.  Our brothers and sisters will marry and have families of their own.  If we raise healthy children they will move out and live their own lives.  All of them will love their own families more than they love us.  Our spouses may pass away and leave us alone.  And in turn each of us will die and leave the ones we love behind.  Better to expand our circle of love to include everyone.  Better to focus on the one who says, “And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20).  Better to focus on the agenda of Jesus and the eternal presence of our loving and faithful God, who will never love anyone else more than he loves each of us.

Don’t be mad at me.  Jesus said what he said, and I don’t think it should be ignored.  It should be addressed and contemplated even if it clashes up against our thoughts and feelings.  I don’t think anything Jesus says should be ignored, which is why I’m doing this blog.

What does this scripture say to you?