The ‘Great Commission’ and God’s Empire

The ‘Great Commission’ and God’s Empire

“Mission and Mission Enabling when Critical Presence is Needed”

James Vijayakumar

Matthew 28:1-20 

I am grateful for the opportunity to share some biblical reflections as we begin deliberations on revising the Strategic Directions for our participation in God’s mission. I believe that it is important at this time to take a fresh look at what this mission is all about, particularly in today’s context. Therefore I wish to share a perspective on mission which strikes me as somewhat compelling, and I hope it can throw some light on the directions that we seek.

The so called ‘Great Commission’ in Mt. 28: 19 which says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” provided much of the impetus to the modern missionary movement in the last few centuries and continues to guide the mission of many Christians and churches around the world. However, it is rather disappointing to note that in most cases this commission of Jesus has been lifted out of its context, resulting to a great extent in proselytizing missions. My purpose here is to reclaim the primary thrust of this commission which is not only pertinent but also very crucial for our participation in God’s mission today. 

In Mt. 28:18-20 Jesus declares a worldwide mission:

18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Here Jesus is commissioning his disciples to undertake a worldwide mission. But this worldwide mission of Jesus comes in direct contrast to another worldwide mission that is already operative, namely the mission of the Roman Empire. In fact Matthew places this text where Jesus declares the worldwide mission immediately after the description of an incident that illustrates how the Roman Empire operates. That way he highlights the contrast between the mission of the Roman Empire and the mission of Jesus.

Jesus lived at a time when the Roman Empire was engaged in a ruthless mission to dominate the entire world and bring it under its authority and dominion. Much of the New Testament was written during this period and it is natural for the writers to assume that the readers are knowledgeable about the claims, pervasiveness, and mission of the Roman Empire. It was common knowledge that anyone who posed a threat to the Roman system was eliminated, mostly by crucifixion just as Jesus was crucified.

When Jesus was born and Herod came to know that the ‘King of Israel,’ a possible threat to the Roman authority was born, he wanted to eliminate baby Jesus. Missing that, he ended up massacring all the baby boys up to two years of age. Later on, at the time of crucifixion, Jesus was repeatedly mocked as the ‘King of Israel,’ to illustrate the fate of anyone who challenges the Roman system and to intimidate the others into submission. Such was the power and force of the Roman Empire

According to the Roman belief, the Roman Empire was supposed to have been founded by divine orders, and its mission to dominate the world was ‘entrusted to it by the gods’ and enacted through the emperor, the military and political personnel, and co-opted religious elites. The emperor was not just to be obeyed but also to be worshipped as he was divine and represented the gods. Thus a Roman imperial theology was actively promoted by all agents of the empire, including the poets, artisans, historians, and legends to give divine approval to the imperial expansions.

But this world mission of the Roman Empire was opposed to God’s will and purpose. When Jesus challenged that empire, its authority and control, as well as the religious authorities who were more loyal to the Roman Empire than serving the people of God, they could not tolerate him and killed him by crucifixion. Three days later when the news about his resurrection began to spread, the empire quickly began its typical operation as described in verses 10-15: (This follows the resurrection narrative and Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary)

10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ 11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” 14If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ 15So they took the money and did as they were directed (taught). And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

Immediately after reporting about this modus operandi of the Roman Empire, Matthew reports about Jesus’ declaration of a worldwide mission. The Roman emperor claimed to be the supreme authority on earth. In contrast, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Under God’s authority given to Jesus, people were healed, fed, taught and freed from a life of fear, bondage and dehumanization to a life of fullness. It was the manifestation of God’s reign and God’s empire as opposed to that of Rome and the like. Jesus commissions his disciples to proclaim God’s empire to everyone on this earth, and make more disciples who would carry on the work of leading people to a life of fullness. 

Jesus said, ‘make disciples of all nations.’ A disciple is not only one who follows the master, but also one who pledges his or her ultimate loyalty to the master and serves as an agent to the master’s mission. (Jesus’ demand of absolute loyalty can be observed elsewhere, in his response to those whom he was calling to be his disciples, particularly the one who wanted to bury his father first and the one who wanted to bid farewell to his family before he could follow Jesus. Lk. 9:59-62).

In the Great Commission of Mt. 28, Jesus commissions his disciples to make more disciples, who would resist all claims, compulsions and temptations to pledge their loyalty to anyone else and shift their ultimate loyalty to God’s authority, and act as agents of God’s reign of justice, peace and fullness of life. The community of his disciples is to secure the transfer of loyalty and allegiance to God’s sovereignty and empire in anticipation of its establishment in full over all the earth. They are to set up networks of such agents all over the world. “Make disciples of all nations.”

New disciples are initiated into such a new community of resistance and hope by baptism. Baptism in the name of the triune God rather than in the name of the Roman Emperor, in essence is a stamp that signifies the transfer of loyalty to God’s empire from other empires, and not the shifting of any religious identity. This new community is to be known by its loyalty and agency to God’s reign of justice, peace and fullness of life, and not by its religious label. Identifying loyalty to God’s empire with any particular religious label, including Christianity is dangerous as we have seen in the history of the Crusades in the past and such crusading Christians in the present.

Initiation of such a new community of agents or disciples is not an end in itself. They were to be taught to observe all that Jesus has commanded them. The verb ‘teach’ used here (v.20) is the same used in verse 15 where the Roman soldiers were ‘taught.’ Whereas the Roman soldiers were taught to tell lies about Jesus that he is not Risen and his body was stolen, the disciples are to teach the truth about the reign of God manifested in the life and work of Jesus, and his resistance to all power and authority that attempt to thwart God’s reign.

“Communities of Resistance and Hope”(R&H Communities) were what Jesus was commissioning his disciples to create and nurture. RESISTANCE to the designs and mission of the Roman Empire and its contemporary manifestations, and HOPE for the fullness of life that God has promised were the essential thrust of the ‘Great Commission.’ 

In today’s world the reality of the empire is dangerously on the rise. Be it in Haiti, Angola, Colombia, Myanmar, Philippines, East Timor, or Iraq, the tyrannical presence and expansion of today’s global empires, the political, military, and economic ones, are either obvious or subtle. They present optimism for some, but disillusionment and danger for many, as their tightening grip over people and nations keep increasing, causing endless suffering and pain. They perpetuate conditions that make people desperate.

These empires also take advantage of the existing systems of domination and exploitation and nurture them even in remote corners of the world for their own profit. They make the local governments and people subservient to them. On an earlier occasion Jesus made a passing reference to such a reality: In Mt. 20:25, referring to the Roman Empire Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.”

It is not a mere coincidence that the last issue of Reformed World is entitled “Empire” and all the 8 articles written in it are about the tightening grip of the modern empires on the lives of the increasingly vulnerable people. We too need to read the signs of the times and be seriously mindful of them as we plan our Strategic Directions. Creating and nurturing Communities of Resistance and Hope(R&H Communites/Churches) is a call that is loud and clear in this text and we need to hear that with utmost seriousness and arrange our priorities and directions accordingly.

The Church is called to be present in this world as an alternative community that pledges its loyalty and allegiance to God and God’s empire as opposed to the Roman Empire or its contemporary manifestations. Thus its presence in the world is critical and creative. Its critical presence is marked by its commitment and ability to resist the designs of those empires and their implementation, and by proclaiming the vision of God’s empire of righteousness, justice and peace. The church’s presence is not to flow along and cope with the natural course of events, but to create and nurture alternative communities and networks of Resistance and Hope(R&H), ushering in peace and fullness of life for all. When it fails in this mission, its presence is no longer critical but only irrelevant. The prioritizing for our mission planning has to start right here: creating and nurturing alternative communities of Resistance and Hope.

The agenda of the Roman Empire creates fear and hopelessness, (breeds wars and death, and then feeds on the wars to create more wars and death). It puts the lives of the people in endless dangers and threatens their livelihood, and very survival. It drains the capacity and resources of people to build their own lives and livelihood, for the empires engineer control of resources and capital flight. They precipitate crisis in the lives of the people, communities and nations.

The call is to build Communities of Resistance and Hope. How does our presence become a critical one in creating Communities of Resistance and Hope? Does our presence enable the formation, activation and nurturing of communities of resistance and hope even in the remote corners of the world?

While the Church’s presence is critical in the world, it should not forget the Real Presence, the presence of the risen Christ. Jesus said in v.20, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” He has in fact gone ahead of us to ‘Galilee’ (v.10). He has gone ahead of us to where there is fear and hopelessness, and where people are desperate for meaning.

He has gone ahead of us to where the lives and livelihood of God’s children are under constant threat and danger, where people are disempowered and driven to perpetual poverty, where people’s strength and their meager resources are drained by economic empires, where people feel lonely and helpless as minorities, and where religious, political, economic and ethnic conflicts are allowed to escalate by interests and designs of imperial expansion and control. He has not only gone ahead of us to Galilee, but he has also promised that he will be with us always.

This morning we heard from our missionaries that in places like Haiti, Angola, Palestine, Colombia and elsewhere, everything is broken except the spirit of the people. The risen Christ has gone ahead of us to be with each one of them.

Only when we recognize his presence with us and ahead of us in every situation and with every partner, broken and unbroken, and join hands with the risen Christ already present there, and only then, our presence will be critical and have relevance and meaning and we could be enablers of God’s mission.  Otherwise we will face the danger of losing Christ’s vision and authority which are fundamental requisites for creating and nurturing Communities of Resistance and Hope.

The one who has gone ahead of us to Galilee said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” and not to the Roman Empire. 19″Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Go therefore and create Communities and Networks of Resistance and Hope in all nations. ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ Amen.