This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

National Missions.

The church remains subject on many levels to confusion about what it’s mission is.  In the past few decades in the Presbyterian Church, we have seen a division between two understandings.  
One is based on Matthew 28:18-20: “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.’”  Some took this to mean “Go out and win souls for Jesus.”

The other focuses on Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus’ long parable of the Last Judgment when nations are assessed according to their service to the needy.  Here’s how it ends:  “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”  Some took this to mean “Go out and serve the needy.”

In spite of the obvious fact that the same man says both of these things within a few days, the church has managed to completely miss the point and choose up sides over which one to follow to the exclusion of the other.

But maybe, just maybe, Jesus intends for his church to do both.  Maybe we are to make disciples and serve the needy.  Maybe they are not mutually exclusive, but two sides of the same coin.  Maybe we get people to follow Jesus by serving the needy; maybe we serve the needy by getting people to follow Jesus.  

One of the things both passages have in common is that they concern “the nations.”  In Matthew 28 the nations are the target of Jesus’ mission; in Matthew 25 it is the nations that are judged by their ministry to the needy.  “Nations” (in Greek, ethne) is a term used in the New Testament to refer to the various peoples who had been conquered, subjugated, and colonized by Rome: regional ethnic groups which were repressed by the reigning superpower of the time.   

This undercuts the view that Jesus is not about “politics,” that he was only talking to individuals, which means we have no business extending his teachings into national policy.  Jesus, of course, did not live in a context in which the people had a formal say in government.  Nobody got to vote for the Emperor; Rome was not a democracy.  And certainly he did not start by addressing imperial policy, which would have been pointless and ridiculous.  Yet he is always talking about politics in the sense of how we live and make decisions together.  Jesus gathers communities with specific characteristics like equality, sharing, compassion, welcoming, forgiveness, and healing.  In other words, Jesus advocates the opposite of Roman policy, which was inequality, division, exploitation, and repression. 

So, in Matthew 28 Jesus is saying, in effect, “Go to all these oppressed and exploited peoples and teach them to gather together in alternative communities, to follow my way of service, sharing, and equality.”  And in Matthew 25 he is saying, “In the end, nations will be judged according to how well they implemented my way of service, sharing, and equality towards the needy.”  

In other words, oppressed nations had first to accept their humiliated, conquered, defeated status, and minister then to the victimized and destitute in their own midst.  They had to identify, not with Rome in envy and denial, but they had to see themselves in the needy losers among them.  In this Jesus is just extrapolating on the basic fact of the Hebrew Scriptures, that they were written by and for escaped slaves.  The Bible gives a voice to the lynched, defeated, bereft, and diseased.  If the nations received and adopted Jesus’ teachings and practices, they would thrive and endure.  If they reversed course and sought not to be as strong and violent as Rome, but ministered instead to their own broken siblings, they would have God’s life.  If not, they would burn, as is the sad fate of all societies that do not live by God’s justice.

In light of all this, the mission of the church is focused on discipleship that welcomes and serves, heals and forgives, gathers and sends.  I do not believe we have to choose between conversion to Christianity and merely doing social welfare work.  We have to do both simultaneously.  “Making disciples” does not mean merely getting people to join the church or become Christians; it is to bring people to participate in our work of serving others.  Neither is attending to the needy a spiritually neutral responsibility; it is an expression and reflection of faith in Jesus.  

Finally, it is important to note that the “others” with whom Jesus is most concerned are those who are not regularly served by social institutions.  The nations must have been ignoring “the least of these,” or Jesus would not have brought them up.  Some hurting folks are well-served by our civil institutions already.  We pray for and sympathize with them.  But Jesus calls us to give most of our attention to those others who are not getting help elsewhere.  

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