This is the Way
I know it’s not a competition, but it’s hard to imagine a scripture passage that has done more damage to God’s image and the image of God in others than these verses we find at the end of Matthew’s gospel.
Known as the Great Commission, this passage initially inspired a small band of the penniless and powerless to range out into the world in loving service to all. They called themselves “People of The Way.”
They adopted those on the margins, bathed in living waters beneath the mines of Mandalore, never took off their helmets, and traveled in company with a tiny green Jedi named Grogu.
OK, went a little off track there. Just wanted to make sure you’re all paying attention.
In all seriousness, the first followers of Jesus set out into the world with the sole mission of… well…. continuing to follow in the way of Jesus.
They did not set out to start a new religion replete with grand new theologies, beautiful new buildings, and inspiring new worship. Nor was there a plan to colonize or subdue other nations in the name of Christ, because that is not what Jesus had asked them to do.
He simply said, “follow me.” Not once. Not twice. But, if you count all four gospels together, 87 times.
“Follow me,” he said; meaning, do like I do.
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
“Serve one another as I have served you.”
“Judge not, lest you be judged, but forgive as I have forgiven you.”
“Turn the other check.”
Bless those who persecute you.”
“Give to anyone who asks.”
Be like salt and light such that you bring out the best in others.
Protect the poor and vulnerable.
Love God. Love your neighbor.
And so, that is what they attempted to do. Their goal was never to conquer the world, but to save it…save it from the systems of violence and domination that characterize so much of human society.
Jesus sent his disciples out to proclaim that there was a better way to live in this world, that a new kind of kingdom was at hand, that it was as close as our willingness to reject the domination systems of old and embrace a new way of living and loving and valuing one another:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” he said, “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.”
It was an invitation to go forth in love and humility and let all people know that they are welcome in God’s kingdom regardless of their race or religion, their history or family, their past or their present, their gender, rank, or standing. It was an invitation to start anew, be washed clean of the old ways, and reborn into a new way of life where one treated others the way one would want to be treated.
It was a gracious invitation, not to tell people what to believe, and most certainly not to force or threaten them to believe – for what could be more antithetical to the spirit of Jesus? - but for the disciples to go forth and show others with the witness of their very lives, how to live in beloved community with one another that those others might catch on and want to live hat way too.
That’s all it was ever about.
And it might have worked, if Christianity hadn’t eventually become legal, but unfortunately it did. (Thanks for nothing Constantine.) Within a few hundred years this way of being in the world was co-opted by the establishment, formalized as a new religion, and - in perhaps the most unfortunate irony in all of history - Jesus’ name and his message were taken up and twisted round that they might be used as a marker to denote who is in and who is out, who is worthy and who is not, who is right and who is wrong, who is saved and who is damned.
Once it was co-opted by the Roman Empire, these verses gave Christians all the license they needed to force their faith upon an unsuspecting world. The great commission was taken as a justification for the destruction and appropriation of non -Christian peoples; their culture, their faith, their property, their very bodies. The ethos of domination, seen as God-ordained, was used to justify the abuse, subjugation, and enslavement of others rather than as a call to use our power in loving service of others.
I could fill pages with the horrors wrought in the name of Jesus. Indeed pick up any history book and you’ll find it all there in black and white…though you may want to act fast since there are plenty of Christians working overtime right now to ban those books as fast as they can. But I don’t want to go down that road today, because you know what? It’s just too easy. It’s so easy to criticize and judge.
“It’s not our fault,” we say. “We’re not like those other Christians,” we say.
But if we stop there, all we’re really doing is distancing ourselves from the problem when what we really need to do is become the kind of Christinas who are willing to solve it.
“The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better,” says Richard Rohr, and so I want to say just a few words about how we might reclaim this passage by doing better, not just for the good of our faith, but for the good of all.
To that end, I want to say a word about doubt, about discipleship, and about obedience: all of which are mentioned in this passage.
So, let’s begin with doubt.
Verse 17: “Now the eleven disciples (we’re talking Peter, James, John - the whole gang - all the men in Jesus’ inner circle, save Judas) went to Galilee…When they saw Jesus, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”
What an incredibly inconvenient detail for the gospel writer. I mean, can you believe that? Believe that even amongst the eleven, there were some who doubted him? These men who for three years had walked beside Jesus with their own two feet, listened to Jesus with their own two ears, and watched Jesus with their very own eyes heal the sick, multiply loaves, raise the dead, walk on water, calm the storm, die on a cross, and come back to life… even amongst the eleven some doubted him.”
They doubted him but he commissioned them anyway, because here is the deal: following Jesus is not an intellectual exercise. Following Jesus is a way of life.
Doubt does not disqualify you from following because being a Christian is not about correct doctrine or knowing your bible inside and out or having all of the right answers about God. Being a Christian is about following in the way of Jesus; Jesus who lived and died to serve others. Jesus, who poured out his life for the sake of others.
And believe it or not, doubt actually helps us do that because doubt keeps us humble. Doubt keeps us seeking after Jesus. Doubt keeps us open to learning more, which is what being a disciple is all about.
So let’s talk about discipleship.
I don’t know what you think when you hear the word disciple, but I think we all need to remember that “disciple” simply means student. A disciple is not a recruit or an official member of the in-group. It doesn’t mean one who is saved or even one who is special - though you all are. Disciple simply means student. If you are a disciple of Jesus, then you are a student of his way.
Friends, our mission, if we choose to accept it, or, in this case, our commission, is to go out into the world and invite other people to study the way of Jesus with us that we might work together to create a more just and generous world.
We invite them, not because we have all the answers, but because we can all learn something from the way Jesus lived and we can all learn something from what Jesus taught. I don’t think our goal is to make more Christians so people can go to heaven when they die, but to help more people follow in the way of Christ whatever their religion so more of heaven will come here.
Which is why I believe you can actually be a Muslim disciple of Jesus, an atheist disciple of Jesus, or a Buddhist disciple of Jesus. Best case scenario, you could even be a Christian disciple of Jesus, and boy could the world use more of those right now. A disciple of Jesus is anyone who is learning from Jesus how to love God and love heir neighbor.
Which means - and this is where things get a little dicey - that making disciples can still involve conversion; but - don’t freak out - it must be conversion rightly understood. I don’t think we should be out there convincing people to renounce their religion in favor of ours. I think conversion is simply a natural consequence of learning more.
The way I see it, as disciples of Jesus we should all be constantly converting because we should all be constantly learning and if we’re constantly learning then we’ll all be changing what we believe about things. I also think we should always be converting into wiser, kinder, more compassionate people.
The way I see it, what Jesus is inviting us into here, is not a rigid belief system but a way of believing, a way of being that is humbly open to changing, deepening, and growing. Christianity is the way, not the end. It is the journey, not the destination. It is the path, not the goal. It’s not just a label that describes what you are, but a label that describes who you are becoming, who you want to be, who you want to be like.
Which brings us to the question of obedience. I think this verse about teaching people to obey all I have commanded you sounds really frightening and imposing. Anyone else have a visceral reaction to this verse? Sure. It sounds frightening and imposing because Christians have used it in the most frightening and imposing of ways.
But if we take a step back and remember that to obey simply means to listen, and then ask ourselves, what was it that Jesus actually commanded …it’s really not so bad. In fact, it could actually be quite good.
Some people think Jesus is talking about the sermon on the mount when he says, “teach them to obey all I have commanded you.” And you can absolutely follow that as your guide. But I don’t remember him using the words “I command” in that sermon. I don’t remember Jesus saying, “I command you to be the salt of the earth,”or “I command you to be the light of the world.”
Honestly, I think we can keep it even more simple. I know Jesus commanded the waves to be still. I know he occasionally commanded demons to come out of people. He spoke in the imperative often when he was healing people.
But the only time I remember him coming right out and commanding his disciples to do anything was during the last supper. On that night, knowing full well that his disciples were about to betray, deny, and abandon him, he washed their feet, anyway. He shared a cup and broke bread with them, anyway. He chose to love them, anyway, and then he said, “I give you a new commandment, love one another as I have loved you.”
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
It doesn’t matter what they do. You do as I do. You love them anyway.
Imagine a world where we loved one another the way Jesus loved them.
Imagine a world where we loved one another the way Jesus loves us.
That’s the world Jesus was imagining when he said, “go and make disciples of all nations.”
That’s all this was ever about.
That’s all he was asking of them back then.
That’s all he is asking of us even now.
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
This is the way.