19Therefore go 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 I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
The command to “go” and to “make” disciples has defined Christianity for centuries and has probably been one of the most formative parts of our Christian narrative. We are supposed to share our faith. We are supposed to lead people to Jesus. We are commanded to “go and make.” Period.
I wish I could hear how Jesus “sounded” when these words were spoken. I’d like to believe there was nuance in his voice — and that it didn’t sound as harsh as it reads…Or as harsh as it was taught to me by my bible study teacher; a white male encouraging us to “pray and consider Africa as a place to ‘do’ mission.”
Even back then, when I was a “new” believer, and a young leader, something didn’t feel right about this passage to me. It felt, and still feels…well…it feels violent.
Before everyone calls me a heretic, let me explain.
I am a Pacific Islander. My family comes from the islands of Samoa.
The London Missionary Society sent missionaries to the islands in the South Pacific in the early 1800’s.
In I832, the missionary John Williams landed in American Samoa, in the village of Leone. The First Christian Congregational Church in American Samoa was founded here. In front of the church, a monument was erected in honor of John Williams. HE was responsible for bringing Christianity to the Samoan Islands. I had mixed feelings about Viliamu (Williams). The Samoan Christian Congregational Church of Samoa was the denomination of my parents and grandparents. Several years ago, I visited Leone and the site where Christianity came to us through the missionary movement. I saw this monument erected in honor of Loane Viliamu (Missionary John Williams). I remember standing in front of this monument with a million questions, totally conflicted and with tears in my eyes. Not all of them were happy tears.
What did they see? How did they view my people? Did they see us as uncivilized? Savage? Did they did they discern the indigenous ways of knowing God that were there long before they arrived — put in us by the God they were sent to proclaim? Did they know of our values of aiga (family), tautua (service), tausiga o va (love of neighbor) and could they recognize this as God’s grace already present with us, to us, among us? In reading journal entries from missionaries sent to the South Pacific islands, I found the following entry from John Williams:
“The more hideous their depravity, the more urgent was the need to lose no moment in bringing to them the means of salvation. Not merely was it to be a message to save the soul, but the missionary was also to teach useful arts and crafts and all the blessings of civilization, from arithmetic to plastering houses.”
That’s how they viewed my ancestors.
I’m sure these missionaries came as a faithful response to the Great Commission. By the way, Jesus never called it that. It was a branding idea that came about in the late 1700’s to get people interested in foreign mission. It worked. Thousands of missionaries were sent out to all corners of the world. I suppose I should be grateful for them coming. It resulted in my family — great-grandparents, grandparents and parents, becoming Christian — along with the rest of the islands.
It is difficult to reconcile feelings of being “acted upon,” which is how I read Williams’s journal entry, AND how I read Matthew 28. Perhaps the writer of Matthew is assuming that after 27 chapters of seeing, hearing, and being with Jesus, the disciples will know the “way” in which mission should happen. Their “mission” should’ve been informed by beautiful parables of the Kingdom of God where Jesus is constantly turning expectations upside down — where those in power are called to sacrificial service. Where the first are last, and the last are first. Where prostitutes, lepers, religious outsiders, INCLUDING women, are elevated by Jesus as examples to religious people of what it means to truly know and worship God.
For many years, I avoided this passage altogether. I wasn’t motivated to share the Gospel in this way — by going to them, making them into disciples, baptizing them, teaching them, etc….it all felt too…”colonizing.”
Imagine how relieved I was when a colleague shared with me a different commission from John 21: “As the Father has sent me, so I send You.”
It turns out that the most important, instructive missional word in all of scripture is a tiny: AS.
It’s an incarnational word, like another small incarnational word: WITH.
To run out the door with good intent and fervor, armed only with a Matthew 28 charge and zeal does damage. It diminishes people. It creates a power dynamic between “us” and “them” — those who have the Good News and those who “need” it. Matthew 28 needs John 21 in order to give us, not just the “what” of mission, but also the “how.” If we don’t hold those together, we risk bearing witness, often through our deeds, of a disincarnated God. And that couldn’t be further away from the truth of Jesus that we are commissioned to share.
Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms