Heartland Presbyterian Church
D. Mark Davis
A friend of mine told me about a conversation that he once had with his spouse, which astounded both of them. He had been raised in a very theologically conservative tradition, and attended a very “evangelical”
His wife, however, had not been raised in a theologically conservative or “evangelical” tradition. And in a conversation – many decades into their marriage – he was bemoaning to her how many people in the Presbyterian Church simply did not even know what “The Great Commission” was, much less were they active in following that commission. Then, he realized that when he used the phrase “The Great Commission,” he drew a blank stare from his wife. So, he asked, “You know what The Great Commission is, don’t you?” And she said, “Well, I think so. Isn’t it that we’re supposed to love God and our neighbor?”
I would like to say that, at this point, my friend looked his beloved on calmly in the eyes and said, “Isn’t it amazing how we were both raised in Christian homes, but we received from those homes such different ways of naming what the essence of the Christian life is all about?” But, he didn’t. Instead he bellowed, “No, that’s not The Great Commission! That’s the Great Commandment! I can’t believe that you’ve been in the church all these years and never learned the difference between The Great Commission and The Great Commandment.” To which she simply said, “Well, I like mine better.”
This little snippet of domestic non-tranquility aptly captures one of the key differences between two significant portions of the Christian Church in
For “evangelical” Christians, who find “The Great Commission” to be the driving force our faith, there is the expectation that our finite span of life on earth has, as its primary calling, the goal of going, making disciples, baptizing others into the name of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching obedience to all that Jesus commands of us. Those who embrace this way of faithfulness do not exclude loving God and neighbor as part of that mission. There is, however, the feeling that ‘loving God and neighbor’ can be a rather nebulous idea unless it is part of the larger goal of inviting that neighbor to have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And so, the “evangelical” part of the church is certainly no less charitable or less compassionate than their “mainline” brothers and sisters. But they would argue that the best expression of charity and compassion is through enabling others to have a genuine experience of knowing Jesus Christ as their own Lord and Savior. Without that driving goal, “evangelical” Christians fear that “loving God and neighbor” can be ill-defined and perhaps too attentive to present needs without enough attention to one’s eternal life. The criticism that “mainline” Christians would have toward “evangelical” Christians is that, by making the confession of faith the goal of loving God and neighbor, “evangelical” Christians too often end up with a rather rigid distinction between “us” and “them,” who’s in and who’s out, which has the feel of being rather judgmental.
For “mainline” Christians, who find “The Great Command” to be the driving force of our faith, there is expectation that anything we do – including the practice of evangelism – must be evaluated by the test of love. It is love itself – the love of God and love of neighbor as one interwoven cloth – that names what the life of faith is all about. And so, while “mainline” Christians are not opposed to “evangelism” – in fact, I think many “mainline” Christians admire the zeal and gumption of “evangelical” Christians – they would argue that even the activity of “evangelism” must be practiced within the bounds of love. And, for “mainline” Christians, to love one’s neighbor means to accept that neighbor first and foremost “as is,” and to believe that whenever one experiences being loved then one is truly and really experiencing a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The criticism that “evangelical” Christians would have toward “mainline” Christians is that, “loving God and neighbor” is simply an empty phrase and practice if it does not include, deliberately and specifically, introducing and even attempting to persuade that neighbor to enter a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
I have three suspicions about this great divide among the Christian Church, particularly as it pertains to Heartland Presbyterian Church. First, I suspect that each of us finds meaning in both, the parts of the gospels that describe what is called “The Great Commandment” and the parts of the gospel that describe what is called “The Great Commission.” And yet, because these two ways of being faithful have been set over and against one another as the defining purpose of the church, I further suspect that each of us finds ourselves tacking one direction or the other in this ongoing debate over what, exactly, is the driving force of the faithful church. And finally, I suspect that each of us knows that these two options are not truly “either/or” options, that the faithful church is the church that takes both of these emphases very seriously and assumes that the way of faithfulness is found in living consciously and deliberately toward both, even with the tensions that we have grown to expect between them.
And so, stepping back a moment from this division among the Christian Church, and recognizing that each of us has some opinion with regard to the tensions that exist between them, I invite you to listen anew to this part of Matthew’s gospel that is often called “The Great Commission,” as a way of hearing what a loving, missional Church is all about. The key word here is the verb “disciple.” I know that we are accustomed to hearing the word “disciple” as a noun: Peter and “the twelve” were disciples, Mary Magdalene and “the other women” were disciples, we are called to be disciples, and so forth. But, in this final portion of Matthew’s story, the word “disciple” is actually a verb, and it is the primary verb in this sentence. (“Go,” “baptize,” and “teach” are participles; “obey” is an infinitive, the object of the participle ‘to teach.’) Most of our Bible translate this term as “make disciples,” but the word ‘make’ is added there because we are so unaccustomed to the verb ‘disciple.’ Literally, it read, “When you go, disciple the nations ….” “Disciple,” as a verb, is a relational term and it implies a purpose-filled relationship. To “disciple” another involved loving and teaching – that is, being a living example of all that one teaches.
Folks, if you think “telling” others about your faith takes a lot of gumption and nerve, imagine what it takes to “disciple” others into the Christian faith. We might think that the call to “disciple the nations” is only for the perfect Christian and altogether too lofty and presumptuous for us to even think about it. But, Matthew’s story speaks to that objection.
Too often I think we have a tendency to take one-and-a-half verses out of our story and treat them as a “stand alone” sort of command. But, let’s look at how Matthew tells this story a little closer. Just after the resurrection, an angelic messenger sends a message to the eleven remaining Apostles: Go to
In the end, this is not Vince Lombardi, giving the team a pep talk before sending them out onto the field while he watches from the sideline. The point is not even that we’re sent; but that we’re accompanied. Imperfect as we are, doubt-filled though our faith may be, we are invited to accompany Christ in discipling the nations. May God give us the courage to answer that invitation. Amen.