THE GREAT COMMISSION
Is 2:1-5; Rom 10:9-18, Matt 28:16-20
Today is World Mission Sunday. This annual observance was instituted 94 years ago in 1926 by Pope Pius XI’s Papal decree. Every year since then, the universal Church has dedicated the month of October to reflection on and pray for the missions. On World Mission Sunday, Catholics gather to celebrate the Eucharist, and to contribute to a collection for the work of evangelization around the world. This annual celebration gives us a chance to reflect on the importance of mission work for the life of the Church. It reminds us that we are one with the Church around the world and that we are all committed to carrying on the mission of Christ, however different our situations may be. Today, we reflect mainly on the text of the Gospel of Matthew 28:16-20.
1. THE COMMISSION
The text of today’s gospel contains Jesus’ final words in the gospel of Matthew. It contains his instructions for us and for his Church on what to do until he returns. “Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20). These closing statements are immensely rich.
a) First, Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and earth. This is a claim of him being God. Jesus did not have only some authority. He did not only have authority over heaven or earth. He had all authority in heaven and earth. In other words, Jesus was claiming to have absolute authority. He was claiming to be equal with God. The disciples surely did not miss this point. And this point serves as the basis for everything else he says.
b) Second, because he has all authority, he commands us to do a job. The final two verses of Matthew are comprised of three different commands to his disciples, which include us.
2. MAKE DISCIPLES OF ALL THE NATIONS
His first command is to go and make disciples of all the nations. It is significant that Jesus orders his disciples to go to all nations and make disciples, because he is saying the message of the gospel does not apply only to the Jewish people, but to everyone. This would have been a revolutionary concept for this group of people who had been raised as Jews. They had been waiting for a Messiah who would ultimately make the nation of Israel great. They believed they were God’s chosen people, not the rest of the world. But here Jesus reminds us that his work on the cross is not just for a select few, it is for all people in all nations in all times.
Think about what that means for us today. It means that we have a responsibility to make disciples of people in Muslim nations where Christianity is illegal. We have a responsibility to make disciples of people who claim there is no God at all. We have a responsibility to make disciples of people who are at the opposite end of the political spectrum different from what we are. We have a responsibility to make disciples of people who make our blood boil. The gospel applies to all people in all situations. And our responsibility is to take that message to literally everyone.
The early disciples did exactly that. They left their homes and went out to the surrounding nations. As a result, in just a few hundred years, the gospel message had spread through a significant portion of the world. There were Christians all over the place. This is something we should continue to take seriously today. The Church should be an active supporter of sending missionaries to places where people need to hear the gospel message. Sometimes people argue that we should worry about the people in our own backyard before we spend resources on people in other places in the world. But here is the crux of the matter—every one of us is called to reach out to the people around us. For some, that means going to the other side of the world to minister to complete strangers. For others, that means Jesus is calling you to reach out to your friends, neighbours, and co-workers. We are to make disciples both in our own backyard and on the other side of the world. We should not neglect either one.
But what does it mean to make a disciple? Step one is evangelization. It is impossible for people to follow Jesus until they know about him. We have a responsibility to talk to people about who Jesus is, what he taught, and why that matters. It is not enough for us to debate politics or moral issues with people from a biblical perspective, we need to tell people the story of Jesus and why it all matters. That is what true evangelization is. While it is fun to debate with people about various issues relating to faith, we are only truly being faithful to Jesus’ command when we are telling people about him. That needs to be our primary focus when talking to people.
But evangelization alone is not enough. Jesus does not call us to go and make converts of all nations. It is not enough to convince people of the truth of the gospel message. We are to encourage them to become disciples—which means to become disciplined followers of Jesus. Which is exactly what the next two parts of Jesus’ command entail.
3. BAPTIZING THEM IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON, AND HOLY SPIRIT
Jesus tells us that not only do we need to tell people about Jesus, but once they believe, we are to baptize them.
Baptism is a controversial issue in the Church, and it has been for centuries. The reason it is contentious is because it is important. If Jesus told us we are to baptize people, then we want to make sure we are doing it right.
Here’s where I come down on the issue. If Jesus was really concerned about the mechanics of baptism, he would have given us very specific instructions about exactly to carry it out. He really only gave us one instruction: to baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus does not tell us how much water to use, how old people should be, where it should take place, or who should actually do the baptizing. Those are secondary issues. The bigger issue is one of obedience to Jesus’ commands. We are to baptize people because he told us to do so.
Some people argue against being baptized because they say you do not have to be baptized in order to go to heaven. And I suppose that is true. Baptism is not what saves us. It is faith in Jesus that saves us. But at the same time, if we are followers of Jesus we will seek to be obedient to him. The person who claims to be a follower of he/she is are simply playing a game, and fooling only him/herself.
4. TEACH THEM TO OBEY EVERYTHING I HAVE COMMANDED
The final command Jesus gives his followers is to teach these disciples to obey everything He has commanded. This is what discipleship really is. We have a tendency to think that our job as Christians ends once we have gotten someone to trust in Christ, but that is really just the beginning of a whole new job. We now have a responsibility to help those new believers to grow in their faith, to encourage them to follow everything that Jesus commanded.
Obviously in order to follow what Jesus commanded, we have to first know what he commanded. This is one of the reasons it is so important that we study the scriptures for ourselves. The only way to know what Jesus has told us to do is to actually study what he taught.
And if we are going to encourage others to follow Jesus’ commands, it stands to reason that we need to follow his commands as well. This means we are to follow not just the commands that are easy or comfortable or the ones come naturally to us. Contrary to that, our focus should be on the commands we find difficult, the ones we do not like, the ones that require a real step of faith.
For some of us, it may be the command to love you neighbour, or to love your enemies. For others it may be the command to go the extra mile for people who really do not deserve it. For still others it might be the command to forgive as you have been forgiven. Or maybe it is the command to go and make disciples of people that you find most difficult. We must not that a true disciple seeks to follow the commands of the One he follows. We are to first of all strive to be true disciples, and then help others to do the same.
Here is an interesting part of this process. If we make genuine disciples, if we teach people to obey everything Jesus has commanded, then the process will keep repeating itself! Real disciples make more disciples! This is what makes the Church grow, and what makes the Church survive. When we are obedient to Jesus, the Church will grow and thrive—and even more than that, God is glorified by our actions.
5. I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS
Jesus’ final words are words of encouragement. He tells the disciples that He is with them always, even until the end of the age. In other words, though this is a tough task, he does not call us to do it on our own. Jesus will enable us to do exactly what he has called us to do. We may fear that we are not up to the task of making disciples—that we do not know enough, that we are not strong enough Christians, that we are going to look foolish, or that we may actually do more harm than good. But the beauty of what Jesus says in these closing words is that we are not dependent on our own strengths and abilities! He promises us that he will be with us in everything we do. That means we simply need to be obedient to him, and trust him that he will do the rest—because he will.
There is a beautiful symmetry to these closing words of Matthew’s gospel. At the beginning of the gospel we are told that Mary would have a child and he would be called Immanuel, which means God with us. And now in these closing words, Jesus reminds us that even as he leaves the earth, he is still Immanuel. Even today, Jesus is still with us and will guide us and strengthen us as we seek to be obedient to him and to teach others to do the same. It is a promise that should embolden and encourage us to carry out His Great Commission.
It is fitting that Jesus closes out his ministry by giving us a command that essentially tells us to continue his work. He has entrusted the work he began to you and to me. That is what the “Mission Sunday” aims at reminding us about. We need to be faithful in continuing to carry it out, because we are the means through which Jesus can change the world. It may seem far-fetched, but it is not. Jesus tells us he will help us to do what he is called us to do. All we have to do is to trust him enough that he will actually do what he says.