The (other) Great Commission

Most of us have been taught that mission work has something to do with saving, one of the three commonly used evangelical mission categories (what I like to call “The Three S’s”—serve, sacrifice, save). We go to a place where people are in need in some way, in need of saving. Depending on our theological paradigm and stance toward mission, that may mean a lot of different things. For some of us, it may mean evangelizing so someone’s soul will be saved from forever and ever punishment. For others, it might mean using medical skills to save people from disease, or helping people get clean water, or rescuing girls who have been trafficked. Global mission means many different things to different people. In general, most mission work holds saving as a primary category. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We all need salvation, and none of us can save ourselves. But what do the Gospels have to say about where the rubber (of mission) meets the road (of salvation)?

The author of the Gospel of Luke suggests that Jesus can be understood as a prophet who was concerned with reversal of the structures of society that kept people locked in oppression. The essence of the book of Luke is that God came for the poor, the outliers, those living in the margins. This sounds like what a lot of us missional type Christians are always getting our underwear in a bunch about, which of course can be a very good thing indeed!

Luke reveals his stance about who Jesus was through his narrative of Jesus’ ministry. In this section of the text, Luke continuously uses language surrounding the idea that Jesus came for the outsider. Over and over Luke uses words like “rich and poor” to show that Jesus is proclaiming a radical message of reversal to the marginalized. Luke is concerned with salvation insofar as it has to do with reversing the oppression of the marginalized in society, a very present sense of being saved in the here and now.

Luke presents Jesus as someone who is for the poor and oppressed, which he used as a means of illustrating the reversal of oppressive structures he saw Jesus catalyzing. Luke writes, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Salvation for Luke was all about freedom for the orphan, the prostitute, the widow.

Scholars tell us that Luke was referencing the Gospel of Mark as he wrote these words, somewhere between the year 75-100, that later became part of the New Testament canon. Luke ends his Gospel with what has come to be widely known as The Great Commission—except it looks much different from the same text written in Matthew and Mark’s Gospels. In Matthew this text reads, “Therefore go 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 I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” The same text written in Mark reads, “He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned’” (Mark 16:15-16). But Luke saw it a bit differently. His emphasis was on something distinctive than that of Matthew and Mark. These three authors were thinking very differently from one another about the locus of Jesus’ identity and message, and thus how mission and salvation were related. The same passage in Luke reads,

“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high’” (Luke 24:45-49).

Matthew and Mark emphasize immediate movement into the world: Go. Make disciples. Baptize. Preach. The passage in Luke curiously omits these words. Instead, Luke puts emphasis on remaining, on staying, on witnessing.  Luke was on about being over doing. He was convinced that prior to the disciples heading out on their mission, they needed to be transformed, and that this would be the work of the Spirit who would soon arrive. Perhaps they needed to further journey into the process of salvation prior to offering the message of Jesus to the world. Maybe they needed their community a bit longer. Maybe they had something more to learn before they could go teach.  And unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke doesn’t mention condemnation. He doesn’t discuss belief.  Maybe he wasn’t convinced that it needed to be talked about. Because something else mattered more to him, something having to do with

Witnessing to life in the spaces of death

Remaining in the resurrection space

Staying present with people

Expecting transformation from the divine breath of God

It makes me wonder if reading Luke can shape the ways we are thinking about mission and can form the questions we are asking about what it means to serve down the street or across an ocean. Like Luke, a lot of us believe Jesus was—and is—all about reversing the structures that catalyze suffering and death, especially among the economically poor. And as we think about what it means to be reversers of oppression, perhaps we can also enter Luke’s invitation to remain, to expect, to witness, to be transformed.

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