I have been benefiting this summer from studying the writings of missionary and church leader Lesslie Newbigin. From my early days with Christian Reformed World Missions I remember focusing on the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) as an important scripture passage influencing my call to missions.
Newbigin points out that there are actually three Great Commissions. Along with the Matthaean passage there is also a Lukan version, Acts 1:6-8: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit is come upon you and you shall be my witnesses.” Then there is the Johannine version (20:19-23). After promising that he would be present where two or three are gathered, Jesus then commands his followers, “Open the doors, go out into the world. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
One of the things I appreciate about Newbigin is that he was very aware of changes in our world and in the mission of the church over his ministry. He begin as a missionary in south India in the last six years of Great Britain’s colonial rule over India. He was seen as part of the British raj, as someone to be obeyed and looked up to. He points out that sometimes we have used the Matthaean version of the Great Commission in a triumphalist way; that the mission of the church is about extending the power of the church. Focusing on these other two great commissions helps us in two ways.
To follow the Lukan passage in Acts is to see the Great Commission as an overflowing of the Holy Spirit. It is less a command and more of a gift, a blessing to the church. The mission of the church is no longer something we have to do, but something that flows naturally out of the work of the Spirit in our midst. Out of the abundance of God’s grace and the power of His Spirit flows naturally our witness to our neighbor.
To follow the Johannine passage is to see the Great Commission as a mission similar to the one the Father gave to the Son. We know that that mission is one of suffering. The Father gave the Son a mission to die on a cross, and the Son obediently carried it out. As the church suffers today along with the marginalized and those suffering injustice we enter into mission. Evangelism and social justice become equal partners. Our witness only becomes effective as our suffering becomes evident. In a changing world, where Christianity itself is marginalized, and where many Christians are persecuted for their faith, the mission of the Church comes alive.
Our church is in many ways a suffering church – losing influence in an increasingly secular society, still feeling the painful effects of the discussions about women in office, losing members to other denominations, divided by our particular theologies. Yet if we remember that there are three Great Commissions and that includes our witness today in the midst of a suffering church and world, and that the mission of the church is a gift of the Holy Spirit, I think we can be encouraged.