The gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary that was read on Trinity Sunday (June 19) this year in some Christian churches is the ending of the Gospel of Matthew. It is also known as the Great Commission.
The words of Jesus, that we are to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19), has been used by Christians through the centuries as a club. The missionaries who accompanied the conquering and invading armies from Christian nations sometimes confronted their heathen foes with a "be baptized or die" form of evangelism.
The Great Commission more recently has been used by some conservative and breakaway groups as a litmus test to determine in their mind just how Christian one really is.
What is often overlooked are Jesus' words in verse 20 about teaching those new disciples "everything that I have commanded you." Everything would include the Great Commandment: to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.
But what is also overlooked is how Jesus got to that final instruction to his disciples because he didn't start out that way.
If we look at the sending out of the twelve (Matthew 10:5ff), Jesus pointedly tells them not to go to the Gentiles nor the Samaritans. "Go instead to the lost sheep, the people of Israel," says Jesus. I suspect had that been the final word we would all be worshipping in Hebrew on Sundays — or Friday nights, rather. Or we wouldn't be followers of Jesus at all since there would have been no Paul setting up communities around the Mediterranean that eventually spread the Good News to the ends of the known world.
So what happened to Jesus? Well, there was that uppity Canaanite woman a few chapters later (Matthew 15:21-28) who came shouting that her daughter was ill and would the "Son of David" please heal her. We see a different kind of Jesus, I suspect, that most of us would not like. He ignores her, which would have been acceptable in that culture given the norms of men not speaking to women in public. His disciples urge him to send her away. But she pleads with him. His response: "I've been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel."
She kneels before him and begs. His response borders on rude and condescending: "It is not good to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs."
Here we see a side of Jesus we'd rather not. He has just called her a dog as well as the indigenous people of Canaan. Was she insulted? If so we don't know. But she does challenge Jesus saying, "Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."
That is a turning point in Jesus' whole ministry. From then on this gospel we have been given became available to everyone. That encounter with an uppity Gentile woman changed Jesus forever.
So when we are challenged by a changing culture, changing neighborhoods and changing attitudes, why do our congregations not change? Are we afraid? Might we fail? Might we do something wrong? All understandable responses. But Jesus promises in Matthew to be with us always.
Jesus is indeed with us as we can see in the videos on the Episcoapl Church Center website (http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/our-congregations) about congregations who've stepped out in faith to respond to their changing contexts. They demonstrate that congregations can remake themselves into new expressions of the gospel and thrive. He is with us in the Rev. Tom Brackett's ministry from the Church Center as missioner for new church planting, fresh expressions and redevelopment (http://plantingcentral.typepad.com/bench) and in the Episcopal Church Foundation's Vital Practices (http://www.ecfvp.org) website and Vital Posts blog.
We no longer live in Christendom. The mission field begins at the sidewalk just beyond the narthex. All it takes is the will of congregational leaders and being open to the Holy Spirit. We are, after all, a people of faith.
Jesus changed. What's stopping us?