By John Hartnett
Over the years I have observed many conversations about the Church’s mission. Recently it was common for parishes to write mission statements, most of which seemed fairly innocuous. (We are a welcoming, affirming, worship-centered congregation valuing justice and fellowship as we seek to be faithful followers of a living and loving God. That sort of thing.)
Once, when my diocese elected a new bishop, there was much conversation about what his vision would be for our mission. I was puzzled, because I thought we already had a mission, and I did not think it came from the bishop any more than the mission of a parish was defined by its vestry or congregation.
My thinking is this. The Church was called into being by God — not by the disciples — and we who join the Church join an established community which is not of our own making and, therefore, not subject to our own revision.
And if the Church is called into being by God, and for a reason, then it would make sense that God would define the agenda, the mission, for the Church. I suppose Jesus could have breathed on the disciples and said, “Now break into small groups and come back to brainstorm goals and objectives so we can all buy into what we devise.” But, Jesus takes a different approach. God calls the Church into being to do a job which God defines.
Being a church which regularly affirms “the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation,” starting with Scripture might be a reasonable way to begin, and, on occasion, to check back, to discern what God has in mind for the Church.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sets forth the mission in simple terms. And he introduces it with a preamble to make clear who has the right to define it: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). Jesus has the right to say what follows, and to expect it to be obeyed, because the Father has commissioned him so to do. What he offers is more in the nature of a finished vison than a discussion starter.
And then what Mission does Jesus give? “Go therefore,” Jesus begins, “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). The “therefore” in that sentence underscores that this is a command — it points back to his immediately preceding assertion of authority. The mission does not come from Peter — or James or John. It does not come from the women at the tomb who, one might argue, could claim precedence over the others . The role of everyone to whom Jesus entrusts the mission is to hear, and then to go out in obedience. I belabor this point because it is counter-cultural to us for whom “obedient” is rarely cited as a positive personal characteristic.
Let’s step back and speculate a bit, maybe retrospectively from our current situation, about how Jesus might have defined the mission. Or, depending on your perspective, what some might think he really should have said instead.
It’s useful to consider what Jesus does not say. Does anyone think that social injustice did not exist in Jesus’s day? Does anyone think that Jesus did not care about social injustice? Were governments above any need for correction? Was Jesus indifferent to the way public power was obtained and exercised? Were the economic resources of the eastern Mediterranean shared equally?
What about class and gender — any issues there in Jesus’s day? Looking at the various stories about Jesus and women, one can make a case that he dissented from the cultural consensus about the role and abilities of women, and, when he called his own disciples, he reached not into the educated or powerful classes but, for the most part, chose people who depended on the work of their own, rather than others’, hands.
And then there is slavery. I doubt if anyone would make the case that Jesus did not know about slavery, and it might be just as improbable that he thought it was a healthy and commendable part of the culture and economy of his time.
So back to Jesus’ parting words to his disciples. There were so many things wrong with the world in his day — not so different from our own — which could have been the target of his instructions. Go therefore to all nations and: “challenge inequality and oppression wherever it is found.” Or “empower all who are marginalized or neglected.” Or, “confront established powers so that they will serve, rather than exploit, the peoples under their control.”
Jesus could have said any of these things. But what he says is “make disciples.”
Why can’t we decide for ourselves? As it happens, we do not have to justify Jesus’s choice for it to have authority. After all, all authority has already been given to him, and it was not given to him by us. The consent of the governed is not the source of Jesus’s authority.
But how are we supposed to do it? As unpopular as it may sound, his focus is on individuals—not systemic anything. And perhaps the rest of the sentence offers some guidance about the process which might achieve that goal.
…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 that I have commanded you. (Matt. 28:19-20)
Consider the sequence. One makes disciples first by “baptizing” in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Now, “baptizing” could mean a liturgical act involving water, but I wonder if Jesus is using the word in what I understand to be its more common usage in his day, something more along the lines of “saturating” or “plunging into.” I wonder if what Jesus suggests is that the first step to making a disciple is to saturate them in the name — by which perhaps he meant the core and characteristic essence — of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’s instruction at the end of Matthew reminds me of his conversation with Nicodemus near the beginning of John: baptizing someone in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit might not be so very different from suggesting that to become a true disciple one ought to be born either “again” or “from above.” Being thoroughly saturated in the essence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit might effect a transformation very much like being born again/from on high. This is what it means to be baptized.
And then after the “baptizing” comes the “teaching” and the “obedience.” It is not just teaching “about,” but a “teaching to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
So is Jesus suggesting that his followers be indifferent to those afflicted by injustice or poverty? By no means. Just a few chapters before, Jesus is clear about the imperative to care for the hungry, the thirsty, the needy, those in prison, and the stranger. Those words, and their implied command, are the climax of his teaching in Matthew — not his last words but perhaps his last major public teaching before the shift towards the Last Supper and all that follows.
So, to give priority to making disciples is not to retreat into abstract spirituality, but is to suggest that once someone is a disciple, then they might — or perhaps they must — get to work on what needs to be addressed.
I wonder if we in the Episcopal Church have got this backwards. Most of the rhetoric I hear from leaders in high office is about redressing social wrongs. Right now, it is mostly about race, but in other years it has been about gun violence, immigration, global warming, educational inequality, various issues related to sex and gender, ending world hunger, stopping wars, and boycotting, or not, various industries or countries.
What I rarely hear is how we might be better at making disciples. The dynamic I have observed seems to assume a large (though not as large as it used to be) group of people in the Episcopal Church milling around clueless about what to do and just waiting for a bishop or priest to tell them what is wrong with the world and how they should fix that. We seem to skip over the slow work of the making of disciples so we can get right to the really important work of promoting immediate change on the issue under consideration.
Back near the end of Matthew, just before that parable of the sheep and the goats — with all its language about strict reward or punishment depending on how we treat those in greatest need — comes Jesus’s parable about the talents. Just before his own departure, Jesus tells a story about a master who assigns tasks just before leaving .—he is giving them their mission until he will return—and judge.
The story begins with an unequal allocation of resources — one servant receives five talents, the next, two, and the last gets only one. It is tempting to stop right there and denounce the master for humiliating the last servant and reenforcing the perceived inequality among the workers. Would not it have been more sensitive to give the one least likely to do well more to work with, so that, at the end, perhaps all three would have a comparable result? Should not the playing field have been leveled?
But Jesus seems more concerned with results than with the feelings of the servants. When they file their reports, the first two have doubled their assets, the master praises them, gives them more to work with, and invites them to “enter into the joy of your master.” The third servant produces no increase and is denounced, stripped of what little he has, and thrown into “the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Whether it is considering these servants, looking at the unproductive fig tree, or recalling the tale of those unprepared bridesmaids, in a number of his parables Jesus does not flinch from saying that results — measurable results — matter, and matter to him. The fact that failure may be painful does not keep him from calling it failure and ordering consequences.
How does this practice of Jesus relate to a reflection on mission? My sense is that the Episcopal Church has not only drifted away from giving priority to making disciples but has also lost touch with the ability to give priority to effectiveness and results. If that new direction had produced lively growth in the church, newly established congregations, and expanding opportunities for the recently ordained to begin their ministry working with experienced clergy, then I might keep my curmudgeonly grumbling to myself. But I wonder, instead, if the measurable decline in the health of the Episcopal Church might be related to our having downgraded the work of making disciples and simultaneously having become reluctant, or unable, to acknowledge failure at so many levels.
At times it has felt as if we were living in our own ecclesiastical folk tale, something like The Bishops’ New Clothes. For years I watched congregations close with the only official notice being to celebrate their past and quietly to liquidate their assets. I have called, in private and in public, for exploration into the causes and reasons for congregational closures and been told basically to mind my own business. I have watched congregations merge but insist that it was not really a merger. I have watched congregations which used to employ multiple clergy struggle to keep one full-time rector. And I have seen an explosion of the number of congregations who used to have a rector no longer able to afford one, a trend matched by a dramatic growth in various titles for serving clergy and the use of increasingly detailed time-limited contracts. I have heard that “the old model of a priest for every congregation is dead,” and I have watched subsequently yoked congregations wither and, too often, close. Recent figures suggest we have lost somewhere between a quarter and a third of our Sunday attendance in the last decade.
The worst-performing servant in the parable at least did not lose any of what he was given. We are not even rising to that level, but I have yet to hear general discussion about what we are doing wrong. In the parable the failed servant does not confess, he blames. The master’s reply suggests that excuses do not excuse failure. For us it does no good to blame the culture. If there are challenges in the culture, the mission is not to blame, but instead to figure out how to overcome those challenges.
If making liturgical language more simple and contemporary, if adopting a policy of uncritical affirmation , if prioritizing liturgical choices and options over tradition, if proclaiming forgiveness until we come up against another category of offense and then invoking a convoluted and often secretive judicial process, if giving great authority to feelings and less to thoughts, if defining our mission as fixing social problems rather than making disciples — if all of these approaches had produced growth and health in the Episcopal Church, then we need only continue with business as usual.
It is possible to be a church based on politics, feelings, and exciting new vision, but that produces a significantly different church from one based on Scripture, reason, and tradition. And, having seen both, I am not convinced that for us “new” has produced “improved.”
The choices we have made have not served us, or the world, or God, well. We have less now than what we received from those who came before. We have become a non-producing tree or vineyard. And Jesus is clear about the fate of nonproducing branches (John 15:6). We sell off our assets, we close/relocate seminaries, we explore how one bishop might now do the work formerly done by two, we wonder how our most distinctive cathedrals will be able to continue their ministry. The oil in our lamp has just about run out.
I would like to think that we might be able to repent and return — that the parables are told not to predict our future but to inspire us to make better choices and avoid the consequences of the failures they describe. We have left undone what we ought to have done, and perhaps we have done what we ought not to have done. I wonder if repentance and amendment of life might give us a new direction. Perhaps this is not an “occasion when the Confession may be omitted” (BCP p. 330).
And it is not the Church which needs disciples most of all, it is the world. I wonder if the sorry state of so much public and private life is related to the shrinking pool of transformed and engaged disciples. Strategies which reduce our numbers may hurt us, but perhaps not only us.
What might we do if we thought that the task given to us is not to repair the brokenness of the world through better legislation but to offer transformational renewal so that the Kingdom of God might be more at hand wherever faithful, thoughtful disciples are to be found?
When Jesus contemplates his mission right after his baptism, he faces choices (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). Turning stones into bread has much to commend it — think of all the people who might be fed, think of the good reputation he might acquire and how he might leverage that to wide-spread popularity and a growing positive influence.
Similarly, getting realistic about how the world works, becoming a pragmatic and effective player in the rough and tumble world of politics and economics could have had a beneficial influence.
And being spectacular — getting wide-spread attention, being a recognized wonder-worker and highly respected public figure — certainly that, too, could be deployed to very good effect.
But Jesus chooses a different mission. When he comes out of his wilderness the first thing he does is to call, and then form, disciples. The mission Jesus gives the Church as it is about to start out on its own looks very much like how he began his own work. The mission Jesus gives does not focus on bread, on worldly power, or on seeking wide-spread admiration, but on disciples.
What might happen if we were to take seriously Jesus’ authority (“if you love me…”), and therefore take seriously his command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”?
If we took the command seriously, what would we hear from the House of Bishops? What would be the subject of press releases? What would a seminary curriculum look like, and what gifts would we seek — and nurture — in potential ordinands? What would happen in Diocesan or General Conventions?
I do not have a simple answer to how to reverse the decline of the Episcopal Church and the radiating consequences of that current trend. But I do have a simple question: What if we were to obey the one to whom has been given all authority in heaven and on earth? What might we do then? Or, what might we do now?
The Rev. Canon. John G. Hartnett retired in 2018 after serving as the Rector of St. Elizabeth’s, Ridgewood, New Jersey for 25 years. A graduate of St. George’s School, Harvard College, and Union Theological Seminary, he was ordained to the diaconate by The Rt. Rev. Paul Moore, and to the priesthood by The Most Rev. Desmond Tutu.