More important than the Great Commission

This statement is likely to stir up a virtual storm, but I’m going to write it anyhow: the Church pays too much attention to the Great Commission.

Yes, Jesus did say that we should make disciples of all nations. Because Jesus said it, we should do it. He said it at a pretty prominent time, too, meeting with his disciples in Galilee after his resurrection. Matthew chose to close his Gospel with the Great Commission.

But, as far as I can see, Jesus only stated that commandment once. The word translated “make disciples” is used four times in the New Testament–thrice by Matthew and once in the book of Acts. It is stated as a commandment only in Matthew 28. Christians making disciples could hardly be considered Jesus’ top priority. On the other hand, Jesus seems obsessed with the topic of forgiving sinners.

Three times–twice in Matthew and once in John–Jesus says, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Some Christians call this power to share Christ’s forgiveness the Office of the Keys, because the first time Jesus says those words, in Matthew 16, he precedes them with, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” John quotes Jesus talking about forgiving sinners on the very first opportunity he has to speak with his apostles after his resurrection. To me, that shows a higher priority on sharing forgiveness than on making disciples.

In his model prayer, Jesus directs his followers to make one promise. The promise is not to make disciples; the promise is to forgive those who sin against us. I remember several parables of Jesus that describe forgiveness. I cannot recall a parable that describes making disciples.

Can we make disciples without sharing the good news of the forgiveness of sins? No, not really. When we share God’s promise of forgiveness and that promise is believed, is the believer also now a disciple of Jesus? Yes, that is true. What is the difference, then, between sharing forgiveness and making disciples?

The difference is in emphasis. A congregation that focuses on making disciples, on teaching discipleship, may forget to share the forgiveness of sins. A friend of mine who was a pastor (but not of the church I attended) once said, “My calling is to share the Gospel, but I don’t do that Sunday morning. The people in church Sunday morning already know the Gospel. I tell them how God wants them to live their lives.”

I’m glad he was my friend, but I’m also glad he was not my pastor. Every time God’s people gather, they all need to hear that Jesus has redeemed them and forgives them their sins. As one professor taught future preachers, “Consider the possibility that someone in front of you has never heard about Jesus before. Make certain your sermon tells him everything he needs to know to be saved. Consider the possibility that someone in front of you might die that week, and this might be the last sermon he hears. Make certain your sermon tells him everything he needs to know to be saved.”

When a Christian shares God’s commands, the intention should not be to change someone’s behavior. (Christian parents teaching their children are sometimes an exception to that statement.) When a Christian shares God’s commands, the intention should be to show that we are all sinners who need a Savior. The apostle Paul once called God’s Law a mirror. We look into that mirror to see how far we have fallen from God’s plan for our lives. Then we understand the vastness of God’s love and the enormous price that Jesus paid for each of us by suffering and dying on the cross.

By all means, the Church should continue making disciples by baptizing and by teaching, just as Jesus said. Instead of telling each other that we are obeying the Great Commission, though, we should remember that we are the body of Christ. We continue his work, challenging sinners by the Law, but seeking always the opportunity to say, “Don’t be afraid; your sins are forgiven.” J.

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Candlemas

Most people, whether believers or unbelievers, are familiar with the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Far fewer are aware of the minor festivals of the Christian calendar, such as Candlemas, which is observed every year on the second day of February.

As Christians in the Roman Empire chose to celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus (that is to say, his birthday) at the same time that Romans and Celts and Germans were celebrating various Yuletide observances, so Christians also chose to celebrate the Presentation of Jesus at the same time that Celts were observing a holiday they called Imbolc. This holiday falls halfway between the winter solstice near the end of December and the spring equinox near the end of March. In Ireland, some of the old customs of Imbolc have been blended into St. Brigid’s Day on February 1, but for most other European Christians and their descendants around the world, Candlemas has received the attention formerly given to Imbolc.

The second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke describes the birth and childhood of Jesus. The familiar account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, including the announcement by the angel to shepherds and their visit, comes from Luke. Luke also wrote that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day from his birth and was presented to God on the fortieth day from his birth. Celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 puts the anniversary of his circumcision on January 1 and his presentation on February 2.

What is the significance of the presentation of Jesus? Once again, as at his circumcision, Jesus was fulfilling the Law for the benefit of all his people. The Law of God, given through Moses, required every firstborn son to be offered to God and purchased from God with a sacrifice. This presentation and purchase of the firstborn son reminded God’s people of the tenth plague upon Egypt, when God’s angel killed the firstborn son of every family in Egypt except for those who obeyed God, marking their houses with the blood of a lamb. The details of the plague, the Passover, and the remembrance are filled with images of Jesus and his sacrifice—the death of a firstborn son picturing the death on the cross of God’s only-begotten Son, the substitution of a lamb for some sons (and the use of the lamb’s blood to identify those who were protected) showing Jesus as the Lamb of God taking the place of sinners, and the purchase of the firstborn son in following generations showing the price Jesus paid on the cross to cover the debt of sinners. Because Jesus, on the fortieth day from his birth, was already obeying the commands of God, Christians are credited with his righteousness. We are free to approach the throne of God and even to call him our Father. Jesus took our place in this sinful world so we can take his place in God’s Kingdom.

Bonfires were lit in Europe on Imbolc night as part of the celebration of the holiday. Christian churches chose to replace the bonfires with many candles, filling the church with light to remember Jesus, the Light of the world. From that custom comes the name, Candlemas. I first encountered that name in the stories of King Arthur, for he and his knights would gather on Candlemas, as they did on Christmas and Easter, to celebrate and to await the beginning of new adventures. The king would not allow his court to eat the feast until some odd event had taken place, sending at least one knight off on a mission to rescue some victim or defeat some enemy.

Before the establishment of the National Weather Service or the invention of Doppler Radar, European Christians often trusted traditions about the holidays to make long-term forecasts of the coming weather. St. Swithin’s Day (July 15) in the British Isles was thought to set the pattern for the next forty days—either it would remain dry for forty days or it would rain for forty days, depending upon whether or not it rained that day. In Hungary the weather on St. Martin’s Day (November 11) predicted the kind of winter that was coming: “If St. Martin arrives on a white horse, it will be a mild winter—if he arrives on a brown horse, it will be a cold and snowy winter.” In other words, snow on November 11 promised a mild winter. So also, the weather on Candlemas was thought to predict the next forty days of weather: a clear and sunny Candlemas meant winter was only half over, but a cloud-filled sky on Candlemas morning meant that winter was over and spring was about to begin.

In Germany bears often took a break from hibernation around the beginning of February to check out conditions and get a bite to eat. The weather tradition for Candlemas became associated with the emergence of the bear and the question of whether or not it cast a shadow. German settlers in North America adapted the tradition to local wildlife, and thus began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

Ironically, more Americans are aware of Groundhog Day than of Candlemas. The fame of Groundhog Day increased in 1993 with the release of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. The movie has little connection to Christian beliefs. It is more suited to explaining the idea of samsara, found in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Samsara is the cycle of lifetimes in which one’s atman (roughly analogous to spirit or soul, but not exactly the same thing) keeps returning to this world until it has learned all it needs to know and is fully enlightened.

On Groundhog Day I check for shadows as I bring in the morning paper. This year, I will also remember to light a candle or two and celebrate the feast of Candlemas. J.

Reprinted from a year ago.

Fear not

When God says, “Fear not,” are those words a command or a promise? I would like to answer, “Both,” or, “It depends upon the context,” or, “Why do you want to know?” This question is not easily answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

“Fear not” as a command from God relates to the first commandment—have no other gods—and the greatest commandment—love the Lord your God with all your heart and strength and soul and mind. We are to fear the Lord above all else. When something frightens us, we are to turn to the Lord for strength. When we remain in fear and do not draw strength from the Lord, we are allowing an obstacle to stand between us and God, and any such obstacle is sin.

Yet God gave us the emotion of fear for a reason. The surge of energy that accompanies fear gives us power to run away from danger or power to stand and fight danger. Courage does not mean a lack of fear; courage means doing the right thing in spite of fear. Many people enjoy the feeling of fear, which is why they ride roller coasters or watch horror movies. Other people are plagued by ongoing feelings of fear and anxiety, prompting them to take medicines and undergo therapy to escape those feelings. Telling either group of people that fear is a sin against God would be misguided and inappropriate.

“Fear not” as a promise from God relates to his love, his mercy, and his power. When God tells us not to fear, he is promising us that we have no reason to fear. God is stronger than all our enemies. He has already defeated all our enemies. The devil, the sinful world, the sinful nature we still possess, and death which results from sin: they have all lost to Christ, and he shares his victory with us.

A person who uses fear as an excuse not to obey God should be told that God commands us not to fear. We should love God more than anything else, we should trust God more than anything else, and we should fear God more than anything else. Fear of danger is no reason to disobey God. God says, “Take courage and do not fear, for I will never leave you or forsake you.”

A person who suffers from phobias or from generalized anxiety should not be told that God commands us not to fear. Adding guilt to that person’s troubles will not help that person—adding guilt is likely to move that person toward despair. That person instead needs to be told that “fear not” is a promise. He or she will not be punished for being fearful, but God will provide a way to endure the fear and to cling to God’s victory in spite of the fear. Fear itself can be frightening, and that creates a vicious spiral that only worsens when guilt is added to fear. The remedy for fear is faith, and faith comes only from the comforting promises of God’s Word. We have a reason not to fear, but that reason is not the command of God. Our reason not to fear encompasses the grace of God, the love of God, and the victory of God. J.