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Faith Formation 4.0
Introducing an Ecology of Faith in a Digital Age
By JULIE ANNE LYTLE
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2013Julie Anne Lytle
All rights reserved.
Commissioned as Disciples
Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one who does not believe will be condemned. Mark 16: 15–16
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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, until the end of the age. Matthew 28:19–20
In February 2010 Derek Sivers, self-proclaimed "entrepreneur, programmer, and avid student of life," delivered a TED Talk on "How to Start a Movement," using a three-minute video clip of a grassy hillside dotted with what appear to be groups of concertgoers. As a shirtless man dances, alone, Sivers describes the courage it takes for leaders to stand out and be ridiculed. As a second man joins the first, mirroring gestures and being embraced as an equal, Sivers highlights the underestimated significance of a movement's first follower. The first follower legitimizes the person who initially appeared crazy and becomes the catalyst for a movement. As the one who invites and encourages others to join in, the first follower shows everyone else how to participate. According to Sivers, "The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader."
In a sermon titled "We Need Some Crazy Christians," the Right Reverend Michael Curry emphasized Jesus' paradigm-shifting propositions for those gathered and watching online2 on July 7, 2012 during The Episcopal Church's General Convention liturgy commemorating Harriett Beecher Stowe. Using Mark's account of Jesus' family fearing that Jesus had gone mad and needed restraint (Mark 3:19–27, 31–35), Curry affirmed that, "Jesus was, and is, crazy! And those who would follow him, those who would be his disciples, those who would live as and be the People of the Way, are called, summoned and challenged to be just as crazy as Jesus."
Christian Scripture is filled with stories of Jesus' "crazy" propositions. The Gospel according to Matthew starts Jesus' ministry with the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5–7) in which Jesus describes God's dream for humanity and defines his expectations of disciples. What is unexpected is a list of those who are blessed that includes the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and the meek. This upending is reinforced later in the same gospel. Despite longstanding custom in which the eldest receives the entire family estate, the parable of the prodigal son describes a father's overwhelming generosity to his youngest who not only receives half of the estate but also a lavish party upon his return after squandering it. Correspondingly, the parable of laborers in the vineyard describes the master who pays laborers the same wages regardless of when they began work during the day. Fairness is not measured by human standards, but by God's justice.
Similar expressions of Jesus' radical requirements can be found in the other gospels and epistles. Jesus is often found in conflict with religious authorities who scrupulously follow the letter of the Law but miss the relational requirements. Unlike them, Jesus forgives sins without the required animal sacrifice and monetary payment at the temple. He heals on the Sabbath when no work is to be done. He inspires trust that God will provide and encourages communal resource-sharing. He forgives, even those who are killing him. He affirms the dignity and worth of all people and regularly associates with those who are considered sinners by a status- and class-driven social order: prostitutes, tax collectors, captives, and laborers as well as those who are poor, blind, lame, crippled, diseased, hungry, illiterate, and possessed.
By correlating one's covenantal fidelity to God with one's behavior toward others, Jesus demonstrated that belief and action must be intimately intertwined. In addition to knowing and believing, Jesus asks us to respond to God's love as he did—with other-oriented love-infused relationships and actions. He prepared his apostles and disciples through his words and actions. He wanted them not only to know and understand The Way he offered to be in relationship with God and all creation, but also the life-changing significance of following The Way and enacting the Dream of God. Jesus offered that God's kingdom is both here and now (the already, the way we find God in one another and all creation) as well as in the future (the not yet, the hereafter). This was a "crazy," mind-bending proposition for Jesus' contemporaries and continues to be so for us today.
This is a bold vision. Imagine what would happen if all of humanity changed the way we make choices and prioritized the common good over personal benefit. What would happen if we were crazy enough to love like Jesus, to give and forgive, to act justly—all in response to God's love? This is the vision Jesus tried to communicate throughout his life—and which ultimately led to his death and resurrection. It is the hope he tried to inspire as he commissioned the apostles to share his vision by inviting and forming other disciples to join them on The Way.
THE GREAT COMMISSION
The Great Commission is among the last things recorded of Jesus' time on earth in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Each account reflects the context in which it was written as the evangelists recorded what they knew and understood about Jesus and his command. Embedded in these stories is an evolution of thought over at least two generations (likely thirty to forty years) as each evangelist considered not only what must be done to pass on the faith, but also to whom the faith should be offered. Inspiring Christian missionaries, evangelists, reconcilers, and educators for over two centuries, the texts that record Jesus' commission also lay the foundation for the centrality of evangelization and formation in Christian communities.
The most well-recognized versions of the Great Commission come from the Gospels according to Mark and Matthew. In the Markan text (16:15–16), the emphasis is proclamation as a means to invite all of creation into the story of God's love. More information oriented, it is a way of keeping the story of God's presence alive. The Matthean text (28:19–20) emphasizes faith formation as it directs Jesus' disciples, and us as their descendants, to go into the world to make disciples. The Gospels of Luke and John as well as the Acts of the Apostles contain other variations of the resurrected Jesus' mandate to give witness to his life and mission. As Jesus offers his calming assurances in Luke/Acts, the disciples are reminded that they are not alone. The promise of the power of the Holy Spirit quells their fears and inspires confidence to go into regions previously unimagined. The Gospel according to John highlights how God is with us as Jesus breathes new life not only into the apostles, but the whole community. Each account includes nuances as it describes the apostles' move from fearful hiding and despair after Jesus' death to proclaiming the Good News of God's love and Christ's resurrection. These stories highlight essential elements plus contemporary evangelization and faith formation.
The Gospel According to Mark
The Great Commission passage in the Gospel according to Mark is considered by most biblical scholars to be an addition to the original author's manuscript. The brief story is set after the post-resurrection appearances to Mary Magdalene (16:1–8) and to two disciples walking into the country (16:12) and before Jesus' ascension (16:19). In it, Jesus appears to the eleven as they were sitting at a table (16:14). Their conversation begins first with Jesus' admonition of them for their lack of faith and stubbornness. He was disappointed that they did not believe those who claimed to have seen the resurrected Lord. Then, Jesus commands them to "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation" (16:15). The story concludes with Jesus' statement that "those who believe and are baptized will be saved" and a list of signs that will identify believers: casting out demons, speaking in new tongues, picking up snakes, drinking any deadly thing, and healing the sick (16:16–18).
Regarded as the earliest written gospel (60–70 CE), the author was likely a Gentile writing for Greek-speaking Gentile Christians. He seems to have two goals. The first is a declaration in the author's opening sentence of the intention to write what he calls a "gospel," an account of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The second is the author's hope to elicit a faith commitment from those who hear it. Many stories in this gospel explore belief and unbelief, particularly within the community of Jesus' apostles. This account of their commissioning extends the original manuscript beyond its generally accepted conclusion at the story of Jesus' resurrection to offer an exploration of how those with weak and limited faith could lay the foundation for the future church. With its charge to "proclaim the Good News," the apostles are given the task to invite all of creation to join the story of God's love. The invitation is for all, not limited to the Jews.
From a communications perspective, the text is more information oriented. Many of the passages explain Jewish traditions and words that may be unfamiliar to a non-Jewish community. Like the rest of the collection of sacred stories, the gospel remembers and records the history of God's action in human lives and is a way to keep God's presence alive. It also exemplifies how those of little faith can be transformed by sharing it. In a sense, by following Jesus' command to proclaim the gospel, the apostles could claim it. For us, the imperative is to share the story. Knowing the content of our faith is one way to gain faith.
The Gospel According to Matthew
The most familiar version of the Great Commission is found in the Gospel according to Matthew (28:19–20). In contrast to the Markan text, the Matthean account does not include a call to preach the gospel or provide a record of Jesus' ascension. Unlike the other gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, there is no gift of the Holy Spirit or the power to heal and forgive. Instead, attention is focused on Jesus' directive. The apostles are told to simply "go," followed by the command to "make disciples of all the nations." This formation-oriented mandate includes a dual imperative: to baptize and to teach. Baptism "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" initiated new members into Jesus' life, death, and resurrection and marks entry into a new way of life. Taught to follow The Way, new members continued to learn how to love and to live lives that reflect that love.
Most scholars assert that the Matthean text was written in Greek from a Syrian location shortly after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (70-80 CE). The loss of the temple's identity-producing functions as God's dwelling place and the center of worship likely influenced the inclusion of Matthew's formational elements. Noted Bible scholar W. D. Davies contends that as the Pharisees of Judea rose and claimed leadership, their insistence on strict observance of the Law likely accelerated divisions between Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and those who did not. Because the Matthean text does not require early followers to observe all the Law, a Jew who believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, probably wrote it for a community with Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles.
Matthew's goal was to build upon The Way that Jesus initiated so that disciples would further foster the Dream of God. The Greek text uses the verb matheteuo, "disciplined," instead of the noun mathetes, "disciple." This emphasis on "being disciplined" reminds us that Jesus offered a particular and unique way to live. His command is for the community to teach and nurture new initiates in the way of such disciplined discipleship. For us, this is a formation-, and ideally transformation-oriented approach. It recognizes that everything a community says and does—prayer and worship, teaching and learning, advocacy and outreach—converge to "make disciples," shape belief, and catalyze collective action. By teaching "the way that I have commanded," it calls those who claim to be disciples to practice recognizable behaviors that result in social transformation.
The Gospel According to Luke and Acts of the Apostles
In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus first appeared to Cleopas and another disciple while they were walking on the road to Emmaus. Then, he appeared to the apostles and commissioned them in this gospel's only recorded post-resurrection visit to the apostles. The stories are linked. The eleven were gathered in Jerusalem listening to Cleopas and the other disciple's remarkable story about recognizing the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread when Jesus appeared.
The story of the apostles' commissioning starts with Jesus' greeting, "Peace be with you," and their startled and frightened response. To assure them that he was not a ghost, Jesus encouraged them to touch him and asked for something to eat. Then, reminding that his life fulfilled everything prophesized in the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus "opened their minds to understand the scriptures," asked them to be his witnesses, telling them to preach "repentance and forgiveness" to all the nations starting in Jerusalem. The passage ends with a promise that God will provide help, which from our post-Pentecost perspective implies the coming of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:36–49).
Like the Markan account, the Gospel according to Luke immediately concludes with Jesus' ascension into heaven. Unlike Mark, most biblical scholars agree that Luke's gospel has a sequel. Luke's author continues the account in the Acts of the Apostles where, after naming that there have been many appearances during the forty days following Jesus' death and resurrection, there is another version of the commissioning. In Acts, Jesus promised the apostles that they "will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come" and they will be his "witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (1:6–8). The passage ends with a move to Bethany where Jesus blessed them and ascended.
The author of Luke-Acts is generally acknowledged as an educated Gentile Christian writing to a Greek-speaking audience in the latter half of the first century (60–90 CE), most likely after the destruction of the Jewish temple. The evangelist provides the purpose for his writing within the text: "to write an orderly account ... so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed" (Luke 1:3–4). As evident here, these accounts teach, commission, and promise God's power. With the acknowledgement of the Judaic roots of Jesus' mission, the apostles are reminded of how Jesus fulfilled messianic promises and then commissioned them to extend that mission by witnessing and preaching "to all nations" and "all the ends of the earth." Framed this way, the author underscores that God's plan has always included the message of repentance and forgiveness for all (i.e., Gentiles) and tells the apostles to share it broadly. The Lukan promise of the Holy Spirit is fulfilled in the Acts of the Apostles after the apostles have waited forty days. Using a description of the Holy Spirit as power that is unique to Luke-Acts, the Spirit empowers the apostles to go into regions they otherwise would not have gone. This illuminates God's resolve to help them, and us, stretch beyond our comfort zone and fully embrace the universality Jesus' way.
The Gospel According to John
The last commissioning text, from the Gospel according to John, follows Jesus' appearance to Mary Magdalene and precedes the account of Thomas meeting the resurrected Lord. Beginning like Luke with a calming greeting, "Peace be with you," the short passage moves quickly to their charge: "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Then Jesus breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:19–23).
The Johannine Gospel is the latest of the four gospels and was likely compiled into its final form about 90–100 CE. As a work that included insights that developed over time, the original experiences and stories of those following Jesus grew into the final text, which includes more theological reflection than the gospels according to Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Most likely written by a Jewish believer in Jesus the Christ, it offers a more divinely oriented depiction of Jesus. This is evident in the description of Jesus breathing upon the apostles, which seems to parallel the Genesis account of God's breathing life into Adam.
Excerpted from Faith Formation 4.0 by JULIE ANNE LYTLE. Copyright © 2013 by Julie Anne Lytle. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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