From Commandment to Commission

Creating a community in Christ

By Nancy R. Heisey
From Commandment to Commission
illustration by Andy Rash

On the first day of the 2003 Mennonite World Conference Assembly in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the members of its executive committee hosted a group of representatives from a number of other Christian groups from around the world. There were important leaders from the Methodist, Baptist, Anglican, Seventh-Day Adventist, Friends World Community, and Roman Catholic churches, and we would all be proceeding into the grand meeting hall a bit later. But first, we were to have tea with our Zimbabwean sisters and brothers.

Sharing in this tradition is the Zimbabwean way of showing hospitality and welcoming honored guests. On special occasions, tea is more like a mid-afternoon lunch, with delicate little sandwiches and delicious sweet biscuits usually accompanying the tea. However, on that day it quickly became obvious that there was no tea. After several minutes of awkward uncertainty, we were invited to walk around the grounds and come back in an hour.

When we returned, coffee, tea, and a small plate of cookies were provided. But I had a funny feeling that this was not what the Zimbabwean hospitality committee had planned. The next day I heard the story.

Thousands of members of the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe had been arriving since the day before, many of them coming from long distances on crowded buses. About an hour before our official high tea, a busload had arrived, exhausted and hungry, having traveled all day with next to nothing to eat. The food committee was busy preparing the meal for 5,000-plus people after the service, so the hospitality committee, having nothing else to offer, gave the hungry busload our tea.

What a wonderful choice! Certainly neither those of us on the executive committee nor the other church leaders needed any tea at all. Our Zimbabwean hosts’ decision to offer it to those who were truly hungry represented the best tradition of African hospitality. It also fits a biblical pattern and has something to do with becoming one in Christ.

Legal trapping(s)

In Matthew chapter 22, we’re given the words Jesus spoke about love for God and neighbor. Ironically, these words were not spoken in a friendly or worshipful setting. Rather, Jesus gives this commandment in response to a legal challenge—the one that probably mattered most to the religious authorities interrogating Him, because the Law was at the heart of God’s covenant with them. It defined who they were as a people and what kinds of commitments they had to God and each other.

For centuries, the best Jewish thinkers had taught that God was most present with His people through the Law. But now this Jesus had arrived in town with an understanding of God that threatened the religious leaders and their power. It was decided that He must be nailed down. If they could just trap Him into saying something controversial, they would have an excuse to deal with Him.

So a lawyer is given the job of testing Jesus. “Teacher,” he asks, “which commandment in the Law is the greatest?”

How can there be a right answer to that? All of the Law must be observed. In fact, lawyers like the one questioning Jesus spent all their time studying and discussing every aspect of the Law to be sure that they were keeping it all correctly.

But Jesus doesn’t hesitate, just as He didn’t pause in response to the earlier questions. He knows that the word of God is vibrant and active and speaks in the present, not just in the past. Drawing on the rich tradition of the Scriptures that have been the foundation of the faith of His people for generations, He answers. “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’” Jesus quotes. “This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.”

Love over law

It’s no surprise that Jesus would call for us to love God—that’s exactly the heart of the covenant that God made with the people of Israel. God had liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. In response, they were not to have other gods, but to commit themselves to God’s ways. As they traveled on from the mountain where they met God, they were to remember one thing: They belonged to God alone. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one,” the Shema, or first commandment, declares. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

Love for God was central to the lives of faithful Jews; they had experienced God’s grace in their lives, and they wanted to actively show it by keeping His commandments. So it seems reasonable for Jesus to start with the Shema. Anyone might have expected that.

But He goes further. Instead of drawing from another of the Ten Commandments, He pulls up a little command stuck in a back corner of the Law, in the book of Leviticus, chapter 19. The command to love one’s neighbor is just one of many in this chapter, which covers everything from when to eat the sacrifice, to how to harvest the crops, to what the rules are for sexual relationships with slaves. Yet Jesus says that this little command to love the neighbor is like the Shema.

And after declaring that the commands to love God and one’s neighbor are alike, He adds the punch line: “On these two commandments”—both of them, together—“hang all the Law and the prophets.” In other words, Jesus reveals that only those who observed these two commandments have truly understood what it means to be God’s faithful people.

Commanded and commissioned

You’re probably wondering how we get from Jesus’ summary of the commandments to the mission of the Church. That move might be just as surprising as Jesus’ choice to link the love of God with the love of neighbor. But isn’t mission about the Great Commission? And isn’t that how Matthew wrapped up his Gospel in chapter 28?

First, we need to notice that what Jesus called great was the commandment in chapter 22. We also need to look again at what Jesus asked His followers to do in chapter 28: They were to teach His future disciples everything He had commanded them. Jesus had already explained what they were to teach when He said that everything hangs on love for God and love for neighbor, and now He was sending them out to do it.

This demonstrates to us that if we want to be a community that can truly invite others to join us in following Jesus Christ, then we need to dedicate ourselves to both the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. But what do these commands mean in our world, and how do we practice them?

When I reflect on what love for God looks like, I think of a Navajo woman who greatly influenced me when I was a missionary kid growing up on the Brethren in Christ Navajo Mission in New Mexico. Louise Werito was a grandmother and a leader in her community. But what I remember most about her is the time she stood in church to sing her testimony of experiencing God’s presence in her life. Her faith encouraged me to get involved with the churches around the world.

I think also of Barbara Nkala, the master of ceremonies for the assembly in Bulawayo, who repeatedly led the whole audience in singing “God is so good.” I knew that one of her nephews was dying of AIDS, and yet she sang. We knew that many of the Zimbabweans would have to go back to living on one meal a day after the assembly. We knew that the police were watching our meeting to make sure that nothing too political was said. And yet we sang “God is so good.”

And when I think about love for neighbor, which Jesus said is like love for God, I remember the hospitality committee members who served our tea to our Zimbabwean brothers and sisters.

When Jesus named the greatest commandments, He was responding to an effort to trick Him. Yet, still today, His words have the power to shape us as God’s people. In order for the message of Jesus Christ to make sense, however, it has to make sense in a community—not of sameness, but of oneness.

May we, in all our diversity, become the people God wants us to be. Only then we will truly be able to invite others in our desperately needy world to enter into this community for God’s glory.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2008 issue of In Part magazine.
Nancy R. Heisey

Nancy Heisey is an associate professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern Mennonite University (Harrisonburg, Va.) and the current president of Mennonite World Conference. She grew up at the Navajo Mission (N.M.), where her parents served with BIC World Missions.

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