| Matthew 28
||Sun, April 11, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Easter. We live in the season of Easter. The rest of the world has moved on. As if Easter ended last Sunday. But for us Easter has just begun. It lasts for 50 days. A season in which we, like the first disciples, are confronted by the risen Christ and are left wondering how to respond. According to Matthew the story of the Easter is both dramatic and straightforward. It is told in one climatic chapter of but twenty packed verses. First an earthquake, then a dazzling angel and guards who become like dead men. The women discover that Jesus has been raised from the dead and he tells them to tell the others to meet him in Galilee. In the meantime, yet another plot is hatched and another bribe is paid. Jesus appears on the mountain in Galilee and, while his eleven remaining disciples worship him, some have their doubts. It is an extraordinary final chapter. Mysterious. Awe inspiring. Sparse. It leaves us longing for more. But there is one more thing. It is the climax of Matthews gospel. Jesus addresses his followers. It is another - though much shorter - sermon on the mount. Perhaps his most provocative and controversial. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations." The Great Commissioning. That is what this is called. It brings to mind the final day of an officer’s training program when the commanding officer uses the authority vested in her to commission new officers into service. It brings to mind the ordination service that is but a month away when Bill Booth will have hands laid on him by those who have been given the authority to do so. In that act he will be commissioned into the service of the church in the name of the risen Christ. But most of all this story brings to mind last Sunday morning and those who knelt at the font to confirm their identity as disciples of Jesus. Here, says Matthew, is the heart of the story of Easter. Easter is the moment when the mission of God, embodied in Jesus, becomes a mission that is shared with us. It is that simple. And it is that hard.
God’s mission to the nations. This is central to an Easter people. When I walked into seminary in Berkeley, California I found myself worshipping in the Chapel of the Great Commission. When I walked out of this seminary and into the service of the church I was sent from the Chapel of Epiphany. It is as if my formation in theology was book-ended by Matthew’s gospel. Remember the Epiphany? It is the surprising news that Mary and Joseph’s newborn child embodies God’s presence to the nations. It is on Epiphany, twelve days after Christmas, that we mark the arrival of the mysterious, wise foreigners with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then and there we have an epiphany: Jesus is a Jew ... who is sent to and for all the world. That is what the name of this Chapel is meant to remind us of every time we enter its walls. And the Chapel of the Great Commission? It bears a similar reminder ... a reminder that those who Jesus calls as followers and teaches as disciples he sends as apostles - messengers - into the world. There can be no followers of Jesus, no disciples of his, no members of Christ’s Body who are not also his messengers, witnesses, good-news bearers in the world. This is the last word of the risen Christ to his followers: "Go ... and make disciples of all nations".
But wait. This is not what we wanted to hear this morning. We are all too aware of the dangers of missionary activity ... all to conscious of the way in which this commandment has been abused in the two millennia that followed. From conversions coerced by sword during the Crusades and the Inquisition to the destruction of aboriginal culture on this very coast within living memory we have learned to shy away from such blatant talk of making "disciples of all nations". Gone are the days when we encouraged our children to become missionaries to other lands. Now we are even hesitant to invite a neighbour or a co-worker to become a disciple of Jesus. It would be seen as bad form ... poor taste ... politically and theologically incorrect ... to seek such a conversion. Recall John Culter’s straight talk with us at the Annual Meeting. He reminded us that, strictly in terms of survival, we need to become a larger congregation. For us to be self-sustaining we need to integrate two dozen more households into our life. It means actively inviting new people to come with us ... and receiving those who arrive at our doorstep unannounced with open arms and hearts. It is interesting that John would have to put it in those terms for us to begin to imagine that each of us is called to add to our number. We have become so accustomed to the church simply existing ... being a fact of life ... that we have had the luxury of assuming that it will always be. More than that, we have been seduced into thinking that peaceful co-existence in a pluralistic society includes as one of its ground rules that there will be no conversion, no proselytism, no mission to others. As if we and our children are not subject to proselytism and conversion every minute of every day ... compelled to convert to the gospel of individualism and consumerism ... to shop til we drop. We forget at our peril that the church of Jesus Christ has been sent into the world to make disciples. It has not been sent to become a cozy sanctuary that meets our every need. The church has been sent to baptize. Period.
It is, you will admit, a rude awakening for us. John’s straight talk at the Annual Meeting was rude enough. And now this. The Easter message of the Risen Christ: "Go ... and make disciples of all nations". There can be no doubt about it. This is the last word of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus’ band of disciples is sent on a mission ... sent to make more disciples. But what precisely does Christ intend? What does he mean? "Make disciples of all nations". In the nineteenth century many were sure that they knew what this meant. It meant, they concluded, that we were to physically baptize every person on the face of the earth.. But it is not quite as straightforward as that. "Make disciples of all nations". Remember how Jesus describes his followers in Matthew’s Gospel? "You are the salt of the earth", he says of them, "You are the light of the world". He imagines a disciple community that is like salt ... like yeast ... like a little candle light in a darkened room. He does not envision us converting the entire campus of the University of British Columbia, student by student, faculty member by faculty member until all 40,000 plus have been baptized as Christians. Jesus intends that there be communities of his salty, yeasty disciples in every nation, on every campus, in every office and neighbourhood on the face of the earth.
What are these disciples to do? Jesus is very clear ... perhaps too clear. He says "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations ... teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you". That’s it. "Obey everything that I have commanded you". That is what Jesus’ light-giving communities of disciples are to do. Let’s see ... what exactly has he commanded his disciples to do? "You have heard that it was said ‘You shall not murder’ but I say to you that it you are angry with a brother or sister and if you insult a brother or sister you shall be liable to judgment’ .... You have heard that it was said ‘You shall not commit adultery’ but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart .... You have heard that it was said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say to you do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well ... give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you ... You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you .... Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth .... No one can serve two masters, you cannot serve God and wealth .... Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink but strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness and all these things will be given to you ... Do not judge. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? ... Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you ... Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock ... And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand." (from the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in Matthew 5-7)
This is what we are to do. Make disciples who obey. Make disciples who do not strike out in anger. Make disciples who do not break their promises. Make disciples who do not spend their lives acquiring but, rather, spend their lives in letting go. Make disciples who treat enemies as neighbours. Make disciples who seek God’s kingdom in which the hungry are fed, the thirsty given water, the stranger welcomed, the naked will clothed, the sick cared for and the imprisoned visited. For it is on this basis - and this basis alone - that the nations are judged. It does not matter, says Jesus, whether people called him "Lord, Lord". It does not matter if they recite the creeds or say long-winded prayers in church on Sunday. What matters is whether they build their life on the rock of obedience to God. A few months back Harry Maier, VST’s professor of New Testament, offered a course for lay people entitled: "Reading the Bible as if Your Life Depended on it". Precisely. We do not read the Bible because it is interesting. We do not make disciples in order to ensure the future of the institutional church. We read the Bible and we make disciples and we follow the way of Jesus Christ because our lives ... and the life of the world ... depend upon it. Surely that is more evident than ever this week. Here at the end of a century which began with a Balkan civil conflict that escalated into global warfare we find ourselves having learned nothing. The nations continue to build their houses upon sand. And not only the nations ... but also our cities ... and neighbourhoods ... and businesses ... and families. The world’s life depends upon its entering into the Kingdom of God ... the Kingdom of reconciliation with enemies ... the Kingdom of food for the hungry and of home for the homeless. To be honest, the realm of God seems to be far, far away these days. But Jesus says that it is near, very near. The Kingdom of God is as near as communities of disciples who turn their lives around and begin to living by God’s laws and obey Jesus’ commands.
But that means conversion ... conversion that begins with us and with our children. This morning the Junior class in our Church School is beginning preparations for a visit to First United Church. Four five weeks they will learn about this inner city mission of the United Church. They will learn where this food and clothing and shampoo goes after it leaves here. But we intend that something else will happen. We hope that they will be converted. We pray that they will become disciples of Jesus Christ, learning to obey everything that he has commanded them and us. Then, on May 16th when they preach the sermon and offer the prayers here we hope that they will teach us what it means to obey everything that he has commanded. Because we are quick to forget what it means to be baptized. The joy of Easter brings with it demands upon us. No wonder the women were afraid. No wonder some doubted. This is wonderful news, yes. And it is also terrifying. For, if all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Jesus then our lives really do depend on living his Way of life in our families and in our places of work and in the world. And not our lives only, but the lives of our neighbours and of our enemies also. So we are called to spread the word ... to invite others in to this salty, yeasty life in Christ. It is our commission. It is not an elective ... not something we can quietly drop from our mandate. It is the very heart of who we are called to be.
Which would all be too much to bear if it weren’t for one thing. Notice the very last verse of Matthew’s Gospel ... the very last words of Christ to the church: "And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." Jesus does not leave. He still speaks to those who do not know what to say. He still leads followers who do not know which way to turn. He still teaches disciples who do not know his way. And he still fills those who - seeking God’s kingdom - ask, search and knock. We are not alone. Thanks be to God. (followed by hymn #589 "Lord, Speak to Me")