Text: Matthew 28:16-20
Since the first of the year - Sunday, January 6 to be exact - we have been in the gospel of Matthew. That is 116 days, if you have been counting. About a third of the year. And this morning, finally, we come to the conclusion.
It is after the resurrection. Jesus appears to his disciples and what we have this morning are Jesus’ final words to them. It is like George Washington’s farewell address – these are his parting instructions. These words are shared with those who were closest to him, those who have followed him.
A few weeks ago, we looked at a passage from Matthew 25 called The Great Judgment – it says that in the end, the question will be, did you care for those in need? When you saw others hungry and gave them food or thirsty and gave them a drink or sick of in prison and you visited them, you did it for Jesus.
The passage we just read is known as the Great Commission. It is a very Baptisty scripture. I heard it a lot growing up. We memorized it in the King James Version. “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” The Great Commission is a call to take the gospel to the world out there – to all nations.
Well, our reading this morning actually begins a couple of verses before that. This part does not get as much attention, but maybe it should. If you remember, Jesus had told the two Marys at the tomb, Mary Magdalene and his mother, to go and tell the others to go to Galilee – to leave Jerusalem and go back home, and he would meet them there.
So they are all on their way back to Galilee, they arrive at the mountain where Jesus had told them to go, and the description is very interesting. “They worshiped him, but some doubted.” It is even more interesting when you consider the Greek, which does not have the modifying word “some” in there. They worshiped and doubted. It is just understood that it has to mean “some” doubted, but it does not literally say that.
In the Gospel of John, Thomas doubts and gets this bad rap as Doubting Thomas, but I had never really paid much attention that we read in Matthew that “they worshiped, but some doubted.”
We really shouldn’t be surprised. If we are honest, even on our best days we wonder a bit – about God, about life, about mystery, about the universe. It means we are alive. It means we are sentient beings. It means we notice what is going on around us. It means we are engaged, and we are honest with ourselves.
What is stunning is that these disciples – who worshiped and also doubted, are the ones that Jesus sends out to do his mission. To continue his work. Jesus is leaving everything up to them.
Just so you caught that, let me say it again. Jesus is depending on people who are not completely sure. This is who he is sending out.
Now often, we may feel like we are not spiritual enough, not polished enough, that we don’t have special gifts or training or abilities. You know what? Jesus depended totally and completely on people just like us. He still does.
The commission Jesus gives is to go and make disciples of all nations. And at this point, the gospel has come full circle. It begins with a genealogy – Jesus is set in a very specific community and tribe and nation. But then Jesus is born, and the news of the messiah is first revealed to who? – To the Wise Men. Gentiles. People from another place, another land.
Jesus’ mission is largely to his own people, to the Jewish nation, but all along we continue to have these inklings, and sometimes more than inklings, that the gospel is not just for insiders, but those on the margins. And not only for Israelites, but for all the nations. There is the Syrophoenician woman who comes to Jesus for healing. The Good Samaritan. The Samaritan woman at the well. And all along, Israel was called to be a light to the nations.
So Jesus’ parting words are that his followers are to go to all nations and make disciples. Now, a couple of things about this. First, we tend to think that his is for missionaries. I mean, it is a great missionary text. But we can think that it is just for super-spiritual people. But then remember, these words were spoken to people who had questions, people who weren’t even sure.
But on the other hand, we can read this as though it is totally written to us – as though we are the ones on whom Jesus’ mission depends. And by us, I mean us Americans.
The missionary impulse runs deep in American life. And as an organized denomination – if that isn’t an oxymoron – Baptists first organized to do mission work. We came together as a national denomination in 1814 as we sent our first missionaries, Ann and Adoniram Judson, to Burma.
But today, there are groups in other countries who send missionaries to the U.S. And it is not just missionaries who come to share the gospel. Last spring a number of us went on a mission trip to Murrow Indian Children’s Home in Muskogee, Oklahoma. It is located on the grounds of Bacone College, a historically Native American college affiliated with the ABC. Today, about 1/3 of the students at Bacone are Native American. Roughly another third are students who came to the U.S. as refugees from Myanmar. They are ethnic Chin and Kachin and Karen. Their families came here from refugee camps in Thailand. They came to this country as Christians and as Baptists – a result of the early mission efforts of the Judsons and others. And they are bringing the message of Jesus to our country.
People like students we met at Bacone are coming here, starting new churches, and transforming long-existing churches. As of sometime last year, 8 of the 10 newest ABC churches in our region were made up of immigrant groups, and mostly refugees.
The world is getting a lot smaller, and we don’t have to go anywhere to be in conversation with the world. Living in a university community, we know this well. We are all blessed by a rich diversity of folks from many places. So, you can go and make disciples of all nations, or you can just as easily stay home and make disciples of all nations. And to top it off, some of those who go will wind up in places like Ames, Iowa and will help us as we become disciples.
Go, make disciples, baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Help others come to faith. And then, “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
The obeying part is kind of a downer, right? We are not really up for a heavy rules-based kind of religion, where obeying every little thing is what it’s all about. And we especially don’t want to try and teach a bunch of rules to others as being the way that you follow Jesus, the way that you serve God.
Well, let’s back up. “Teach them to observe everything I have commanded you.” Well just what is exactly that Jesus commanded his followers?
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and mind and soul and strength.
Love one another as I have loved you.
Love your enemies.
I give you a new commandment: love one another.
Do you see a pattern here? The command is to love. We get scared and more than a little nervous with talk about evangelism, and evangelism can become almost a bad word because we associate it with manipulative methods and fire and brimstone and damnation. But when you get right down to it, what we are asked to do is to love others. That is what we are called to do and that is what we are called to teach – by word and example.
A few weeks ago, Westboro Baptist Church came to Ames. This is the group that protests all over the country – against gay people, at churches, at the funerals of soldiers. Incredibly hateful stuff. My impulse was to just stay away, as they are just looking for attention. But they were going to protest at Ames High School. I felt like with students seeing this going on, there needed to be support for students. And this was my neighborhood.
When she was in high school, I remembered Marian Thompson saying that a lot of her friends could not believe she was Baptist – because they thought that all Baptists were like Westboro. So I felt like I needed to be there to give witness to what real Baptists are like.
I walked over to the high school about 7:00 am that morning and it was a surreal experience. There were a few protesters from Westboro Baptist Church, with their hateful signs and strange stuff playing over a portable PA system. They had signs saying God Hates – well, I won’t use their incendiary language, but basically signs saying that everybody except them is going straight to hell. And there were about 150 people there to support students and stand against hatred. With all kinds of signs talking about what God hates, I brought a sign along that just said, “God is love.” It was my little effort to witness for Jesus and I didn’t have to leave my neighborhood. But in a world with so much hate, a message of love can be very powerful.
The same day that Westboro was here, I went to a pastors’ conference in Omaha. One of the speakers was a man named Elie Haddad. He is the president of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. He was talking about the churches in Lebanon. Lebanon is about 1/3 Christian, 1/3 Sunni Muslim, and 1/3 Shia. But in reality it is a quite secular country with a minority of people who actually practice their faith, whatever that faith may be.
The churches there had always been very insular, very focused on survival and inward-looking. But they have been challenged by the war and upheaval in Syria next door. There are over 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. This is a small country. A million refugees in Syria would be like having 50 or 60 million refugees in the U.S. Can you imagine? I mean, there are those who argue that a limit of our country accepting 50,000 refugees a year is way too high. Lebanon has over a million refugees.
So there are all of these refugees, mostly Muslim, and the Lebanese Baptists have historically been very inward looking. But the need was so great they could not ignore it. And so they started providing services for refugees. They started serving meals. They started schools for children in refugee camps who were not getting any schooling. They started reaching out and something happened. It didn’t just make a difference for these refugees, it is transforming the churches. Churches that had always looked inward are now looking outward.
The Baptists in Lebanon do not have to go far away to take the Good News to the nations. They are doing it right where they are. And they are teaching both by their words and their actions to obey what Jesus has commanded. Love one another.
We may go to all nations or we may just wait for all nations to come to us. And actually the sense of Jesus’ words is “as you go.” Wherever you go. As you live your life. As we live our lives, we are to share Jesus’ message of love. It is a powerful message for a difficult and dangerous time.
But here is the last part. Just as important as anything else. Jesus says, “I am with you always.” Doubtful, believing, worshiping, going, staying, living – whatever happens, wherever we go, whatever we do, Jesus says, “I am with you always.”
This scripture is called the Great Commission, but it contains both a commission and a promise. You could even call this the Great Promise.
Think of your life. And think of all the situations that you find yourself in. Wonderful and terrible times. Joy and happiness as well as pain and desperation. Those times when life is easy and those times when we feel we can barely go on.
Jesus knew it would not always be easy. And so he gives this wonderful promise: “I am with you always.”
Earlier this week, Joe Parrish asked about the sermon for today, what the theme would be. He was trying to find a song to sing that would fit the theme. I told him the scripture was the Great Commission, but anything he wanted to sing would be fine. I mean, I was really helpful. So Joe came up with “You Are Mine,” and I said, “Yeah, that would be good.”
Well, it’s a great song and Joe does a great job with anything. But as it turned out, it fits perfectly. Do not be afraid, I am with you. Lo, I am with you always. I love you and you are mine.
It is a Great Promise. Amen.