Saturday, April 15, 2023

“Commission and Promise” - April 16, 2023

Text: Matthew 28:16-20

Since January 8, we have been in the gospel of Matthew.  That is 98 days, for those who have been counting.  It’s like binge-watching a series except this isn’t exactly a binge – it has been a 15 Sunday, slow motion binge, with those extra scenes and bonus episodes on Wednesday nights during our Lenten Study and then on Maundy Thursday.

We have not read every verse of Matthew, but we have covered a lot of this gospel.  

  • Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist
  • the temptation in the wilderness
  • the Sermon on the Mount, with the Beatitudes and the Lord’s prayer and Jesus saying that we are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  

Jesus talked about the wise person building on the rock and about carrying our own cross.  And there were so many parables:

  • the laborers in the vineyard
  • the weeds and the wheat
  • the unforgiving servant
  • the wedding banquet where everybody gets invited
  • the wise and foolish bridesmaids
  • the sheep and the goats.  

There was Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and shortly after he drove out the moneychangers.  There was the Last Supper, his betrayal and arrest and finally his crucifixion.  And then last Sunday we celebrated resurrection.  Jesus is alive!

We have explored the life of Jesus through the gospel of Matthew for these last 98 days.  And this morning, finally, we come to the conclusion.  

After the resurrection, Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.  He had told them to tell the other disciples to go to Galilee where he would meet them.  And the disciples had made that long journey.

I wonder what that was like.  The women’s story was a little hard to believe, you have to admit.  Despite dying on the cross and being placed in a tomb, Jesus was actually alive and had gave them instructions to go to Galilee where they would see him.  And oh yeah, an angel had told them the same thing before they actually saw Jesus.

But the women were so sure of it.  Clearly something had happened.  And what were they going to do now anyway?  There was nothing to do but go back home, back home to Galilee.  And so they did.  They went to the place that they had been directed – and amazingly, Jesus was there!

The text is poignant and very honest.  When they saw Jesus, “They worshiped him, but some doubted.”  It is even more interesting when you consider the Greek, which does not actually have the modifying word “some” in there.  They worshiped and doubted.  Translators understood that it has to mean “some” doubted, but it does not literally say that.  They fell down in homage to Jesus – and they doubted.  At least some of them and perhaps all of them.

In the Gospel of John, Thomas doubts and gets this bad rap as Doubting Thomas, but we read in Matthew that “they worshiped, but some doubted.”  And the some is perhaps questionable.  

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 honest.  It means we are sentient beings.  

Every once in a while, I wonder how there can possibly be something instead of nothing.  How is it even possible?  How can there be a world and a universe and life?  How could there be anything?  And if God created all of this, where did God come from?  Not every day, but I wonder.  This kind of contemplation, which is close to doubt, is also close to wonder – which is close to amazement – which is close to awe – to reverence - to worship.  

The disciples worshiped, and some – at least some - doubted.  It may be possible to do both.  

Jesus’ disciples go to Galilee as they have been instructed, and they see Jesus there.  Our text includes Jesus’ last words to his followers.  These are his parting instructions for 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.  Do you remember that?  The sheep are separated from the goats, and Jesus says that in the end, the big question will be, did you care for those in need?  When you saw others hungry or thirsty or sick or naked or in prison and you cared for them, you cared for Jesus.  You did it unto Jesus.

The passage we just read is known as the Great Commission.  It feels like 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 age.”  The Great Commission is a call to take the gospel to the world out there – to all nations.

Now if you think about this for a minute, this is really stunning.  These disciples do not have a great track record.  Before he was crucified, they had all abandoned him, some had denied him, and they had gone into hiding.  They had just worshiped but also doubted.  Jesus is leaving it up to them to continue his work.

Just to reiterate here, Jesus is depending on people who are not completely sure.  This is who he is sending out.

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 depends completely on people just like us.  

The commission Jesus gives is to go and make disciples of all nations.  And at this point, the gospel has come full circle.  The Gospel of Matthew 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 – children, lepers, tax collectors like Matthew.  And not only for Israelites, but for all the nations.  Jesus heals the Roman centurion’s servant and the Canaanite woman’s daughter.  In other gospels we have 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 this is for missionaries, right?  It’s for special people, super-spiritual people.  Well, think again.  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 in order to send our first missionaries, Ann and Adoniram Judson, to Burma.

Our church has a long and proud history of sending missionaries.  There is a framed list in the narthex of those whom First Baptist has sent out.  Among them is Lydia Brown Hipps, who died while teaching women in China.  There are Charles and Viola Smith.  Charles was our college student minister more than a hundred years ago.  He and Viola went to the Congo and helped to establish our Baptist medical and agricultural mission that continues to this day.  Over the years we have sent missionaries from this church to India and Albania and Hong Kong and Nigeria and South Africa and the Philippines and Poland and more.  This is in addition to those serving in the U.S.

And not only that, we have had numerous groups and individuals, including many of you, go to serve in short-term missions.  Some of you have gone to Nicaragua and Puerto Rico and Oklahoma and Mississippi and Tennessee and Kansas City and to Green Lake, Wisconsin and more on mission trips.

It is easy to have a paternalistic attitude when going out on mission, as though we have the truth and we have the answers and we are going to bring it to you.  But you know, there are groups in other countries who send missionaries to the U.S.  We have been a recipient of that – some of you remember Saboi Jum who was here in Ames a couple of years from Burma,  And it is not just missionaries who come to share the gospel.  

Some of us have gone on mission trips 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 at Bacone, about 1/3 of the students 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.  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. Out of new church starts in our region, I would say that at least half are Chin and Karen congregations.

The world is getting a lot smaller, and we don’t have to go anywhere to be in conversation with folks from other nations.  Living in a university community, we know this well.  We are all blessed by a rich diversity of folks from many places.  Just this school year, we have had folks from Cameroon and Ghana and Brazil and Puerto Rico, not to mention places like Texas and Florida.  So, you can go and make disciples of all nations, or you can actually stay 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.

All of this is great, but going is not really the main point of what Jesus is saying.  The verb here really has more of the sense of “as you go.”  As you go, make disciples.  As you go about living your life, make disciples.  This is really is about being a faithful person and sharing the Good news wherever you are and with whatever people you encounter.

A disciple is basically a learner who follows in the steps of the teacher.  A disciple of Jesus seeks to become more like Jesus.  And so making disciples is about teaching.  Mentoring.  Helping.  Providing an example.  Building a relationship.   Which includes listening and being willing to learn from the other.  Becoming a disciple of Jesus is a lifelong adventure.

Go, make disciples, baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Help others come to faith and grow in 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 what is it 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.
  • And then on Maundy Thursday, we read this verse: I give you a new commandment: love one another.

Do you see a pattern here?  The command is to love.  When you get down to it, what Jesus is asking us 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.

Now here is the last part.  Just as important as anything else Jesus says to his followers.  This is his very last word for us: “I am with you always.”  Whatever happens, wherever we go, whatever we do, Jesus says, “I am with you always.”

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.”  That is the last word.  Amen.

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