Summit Presbyterian Church
June 7, 2009
Matthew 28: 16-20
Matthew ends his gospel with these words. They've become famous: we call this passage "the great commission" and people quote it when talking about the importance of evangelism or of sending missionaries overseas. This scripture is also read on Trinity Sunday because of Jesus' instructions to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and his statement that all authority on heaven and earth has been given to him. It's a passage that points to the triune God - even though that doctrine developed later - so we read it often.
It's for these reasons that this passage can make some Christians uncomfortable. Jesus said to make disciples of all nations. We're all Christians because of that - and grateful - but we also know the dark side of that history: the crusades, missionaries paving the way for imperial armies who killed people and destroyed their cultures, certain televangelists. We may wonder: in this pluralistic world, is God calling us to make disciples of ALL nations? And then there's the Trinity. We worship the Father, Son and Holy Ghost - or Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit - but even those of us who've been to seminary are hard put to explain how the three are one God. As people who value reason we may wonder - does it makes sense? These are very interesting questions. I'm not going to talk about them today. But I raise them to point out that when we hear these words, we hear them with 2000 years of church history behind us: two thousand years of church councils, missionaries, Christian states, Holy wars and theological debates.
How might these words have fallen on the ears of those eleven raggedy men? The last time they had seen Jesus he was dead: killed like so many others by Roman soldiers, a painful and degrading death. According to Matthew, the whole crowd had turned against Jesus as the eleven had drawn back into the shadows, with Peter denying him three times. A Roman soldier and a few others saw miraculous signs when Jesus died thought he must have been a son of God, but nearly everyone else was hostile. The eleven disciples must have been frightened and discouraged, certain it was all over. So who knows what they thought when two of the women - Mary and Mary - ran up to them and said that they had seen Jesus, that he had been raised from the dead and met them on the road, and told them he wanted to meet the eleven in Galilee. I'll bet those men were skeptical - two thousand years later we're still fighting the stereotype of hysterical women - - but they went. They went to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And they saw him; and fell down and worshipped. Jesus told them that all authority in heaven and on earth -- the full authority of God - had been given to him. And then - then - he gave them their task: go make disciples of all nations. Baptize them. And then tell those disciples you've baptized everything I've commanded you.
Did the disciples quake when they heard these words? How could they possibly make disciples of all nations? They were eleven among millions. They were Galileans, country boys, fisherman and unpopular tax collectors. Illiterate. They only spoke Aramaic - they neither read not wrote Greek, the language of the educated, international, cosmopolitan class. They had no cash reserves, no travel allowance. All nations? How could they even make disciples of their friends and neighbors? They had no "proof." To all appearances, Jesus was a failure, he had few fans among the Romans or religious leaders. And even for those who might believe, who might want to be baptized, how could they tell them everything that Jesus had commanded -- he had said so much, and they hadn't been taking notes. They had each other, but that was a mixed blessing, given how much time they spent bickering over who was the greatest. They had no house of worship. And they had their own doubts to wrestle with - for even when they worshipped him on that mountain, some doubted. It was an impossible mission: an impossible mission, what was Jesus thinking. But the risen Christ promised those disciples he would be with them to the end of the age. And here we are. Disciples of Christ in the nation of the United States of America, in the city of Philadelphia, over 2000 years later.
Yesterday the officers of the church met for a retreat. We spent time in Bible study. We did an exercise where we listed all the assets of Summit - the people and talents and skills we have, the building and money, assets in the community - and we thought of how they might work together for good. We also talked about the challenge of tending to a beautiful but aging building and different ways we might meet that challenge. We learned a lot, we have more to talk about, and we had fun - but there's no question, the work of the church can feel overwhelming. The paths ahead of us can seem daunting. And that's true for every church: big or small, urban or suburban, Presbyterian or Roman Catholic. But the risen Christ promises to be with us, to the end of the age.
Those eleven disciples probably died before Matthew's gospel was written 40 or 50 years after these events took place. When the eleven evangelized the good news was spread person by person or through letters. The eleven would have heard about people in different cities of the Roman Empire who were baptized; they may have done some traveling. They would have passed on the teachings of Jesus as best they could. They would have felt the power of the Holy Spirit and maybe even seen crowds of people convert. But the numbers of Christians would still have been small in the many and diverse peoples of the Roman Empire. The disciples also would have seen people fall away from the faith, and been in fights over money and worship -- even in Luke's idealized account of the early church in the book of Acts we hear of those fights. And at the end of their lives did they wonder - not knowing what would come after - if they fulfilled their mission? But we can hope they remembered that Jesus said he would be with them until the end of the age -- not just the end of their lives, but the end of the age, when he would come again. And hopefully they would have known that was enough.
For it is enough. Christ is with us and with those who came before and come after us -- leading, guiding, caring for his church of every age, helping us to fulfill that mission impossible. We can't do it all and we can't always do what we want. We'll make mistakes, we'll be wrong, we won't always demonstrate the reign of God in our life together. We definitely won't see the fruits of all that we do. But with Christ, who is always with us, we dare not set limits on our mission as the church, not only here at Summit but also as the holy catholic church. Those first disciples didn't, nor have the saints before us.