Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:36-40
I recently stumbled upon some remarkable correspondence in the church files:
This is my commission to you -- in fact, you might even call it a great commission. You are to go to all people everywhere and call them to become my disciples. You are to baptize them and teach them to obey all that I have commanded you.Don’t forget. I will be with you always to help you, even to the end of the world. I will never leave you nor forsake you, because I love you. Please don’t forsake me.With all my love, Jesus Christ
Another letter was clipped to the back of it.
Sounds like Congregationalists to me–God’s frozen chosen. Hey–I’m a Congregationalist now, too. I love to study proposals and then come up with all the reasons why we can’t change. We’re not the only ones who do that, by the way. It’s human nature. In fact, when I was studying the texts for today’s sermon I ran across something I never read before. In Matthew’s account of the great commission, the eleven remaining disciples are standing on a mountain with Jesus. They text says when they saw him some worshiped, but some of them doubted. Some versions say that some of them hesitated. This could only mean one thing – some of the disciples were Congregationalists.
Dear Jesus Christ:
We acknowledge the receipt of your recent communication. Your proposal is both interesting and challenging; however, due to a shortage of personnel, as well as several other financial and personal considerations, we do not feel that we can give proper emphasis to your challenge at this time. A committee has been appointed to study the feasibility of the plan. We should have a report to bring to our congregation sometime in the future. You may rest assured that we will give this our careful consideration, and our board will be praying for you and your efforts to find additional disciples.We do appreciate your offer to serve as a resource person, and should we decide to undertake this project at some point in the future, we’ll get back to you.Cordially,
Honestly, I never noticed that verse before. I always skip right to the Lord’s final earthly words, but I never detected the fact that some of the disciples felt uneasy about worshiping Jesus. Something was holding them back. They were not ready to go out into the world and to teach and baptize and make disciples.
It still goes on today. We are people who believe that God loves us. We believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose from the grave to defeat sin and death and to offer us forgiveness and new abundant life. We know it. But many of us still hesitate when it comes to putting our beliefs into action. When we get to the part about living out our faith, we hold back. Some people will hesitate because they can’t believe that Jesus actually asks his followers to do such risky things like making disciples of all nations. Who is this Jesus that he would ask us to impose our faith on others. And who are we to go out and tell Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Atheists that they are wrong. Isn’t that conceited? Certainly Jesus is not taking into account the complexity of pluralism and the principles of religious freedom.
Some people will hesitate because they still do not understand who Jesus is. They worship God, but they are uneasy with Jesus. They don’t know how Jesus fits in to the God-picture. Is he God, or is he a mere human? Sure, he’s important and influential. Sure we believe in him and respect what he taught. But, is Jesus worthy of our worship? Do we dare follow when we don’t really know him?
Some will hesitate because they are afraid of the consequences. We need to ask: what will following Jesus mean to my present level of comfort? What will I have to give up? What will it do to my family relationships? What will others think of me?
I’m reminded of a story I read about lobsters. From time to time lobsters have to leave their shells in order to grow. They need their shell to protect them from being torn apart, yet when they grow, the old shell must be abandoned. If they did not leave it, the old shell would soon become their prison – and finally their casket. The tricky part for the lobster is the brief period between when the old shell is discarded and the new one is formed. During that vulnerable period, hungry schools of fish are ready to make them part of the food chain. Currents toss them around from coral to kelp. I bet in those moments the old shell looks pretty good. We aren’t so different from lobsters in that respect. Even some of the eleven disciples were not able to leave their old lives. After the resurrection, they went back to the lives they lived before they had ever even heard of Jesus. In Luke’s version of the great commission, the risen Christ finds the disciples hiding out in a room. When Jesus materializes in front of them, they think he’s a ghost, and they are filled with fear and doubt. They could not shed their shells. They hesitated. They doubted. At first there is no visible change in their lives. Following Jesus is hard work. We have to shed our shells–the old structure and framework we’ve relied on. We step into dangerous waters so that we can grow and live the new life into which Jesus calls us.
So, how do we move from hesitation to active love for the world? I think part of the answer is found in Christ’s final words in Matthew’s Gospel: “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Jesus’ authority over all heaven and earth flows from his ever-present love. Jesus says, “With my authority, the authority of love, preach my message to the ends of the earth.” The great commission is rooted in humility and mercy. If we are sharing the gospel out of self-righteousness, then our discipleship is flawed. Sometimes we think that because we apply the name Christian to ourselves, we have the right to think we are better than others. But, the name Christian reminds us that Christ literally loved us to death. Those who seek to follow Christ will find their authority deep-rooted in loving kindness. Out of gratitude, we share that love with others, teaching, baptizing, and witnessing to what we have seen God doing in our lives.
One of my majors in College was English. I ended up taking many classes with the Chair of the English Department. Dr. Peters was a large, pompous man who regularly intimidated students. He impressed fear into everyone. His authority came from his title, his position, and his ability to scare his students half to death. In a literature course on the age of classicism, Dr. Peters would bellow out, “Braddock, what, according to Alexander Pope, is the requirement for being a British magistrate?” He would scowl at me as I sat in stunned silence. “Well, Braddock, what’s your answer?” I would finally stammer out a made-up answer. “I think Pope says if a man wants to be a magistrate, he has to have a wife who sells Tupperware.” Dr. Peters would shake his head and look at me in disgust before moving on to the next victim.
I was also a teaching assistant for another English professor, Dr. Paul. One afternoon he handed me a stack of papers to grade. As I went though the pile of freshmen English journals, I was disgusted by how poor the work was. Each passing paper was worse than the one before it, and the marks I gave reflected my loathing for their pasty writing. I delivered the graded papers back to the Dr. Paul, shaking my head in repugnance. The next day I went to his office, and he had a stack of papers for me to look through. They were actually the journals I had corrected the day before. Dr. Paul had gone through and changed all of the grades to higher marks. When I asked him about it, all he did was quote an OT prophet: “Matt, in wrath, remember mercy.” That lesson has stayed with me. There is no doubt in my mind why Dr. Paul had a very devoted band of students on campus. Dr. Peter’s authority was fed by the fear of his students. Dr. Paul’s authority was rooted in mercy.
I think the same holds true with Jesus. His authority is not found in the way he scares followers into obedience. We don’t obey Jesus because we are afraid of what he will do to us if we don’t. No, Jesus’ authority comes from his deep, abiding love. We follow and believe because we’ve been marked by love.
Christians have historically had a problem with this concept. In the earliest centuries of the church, the goal was to save people through persuasion. But by the beginning of the dark ages, persuasion meant coercion. Charlemagne typifies the thinking at the time. Before he became the Holy Roman Emperor, he was warring with the Saxons. The goal was conversion of the pagan Saxons to the Christian faith. Because the goal was so worthwhile, Charlemagne approved of any means necessary to make them convert. In the year 755, the Saxons were defeated, and they submitted to mass baptisms over the next two years. Charlemagne wrote, “If there is anyone of the Saxon people lurking among them unbaptized, and if he scorns to come to baptism and he wishes to absent himself and stay a pagan, then let him die.”
I’m really not trying to dump on Christianity here, but we need to realize that this sort of ends-justifies-the-means thinking still exists in the church today. In 1998, news outlets reported on an amendment to KY state law that allowed ministers to carry concealed weapons in church buildings. On the Today Show, Maria Shriver interviewed a pastor who played a pivotal role in the new law. The preacher reported that down-and-outers looking for money often visit churches and he suggested that having a gun might provide protection from those who might desire to steal church contributions or hurt employees. Bewildered, Maria Shriver asked the preacher if he understood that his reliance upon a handgun stood at odds with the Christian proclamation of peace and reconciliation. Imagine having the wife of Arnold Schwarzeneggar, the poster boy for violent entertainment, reminding the church that the gospel bids believers to resolve conflict with methods that are different from those that rely upon physical force.[i]
The gun-toting preacher stands in stark contrast to another news account from the University of Southern California Medical School. In August of 1993, a young woman named Sopehia White went looking for a nurse named Elizabeth Staten brandishing a .38. Staten was allegedly cheating with White’s husband. Firing six shots, White hit Staten in the stomach and wrist. When Staten ran into the emergency room, White followed her, firing again. In the ER, with blood on her clothes and a hit pistol in her hand, another nurse, Joan Black, met the attacker. Nurse Black did the unthinkable. Black walked calmly to the gun-toting woman – and hugged her. Black spoke comforting words. The assailant said she didn’t have anything to live for, that Staten had stolen her family. Black said, “You’re in pain. I’m sorry, but everybody has pain in their life . . . I understand and we can work it out.” As they talked, the hospital invader kept her finder on the trigger. Once she began to lift the gun as if she would shoot herself. Nurse Black just pushed her arm down and continued to hold her. At last, Sopehia White gave the gun to the nurse. She was disarmed by a hug, by understanding, by compassion.
Who has the greater authority, the emperor who forces baptisms on pain of death, the minister with the gun, or the nurse who hugs attackers? Before you answer, let’s remember that on a cross at Calvary was nailed the One who was unjustly abused, tried and murdered–and his dying words were a prayer of forgiveness for those who killed him. Imagine the result if Jesus had lived in KY, and just before they nailed him to the cross he claimed his right as a citizen and pulled out a .38. Jesus Christ gained all authority by stretching out his arms, and disarming the world with by a hug, by understanding, by compassion.
The authority to make disciples comes from mercy, humility, and love. Nothing else will do. There is no need to hesitate or doubt. There is no need to hold back. The authority of Love goes with us. So go, teach everyone you meet, far and near, in the way of love. Invite them to share in our baptism. Instruct them in the teachings of Christ. And remember, Jesus will be with us as we do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.[ii]
[i]. Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship, 28, 34-35,
[ii]. See, The Message