Sunday, May 8, 2011

Converts or Disciples?

Matthew 28:16-20
May 8, 2011
Easter 3
William G. Carter

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Whatever else we want to say about this story, it is an Easter story. At dawn on the day he was raised, the Risen Christ said, “Tell my brothers to go to Galilee.” When they do, they see him. This is the only occasion of his appearance that Matthew reports. And it sounds like other Easter stories. The disciples have mixed feelings. In his own way, Matthew reports, “When they saw him, they worshiped him, and some doubted.” It’s like every Easter Sunday; it’s a mixed house. Even when we blow the Easter trumpets, some of the people are scratching their heads.

There is also a pathetic note about the little church. Did you notice in the reading how many disciples there were? Eleven. The church is shrinking. Easter does not increase the actual number of believers. If anything, it reveals who the true believers are. There used to be twelve, but Judas fell away. Now there are eleven. Among these eleven, some worship and some doubt; I will bet for a few of them, it was a good dose of both.

And then Jesus gives his word to commission his church. He tells them what he wants them to do, after he says a word about himself. “All authority has been given to me,” he says. He has the authority of heaven, the authority of earth. In speaking of Jesus Christ, that is one of Matthew’s favorite words: authority. “Exousia” is the word – “authority” – and Jesus has received it.

The devil had offered him authority in the desert. He took Jesus to a very high mountain, extended his arms, and said, “Look at all the nations of the world and their splendor. Wouldn’t you like to have all of that? Just say the word and it can be yours.” But Jesus told him to go back to hell. What the devil had offered him was a crown without a cross. He made some bogus promise that Jesus could have world dominion if he skipped the resistance, the arrest, the suffering, the crucifixion, the waiting on God. There would be no crown without a cross. And now on the other side of the tomb, there would be authority. All authority of heaven and earth, given to the crucified and risen Lord. This is an Easter story.

Jesus is risen for the benefit of the world, for the whole world. I don’t know if you remember this about Matthew, but he was quite specific to say that Jesus had once confined his ministry to fellow Jews. He taught the Jews, he healed the Jews, and that was it. Once he approached by a woman of different nationality who begged him to heal her daughter. He ignored her, but she insisted. And he said, “Sorry, lady, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel (15:24). That is my scope, my limitation.”

Before, when he sent out his followers to do ministry, Jesus limited where they could go. “Don’t go among any Gentiles,” he said, “but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6). Christian faith begins as Jewish faith – Jesus the Jew goes only to the Jews. He is the Messiah for people who want a Messiah, provided he is the kind of Messiah that they want.

But now it is Easter. Easter changes everything. Jesus had taught in Israel, but now his instruction is intended for all. He had healed those in his neighborhood, but now he is available for the healing of all people. Any self-imposed restrictions are lifted. He has all authority, in heaven and on earth. And he sends his people to “all nations.” Indeed it says, “all nations.”

We call this the “great commission.” For the better part of 150 years, we have been clear about what this means. This brief story is the favorite of Mission Committees in all kinds of the church. It pushes us beyond parochialism to take the Gospel to every people in every land.

In the history books of the church, we learn about a man named Samson Occom. He was a Native American. In 1759, the Presbyterian Church ordained him as a minister, the first Native American minister. He was a member of the Mohegan nation and sent as a missionary to the Native Americans. On the day of his ordination, the preacher based his sermon on our Bible passage. The message was clear: "White people like us have given a Native American like you something you did not have, and we want you to give it away to as many of your people as you can." Church leaders promised him a good salary, the same salary as the white preachers, but the money never showed up and he lived in deep poverty for most of his life.

But he went out to preach, because he was a Christian. And being a Presbyterian, he went out to begin a school. It was a school for poor Native Americans, to teach them to read and write and to love God. A friend took him to England for an eighteen month preaching tour, and the Rev. Samson Occom raised a lot of money for the sake of education. He was a convincing preacher. Even King George III made a personal donation.

And when he returned to the American colonies, Samson Occom discovered his benefactor had lied to him. He had neglected to care as promised for Occom’s wife and children, who were now destitute. Not only that, the funds Occom had raised were redirected toward establishing Dartmouth College for white people, rather than to educate his beloved Native Americans.

Now, that’s the kind of story that makes you wonder if there are any Christians within the church. Sadly it is not the only tale of good-hearted missionary efforts gone awry. The Risen Christ sends us to every nation on his behalf. We are his hands, his feet, his voice, his heart. Yet if you know the history, our efforts have been mixed at best. There are many sad stories of European Christians who spoke to people who were neither European nor Christian. They tried to make other people Christians, but inevitably tainted them as Europeans. Sometimes it was conversion by coercion. These days it may be conversion by consumerism and consumption.

Perhaps the most telling indicator comes from the Korean church, which the American Presbyterians nurtured. There are far more Korean Presbyterians now than there are American Presbyterians, and the Korean church is sending missionaries to us. As one of them said to me, “It must be so difficult to be a Christian in America; you have so many riches and your people have become so selfish. So few Americans seem to pay any attention to God in any meaningful way.”

Are there any Christians within the church? That seems to lie at the heart of Christ’s great commission. He does not charge his people to make converts, but to make disciples. Alongside any intention to grow the church in numbers is a greater concern to grow the church in depth. A disciple is a student of Jesus. Disciples have a relationship that is growing, and learning, and serving. There is something more at work in them than merely taking up space in a pew. They work hard to understand what the Gospel is all about. They struggle to bring those Christian insights to bear on the places where they work and the ways they spend their time and money. And it’s a lifelong process.

In recent years, the best minds of the church have pointed out that we can’t simply coast along and become “automatically Christian.” We have to work at it with intentionality. I think of the work of Douglas John Hall who taught theology in Toronto. “It used to be,” says Hall, “that somebody could pick up Christian odors in the air, and that would be enough to shape their lives. These days, according to the research, white Westerners cease to be Christian at a rate of 7,600 per day.” For us to be Christian, in this day and age, will take something more merely than having our names on a list on a church office computer. Being a disciple is more than being a member.

“Go and make disciples of all nations,” says Jesus. I think that includes making disciples in this nation as much as it means making disciples in any other nation. This is more than a Mission Committee text; it is a Christian Education Committee text. A serving church is a learning church; a church that grows in its love for Jesus is a church that grows in its love for its neighborhood; it all goes hand in hand.

And the clue for all of this is the place where the Easter Jesus meets his disciples. Do you remember from our text where that was? They went to Galilee, “to the mountain where he directed them.” What mountain? Anybody want to guess? It’s the mountain where we have been before – the Sermon on the Mount mountain. After Easter, he directs them back to the place where he gathered them together and began to teach. And the Easter Christ continues to instruct us, saying,

• Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
• You are the salt of the earth.
• Love your enemies.
• Be complete as your heavenly Father is complete.
• Do not store up treasures on earth.
• Seek first the kingdom of God.
• Enter through the narrow gate.
• The good person brings good things out of a good treasure.
• Whoever gives a cup of cold water to these little ones will not lose their reward.
• Humble yourself like a little child.
• Pick up your cross and follow me.
• Forgive one another seventy times seven.
• Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.

This is where disciples are made: by sitting at the feet of the Teacher. He says to those who are baptized, “You have to learn everything I have commanded you. And then you have to live everything I have taught.” This is his commission, and it’s going to take us a lifetime of constant effort to get it right.

And if we think for a minute that we can slack off, he gives us a blessing that is also a warning. He says, “Remember, I am with you to the end of the age.” I am right here, in the middle of your circle. I am right here, hidden in Word and Sacrament. I am with you in the love that you share and the concern that you visibly offer to one another. I am with you until you grow into the fullness of what it means to love God and neighbor. I am with you until you fully discover just how much God loves the world.

He is with us. Just as the angel promised at Christmas, just as he himself declares after Easter. Jesus Christ is with us.

And his continuing work is to make us into the kind of people who share God’s justice and love with every person under heaven. That, if you ask me, is the meaning, and the promise, of the Great Commission.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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