Yr A – Pentecost2 – Matthew 28:16-20
How do you like my title? Are you nervous? Let’s see where it goes! Our text is one of those very straightforward readings that means pretty much exactly what it appears to mean but despite that we seem to shrug our shoulders at it and ignore its implications in favour of what we think it should say.
Let me set the stage for you. It’s just after the resurrection. Jesus has appeared to some women but not to the men disciples in Matthew’s version. Jesus tells the women to tell the disciples to meet him back in Galilee on a mountain. So off they go. Now, that’s about a three day walk! Taking the story at face value, imagine yourself walking for three days in anticipation of possibly having an encounter with someone you just saw die and now have heard that he’s somehow mysteriously resurrected. To say the least, by the time they got there they were primed for a religious experience!
Matthew 28:17 – When they saw him, they worshipped him.
They SAW him! I like to imagine that they said “Surely God is in this place!” They noticed! Their eyes were opened. Their hearts were on fire. Their spirits were soaring. It says they worshipped, but not with a hymn, a sermon, and a prayer – it literally says they fell down and kissed the ground. They prostrated themselves in worship. Have you ever been so moved in worship?
And then, despite all that, astoundingly it says that “some doubted”! You wonder how someone could have participated in this scene and still doubted. Well, the word “doubt” here means “to stand in two places at once” or “being of two minds.” Perhaps it means that even though they were overwhelmed by this spiritual experience some weren’t quite sure what it all meant, or what they were supposed to do about it.
So Jesus tells them! First he claims the authority of God in verse 18 and then he passes that authority on to the disciples. Jesus gives them what has come to be known as “The Great Commission”.
Ok, let’s review a quick grammar lesson that really makes a difference! Verse 19 is usually rendered: “Go, therefore, and make disciples.” It makes for a great and powerful sentence in English but it shades the meaning pretty dramatically from the Greek. The Greek is actually in the passive tense rather than an imperative, so a better translation is “Therefore, AS YOU GO, make disciples.” Why does that matter?
“Go do it” sounds like you’re off to do a singular thing – that your effort is solely about that task – that you’re taking a special or unique set of actions. “As you go…” on the other hand, makes the task an integral part of your everyday life. You don’t put on special disciple-making clothes and carve out an afternoon to hunt for new recruits. You simply go about your life, and as you’re living out your own inspired, Sacred-immersed faith you look for openings and opportunities to share your heart.
Now I want to dive into that word “go.” What does “as we go” mean? I think it means as we journey, as we move through our world, as we do our best to walk in the Way of Jesus. So that means that our going is about communion, compassion, and connection. As we go – as we pray, and learn, and worship – as we reach out and love others through our good deeds and our justice-making – as we support one another – as we do ALL that wonderful stuff Jesus says there’s one more thing to think about, and he commissions us to do it. The Great Commission: As you go, make disciples!
Are you surprised that it isn’t about doing good? Stay with me here. Jesus does not commission us to go out and do good, he commissions us to make disciples. The ‘doing good’ part is assumed! The ‘doing good’ part is already a key feature of how you live – as you go. As you’re going you are doing good (or at least you’d better be)! The Great Commission is on top of that, and apparently it needs lifting up and mentioning on its own. It’s that important!
To commission someone is to empower them with the authority to do something on behalf of or in the name of someone. Empowering with the authority to act. Ministers do a commissioning at the end of each worship service. I say words like, “Go forth, knowing who you are and whose you are – (and here’s the commissioning part) for the love of God is yours to share, the peace of Christ is yours to extend, and the power of the Holy Spirit is yours to offer.” I empower you with the authority of the church to act – to share God’s love, to extend Christ’s peace, and to offer the Spirit’s power to people.
But a commissioning doesn’t mean much if the people being commissioned don’t commit to it! (The root of commission is commit.) A commissioning cannot just be a nice sounding bunch of Christian clichés. It’s not a feel-good Hallmark card that congratulates you for sitting through worship. It’s a battle cry! It’s Mel Gibson in Braveheart riding his horse in front of the Scots screaming “They can never take our freedom!”
Matthew 28 is the end of this gospel. This is the final word of Jesus to the disciples. This is how the writer of Matthew imagines Jesus, on his horse with his face painted blue, wild-eyed and filled with passion, rallying his dishevelled and unlikely troops. After all the teaching, healing, preaching, arguing, praying, communing, and exemplifying that Jesus did here is the final motivational speech we get in this gospel: “As you go, make disciples!”
The logical question is: What’s a disciple? If our main job is supposed to be making disciples we’d better know what we’re making! Are you a disciple? How did you become one? Who made you one? A disciple is one who is baptized and who progressively learns and follows the Way of Jesus.
We usually think of the word ‘disciple’ as a noun. In fact, disciple can also be a verb, but it has fallen out of usage. It’s archaic. I believe that is a grave error for the church. I think we need to learn the verb “to disciple” again. In Greek the Great Commission actually reads: “As you go, disciple people.” To disciple is to teach, to train, to bring up in faith. As you go, teach. As you do good, reproduce!
The Great Commission of Jesus demands more of us than just being good people doing good deeds and living justly. It’s certainly all those things, but that is not our primary mission. As you go, doing those good things, disciple people. As you are going, as you’re living the Way, as you’re expressing compassion by doing good in the world inspired by your faith, inspired by the Spirit – as you journey…draw people into relationship with you and with God. DRAWING PEOPLE INTO RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD IS DISCIPLE-MAKING!!! As you go, draw people into relationship with God. It really does require more than just actions. It requires being willing to reproduce, being ready and prepared to say WHY you do good!!!!
You are here for one reason and one reason only. Somebody, somewhere along the line drew you to God! Someone taught you something about Jesus, and invited you to become a follower of his Way.
I’m about to speak a United Church heresy!!! – social justice and doing good is not our primary job!
Making disciples by drawing people into an ever-deepening relationship with God is.
You’ve all heard the saying: Give a person a fish and they will eat for a day – teach a person to fish and they’ll eat for the rest of their life.
Same goes for discipleship. Give a person a compassionate act and it will transform their day – teach a person what inspired your compassion and it will transform their life!
No one is here because someone did a good deed for them. No one receives a kindness and says to themselves, “Gee, that was great, I think I’ll go to church now!”
Don’t get me wrong – the good deed, the kindness, the compassionate act is imperative, and it may very well be the thing that breaks through the darkness in someone’s life and awakens them to the possibility of God’s presence and light. Absolutely! Good deeds are wonderful, and they’re essential ‘as you go,’ but good deeds don’t make disciples. Good deeds are beautiful expressions of compassion and love that are inspired by our faith but on their own they will never draw someone into their own journey of faith UNLESS the good deeds are followed or accompanied by a teaching and an invitation.
And here’s where it’s all gone off the tracks. Here’s why we do such a bad job of committing to Jesus’ great commission. We have inherited a sorry history of misguided teaching and obnoxious invitation.
Making disciples means drawing people into an ever-deepening relationship with the Holy Mystery we call God uniquely revealed through the life and teaching of Jesus. But that’s not what Christians have tended to do. Instead, we’ve tended to bash people over the head with doctrine and dogma.
One word for this is proselytizing. If you go around offering compassion with strings attached it’s proselytizing. “I’ll give you a hearty meal but first you need to listen to my sermon.” “I’ll come and volunteer at your school but I have to give the students some literature to take home.” To proselytize is to try to persuade someone to share your religious views.
It may sound to you like I’m advocating that when I say doing good on its own isn’t enough. I’m not. What I’m saying is ‘as you go, doing good, always be ready to say why.’ 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.”
Don’t lead with it, and don’t insist on it, but be ready with it.
Disciple-making is about ‘drawing’ people into a relationship with God, not coercing them, not threatening them with damnation, not winning their soul for Ja-eez-us – just being ready to say why you’re inspired, ready to help them notice God’s presence too.
Hands down, by far, the most loving thing you can do for anyone is to play a part in drawing them into an ever-deepening relationship with God. What a great thing to commit our lives to.
Remember, this Great Commission flows from a wonderful spiritual experience of the presence of the Holy. This isn’t an intellectual exercise of determining the best course of action. It’s the overflow of the Spirit that moves us to do good and to reproduce.
As you go, doing good wherever and whenever you can, be ready to say what inspires you. Disciple people. Reproduce yourself like Jesus reproduced himself in his disciples, and they reproduced themselves in more disciples, and on and on until someone reproduced themselves in you and me.
Now it’s our turn.
If you’re not sure, if you’re of two minds about this, if you’re doubting whether you’re up to it let me suggest a couple of things.
First, notice the presence of God all around you, allow yourself to be filled with it, and experience being awestruck by the Mystery.
Then you’ll be ready to go, and as you go, do good.
And as you’re doing good, if someone asks you why, if someone creates an opening for dialog, be ready to love that person so much that you’ll risk being vulnerable and offer to reproduce with them, to draw them into an ever-deepening relationship with God, like yours!
This is the Great Commission!
Be committed to reproduction!
And know that you are not alone, for Jesus has promised to be with you always, to the end of the age.