A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A – Pentecost 1 – Matthew 28:16-20
Let me set the stage for you. We’re back at Easter morning – the resurrection. Jesus has appeared to some women but not yet to the men disciples in Matthew’s version. Jesus tells the women to tell those other disciples to meet him back in Galilee on a mountain. So off they go, by faith. 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 crucified and die, and now you’ve 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! Unlike the women on Easter morning, this was their first time. 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”! Don’t be too hard on them. 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, it’s grammar time! We’re going to dissect two words – ‘go’, and ‘make’. Verse 19 is usually rendered: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all people.” It makes for a great and powerful sentence in English, but it shades the meaning pretty dramatically from the Greek. The Greek in the first part here 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.
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 love, love, love. 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 loving 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!
Except it doesn’t really say that either! ‘Make disciples’ is a poor translation. In fact, the word ‘make’ isn’t even there in the Greek, and the word ‘disciple’ is used as the verb! It literally reads: “Disciple people…” Teachers don’t go into a classroom and ‘make students’ – they ‘teach’ people. What does it mean to disciple someone? It means to journey alongside them, mentoring, encouraging, resourcing, growing.
Fascinatingly, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus does not commission us to go out and do good; he commissions us to disciple people. 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!
Matthew 28 is the end of this gospel. This is the final word of Jesus to the disciples. 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, disciple people!” I find that a very encouraging and powerful reframing. ‘Go and make’ sounds like a hammer to me. Go and force unwilling people to convert. It’s horrific. But that’s how it’s been interpreted and used. “As you go, disciple people” on the other hand, sounds wonderfully supportive and inviting – and it captures the ongoing motion that we’re thinking about these weeks.
Now, building on all that, the logical question is: What’s a disciple? If our main job is supposed to be discipling, we’d better know what we’re on about! Are you a disciple? (Yes!) A disciple is one who progressively learns and follows the Way of Jesus.
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. Help them notice.
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. Someone who loved you led you into this Way. Someone journeyed alongside you, con moto, with motion, and helped you notice.
Sadly, tragically, Christians have misinterpreted the Great Commission, and you and I have inherited a sorry history of misguided teaching and obnoxious invitation. It desperately needs to be reframed. It must be about discipling people, 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, and rules, and moralizing.
We’ve confused evangelism and 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 talk about evangelism. 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. Your personal spiritual experience is your primary drawing card!
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. This isn’t a strategy to put more bums in pews, or eyes on livestreams. It’s the movement, the motion that flows from a wonderful spiritual experience of the presence of the Holy.
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. 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.
If you’re not sure, if you’re of two minds about this, if you’re doubting whether you’re up to it, like those first disciples, 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, con moto, 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 draw them into an ever-deepening relationship with God, like yours!
This is the reframed Great Commission! As you go, disciple people. And know that you are not alone, for Jesus has promised to be with you always, to the end of the age. Amen.