"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sunday Sermon: The Great Commission

Matthew 28:16-20

(Picture from Simon Smith's wonderful contemporary Easter Story "Raised in Leeds". Click on to enlarge.)
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.”
It would have been easy for the disciples to assume that everything was over. The call, the commitment, the commission could have all ended on that fateful Friday, when the one to whom they had committed their lives was executed. Even in the face of the resurrection, there did not have to be an understanding that what began three years earlier would continue. The trauma of the crucifixion had sent them scattering into hiding in fear and grief. And as much as Jesus had tried to prepare them, they really weren't ready for life and work without him. It could have been over.

But something happened after they received the testimony of the women. "He's not dead. He's alive!" they said. "Go and meet him in Galilee." And when the disciples gathered, the resurrected Christ, the living Lord, Jesus, met them there. But as Jesus greets them and they're worshipping him there are still some questions, there is still some uncertainty. We don’t, of course, hear Jesus’ full response – that’s what is often so frustrating about the Gospels, they are not a verbatim record of the conversation, merely, as we might put it, edited highlights, but Matthew tells us that as part of his response Jesus said, “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.”

That is the gist of today’s Gospel passage and, short as it is, it takes some unpacking.

I think the first thing I’d like to say may well be something that I’ve said before here and it is about the nature of how we interpret Jesus’ words in any given passage. We need to be clear who Jesus is talking to. Well, we see Jesus here talking to his disciples and if we, all this time later, consider ourselves also to be followers or disciples then this passage is most certainly for us to hear - and to act upon.

This passage is often called The Great Commission: it sets out very clearly an instruction, an imperative - and therefore not an option - in terms of making disciples of others. It’s The Great Commission, not the Great Suggestion. However, there are many today who would say that we have failed in our obligation and that we should call it instead The Great Omission.

The church really does seem to have lost sight of its mission to make disciples. This is one of the reasons why the traditional churches in the main with one or two notable exceptions are struggling to grow; Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, United Reformed and so on. The statistics don't look good. The church is not replenishing itself with a new generation of disciples and we aren’t reaching the younger generation.

What has happened? Why can't the church today be like the early church? The answer comes through something that a number of Christian commentators have noted: "If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the Church today, 95% of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament Church, 95% of what they did would have stopped, and everybody would have known the difference." To put it another way, we do too much in our own strength and from our own agendas.

Last week in the Town Hall we heard a stirring sermon for Pentecost Sunday. We were told about the transforming nature of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the first disciples and how that power is available to all disciples down the ages since. The following day I came upon a cartoon which showed the inside of seemingly empty church but there were two speech bubbles coming from under the pews. One was asking, “Is he still here?” and the other was replying, “Yes, stay put. He’s looking at the notice board.” It made me smile. Is this how Christians today really approach Pentecost Sunday and the receipt of the gifts and the power of the Holy Spirit? Yet here we are and the expectation is, that as the story unfolds, we are in receipt of that awesome power and we’re certainly going to need it for The Great Commission!

Is the Holy Spirit the driving force of the church today? If we are to reclaim the fire of the Spirit the early church had, if we are to share our witness effectively we must be willing to open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit! That's what the early followers of Christ did! They were not sophisticated people. They hadn't been to college; they hadn't read books on church growth and marketing the church. They simply made themselves available to the Holy Spirit. And look what happened in Acts chapter 2, "Each one heard them speaking in his own language." It was clear! The Holy Spirit did it through them because they were simply willing to be used! The Holy Spirit broke through communication barriers and the gospel translated.

Perhaps we should remind ourselves again what the text says. What we have is, “All authority is given to me and I am sending you.” The unavoidable truth is that as Christians we are called to bear witness, to tell people about Jesus--to make disciples. Now, this may scare some of you to death: it certainly does me!

Well, let’s also note that the passage talks of making disciples, not converts! If all authority belongs to Jesus, the mission of the church is not to convert people -- only the Holy Spirit who expresses that authority in the world can do that -- but to invite or urge others to join us on the road of following Jesus. Jesus does not command us to maximize conversions but to enable people of all backgrounds to become true and lasting disciples.

Integral to that process of discipleship is learning to walk the road alongside people of different backgrounds.

In words usually attributed to Archbishop William Temple, “The church is the only institution that exists to serve the needs of those who are not its members, so Christian mission is about assisting what God is doing in the world.”

So Christian mission is about assisting what God is doing in the world.

When I was at Vicar School, one of our first modules was that of Mission. It was one of the ones I most enjoyed. We were taught about the Missio Dei - The Mission of God. Mission is not the church going out and saving people. Rather, it is God creating and saving the world. The mission of God came first and the church was created as a response to that. That makes the church a product of mission rather than the other way round.  I sat up and began to take serious notice here: The mission of God came first and the church was created as a response to that. That makes the church a product of mission rather than the other way round.  Wow! And I think of the hours I have spent in church meetings trying to plan the next parish mission!

Now, all approaches to evangelism are valid but there should be a balance rather than a heavy reliance on one method. I have very strong memories as a teenager of feeling “guilt tripped” over the model of evangelism that was being promoted then. “You have to tell people about Jesus. You must speak up or they will be damned.” I have never felt comfortable with the altar-call approach to mission and it came as a surprise and relief to discover an approach to the Missio Dei which advises being reactive rather than proactive, reactive rather than proactive: discern where God is already at work and join him there, after all, it is God’s mission. I no longer had to be apologetic about mission:  I simply had to be as good a role model of discipleship as the Holy Spirit gave me the grace to be and see what happened.

As someone who comes into contact with people from a variety of faith backgrounds, and is trained to teach about them, I have always been interested in the interface between Christianity and other religions and the wisdom I find there. The Magi, the Centurion, the Syrophoenecian Woman and others were not Jews, but their witness was valid and affirmed in the New Testament, so I can talk to my Muslim, Sikh and Hindu colleagues about my faith and I don’t have to smack them around the head with my Bible. I do, however need to listen in return because that is the nature of dialogue and yet we can get so much more over about the nature of our beliefs if what we are doing is chatting, so much more than if we were lecturing or berating. We don’t convert, the Holy Spirit does and we don’t know what seeds we may plant for the Holy Spirit to work on.

People take notice when the church becomes involved in social action: the negativity which often characterises the public’s attitude to the church, and therefore by extension to Christianity, is replaced by a general positivity when the church speaks out with authority on behalf of the poor and marginalised. It is as if the majority of people I meet are somehow subliminally programmed to expect the church to speak out against injustice, a positivity which is not apparent towards the street preacher outside Marks and Spencer. We bring the Kingdom closer when Christians stand alongside others for an end to poverty and oppression even if it risks the wrath of politicians?

 I am also struck by the opportunities for discussions about faith which arise naturally. That I am a Christian is widely known by those I regularly meet: as a Religious Studies teacher discussions about matters of faith are everyday – often with colleagues too. It’s best not to second guess the Holy Spirit: all conversations that take place in the street, in the supermarket and at the bus stop are mission conversations because they bring the Kingdom of God closer; every one of those people is potentially a penitent thief on the cross so all conversations are potentially a means of grace - but rarely if that other person feels that there is an agenda for conversion - but rarely if that other person feels that there is an agenda for conversion. I cannot earn God’s favour by speaking about him but His grace won’t be limited when I do.  However we approach mission we must show genuineness, empathy and respect and question our motivation. Is what I am doing the Missio Dei - God’s mission - or is there another agenda?




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