Good morning! Today I’m going to preach the Gospel. If someone told me five years ago that I would be a lay preacher, I would have said, “not likely. ” In fact, “it will be a cold day in a very, very hot place before you hear me preach!” And yet, here I am. Life has always exercised power to take me in directions I never would have discovered on my own. So today I am the preacher; my job is to speak. You are the congregation; your job is to listen. If you finish before I do, my feelings won’t be hurt if you leave early.
There are many echoes among the different scripture readings we’ve just heard.
- In Genesis, God creates the heavens and the earth, the entire universe; he creates humankind in His own image, and then gives man dominion over all life on the planet! And it’s all very good.
- In the psalm we hear “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet…. ”
Imagine. Man is meant to be a lofty creature. He is created just a little lower than God. It is not a stretch to claim that his birthright is to live in the Kingdom. This is good news, all right.
- In second Corinthians, Paul asks his brothers and sisters in Jesus to “listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. ” If the God of love and peace is with us, I suspect that we live in the Kingdom.
- And of course, the great commission itself, from Matthew 28:16-20, where Jesus, in his last words to his disciples, says “All authority in heaven and 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. ”
This is what’s come to be known as the Great Commission, and it amounts to giving the disciples marching orders. Carrying them out would consume the rest of their lives. And they carried this commission with great zeal. These are the last words from Jesus to the eleven. Let’s take a few minutes to talk about the passage.
We have different ways of signaling that something important is happening. When the President arrives, the band plays “Hail to the Chief. ” When a VIP arrives, people roll out a red carpet. A teacher once told me, “I can’t tell you what will be on the test, but when I tap my foot and say ‘This is a Teaching Point,’ you should listen very, very carefully. ”
In the Bible, having something take place on a mountain was like saying, “This is a Teaching Point. “It signaled an important event:
- God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on a mountain.
- Jerusalem, the Holy City, was built on a mountain.
- Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal on a mountain.
- The devil took Jesus to a mountain to show him the kingdoms of the world.
- Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount from a mountain.
- Jesus was transfigured on a mountain.
- Jesus often went up to a mountain to pray.
So it is significant that the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. Jesus directed the disciples to the mountain as a way of saying, “This is a Teaching Point! Pay attention!”
Seeing Jesus on the mountain, the disciples worshiped him––but some doubted.
In Matthew’s account, the last time the disciples had seen Jesus was at the crucifixion. Only Mary Magdalene and the other Mary had seen the risen Christ. Now the disciples could see for themselves that Jesus, who was dead, was alive again. No wonder they worshiped him.
But some doubted. What they were seeing was unbelievable––so they didn’t believe it. How could they believe it? There were all sorts of possibilities. Perhaps Jesus had not really died on the cross. Perhaps someone who looked like Jesus had died on the cross. Perhaps someone who looked like Jesus was standing before them on the mountain. Imagine the welter of confused thoughts racing through their minds! It’s no wonder that some of them doubted.
Matthew says, “And Jesus came to them. “This, too, is important. Rabbis didn’t come to their disciples; disciples came to their rabbis. It was a matter of respect, of acknowledging who was important. Disciples needed their rabbi––their rabbi didn’t need them. But Jesus came to the disciples. It was the disciples who were needy, but Jesus came to them.
Jesus still does that. Jesus still seeks us out. Even when we have wandered away, he is still there for us––seeking us out––calling us back––hoping for our return. He loves us like a father. He loves us like a mother. We may break his heart, but he waits for our return. And he does more than wait. He comes to us.
Then 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 was an amazing speech. In English it is only 61 words. In the original Greek, it was only 51. We think of the Gettysburg Address as a tiny jewel of a speech, but it was many times longer than Jesus’ Great Commission. Jesus used those words to tell his disciples what to do. Those few words have also come to spell out the church’s mission. Note the verbs. We are to GO, to MAKE DISCIPLES, to BAPTIZE, to TEACH, and to REMEMBER. Jesus’ disciples, doing those things, turned the world upside down. Even today, when we go––and make disciples––and baptize––and teach obedience––and remember––we turn people’s lives upside down.
- Make disciples.
First, as disciples, we are to GO. Where must we go? We go where God calls us. Yes, God may call us to go to another nation. Or God may call us to go to go to a prison. Or God may call us to go to our neighbor. Or God may call us to go to our workplace. Every day, wherever we go in life, we are called. Wherever we go, we go as emissaries of love. We embody the love of Christ. We love our neighbor as dearly as ourselves. If the spirit of God is alive in us, it is not an onerous task to share Gospel knowledge wherever we are. But I have found in my own life that sometimes it is difficult to remember to love my neighbor as myself.
We are to MAKE DISCIPLES of all nations. That sounds as if we should all go to Africa or Asia. But, in the original Greek text, Jesus actually said, “Make disciples of all ethne. “In the mouth of a Jew, the word ethne could mean Gentiles. When Jesus says, “Make disciples of all nations,” he is making two emphases:
- The first is that we need to take the Gospel everywhere, to all the nations of the world.
- The second is that we need to take the Gospel to people who are different from ourselves. Christ has broken down the walls that divide us. Christ has called us to love those whom, by our own power, we could never love. Christ has called us to become brothers and sisters to each other.
We are to BAPTIZE. Baptism has always been the beginning point of the Christian life. Baptism initiates us into the family of God. To be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is like being adopted into a new family. At our baptism, we take on Christ’s name. We become Christians. At our baptism, we begin to grow into oneness with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. When we baptize people, we bring them into the family.
And then we are to TEACH them. What is it that we teach them? Jesus told us to teach the new disciples “to OBEY everything that I have commanded you. ”
We are to teach the new disciples to OBEY Jesus!
- Obey is not a very popular word – or concept – today. Many have taken the word obey out of the marriage vows, because we don’t like subordinate relationships. We don’t want wives to obey their husbands, and we don’t want husbands to obey their wives. We’re all equals here! Some people aren’t even comfortable with the idea of children obeying their parents. But Jesus tells us to teach new disciples “to obey everything that I have commanded you. “If we are uncomfortable with teaching that, it may be that that our own obedience is in question. Jesus wants us to obey him, and he wants us to teach others to obey him. This is where living as a Christian is hard; out of many, many examples that leap to mind, how about the greatest commandment from Mark, when Jesus says “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your mind, and with all your strength. ’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. ’ There is no other commandment greater than these. ” In my experience, we – as humans – are a bit too forgetful to live a commandment like this. We can have all the best intentions in the world, and they get forgotten, or subsumed as we live our lives. I do not believe that total surrender to God and God’s love is impossible, but it is very difficult to achieve, and most do not. I, for instance, often doubt. If Jesus’ own disciples doubted, and they had been with him daily for three years, how may I not doubt? Overcoming doubt is a challenge for me. And I certainly do not feel like a preacher – or a Christian – who is perfected in the Christian Way, which makes executing the Great Commission difficult. And I doubt that I’m alone in this. So what are we to do?
Well, there is one more instruction. Do you remember what it is? We are to go, make disciples, baptize, teach––and then we are to do one more thing. What is the last instruction in the Great Commission? It is REMEMBER. We must not forget to remember. Jesus said, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. ” Perhaps this remembering is the key to the whole Great Commission. There’s nothing like the everyday pressures of life to make us forget.
- Sometimes we get so busy doing work that we forget God and Jesus, and his teachings.
- Sometimes we get so busy being disciples that we forget to love.
- Sometimes we get so busy performing service, or work, or even play, that we forget to pray.
- Sometimes we become so frenetic doing things that we lose touch with the Holy Spirit.
When that happens, the power drains out of us. We become anxious––or fearful––or discouraged. We begin to wonder why nothing is happening. We wonder where Jesus is. We wonder if he has abandoned us.
So Jesus says, “Remember! Remember that I am with you always! Remember that you do not have to be anxious or fearful! Remember that you are not responsible for success or failure! You are responsible only to be faithful! I am with you! Remember!”
In my own experience, the best way to remember is through prayer. It’s through quieting the mind and opening to God. And sometimes it’s fun to listen to popular songs as if they were hymns. Bob Dylan is one of my favorite composers for doing that, but many are good. Dylan wrote, “So when you see your neighbor carrying something, help him with his load, / and don’t go mistaking Paradise for that home across the road. ” That’s not a bad prescription for putting the greatest commandment into action.
And here’s a true story about Irving Berlin; once he wrote a love song, but couldn’t find the right closing line. He wanted something that would capture the sentiment of the song. He had written these words:
Remember the night, the night
you said “I love you”?
Remember you vowed
by all the stars above you?
Remember we found a lovely spot
And after I learned to care a lot
You promised that you’d forget me not…
At that point, he stalled. The song sat there, unfinished, for weeks. It kept playing its way through his mind, but he could not get the last line. It nearly drove him crazy. Imagine listening to a song over and over and having it stop just before the end. If that would be difficult for you, imagine how difficult it would be for a gifted songwriter like Irving Berlin.
And then, one day when he was least expecting it, the words came to him. He rushed to get them on paper before he forgot them––and then he played through that final stanza.
Remember, we found a lovely spot?
And after I learned to care a lot,
You promised that you’d forget me not––
But you forgot to remember.
When we get discouraged––when we are anxious––when we want to give up, perhaps Jesus is thinking, with great compassion:
But you forgot to remember.
He says, “Remember, I am with you always. I am at your side. Don’t worry, don’t be afraid. I am with you always. Remember! Don’t forget to remember. “