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The Great Commission

June 12, 2017

“The Great Commission” Matthew 28:16-20 © 6.11.17 Trinity A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When I was a student at the University of Georgia, I was an obnoxious know-it-all. (Obviously, things haven’t changed much in 45 years!) I particularly delighted in challenging professors in humanities classes, a practice for which I was praised by peers in my anti-intellectual fundamentalist circle. (We said Ph.D. stood for “post hold digger.”) My religion professor, as I recall, put me told in no uncertain terms; I’m sure he’d heard it all before from arrogant kids like me. The philosophy teacher, though, was more subtle in giving me my comeuppance. An exam came back with this comment: “Some small sins of omission and one grievous sin of commission.”

Except in that pairing, the last word is pronounced “kǝ-mish’-ǝn.” It’s a term with many meanings and uses, both a noun and a verb, all of which are related somehow to action and/or authorization. An independent commission, without a partisan agenda, seeks the truth. A commission of Presbytery closes a church or ordains a minister. A ship or an officer in the military is commissioned. So might be a work of art or a symphony. Somebody is charged with the commission of a crime. “Out of commission” means a vehicle, for example, is not fit for use anymore.

By being commissioned, a group of people or an individual is given authority to act by some delegating body, assigned a certain task to carry out on another’s behalf, whether the government or the church or a patron. There is or should also be a sense of personal investment in the project; “commission” is related to “commit.” Whether committing a crime, serving on or earning a commission or being guilty of sins of commission, as different as those activities are, we are accountable, responsible.

All this can inform our understanding of our Lord’s last command to his disciples, according to Matthew. Since the Scofield Reference Bible of 1909, the last three verses of this gospel have been known as “the Great Commission,” a term taken up by Christians all along the theological spectrum, not just the Dispensationalists for whom Scofield wrote. 

Every commission has some authorizing entity or individual which has power to grant it, as well as to ask for accountability and expect action on the assigned task. Their status, though, pales in comparison with the One who gives the Great Commission. He claims “all authority” in “heaven and earth” has been given to him. So, the Commissioner is himself commissioned, and he invites those who follow him to join in fulfilling his responsibility. This is One worthy not merely of respect or obedience, but of worship.

In the world in which the disciples lived, the authority of the Commissioner, the Messiah, was great and good news. People greater and lesser were filled with fear of various forces, gods, and demons. There were deities of love and hate, overseers of the harvest and protectors of the home, divinities of sea and earth, fate and chance, good and evil. Which god should one serve? How could one placate the vengeful deities who with a word could ruin one’s life?

But now there had come One to whom all authority had been given. He had power over the forces that made people afraid, over so-called gods, over the raging conflicts of the human heart and in communities, even over death itself. This was a message of victory and hope, joy and expectation. Don’t we need such a word in our own day, so dominated by fear?

So there is One with authority over everything and everyone who gives the Great Commission. But next, as with every commission, there’s a specific task. What is it Jesus authorizes his disciples to do, whether in the first or the twenty-first century?

To answer that, I have to be a grammar geek for a moment. We might think our Lord’s primary command is “go,” as if it took some prodding to get the disciples in any age to get off the couch and into the street. But “go” here is a participle in Greek, better translated as “going,” “traveling,” “as you go,” “while on your journey,” “conducting your life.” So whatever it is Jesus wants disciples then and now to do is an everyday task, not something we attend to one day a week in a dedicated building. It’s part and parcel of our work and play, ongoing, responding to new circumstances and taking advantage of fresh opportunities. It holds the potential for surprise and discovery, disappointment and failure, because we’re talking about our daily lives, and that’s what they’re like. As the old Hebrew injunction put it, the call is to be heeded and the possibilities are there “when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:7; 11:19).

So what is the everyday commission the Eleven were given, and we’ve inherited? It’s to “make disciples of all nations.” Notice the emphasis isn’t on numbers, how many were converted and added to a roll, how many notches on your Bible you got from saving souls. Conversion is just a first step. The call is to the lifelong process of shaping and forming people, as individuals and as a community, that follow Jesus, that obey Jesus, doing what he commanded. This, even as the teachers themselves continue to be made into disciples. It’s the spiritually immature, like me in my college classes, who think they have nothing left to learn. It’s the fearful who leave no room for doubt in their faith. Learn and take heart from the original disciples. As they bent the knee before him, even those who walked with Jesus himself had plenty of questions.

We and those we teach are disciples not because we’re perfect, but because we seek to follow Jesus’ teachings. Discipleship is not about believing the right doctrine; it’s doing the right thing, displaying the sort of behavior Jesus taught us and modeled. It’s loving God above all and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously, following the Golden Rule, doing to the least of these individually and as a society as we would do to Jesus himself. It’s unfortunate that Jesus’ teachings got left out of the great ecumenical creeds, and the focus became believing doctrines like the Trinity or the virgin birth. Jesus is more interested in our obedience that shows our obeisance than he is our assent to a statement, our recitation of a formula. Whatever we claim to believe, it’s our lives that show whether we belong to Jesus, whether we follow him. As our Lord says more than once in this gospel: “By their fruits you shall know them” (7:16,20). Our standards tell us: “Truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness…” (Book of Order F-3.0104).

It’s Jesus’ will that anybody and everybody become his disciple and live such righteous lives. The message, and the obedience it calls for, are not just for people with the right skin color or who speak the approved language or stand at the proper place on the political spectrum or have the required minimum bank balance. Discipleship and making disciples are not the exclusive call and task of just one nation or ethnic group or gender. The Great Commission is comprehensive, inclusive, and global even as it calls followers in every age to personal, daily, particular acts and words of faith and faithfulness.

It might come as a surprise that we would find in Matthew’s gospel a command to disciple all nations. He does, after all, emphasize more than the other gospels the Jewishness of Jesus, his identity as a new Moses, his instruction to the disciples earlier to “go nowhere among the Gentiles” (10:5). He was, he says, “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24).

But remember that when Jesus was a child, pagan magi came to visit him and gave him gifts. That story, with the morning’s text, forms a frame around the gospel. And despite his focus on the house of Israel, our Lord healed the daughter of a Gentile woman and the servant of a Roman centurion. In the middle of the gospel, the writer quotes Isaiah and applies the saying to Jesus’ ministry: “‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles…. [I]n his name the Gentiles will hope’” (12:18-21). The mission of Israel was never just for itself. The Jews were to be a light to the nations, a blessing to all.

The comprehensive commission is all the more urgent for the church in our day when we are both engaged with and afraid of other cultures and nations, when diversity is considered both an enriching blessing and a blight to be sometimes violently eradicated, when we struggle to welcome differing viewpoints and experiences, preferring instead to live in our own echo chambers. The church can and should be the community in which all nations and peoples find their common ground in their baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, their allegiance to the One who has all authority in heaven and on earth. Wherever people come to new understanding, welcome each other so old boundaries are erased, and tear down the walls of suspicion and fear, there we can celebrate that the Great Commission is being obeyed.

Finally, if Jesus calls us to obey and teach all he taught, so also does he empower his people to carry out the task. How? The promise of his presence gives disciples confidence when doubt and confusion set in, and it’s also the way he continues to teach and inspire us. He’s our mentor who’s beside us every day to correct and guide and encourage.

That’s some of the best kind of teaching, isn’t it? And one of the most ancient techniques. Think of how you or I have taught and how we have learned, in our families and/or the workplace. How great it is to have someone you and I trust and can count on close by that we can ask about a problem or to whom we might make a suggestion. He or she is there to correct, to counsel, to console. And we in turn pass along our knowledge and experience in the same way, patiently being with those we’re trying to teach some new skill or train for a job. If we’re there for others, how much more is our Lord, in some mysterious way we don’t understand, present for us as we make disciples and keep growing ourselves? When our task seems impossible and overwhelming, when the load of our lives becomes too heavy, when we feel forsaken and alone and throw up our hands in defeat, there comes once again the promise: “I am with you always….” The close of this gospel is the same as the beginning: Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.

About 30 years ago, a Lutheran pastor named Rusty Edwards wrote a hymn text in response to his bishop’s letter about the church’s mission. His lyrics gather up the strands of our thoughts this morning: “We all are one in mission; we all are one in call, our varied gifts united by Christ, the Lord of all. A single, great commission compels us from above to plan and work together that all may know Christ’s love. Now let us be united and let our song be heard. Now let us be a vessel for God’s redeeming word. We all are one in mission; we all are one in call, our varied gifts united by Christ, the Lord of all” (“We All Are One in Mission,” 1985).

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