Today’s lesson can take us in any number of directions. I want us to go in at least two.
It’s usually taken as an evangelism manifesto. This is a legitimate interpretation. Christianity from it’s beginning has been a missionary enterprise. God in Christ is making the world anew and we are called to be partners in the effort. One aspect of the partnership is spreading the news and enlisting others. To do this, we can’t stay put. We have to move.
A lot of recent research and study into religious communities and their health centers on the question as to why in the world someone would join and participate in a religious community, like a Christian congregation for instance. What the research points to is that communities have to provide a compelling reason for participation otherwise folks are going to choose to use their time and energy in countless other ways. And there are certainly more options than there used to be.
Personally, I believe there are a lot of compelling reasons. This is one of those vocational biases for preachers. Here’s one of them: Where else can you find a community that gathers regularly to commit itself anew to following the way God has put before us in the life of Jesus — a way of grace and love, justice and mercy — and opens itself to the spirit of God who provides the power necessary to honor such an audacious commitment? I can’t find that on the golf course or in my beer club or at my bluegrass jam session or in a political affiliation. My guess is you can’t either.
If the church went out of business, the hole that it would leave would be considerable. The world would become all the more graceless and loveless, unjust and merciless. I need the church. You need the church. The world needs the church.
I’ve interpreted this text as an evangelism manifesto numerous times. Certainly, disciple making is or at least should be at the heart of the church’s mission.
The operative words in the text as an evangelism manifesto are go, make, baptize, and teach. Each of those verbs assumes an object. Go where? Into the world. Make what? Disciples. Baptize whom? Believers. Teach what? The way of Jesus.
Personally, I think the first word is the most important. Go. If no one goes, it’s unlikely the other stuff — disciple making, baptizing, and teaching — are going to happen.
Go is such a short and simple word. My guess is that go was one of the first words many of us learned to say and one of the first words we learned the meaning of. If we listen closely enough, we may be able to hear the words of a loving adult say, “Let’s go.” “It’s time to go to bed now.” “It’s time to go to school.” “It’s time to go to church.”
Go means to move from the place we are to another place — a different place, a new place.
A word that in some ways is similar to go but in other ways is worlds different from go is come. Come means to move closer, usually to the person bidding another or others to come.
Both go and come involve movement. There’s the similarity. But here’s the difference. Going involves me moving from the place I’m in to a new or different place. By contrast, coming involves me bidding someone to come to where I am.
Jesus uses the word come often. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel Jesus says to those around him: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
This is the way Jesus usually uses the word. He bids others to leave the place they are and come to the place where he is. Usually, come is followed by follow. As in, “Come and follow me.”
Interestingly enough, I can find no place where Jesus tells his followers to set up shop and bid others to come to where they have set up shop. Jesus says quite the contrary. He tells his followers to go where others are. Engage them. Tell them about the mercy you have experienced, the mercy that has changed your life. Tell them that the same mercy is theirs, too. The news is too good and the mission too crucial to wait for others to come. The news is so good and the mission so crucial that Jesus followers are to go.
Presbyterian Christianity has made many significant contributions to the world. This is one of the reasons I am Christian in a Presbyterian way.
We are builders. Builders of schools and hospitals and churches and orphanages and retirement communities. I believe God has called us to all of this work. We said yes and got it done and, in God’s name, the world was made a better place.
We said yes because we believed and continue to believe that we partner with God to put ignorance on the run, to heal people, to save people, to love people, and to care for people from birth to death. All of this remains very important work and it’s not finished. All of it still needs all of us.
But, the focus here at the outset of the 21st century is shifting and should. What we build now is community. What we build now is a spiritual place in which people can call home.
The physical building remains important. If it weren’t for these walls and what happens within them — the worship, the education, the fellowship, the service to neighbors, a lot of really good things simply wouldn’t happen as well if at all. That’s why we built them. That’s why we paid for them. But they are more home base than home. They are the place from which we launch ministry and mission. And if we don’t take the good things that happen here and move them well beyond these walls, we are being less than faithful to Jesus’ instruction to go.
There was a time when folks would seek out a Christian congregation. It was culturally acceptable and even expected, especially in places like the Shenandoah Valley. But that’s not as true as it once was.
In some ways we need to think and act like the earliest church. We need to go to where people are rather than waiting for people to come to us. We need to re-conceptualize Christianity more as a movement and less as an organization or an institution. How we do this is limited only by our creativity and imagination? It’s going to take a renewed attentiveness to God’s Spirit. And, it’s going to take a willingness to experiment, to try new and different things.
At our denomination’s most recent General Assembly this idea of Christianity as movement was captured with the words “The church has left the building.” In May our monthly book study discussed a recent biography of 20th century Christian theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his resistance to Germany’s Nazi Party and eventually hanged for participating in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler.
From prison Bonhoeffer wrote many letters which have been collected into a volume entitled Letters and Papers from Prison. In one of his letters Bonhoeffer wrote:
“The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell [persons] of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.”
Allow those words to sink in. A church for others is a church that hears Christ’s command to go and obeys Christ’s command to go.
Another way to interpret today’s lesson is as an exploration in authority. On whose authority do Jesus’ followers go and make disciples, baptize in the name of the Trinity and teach the way of Jesus. If it’s on their own authority, they are in trouble and so are we. “Because I said so” doesn’t work here. Also, if it’s on their own authority, they — and us, for that matter — would’ve run out of steam in the early going.
Christianity’s origins were rocky and that is a serious understatement. The movement begins with an itinerant rabbi from the artisan class with no known rabbinical training. He doesn’t like what he sees in the official Temple religion of his day. He questioned its outsize emphasis on rule and ritual. He questioned its apparent transactionalism — if I do this for God then God must do that for me; quid pro quo. He wondered where God’s concern for the widow and orphan was. He wondered where God’s concern for the outsider and the least was.
Jesus said and did many a thing that challenged his day’s status quo and paid for his words and actions with his life. Imperial Rome thought they were done with Jesus. Official Judaism thought they were done with Jesus. Jesus’ own followers thought Jesus was done as well. It was over.
Not so fast. God raised Jesus from the grave. At Pentecost the Spirit of God in the risen Christ descended upon Jesus’ followers who were gathered in Jerusalem.
In the closing words of Matthew’s gospel, the risen Christ speaks his parting words to his inner circle. Go, make, baptize, teach. They can do all of these things. We can do all of these things.
Because, within us and around us and before us is the Spirit of God in Christ — a spirit of grace and love, justice and mercy — who is making the world anew. A world that will resemble God’s kingdom, a kingdom Jesus described in his Beatitudes — where poverty of spirit is a virtue, where mournfulness is met with comfort, where the meek prevail, where those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled, where mercy is met with more mercy, where pureness of heart sees visions of God, and peacemakers are the very children of God.
There’s a fifth verb in today’s lesson. It’s remember. We do not go it alone. We do not make disciples alone. We do not baptize alone. We do not teach the way of Jesus alone. We are accompanied, always. This is the very thing we are to never forget and always remember. Jesus is with us, always.
This promise empowers us to go. This promise keeps us going when we would rather stop. This promise shows us the way forward. And the way forward is outward.