Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Matthew 28:16-20 The Commissioning of the Disciples
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped 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.’
Just for today, pretend that it’s Easter. Pretend that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary have just met the lightning angel and run into Jesus on the road. Imagine that you’ve heard that there are some people who are spreading the story that Jesus' disciples have taken his body from the tomb. Remember that the last time the eleven remaining disciples had seen Jesus, he was on the cross. Know that they got the message from Mary Magdalene and Mary: Go to Galilee. There you will meet Jesus. And they have gone to Galilee.
Jesus appears to the eleven disciples, just as he has already appeared to the two Marys. They worship him but, as the scholar Eric Barreto notes in his commentary on this text, some have doubts. I love that the worship and the doubts are right next to one another... reminding us that to follow Jesus is often to both worship and have doubts. The ones who doubt aren't chastised for the doubts. The doubts are simply noted. To follow Jesus does not always mean you know exactly what to do or what to believe. As Barreto says, even when Jesus is right in front of your face, you may still have doubts. That doesn’t stop Jesus from giving all of them, doubters and doubtless, a job.
Throughout the book of Matthew, people have been struggling to understand how to fit Jesus into their lives as their teacher. Jesus was a simple man, a former refugee, knowledgeable in the law but likely lacking formal education. He was a carpenter's son, so he was probably trained in building, not in interpreting Scripture and the law. And, yet, he became a wise teacher familiar with the law and confident in his understanding. Parts of Matthew, like the end of the Sermon on the Mount, confirm his good pedagogy for us. It says that as Jesus finished preaching, the crowds were astounded. They said that he preached as one having authority, as one who knew something deeper. This is why people believed him.
In her commentary on this text, Susan Hylen notes that there is a through line in the Gospel of people recognizing Jesus’ surprising authority. When he healed people, they recognized his authority. When the disciples healed people, the people recognized Jesus’ authority. When he stood toe to toe with the most powerful members of his community, challenging oppressive practices, he did so with a deep authority that others could readily identify, even if they could not explain from where it came. Here, in the third line of today's reading, we get a little more explanation of what he was meant to do with this authority. He tells his followers that he has been granted all authority in heaven and on earth. And, this authority wasn't limited. Jesus could share this authority with the people he loved. And he loved and trusted these disciples.
Jesus didn’t only empower them here, at the end, before he ascended into heaven. Working through the same Holy Spirit as he had, they had already been preaching and healing in his name. But this work was mostly in the communities from which they hailed. Now, after the resurrection, Jesus saw much greater potential for their shared ministry. Even though he would no longer be with them, they should continue to do the Gospel. But they would no longer be limited to the communities of their origin. God's love and mercy should be made clear much more broadly. Jesus tells them to take his authority and spread it around. He tells them to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing people in a formula that we still use today, and teaching people lessons that are familiar to us.
We should take a moment and be clear. Jesus never said to go coercing people into conversion. Somewhere along the line, that part got lost on some of his followers, and a lot of damage has been done and is being done right now under the auspices of making more disciples for Jesus. Jesus did not spend his time threatening people into conversion or destroying communities that didn't follow him. Whenever we Christians do those things, we're not following Christ, we're following our own ego and feelings of cultural superiority. When Jesus said to make disciples, baptize people, and teach them, he wasn’t talking about siccing CPS on parents who affirm their transgender kids or requiring hungry people to listen to Christian sermons before they are fed.
So, when we are teaching about Jesus, what should we be teaching? I’d suggest that the Sermon on the Mount isn’t a bad place to start. That’s back in Matthew 5-7. Imagine what good could be done if we shared that the poor and meek are particularly beloved by God, and those who hunger, for both food and righteousness, will be filled. Imagine comforting those who mourn and offering mercy to those who need it and sharing that you’re doing it because it is what Jesus offered you. Right now, in a culture that seems hellbent on forcing many people to live according to a narrow understanding of Christian ideals, imagine choosing instead to embody purity in heart and become peacemakers in a culture too often bent on war.
It is extraordinarily dangerous when privileged people begin to paint themselves as victims of culture wars. Right now, people are saying that their Christian faith is “under attack” when they are not allowed to call LGBTQ folks slurs in public or when LBGTQ folks are portrayed in media as regular people and not monsters. Just to be clear: that is not an attack on Christian faith. That is a false sense of persecution. In Matthew, Jesus warned his disciples that they might be persecuted for their faith. He was speaking to a minority within a minority in an Empire that regularly killed people to maintain power. He was warning them that siding with the oppressed would put them on the wrong side of the powerful. If you claim to be doing the Gospel in order to political power and not to love the people Jesus loved, you are not actually taking part in the Great Commission. You’re behaving more like Rome than Jesus.
But, when you side with the hungry and imprisoned and mournful, you are acting like Jesus. Jesus says when you do so, you become like salt, preserving and heightening the sense of the Holy, and you become a light that could not be extinguished by the powerful and the violent. Jesus' own authority came with his willingness to be loyal to God's mission, even through the humiliation of the cross. Jesus needed his followers to show others that power could come from mercy, and not always from destruction. This is what he taught his disciples and what he hoped they would teach other people.
The final verse of today’s reading assures the disciples that they can live and teach in this mercy because Jesus will be with them, through the Holy Spirit, to the end of the age. This man, who was once a child known as Emmanuel, “God is with us,” will still be with them, and us, through the end of each age. In each healing, feeding, long conversation, and welcoming meal, both the disciples and the people to whom they preached would have the opportunity to meet Jesus again and again and again. When you start to worry about the ways that it feels like we are living at the end of an age right, remember that Jesus is with us, right now, like he promised. And, we can still do the work he commissioned. And that work, the salty, merciful, healing work is exactly what the world needs right now.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Eric Barreto: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2422
I Love to Tell the Story: https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=613
Susan Hylen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3268
Stanley Saunders: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2097
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.