Joanna M. Adams
Pastor, Morningside Presbyterian Church, Atlanta
Matthew 28: 16-20
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.’
They come, when the baby’s crying, don’t they? Around dinnertime. The phone is ringing; the dog is barking. You are just about ready for a strait-jacket, and there’s the doorbell, and there they are: two clean-shaven, square-jawed, smiling young people who want to make their witness to you about Jesus Christ. You are not particularly interested in Jesus Christ at that moment. You are, in fact, drawing on all your spiritual resources in trying to resist the impulse to hit them in the head with your cooking spoon, but your mother told you to be nice when someone comes to the door, and so you admit to them that you are a believer and tell that they can go to the next door neighbor’s if they’d like. That doesn’t help, because they’ll not be deterred in their mission of making their witness to you, because from their point of view, it’s your soul or your supper that’s going to burn and you would be wise to make it the latter.
One has to wonder if this is what Jesus actually meant when he came to his disciples after his resurrection and said to them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” I remember a student chaplain with whom I worked at an Atlanta hospital some years ago. He couldn’t wait for our chaplaincy program to end so that he could go in his own words “to save the lost souls in the Philippines.” I don’t know why the Philippines exactly, but he was fixated on them. I told him that there were more than a few Roman Catholics already in the Philippines, but that didn’t bother him. I recall one occasion when our CPE supervisor was unhappy with Bill because he’d failed to write a sympathy note to a family whose loved one had died. “Why didn’t you write the letter, Bill?”
“Because,” he answered, “I am usually able to write reassuring words about the loved one’s going to heaven to be with God, but I couldn’t do it this time. The patient had not accepted Jesus as Savior and Lord. It is going to be hell for him, so I thought it would be nicer just to say nothing.” Is this what Jesus meant when he gave the Great Commission to share the good news of his coming?
This morning, I want to reclaim the word “witness.” I want to reclaim the Great Commission of Jesus to spread his teachings to all the world. I want to take it back from the doorbell ringers and from those who love to bear bad tidings. I want to take it back from those who have turned the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ into a hard-edged, mean sort of thing. Our task, our glad responsibility is to bear witness to the saving love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ, to make visible his reign wherever we can and however we can, but always with love and respect for human dignity. I think of the Great Ends of the Church in our Presbyterian Book of Order and how they so perfectly parallel key New Testament words that describe the mission of the early Christian movement: “kerygma – preaching the good news; didacae – attention to the truth and the teaching of doctrine; koinonia – the development of and nourishment of community; the diacone – rendering compassion and service; and then this wonderful word maturion – bearing witness to the will and purpose of God for humanity” (1). Surely the will and purpose of God for our humanity is revealed completely in Christ our Savior –by how he was and what he did and how he taught and spoke and for whom he gave his life. Our commission is to bear witness to our Savior.
Matthew concludes his gospel with the unforgettable post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to the eleven remaining disciples. He has been raised from the dead. They had gotten word that they are to meet him on the mountain. In the Hebrew tradition from which he and the disciples came, the mountain, the high place was associated with God’s revelation. Even though they had been instructed to go to the mountain, the last person on earth they expected to encounter was the crucified Jesus. Perhaps they expected to hear his voice from heaven. But there he was with them, their beloved Lord on earth. “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” I wonder who the “some” were? Some of the disciples doubted? Some others had come, and they were the ones who doubted, but all the eleven were without doubt? I don’t know; but I do know that since the beginning of the Christian movement, the circle of witnesses has included some who doubted, and some who were not so sure but were trying to get it. I don’t know about you, but there are times when my faith is a flame and there are times when it is a flicker, because I’ve become discouraged, and because the wait is long, and the goal is not in sight, and I wonder, and I sometimes doubt. I am sometimes a member of the Doubting Thomas Sub-committee, and I am comforted in knowing that Jesus needs me, needs us all, all the time in whatever state our faith is in. He doesn’t separate the doubters: “Now you stand over there, and I’m just going to speak to these others…” He reassures them all that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, and now he is blessing them with this authority that comes from Almighty God.
I love the way the words read: He came near to them. Not above them. He was with them at their side, indicating that he was with them then and would be with them and their descendants until the end of time. They, he, we, are all a part of the great eschatological plan of God. We all have a role to play. Jesus fulfilled his role. Scorned by the authorities, both religious and civil, he had suffered a martyr’s death and now, because of the cross, now “all authority in heaven and on earth” were his. He wore the crown. Throughout his ministry, he had demonstrated his authority in his teaching and healing and power over evil spirits. His was an authority that hadn’t come from Pontius Pilate. It had not come from the high priests. It had not come from the people. It had come to him from God. Jesus was saying, “Because of what God has done through me, I am now asking you to go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
One of the best words in the Bible is that word “therefore,” which means “for this reason.” You can do it because of what God has done. I love how, in the 15th chapter of I Corinthians, Paul ends his brilliant explication of the resurrection of Christ, and the resurrection of the dead and the resurrection of the body. There are 58 long verses, and then, “Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be ye steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, for you know your labors are never in vain.”
Go, therefore, and create a world-wide community of hopeful people who look not to themselves or to their rulers for salvation, but who look to God. Create an inclusive community of Jews and Gentiles, of the circumcised and the uncircumcised, if you will, an alternative community that functions according to the rule of love, a community whose power is the power of compassion, whose message builds up rather than tears down. You are to be the kingdom within the kingdoms of this world, and yours is the one that will endure and at the end of time will be victorious.
“Baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Though that is not a formal doctrine of the Trinity when Matthew’s gospel was written, this was the testimony of a living, breathing community that had experienced God in God’s greatness, had experienced God’s life-giving spirit, had experienced God as one who walked with the people all the way. The mission of the church of Jesus Christ is to baptize people in the name of the God who creates, redeems and sustains the world, “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Notice that it is not “preaching” – not in the preaching of the post-Easter community that Jesus says he will be present to his disciples and will establish finally and fully God’s reign on earth, but in teaching. This is bad news to people in my line of work – I wish it had said preaching, but it says “teaching them to obey all the commandments.” To be fair to the doorbell ringers of the world, there is emphasis all over the New Testament on the importance of preaching, but Matthew has a different point to make. He wants the church to walk the walk.
Baptism marks the beginning of the life of obedience, obedience to the commandments of Jesus. And what were the commandments of Jesus? Here are some from the Sermon on the Mount:
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
“Judge not lest you be judged.”
“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom, but those who do the will of my Father in heaven.”
“And when Jesus finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught as one who had authority, not as their scribes” who were considered the experts on the law and presided over judicial proceedings and enforcement of the rules. People were astounded. People are astounded today when the church lives according to the laws of Jesus. People are transformed. The world is transformed.
I love the fact that our Covenant Network’s video is called “Turning Points.” We once saw it this way; today we see it a new way, through the grace of God. We tell the story. We are always ready “to give an accounting for the hope that is within us.”
I remember an occasion when I was not ready to honor the Great Commission, but had to get ready very quickly. I had been ordained only a short time when I had the privilege of preaching at a Lenten service at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home church of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his family. I had gotten through the sermon all right. Though my knees had knocked and my heart had pounded, I had done it! I was savoring a wave of relief that I had not fallen over in a dead faint. We were singing the closing hymn, the last verse, when the pastor, the Reverend Dr. Joseph Roberts, leaned over to me and said, “Joanna, I want you to open the doors of the church.”
I looked toward the back of the sanctuary and I said, “Joe, the doors are standing wide open already.”
He said, “No, I want you to give the invitation to people to come to Christ.”
The hymn ended…the organist started playing softly, “Just As I Am,” and I got up and took my Presbyterian self to that Baptist pulpit, and I did my best. No one was saved that night. But I was reminded of the ministry of Jesus Christ and the ministry of his great servant Martin Luther King, Jr. – that we really do need to open the doors and invite people in. We need not only to open the doors, we need to go out the doors ourselves with the message of hope and a message of reconciliation we have to share and without which the human race will not survive. The doors must be open. The good news is not ours to keep, it’s ours to share, and every time we share it, the good news just gets better and better, and hope is reborn again and again. I pray for the day when the Presbyterian Church USA opens its ordained offices officially to all whom God calls to serve, not simply to be nice to gay, lesbian, trans-gendered and bi-sexual people, but because the church will be so blessed and enriched by the spiritual gifts of all whom God calls to serve.
I think today how Jesus did not instruct his disciples to go carry the good news to certain categories of people. I’m thinking how he said, “Baptize them all, sealing them in the great promises of salvation.”
As we work with the new Authoritative Interpretation, let us remember who has the final authority in heaven and on earth. Jesus said, “All authority has been given to me.” Surely his teachings, his passion for the left-out and the marginalized must be authoritative in all cases. Wherever the people gather in his name, let us never tire of pressing on to the goal of a church that is as just and generous as God’s grace.
I want to close today by getting personal with you. I want to ask you how you came to know Jesus Christ. I don’t mean that he was a good man and all of that. I mean, how did you come to know that his way was THE way you wanted to follow? How do you know that God is love? How do you know that your sins are forgiven? How do you know? I would suggest to you that you know because someone made a witness to you, by how she lived, by what he said, by what his values were, by the courage she was able to muster. The church made its witness to you, and you became a believer. Some teacher, a parent, friend showed you, in word or deed, the way to the fountain that never will run dry.
It’s the most amazing miracle I know that Jesus would come near to the likes of us, whose faith can flame one day and flicker the next and say, “All that I have, I am giving to you to pass along.”
It has been said that when Jesus arrived in heaven after his ascension, he hurried to the throne to report on his adventures on earth. All the angels and archangels gathered around and listened intently. When Jesus got to the part about entrusting the spreading of the Good News to his followers, one of the archangels asked in horror, “Oh my Lord! What if they don’t do it? What if they fail?”
Jesus answered, “I have no other plan.”
Let us make our glad and confident witness to this saving power of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose final word was his promise of his presence and his strength, no matter how long the journey or how distant the goal, I will be with you always, to the end of the age.
Thanks be to God.
(1) “The Cross and the Crown,” The Presbyterian Outlook, 4/2/91.