June 11, 2017 Trinity Sunday Matthew 28: 16-20
Prayer: Dear Lord, Please go with us into the hearing and teaching of your Word. Help us to hear it truthfully and faithfully. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
Sometimes over the course of history, words or names or phrases or symbols get usurped. What started out as perfectly benign or positive gets co-opted by a hate group or a fringe group.
“Drinking the Kool-Aid” used to mean having a powdered summer drink. After Jim Jones and Jonestown, it means falling for a cult message.
The Confederate battle flag, once a symbol of the 19th century Confederacy, became intentionally hateful in the hands of 20th and 21st century racists.
The name of my own denomination, Baptist, lost its historic reputation for freedom of thought with the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. A lot of people came to dismiss Baptists as unloving and narrow-minded, which is the exact opposite of the Christian witness.
Even that word “witness,” that we talked about last week from the Pentecostal message in Acts, carries negative weight. “Witnessing” conjures images of knocking on doors or handing out tracts on Main Street. And believe me, if that’s what it required, I’d be selling hot dogs by now.
The same with the word “evangelism.” During the time I was in seminary, a class in evangelism went from an elective to a requirement. Fortunately, I was grandfathered in. Because I was so sure they were going to make me go door to door that I had no intention of taking the class.
Even the term “evangelical Christian” has taken on a connotation that makes many of us uncomfortable. It’s gotten tangled up with politics in a way that has nothing to do with the way we read or interpret or live the gospel.
Several years ago, you may remember when Rev. Kurt Stutler worshiped with us for an entire August. The United Methodists in Anderson were going to start a church modeled on Triune. So they sent Kurt and other visitors from Methodist churches to see how we conducted worship and ran the Mercy Center.
During the planning for what became South Main Mercy Center and Chapel, they also invited me to Anderson. At one of those meetings, the retired bishop of the South Carolina Conference happened to be visiting.
He kept asking questions about my theology. I could tell by the way he worded his questions that because I was Baptist, he thought I was fundamentalist. That threw me because I thought if knew I was a Baptist and a woman and a senior pastor, that was a pretty good indication I had strayed from the fold.
A few weeks later, he visited Triune for worship. Afterward he wrote me a long letter of apology. “I understand now,” he said. “You could preach in any Methodist church in the state.”
We can get mired in our names and our labels and our symbols. And I fear that can keep us from hearing one of the most exciting gospel passages we have.
Two weeks ago, we talked about Jesus’s last words as recorded by Luke in the book of Acts. “Be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria and unto the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1: 8)
Now we are going to turn over to the gospel of Matthew and see what he recorded as Jesus’s very similar last words. Remember: ancient writers didn’t view historical writing in the same way we do.
If we had two reporters covering an execution, we’d expect the dying man’s last words to match up, word for word. That’s a relatively modern construct. Ancient writers weren’t worried about things like that.
Plus, while Matthew may have been present to actually hear Jesus, Luke was not. He was not one of the disciples and never claimed to be. He tells us he researched to get his information.
Both writers constructed the endings of their stories to reflect the portrait of Jesus their gospels portrayed. But I’d argue that both of them knew the power of last words.
So what were the last words Jesus wanted to leave his disciples? What was the final thought he wanted to leave his brand-new church?
Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 28: 16-20, and let’s see what Matthew reports. This scene occurs after the resurrection.
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.
18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
We call this the Great Commission, and you can see why. Up until now, Jesus has been the teacher. Now he is commissioning the remaining disciples to take over.
You can also see how people get the idea that we must tell everyone, baptize everyone, teach everyone. There’s nothing wrong with honestly sharing the source of our joy and our passion. But I fear this passage has led to a great deal of damage done in the name of mission and evangelism.
One of the books we study here is When Helping Hurts by Presbyterian missionaries Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. And the stories they share of Americans traveling to other nations – under the auspices of this Scripture – are chilling.
For instance, a non-profit organization wanted to assist a village in Colombia, South America, with its rice production. So it gathered the villagers into a co-op and bought them a thresher, a motorized huller, a generator and a tractor. Rice production boomed. The villagers sold their rice at the highest price they’d ever received.
Job done, the non-profit went home. Several years later, a staff member returned and found the co-op disbanded and the thresher, huller, generator and tractor out in the fields, rusting.
After 30 years of mission work, Corbett and Fikkert say this scenario occurs over and over and over. What’s going on?
There are a lot of reasons, foremost among them an imposition of one culture upon another and the fact that the recipients are not included in the planning. When the Americans driving the rice production left, the native farmers reverted to familiar ways. Clearly they hadn’t bought into the project.
Another short-term mission team went to Latin America to build a house for a low-income pastor. About halfway through the building process, the pastor discovered they were building a bathroom in the middle of the house. In his culture, bathrooms are located at the back.
He objected to the team leaders, but they said it was too late to change. At the end of their trip, the team happily flew back to the United States, thinking they’d provided a much-needed house. But the pastor wasn’t sure he even wanted to live in it. He was ashamed of that bathroom in the middle.
Some Americans are doing missions differently. Our own Shelley Martin graduated from Furman, then went to work for missions in Kenya then Uganda. She has embedded herself with on-the-ground, indigenous missions in those places. She takes her cues from the people there, gives assistance to the work they are doing.
When Helping Hurts gives the perspective of such an American staff member working in an indigenous community in South America. He leads Bible study as part of a local church with limited finances.
He says that after a short-term mission team flies in with soccer balls and fancy arts and crafts for a week of Vacation Bible School, the children don’t want to come back to their local Bible study. It’s not as flashy or fancy as what the Americans offer.
So what has been accomplished? The Third World children may have new soccer balls and cool art projects to post on their walls. But their knowledge of the Bible has been impacted negatively.
I would be willing to bet that somewhere in all three of those cases someone uttered Jesus’ last words: “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.”
That is our Scripture. But we don’t have to interpret it with a sledge hammer.
We can do it with patience rather than by giving sophisticated farm equipment to people who don’t want it.
We can do it respect rather than by building a house in a week without regard to local customs.
We can do it with nuance by supporting local churches rather than importing our Vacation Bible Schools to dazzle children for a week.
With these final words of Matthew’s gospel, we also need to recognize what Matthew was doing literarily, narratively. Jesus was speaking to his first-century disciples. And his command to go to “all nations” was a calculated turn from his earlier instructions.
Back in chapter 10, he commanded the 12 disciples: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Mt. 10: 5-6)
Now at the end of the story, after the resurrection, he’s opening the field. Go to “all nations,” he tells them, to Samaritans, Gentiles, everyone. It’s time to blow this story wide open.
In fact, in these few verses, Matthew is making a literary decision to bookend his gospel. Back in chapter 1, he wrote at Jesus’s birth, “ ‘… they shall name him Emmanuel,’ ” which means, ‘God is with us.’ ” (1: 23)
Now at the end of his life, Jesus assures them, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
No matter what happens, whether I’m here in body or in spirit, I am with you.
Is there any more comforting message in all of Scripture?
I am with you always, to the end of the age.
And how is he “with us”? We get that answer in the preceding sentence, when he instructs the disciples to baptize in the name of the Trinity. Baptize all those nations, he says, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
After the resurrection, that’s how he will be with us. As the Holy Spirit. Just as Luke wrote about last week at Pentecost.
So … how might we read this text known as the Great Commission if we aren’t going door to door or handing out tracts on Saturday night? How might we read this text if we are committed to helping our global neighbors without hurting them?
I think we might read it as the greatest news we’ve ever heard. Our beloved brother Jesus will be with us forever.
And his message of love and mercy and grace and salvation is available to all nations, to everyone, to every single person.
Hearing news like that should flow naturally into how we live our lives. Not by imposing our ways on foreign cultures.
Not by leaving shiny soccer balls and undermining local Christians.
Not by yelling at people on a street corner of Greenville on a Saturday night.
I think we can best observe Jesus’ last words … by living as Jesus taught, by loving our neighbor as ourselves in all its myriad forms.
St. Francis of Assisi has been credited with the popular saying: “Preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.”
I’ve read that St. Francis didn’t actually say that. In fact, here’s what he actually said: “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”
It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.
In other words, live the gospel. Live the gospel. We can say we are Christians all we want, but if our lives don’t reflect it, it’s of “no use,” as St. Francis said.
If we live as Christ taught, that’s the best kind of “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
If we live as Christ commanded, we are living out the Great Commission. We are obeying his last words.