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Go therefore and make learners...

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Jun 11

Text: Matthew 28:16-20

Our scripture reading this morning is from the final four verses of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew tells us that this conversation takes place on a mountainside in Galilee, where Jesus goes ahead to meet the disciples. It is after the terrible day of crucifixion, after dawn on that first day of the week when the women go to discover the tomb empty. After the stone is rolled away. After the encounter with the angel in dazzling white. In Matthew’s telling, after the earthquake. And after Jesus appears to the women saying, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. There they will see me.” (1)

So here we are in Galilee, on the side of a mountain. Something is up. None of this is ordinary. Not the death, nor the resurrection, nor the conversations with the risen Christ. This is important. We should be paying attention! The earthquake tells us so. The liminal place tells us so—on the mountainside, poised between heaven and earth.

It’s a moment we want to lean into. Matthew does not disappoint. He places on Jesus’ lips these words of The Great Commission.

“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 I have commanded you.”

These words are so familiar to us, these many centuries later, that we probably miss how striking and strange they must have been to Jesus’ followers in first century Palestine. For centuries, Christians have been baptizing “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (at First Church, we add: One God, Mother of us all.)

The Trinitarian formula, as it is called, has worked its way so deep into our liturgy and tradition that it feels second nature to us. But these last four verses of Matthew are the only place in all the gospels that it appears. Paul uses similar words in a couple of his benedictions, but this invocation in Matthew is singular. Rather than inheriting a fully-formed Trinitarian theology, it seems, instead, that Matthew’s first century community was coming to understand the relationship between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit in a profoundly new way. While we have become accustomed to these words, for Matthew’s community, they were a bold new proclamation. This is theology-in-the-making. A new relationship in-the-making.

This encounter on the mountainside between Jesus and the disciples is a pivotal moment in our faith history. Jesus is about to disappear into the hills of Galilee. He will no longer be physically present with the disciples. Now what?

Now what? The answer is almost too obvious. Jesus tells his followers, “Go and make disciples.” In order for our community to grow, in order for our faith to flourish, we must share it with our children our friends and neighbors. And if Jesus—our teacher—is not going to be physically present with us, then we’d better hope that we have learned well—and deeply internalized—his way of being. For it is up to us to share the good news of God’s lavish love, made known in Christ. Go and make disciples, Matthew says.

I did a little snooping around in my Greek lexicon and discovered something. Did you know that the word we commonly translate as 'disciple' (2) is most accurately rendered as 'learner'? Go and make learners! How perfect is that for this Sunday when we give Bibles to our fourth graders, honor our Church School teachers, and celebrate the teaching ministries of our church!

So, Jesus tells us, “Go and make learners!” Inspire curiosity, invite wonder, nurture questions, inculcate discipline. Talk about what really matters. Tell the wisdom of our people. Speak truth. As Matthew’s community was beginning to discover, this is Spirit-filled work. Go and make disciples. As a church community, it’s one of the most important things we can do.

Of course, not all of us are gifted teachers. There are—in Paul’s words—varieties of gifts, but one Spirit! While not all individuals have a vocation for teaching, as a community it is our first and most fundamental vocation. Jesus gives this sacred charge in his very last words. Earlier in his ministry, Jesus sent the disciples out and gave them authority to cast out unclean spirits, to heal the sick, and to proclaim the good news. But it is only here, in this final encounter that Jesus gives them the power and the authority to teach. (3)

As one scholar notes, “In this final commissioning of the disciples Jesus widens his audience—from Israel to all nations—and adds teaching to the charge of all of his followers. These instructions reveal an assumption that, on the face of it, is pretty amazing. The disciples are to do what [Jesus] had been doing and with more far-reaching effect.” (4)

“Go and make disciples of all nations,” he tells them. Wow, the energy and intention behind this charge is absolutely beautiful. The good news of the gospel is
so vital that Jesus urges us to share it generously, lavishly, beyond the narrow confines of our own communities.

This is revolutionary. Jesus calls his followers to move out into the world—to all nations—and share the good news of God’s love. This comes at a time in human history when all religion was essentially tribal in nature, defined by a strong sense of “our people” and “our God,” in contrast to neighbors with foreign gods and strange, suspicious ways. It is a new idea that we would share our faith with our neighbors, rather than condemn them, or go to war, or invade their territory.

In many ways, we human are still living out of a tribal paradigm. Think of the tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that have surfaced just this week in the politics of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Or, closer to home…think of Christians from red states and blue states who have such strong “tribal” identities that we can barely speak with each other. Separate geographies, distinct news outlets, divergent theologies.

Jesus’ command to teach and share our faith beyond our own clan is truly radical and we haven’t always gotten it right. One of the tragic failures of Christianities through history is that we have taken these beautiful words and made them into programs for converting “others” to be more like us. Now, sharing the heart of our faith and the goodness or our God, is a beautiful thing. But if we do so at the cost of human well-being, or in a way that objectifies others, then something is amiss in us.

When we allow the Great Commission to devolve into a triumphalist Christian exceptionalism, it can be used to justify colonialism, the destruction of peoples, decimation of cultures, and even genocidal practices. Call to mind the Crusades, medieval pogroms, the removal of indigenous children to “Christian” boarding schools. It is a sobering history. And this cannot be at all what Jesus intended.

The charge to “go and make disciples” is a beautiful, transcendent thing. What could be lovelier than sharing the good news of God’s love and justice? Yet it is a challenging practice! Because conversion must begin, not “out there,” with the “other,” but rather, with a change of heart within each one of us.

We must look deep within to discover whether we can see each other—not as strangers and aliens—but as beloved children of God. All of us—Israelite and Canaanite, Christian and Muslim, Red and Blue.

Friends, so much has been given to us. In the Great Commission, we have received power and authority. The call to baptize and teach and make disciples is a sacred trust. This is our great high calling: to be the Body of Christ, a community of love and justice that makes Jesus’ ways known to all the world.

On this Sunday after Pentecost, in this week of ground-breaking, as the walls and landscape shift around us, know this, First Church: Our foundation is firm, and our calling is bold. May Jesus’ light shine brightly in us. May our faith be so compelling that others are drawn to it. May our doors be open and our welcome be wide.

May everything we do be a testament to the One who is with us now and always—to the end of the age. Amen.

1) Matthew 28: 9-10
2) 'Mathetes' (math-ay-tes’)
3) Feasting on the Word, p. 44.
4) Feasting on the Word, p. 44.

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