Commissioned to Witness


Holy Trinity Sunday

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 worshiped 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."

As a preacher, Matthew’s Great Commission passage is supposed to be one my absolute favorite Bible verses:

“Go, therefore, and make disciples!”

There I have it, in one simple phrase – my marching orders. The biblical foundation for my life’s work, from the very lips of Jesus: “Make Disciples.”

Except… how exactly does one do that? In our pluralistic world, where truth is perceived as relative and individual choice is an unassailable prerogative, what power do I have to make disciples?

Not to mention, that word “make”… it sounds so coercive. If Jesus had commanded us to persuade people into discipleship, or even entice them with the promises of God, I can imagine an approach for that kind of assignment. But MAKE? I really don’t like MAKING anyone do anything (although my children might disagree with me there, especially in regards to bedtime, and teeth-brushing). But nonetheless, I don't like forcing people into things. I am a peace-maker and a consensus builder. I like to empower people to participate actively in decision-making that affects them. Authoritarian, domineering, or power-grabbing stances set my teeth on edge, because they demean the image of God in the people being subordinated.

I can’t hear God’s self-deliberation in the creation story – “let us make humankind on our image” – and then believe that it is my job to bully people into faith. Moreover, it seems inconsistent for Jesus to command such a thing.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. Maybe no one else here gets at all squeamish about street-corner evangelism and billboards that threaten people with hell if they do not repent… But on the chance that any of you feel the same way, I wanted to share with you what I learned this week about the beauty and the power of the Great Commission.

There are three phrases in today’s gospel reading that have transformed my understanding of what Jesus is calling us to do in this commission.

The first phrase comes in verse 17: “when they saw him, the worshipped him; but some doubted.” Thank you, God for the doubters.

For the witnesses to the fullness of Christ’s glory, who nevertheless had a hard time believing…

For the members of his inner circle, who followed his directions to go to Galilee and climb a mountain, but who hesitated in the face of his present, uncompromising reality...

For the disciples whose faith was imperfect… Because they change how we hear Jesus’ call to make disciples.

If the original witnesses were hesitant and questioning, then our own hesitation and questions do not disqualify us from being witnesses to God’s promises revealed in Christ.

If some doubted, and to these same doubters Jesus issues the commission, then perfect faith is not a pre-requisite. It’s not our confidence, or our lack of hypocrisy, or even our faith that gives us the authority to make disciples.

In fact, it’s not our authority at all. Not according to this passage.

The second phrase that is central to the meaning of the Great Commission makes that clear, and it’s a passage that is directly referenced in those five intimidating words that discomfort reluctant evangelists:

It’s not just “go and make disciples…” it’s “go, therefore….” The therefore points us back to Jesus’ declarative statement that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

The reason we can go and make disciples, the foundation on which this disciple-making rests, is the authority of Jesus.

The same authority that spoke light and life into being in creation…

The same authority, chronicled through the gospel of Matthew, by which Jesus healed the sick, and forgave sins, and commanded his followers to love God and to love their neighbors as themselves.

Our witness is NOT about our authority. It’s about Jesus, and about the Triune God of whom Jesus is the earthly expression.

But here’s the crazy thing about the authority of this God who is both eternal & mysterious AND as close as our breath: God’s authority is creative and engaging. It draws humanity in to be part of the good work.

We heard that today in the vision of human stewardship for the goodness of the created order in Genesis 1;[1]

And we also spoke it in the Psalm, which acknowledges the presence of evil in the world – the threat of the avenger – but also describes the most unlikely defense against this enemy: the words of infants and children.[2]

THAT is the authority over all heaven and earth that Jesus invokes for his disciples – the authority that can build, from the simple, stuttering praise of babies a “fortress against your enemies, to silence the foe.” If God can use the lips of infants to defeat evil, how can we worry that we are not up to the task? – all we have to do it to witness to the glory: The glory that heals, and forgives, and commands us to love.

Finally, once we acknowledge our doubts – which do not disqualify us – and are reminded of Christ’s authority – which somehow works through our stuttering witness – the very last words of Matthew’s gospel give us a promise:

"remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

When I was a teenager, I penned those words in calligraphy and hung them on my wall to look at every day – because teenagers know how vitally important it is to know we aren’t alone. I needed that reassurance of Christ’s presence with me – reminding me that I am loved, and known, and chosen. As are all of you.

And I needed the words written on my wall, because I didn’t really know where to look to find that presence, not in a palpable, visible way. I would pray, and would absolutely feel Christ’s Spirit with me… but I also needed to see something.

Well, this week, a pastor friend helped me to see something beautiful in this promise of Jesus, by connecting it back to Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matt. 25, where Jesus teaches that those who either helped or ignored people in need, were helping or ignoring him. “Maybe ‘I am with you always’ means ‘there will always be someone who needs your help.’”

If that’s the case, then we have BOTH a promise, and reminder of why the Great Commission matters… because we will always have people in our lives who need us to witness to the gospel, with both our words and with our actions.

So… what does all this mean for those of us who – in the honesty of our subconscious – wince at bit at the mandate to Go, and Make Disciples?

Well, it DOESN’T mean “never mind, you can take a pass on this one.” Sorry.

But that it does mean, is that we don’t have to pretend to have all the answers, and no doubts; We don’t have to be master apologist who can argue atheists into a corner (which, by the way, is a profoundly ineffective way to convince anybody of anything). All we have to do is to witness to what we’ve seen. The difference Jesus has made in our lives. The reason we keep coming back. The story of our (perhaps) doubt-filled discipleship and how Jesus calls us anyway.

What it also means, is that the authority of our witness is the work and the message of Christ – the work and the message of healing, and forgiveness, and the command to love. If the words that we speak and the witness of our lives reflect this work and message, then we will, with the mighty infants of Psalm 8, be witnessing to a glory that is chanted above the heavens.

Finally, what it does mean, is that our witness matters because our world NEEDS Jesus, and it needs disciples who are imperfectly learning to live according to “all that Jesus has commanded us.”

We are not alone, and the needy world is not alone, because Jesus is IN us. Not as some cosmic transcendent force that we can’t understand, but as the hand reaching out to say:

You are not alone.”

“We are in this together”

And "Jesus is with us, always… to the end of the age.” Thanks be to God.

[1] Gen. 1:28-31.

[2] Psalm 8:2

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