Monday, June 16, 2014

The Great Commission and the Trinity (J. Barry Vaughn, June 15, 2014)

A little over a year ago I began to talk about Christ Church as a “Great Commission Church”. I think it has caught on because I hear other people talking about it, too.


Today’s gospel reading is the end of the 28th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. It is Matthew’s account of the last words that Jesus speaks to the apostles before his Ascension, the words that we know as the “Great Commission.”


I grew up with the Great Commission. It was a constant refrain in the little Baptist church in which I grew up. It was even in our hymns:


From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral strand;
Where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sand:
From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver their land from error’s chain.


Frankly, I reacted against it for many years. For a long time, I thought that the idea of carrying the Christian message to others was a kind of cultural imperialism. But I no longer believe that. Now, make no mistake: I do not believe that Christians have a monopoly on truth. I believe that there is wisdom and truth in all the great religious and spiritual systems of the world. But I also believe that we have a great story to tell, a great message to share. But above all I believe that we are commissioned to invite others to join us in following Jesus.


Now, Jesus never called this the Great Commission. Matthew didn’t even call it the Great Commission. In fact, “Great Commission” was the heading given to these words by Cyrus Scofield, a late 19th and early 20th c American scholar of the Bible. He published an edition of the Bible known as the Scofield reference Bible in 1909. Not everything in the Scofield Bible was based on sound scholarship. In fact, a lot of it was very unsound. Scofield was responsible for promoting something called “dispensationalism.” If you’re from a fundamentalist background, you may have heard of it. Regardless, I would recommend that you avoid dispensationalism.


But my point in saying that the words of Jesus in Matthew 28 were not called the Great Commission until the beginning of the 20th c is to bring up the fact that Jesus gave a lot of other commissions or mandates to his disciples.


For example, in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13.34)


Or Mark 8.34: “"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”


Or Luke 9: “…he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.”


And I could go on.


Nevertheless, I think these words of Jesus in Matthew 28 are of special importance: They are the last words of Jesus before the Ascension. Matthew clearly thought they were important because they are the very last words of his gospel.


The vestry and I have just completed something called a mutual ministry review. In a secular organization it would be called an annual performance review, but this is a church. The ministry of this church is not MY ministry; it is OUR ministry. My job is not just to do ministry; it is to make it possible for all of us to do the ministry to which God has called us.


During the mutual ministry review I was challenged to elaborate on my idea of making Christ Church a Great Commission church, to add some practical steps to this vision. It was a good challenge, and I’m going to try to do that. I’m going to start today, but it is going to be a work in progress. I believe that as we live into the idea of being a Great Commission church, we will see more and more of what it means to be a Great Commission church.


First, I want you to notice a few things about Jesus’ statement in Matthew 28. He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” Jesus is the one with “all authority,” but we are the ones he commissions to go to all nations.”


Episcopalians are happy to acknowledge Jesus’ authority, but we have traditionally been pretty reluctant to obey his command to “go to all nations.”


When the United States began to expand westward in the early 19th c. the Episcopal Church was slow to send bishops and priests into the new territories. They elected two missionary bishops – Jackson Kemper in 1835 to serve as bishop of the northwest, meaning all of Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin – and Leonidas Polk in 1838 as bishop of the southwest, meaning all of Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas.


The Episcopal Church was just as bad or worse later in the 19th c. in providing bishops for the far west, that is places such as Utah and Nevada.


Our attitude toward missions was much like the situations that Baptist missionary William Carey encountered in England in the mid 18th c. when he sought support for a mission to India. Carey was told that when God wanted to convert the people of India, God would find a way to do it without Carey’s help.


United Methodist bishop William Willimon said that “To many outside the church, the Church is like a football huddle. You know that something important is being said there, but you can't understand a word of it, and all you can see is their rear ends."


Our job is not to huddle together and speak only to each other. Our job is to GO, to go to all the nations and invite them to follow Jesus along with us.


The second thing I want to point out about the Great Commission is that Jesus does NOT ask us to convert anyone. Rather, he tells us to “make disciples.”


Jesus’ invitation to the disciples was “follow me.” That is the invitation that we are to bring to the nations.


Note two more things about this invitation: First, following is not a one time thing; it is an ongoing process. That is too often forgotten by evangelical Christians. They frequently confuse discipleship with conversion.


Conversion is what the Holy Spirit does. We cannot do it. It is not our responsibility. Our responsibility is to invite others to follow Jesus AND TO GO ON FOLLOWING HIM.


The second thing we need to keep in mind is that we cannot invite others to follow Jesus unless we are following him ourselves.


We are a people on the way, and we are to invite others to join us in this marvelous journey, this adventure, of following Jesus.


The poet W.H. Auden wrote:


He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.


He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy



Now, note another thing about the Great Commission: We are to make disciples “of all nations.”


It is interesting that Jesus phrased the Great Commission that way. He could have said, “make disciples of everyone.” But he used the word “nations.” That had a specific meaning in the 1rst c.


A “nation” was a group of people defined by a common language, religion, and set of customs. The Greeks were a nation. The Romans were a nation. The Jews were a nation.


Last week on Pentecost you heard the story from Acts 2 of the Holy Spirit descending on the disciples and giving them the ability to speak in the languages of ALL THE NATIONS  - the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Chaldeans, and all those other difficult words. It’s always so much fun to watch the layreader struggling to pronounce them!


But I wonder, why didn’t the Holy Spirit give the nations the ability to hear Greek? Wouldn’t that have been easier and simpler? But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak a multitude of languages.


The Holy Spirit was acknowledging the integrity and validity of all the different nations. She was carrying out Jesus’ Great Commission – to make disciples of all nations.


Our job is not to make other people like us. Our job is to find ways to adapt our way of worshiping and proclaiming the Christian message to the language and customs and cultural norms of others, not to make them adapt to us.


Here at Christ Church we have made the decision to be a multi-cultural or at least bi-cultural church. We are a church that worships in both English and Spanish. This is not an easy thing. There is a kind of dissonance between English and Latino cultures at many points. But I want to encourage all of us to be patient. I want to encourage us Anglos to be patient with our Latino sisters and brothers, and I want to encourage our Latino sisters and brothers to be patient with us.


One more thing about the Great Commission: In 1966, John Stott, a priest of the Church of England and for many years the rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, addressed the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin. Stott warned evangelicals that they were missing the point of the Great Commission. He encouraged them to focus equally on what Jesus says in John 20.21: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Stott warned evangelicals not to divorce word and deed but to take seriously the issues of poverty and disease, education and political oppression.


We need to read John 20.21 along with Matthew 28.19 and 20. There’s only one active verb in the verse from John’s gospel: send. Jesus sends us in the same way that God the Father sent him. The Father sent Jesus in love and humility. And it is only in love and humility that we can invite others to join us in being disciples of Jesus.


You may have noticed that I am sort of a bi-vocational priest. I have been a priest and a college professor, occasionally at the same time. In other words, I like to talk and to have people listen to me!


But Jesus was just as good at listening as he was at talking. Jesus was always asking questions and listening to others. “Who do you say that I am?” “Who touched me?” “Simon, do you love me?” And so on.


The story is told of the young rabbinical student who grew tired of the fact that every time he asked his teacher a question, his teacher replied with another question. So he asked, “Master, why do you always reply to my questions with more question?” To which his teacher replied, “So, what’s wrong with questions?”


We western Christians have been great at talking to others, at trying to make them listening to us, acting as though we have all the answers. But we are entering an age, indeed, we are well into an age, in which we will have to do more listening than talking. Today, most of the world’s Christians live in the southern hemisphere, the developing world, and they are starting to return to us, to bring the message of the gospel to us.


Today is Trinity Sunday. The Great Commission is all about the Trinity. As the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us in the power of the Spirit to invite others to follow Jesus along with us.


That is the message of the gospel, and I think it is not only good news – I believe it is WONDERFUL news.