Rev. Lisa Horst Clark
Message June 2, 2019
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.”
I have been listening to this podcast, “How To Be a Girl,” about a mom raising her transgender daughter. The creator goes by the pseudonym Marlo Mack, and her child was assigned male at birth. At the age of three Marlo’s child was expressing a wish to climb back in her tummy because something was wrong: she was really a girl. And so a year later at four they transitioned, and now Marlo has a daughter; a beautiful little girl with long hair and twirly dresses who is now ten years old and most folks wouldn’t know is transgender.
And here is what I have noticed: every time as Marlo is telling this story and she names that someone she meets is Christian…I get tense. It is like when you are watching a movie and the ominous music comes on, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next, but there is a distinct possibility it could be terrible. Listening to this mom trying to raise her daughter with all the worries parenting brings, and a few new ones, and the greatest signifier that someone might treat them with cruelty? It is the title Christian. Sometimes the ominous music in my head is unnecessary – the person ends up being decent. But whatever happens is built with this backdrop that from Christians they need to be on the lookout for hatred. And I both completely understand, and it breaks my heart, because of how completely the acts of Christians can be separated from Christ. The profound boundary-crossing, life-affirming, fill all the seats at the table, the last shall be first and the first shall be last Christ. And the knowledge that the only way that folks in the world might know this Christ— is through us Christians, it sometimes seems questionable if we are up to the task.
We have been looking at Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Here in the gospel of Matthew, after the empty tomb, the disciples are sent to Galilee. They climb a mountain, and are met by the risen Christ who then sends them on a task: “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.” And if you are wondering, this is where the gospel of Matthew ends. It is the final words on the matter. It is a text commonly known as the Great Commission. And it’s famous for complicated reasons.
In the text itself, what do we see but that the resurrection is paired with a call to action. It’s not just “look Jesus is raised.” That is linked explicitly to an expansion of their call and purpose to go and make disciples, not just from Jewish communities, but of all the nations. The history of how this text has been used is…fraught to say the least. When the economic powers called for colonization, it was this text that was lifted up; the call to make disciples of all the nations was turned into an excuse to abuse and oppress and destroy untold civilizations in the guise of seeing their conversion to Christianity. On a mission against the heathens, this text has been used as a banner to justify a number of atrocities. Which is the kind of fact that makes me feel downright ill.
The late Rachel Held Evans, progressive Christian author, writes on the Ascension in Luke: “I’ll be honest, Jesus, Ascension Day brings up some abandonment issues for me. I know you promised we wouldn’t be alone, that you would send a Helper and Advocate, full of power and truth and ready to guide, but let’s face it: the fire of the Spirit is the wild kind. One moment I sense that it’s blazing like the burning bush, the next it’s like it’s out with a poof. I still haven’t figured it out. I still haven’t been able to pin it down. I can’t help but think that if you’d stayed a little longer, we might have avoided the Crusades. Or the Great Schism. Or that time we used the Bible to justify slavery and invoked “Manifest Destiny” to slaughter women and children. We’ve made a mess of things, Jesus, often in your name. We could use a little micromanaging.”
And you have to say she has a point: What on earth is God thinking? Leaving the good news of Jesus to be shown through someone like us? Being foolish enough to say “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” And then be a little loose-y goosey about whether that unbounded authority is with the followers you are now sending to the ends of the earth.
I feel in myself when someone starts by speaking of Christianity in public – seeking converts on street corners, adding public testimony in uncomfortable conversations – I feel myself starting to shrink…wanting to not say anything at all so I do not appear to be those people. As if somehow my kind of Christian will show it is not intrusive, abusive, or hateful by being very small; by being private; by not intruding on public spaces; and therefore become, almost in a way, invisible.
But I know that if that is the case, then the ominous music behind the announcement of “Christian” will only become more the case. If the only public voices of Christianity are ones who are not living out Christ’s message of love, then the rule becomes but more ingrained and more true. It is hard to be an opposing voice silently.
And so ok, let’s go back to this text and look at it separate from the certainty of empire and the self-justification of power. What does this text mean? Jesus was speaking not to kings and empires but to 11 scared poor disciples. What has become known as the title of this text, “The Great Commission,” is actually not used in the scripture itself. The very word “Mission” is not used in the New Testament. The English word comes from the latin, a term connected to Military service. As Professor Gene Green writes, “It was not until the 16th century that Jesuits first began to use [mission] to refer to ‘the sending of human beings with the gospel.” Instead he quotes Bosh to note the language that was actually used for centuries:
‘“propagation of the faith,’
‘preaching of the gospel,’
‘augmenting the faith,’
‘expanding the church,’
‘planting the church,’
and ‘illuminating the nations.’”
The word of mission, like a mission field or the mission of conversion is connected instead to battles around the reformation, and then to the doctrine of discovery. When did Christians start talking about a mission as the duty to share faith using analogies of military action? When it was connected to power and conquest.
Going back to the text— the first time the disciples are sent out earlier in Matthew’s gospel, it is explicitly for the purposes of healing, as a part of proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is here. Scripture reads: “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.” They are sent out to heal people with really explicit instructions about what to bring and what to expect in return. As they are sent, they are sent to the brokenness and to seek healing. The difference in this later sending after the resurrection is that they are now sent out to teach, to make disciples, to baptize in a triune name. It is in this moment that they are asked to become those who teach, those who make disciples. Previously, those who wished to become disciples of Jesus looked to Jesus, and now those who wish to be a disciple of Jesus look to the other disciples of Jesus.
In this text here, teaching is added to the list of sendings for the first time, but this call is put by Jesus as “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
And in case you are wondering, Matthew’s gospel is very direct on what we are taught. How does Jesus start his teachings in this gospel but with the beatitudes:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.”
Jesus does not say “become my disciple and whatever you do for the greater good will be justified.” Instead, Jesus’ commands are profound and almost impossible: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” The disciples are not sent out with might and glory to conquer the world. They are sent out there to continue the work of healing, to teach folks to follow in Jesus’ way, which is not easy but is blessed. And somehow they are sent out there to make disciples – not just converts, but disciples, which I can guarantee is not the work of force or intimidation or even by shame.
So you have these disciples who have screwed up a good amount along the way. Once there were twelve, now 11, because… well… Judas. And so these 11 disciples are gathered here on the mountain facing the risen Christ. And even with that in front of them, some are doubting. How on earth are these human people possibly going to show in their lives the goodness of this impossible teaching? Well, they are not. What if instead of to be missionaries, embattled against the forces of the unsaved, uncivilized nations…what if instead we are to be “‘preaching the gospel,’ ‘expanding the church,’ ‘planting the church,’ and ‘illuminating the nations.’” Sharing gospel—which means “good news” – the good that we have known not out of anger or judgment but joy.
There are some kinds of good news that it is hard not to share. And to put it in a relevant daily example: sometimes, for example, you find a dress with pockets. If you shop in clothing departments that regularly supply you with pockets for carrying your things and leaving your hands free without note or folderol then you may not be aware of the life changing transformation that I am about to share. But when I find a dress with pockets, I am unable to hold in my joy. Wherever I go in life, apparently I need to tell you about it. Anyone I work with, pass in the street, who is there at day care drop off, who happens to compliment a dress that I am wearing … I cannot restrain myself. I have to tell them that it is a dress that has pockets, as if miraculously the universe has noticed that I have things to carry, and met that demand with sensible flaps of fabric. I can’t restrain myself, I have to let the people know. I consider this justice work because the femme-inclined in our midst supporting the work of transformation in our world need to hold things!
And this, it comes so easily to me, because I have good news that may not be for everyone, but sometimes I know it meets another’s deep need. And so why do I stumble with what I have placed my life on – this good news, this gospel? It is so much better, and bigger. On the very concrete end of things, how to you do it? Here’s the simplest end of things. So when someone asks you how your weekend was, when you answer, along with your trip to the park, errands and dinner with friends, you name that you went to church. And here’s the second part that is really important: after that you need to not be a jerk. This is baseline. In order to combat the ominous background music in folks’ experience of Christians, it makes a difference to have more experience of Christians who practice not being jerks in public. Listening to others, able to understand difference, not feeding into homophobia, sexism, you name it. And if you get a little self-conscious after having let folks look at you as an example of a Christian and might use your actions to understand all of Christianity, see if you can use that to form compassion to our Muslim, Sikh and other religious minority kindred who live with this self-observation as well.
And then more than that, there are some times when you meet someone, not as an expert that knows it all or the holder of all the truth, but a fellow journeyer on this life with your own foibles and stumbles. And as you know them and they grow and matter to you, you think of something in your life that maybe, I don’t know, maybe they would want to know. Not for the sake of the church, but because you care about them and think that they might appreciate a community that knew them and loved them. Because they are yearning for something and aren’t sure where to look for the words. Because they are heartbroken and need a place that knows the brokenness of grief. Because they are committed to the work of justice and time and again are trying and need to be fed, to know that it doesn’t all depend on them. Because you have known a sense of the holy and your own striving towards following the way of Christ in life and death, and the death that wasn’t the end has been beautiful. Because someone you knew somewhere in your life was a Christian, and made the path seem… real, possible, authentic. I hope that what lead you here included someone who you both knew was a Christian, who took seriously that which seemed a little ways away, and you also knew to be kind, and compassionate, and decent, and maybe even more than that seemed to know where you were. Whose love seemed like a tiny flicker of that love that God could hold you in. Someone who, if they could love you, maybe… God could love someone like you too.
© Lisa Horst Clark, 2019