Sermon: April 29, 2018 – Matthew 28: 16-20
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB – Rev Greg Wooley
The Bible can be a very emotional and evocative book.
I hear the words of the Beatitudes, “blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5: 8-9) and my shoulders relax, I breathe deeper and more easily. I see a hillside in Galilee and eager disciples absorbing each word from Jesus, and in his presence my anxieties subside and hope abounds.
I hear the words of the 23rd Psalm, “he leads me beside still waters” and I can feel the stillness of those waters in my very soul, and am reminded of how much these words meant to my Mom, who would recite this Psalm to herself by memory in times of worry.
And then I hear the words of this morning’s gospel, “go…and make disciples of all nations” and my heart sinks. I am sorrowful, even embarrassed, not by the words or the one who spoke them, but by the harm that has been enacted by zealous believers, emboldened to steam-roll entire cultures in the name of the gospel. I see Conquistadors, with the bible in one hand and a sword in the other. I see the multi-generational trauma of Indian Residential School survivors in our land. And in that place of repentance and regret, I am moved to humility and tears and new resolve, by the plaintive, blunt, accurate words of our 1986 United Church Apology,
In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ…we imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel. We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be.
“Go…and make disciples of all nations.” Much harm has been done in the name of this commissioning, a reality which does not go away simply because we have acknowledged it. I need to say this out loud, just to be clear that none of the rest of this message is designed to sweep any of this under the carpet. None of my desire to reclaim what Jesus intended with these words is a denial of how they have been used to damage. The road to reconciliation is long for Churches in all nations, as we consider the ways that Christianity has related to first inhabitants, not just 100 years ago but even at this moment.
With all of that still in my heart, today I do want to step forward, away from what we thought we heard Jesus say in these words, to their originally intent, and how they can re-shape our next steps down the road. Four points emerge to help us in this journey:
i.WHERE IT HAPPENED
If I learned one thing from our time in The Land of The Holy One – and I hope I learned at least one thing – it is to pay attention to where a Bible story happens. According to Matthew’s account of the resurrection, the angel at the empty tomb directed Jesus’ disciples to go back to the home base of their Ministry – back to a mountain in Galilee.
The province of Galilee, is where Matthew’s Jesus-narrative began. It was the place where Mary was told of the promise she would be birthing into the world, the place where Jesus spent his childhood. Lake Galilee, was ringed with fishing villages and a few bigger towns where most of the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus and the disciples took place. A mountain in Galilee brings to mind “the sermon on the Mount” and the mountain of the transfiguration, where the disciples started to connect the dots between the mission of Jesus and the very heart of God. Jesus is calling the group back to the place where they risked and learned and modelled the new realm, the place where they came to really know God. In the way that Jesus will often call us back to examine our understanding of purpose and mission, and from that familiar place will ask us to look at our circle of care in a new way, he met up with his disciples once more in that place where the group was most “real” and said, “now, I want you to re-shape your reality, but to re-shape it one step bigger.”
ii.THE WIDENING OF THE CIRCLE
That location – and the intention to go “one step bigger” – sets up what Jesus is aiming at when he said, ““go…and make disciples of all nations.” Neither Jesus, nor the editor who pulled the gospel of Matthew into shape a generation after Jesus, viewed the world in the way that we do. Members of this congregation have been to every continent in the world, and some of us have had our feet on the ground or three or four continents just this year. But for those first disciples of Jesus, their worldview might have extended as far as the various lands that ringed the Mediterranean Sea, but more likely just the people they would meet in the towns they commonly visited. All of them were raised Jewish and earlier in the gospel of Matthew, it was made clear: their mission was to their own folks, ONLY. Matthew 10:6 states that Jesus sent his twelve disciples out with these instructions: ”do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” Keep it close to home. Stay with what you know.
So take that understanding – a mission that was initially focused entirely on your own ethnicity, your own religion – and then hear Jesus say, “now, I want you to spread the word to EVERYBODY.” This isn’t about colonialism, it’s about inclusion. And that expansion of the circle of invitation and care is exactly what we are striving to be about right now in this congregation: in the Affirming Ministries program, in the reach-out to the young adults through CYAN, in the Bow Valley Syria Refugee Project, through Healing Pathway and Evensong and hosting the Threshold Choir, in our desire to welcome and support children and their families, in a carload of folks from this congregation who have been invited to worship with our sisters and brothers out at Morley this morning, in the diversity of populations who use this building during the week… in all these things, we hear Jesus reminding us that ever since his resurrection, the focus of Ministry always has to include the “out there” as well as the “in here.”
This new understanding has, in recent decades, been making an impact throughout the global Church. This is described by Orthodox theologian Grant S. White, who writes:
“a new definition of mission has begun to emerge out of the experience of the [thriving] churches [of the southern hemisphere]. This new definition has to do with the role of marginalized people in the work of missions itself. If you look at the Gospels, you will see that Jesus himself placed himself squarely in the midst of the margins, among the people pushed to the edges by his own society… and calls us today to be in the same place as he was. If we as a church want to have so-called ‘street credibility,’ we won’t find it by staying within the our parish halls or liturgical spaces; [we will find it by] going to and living in the margins.”
iii.THE TASK AT HAND
//Part of the reason we heard two versions of the scripture this morning (New Revised Standard Version and The Message) was to help us re-shape what Jesus actually asks his disciples, including us, to do. Nine times out of ten I really like what the NRSV draws out of the Hebrew and Greek text, but this would be one of those “tenth times” when a nuance got missed. What got translated, “go and make disciples” in the NRSV and many other translations, gets expanded by Eugene Peterson in The Message: “Go and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life… instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you.”
Back to my initial gut-level response to this scripture, the traditional wording of “making disciples” almost has a sense of “capture” about it: go get ‘em and re-make them into something other than what they are now. And the teaching aspect, got taken up as attempting to make indigenous people into white people. But the Greek here isn’t about coercion, it’s about a growing, healthy development of self. It’s the development of Christ’s own habits of the heart that incline one towards kindness, mercy and love. It’s the use of learning – head learning and heart learning and the learning that expresses itself in hands extended in service – to set all of us, long-time and brand-new, on a life-long path of being and becoming in the name of Jesus. To be part of such an opportunity, strikes me as pure gift.
iv.THE MESSAGE TO DELIVER
Inherent in all this, is our final point: the essence of the one we are to bring to the world.
What is the “good news” of Jesus Christ? What is it in the ethics and the theology and the person of Jesus, that brings life and light into the world? For so many years – and still, in many parts of the Church – it was all about the notion that you were going to go to hell if you didn’t give your heart to Jesus and then walk a straight and narrow path from there on. These words of commissioning from Matthew, then, have also came to be tinged with anxiety, the Church and its missionaries understanding themselves as having the responsibility of saving the lost from an eternal punishment.
But that focus seldom draws one near to the hopeful, grounded Jesus I know. The Jesus I know paid attention to how outsiders were treated in his land, and responded to that by saying, “I know who my table guests are going to be: the marginalized, the excluded, the despised.” The Jesus I know saw how much energy went into greasing the wheels of the religious establishment itself, and said, “no, actually, what God calls us to is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8) The Jesus I know brought healing and wholeness to people’s lives, retrieving lives spinning out of control because of his profound respect for the dignity of each individual, seeing each one as a beloved child of God. The Jesus I know promises life in abundance, happiness that is found by opening doors of opportunity to all people, a great big inclusive picture that links this life with the life to come. The Jesus I keep on meeting keeps coming alive in places of deep challenge and remains there through suffering and grief and the emergence of hope. The Jesus we follow is nothing short of amazing.
Christ is alive, opening a new path before us. The needs of this institution we call “Church” only matter, if the Church creates opportunities for people to come into contact with the life-giving love we meet in Christ. Sometimes those opportunities will be created by opening doors wider, sometimes by us learning more about our neighbours; sometimes we will need to change our thinking about what it means to “invite,” or to seek and remove barriers; and always – always – we will need to listen, and listen, and listen some more, to what people say they are seeking. There is so much that the good news of Jesus Christ has to offer – the unconditional, affirming love that unites us with the life-force of the whole universe – and I pray that the work that we are trying to do, to remove any and all the barriers that might get in the way of people being enlivened by that, will be met by a curiosity on the part of our neighbours who might just trust us enough to hear how the good news might fill some of their aching needs.
In calling us to go deeper in our own learning, to stop seeing the world as “us” and “them,” to go into the world purely out of a desire to love and invite and be changed by our new companions on the journey, Jesus does indeed call us to “draw the circle wide.” Let us rise, and join in song as we embrace that call of love. [Draw the Circle Wide, More Voices #145]
See also: Jewell, Sara, “Christian or Jesus follower?” The United Church Observer, February 2018, p.47.
© 2018, Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church