When I was in seminary, I was studying with some friends for a quiz on the gospels for our Bible survey class. We were reading through these last verses in Matthew’s gospel, because it was a sure bet that the Great Commission was going to be a question on the quiz. A fellow student said that whenever she read these last words of Jesus to the disciples, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” she just wanted to throw up her arms and cry, “Yay!!!!”
I understand how she felt because I feel the same. Honestly, if it weren’t for those last words, I think I would dread reading the Great Commission much more than I already do. Yes, you heard me correctly. Dread.
I guess I could try to explain that by reviewing hundreds of years of church history and examining how this passage has been used to justify colonialism, forced conversions, making them, the other, into our image. I could pounce on Jesus’ use of the word “authority,” and talk about our misuse of authoritarianism and the damage that it has done to so many people in so many places; and the damage that it still does.
But while I think honest discussions about these topics are vital and important, that’s not where my sense of dread comes from with this passage – at least not at this moment. So often this passage has been interpreted as Jesus commanding the disciples to go out and do what is known in the sales world as “cold call.” I am the worst sales person ever when it comes to making a cold call. This is my technique.
“You wouldn’t want to buy whatever the product is that I’m selling, would you? No? I didn’t think so. Thank you and have a nice day.”
As a new pastor, I served briefly on the nominations committee for the presbytery. I was a disaster, because I felt the same dread asking people I didn’t know to serve on a committee I wasn’t sure about as I did trying to sell strangers a product.
“You wouldn’t be interested in serving on COM would you? No? Okay. Thanks.”
Cold calling for whatever purpose and in whatever circumstance is not my gift, my strength, or my forte. If the Great Commission is a call to hand out tracts door-to-door, that’s fine, but y’all go on ahead. I have to go the bathroom and I’ll catch up with you in a little while. (Psst. I won’t catch up with you. Ever.)
I realize that I am setting myself up for a very tense session meeting after worship, so let me offer another interpretation of these last verses in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus told his remaining followers to go and make more disciples in all the nations of the world. Make them through baptism in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey the commandments that he taught. And Jesus told them, before you become too overwhelmed or too daunted by this task, know this, you are not doing this alone.
“I am with you always to the end of the age.”
Some may hear this and interpret it as going door-to-door with tracts, and that is fine. That is their calling. But it seems to me that while Jesus was very specific about the necessity to make disciples, to make them in every nation and to do so through baptism and teaching, the means was not necessarily spelled out. If we want to understand how to make disciples, perhaps we need to look at how Jesus made disciples.
Yes, much to my introverted soul’s horror, he called strangers. He walked up to fishermen and said,
But he also talked to people. He healed them. He sat at table with them. He ate with outcasts and outsiders. He listened to them. He touched the untouchables and he broke the barriers between who was welcome and who was not. He even let children come to him and blessed them – something that other rabbis may not have had time for. Jesus loved people. Jesus created relationships with people. He made God’s love real and visible and tangible to the most broken and hurting. He invited any and all to sit at table with him, and he embodied the truth that love is not a limited, finite resource. The more love is given the more love grows.
Jesus was God’s living, breathing, walking, talking embodiment of love in the world.
Jesus, God’s love in the world, sent the disciples, that ragged, motley crew, out … out into the world to love others, to welcome others, to invite others to the table, to call all of God’s broken and beautiful people to hear the Good News of the gospel, to teach them, to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In just a few minutes, we will baptize little Bailee. This is the beginning, the first step of her journey of discipleship. When I met with her parents this week, we talked about what it means to baptize babies, and I said that one of the main reasons we do this as Presbyterians is because we believe that God’s grace works in our lives whether we realize it or not. This is true for us as babies, children, and as adults. God’s grace works in our lives whether we know it or not.
While I may not always recognize God’s grace in the moment, what I do know is that the times I have experienced God’s grace, God’s love, God’s care most profoundly is through other people. When I have felt the healing hands of Christ, it has been through the hand of someone else holding mine. When I have experienced the courage and strength of the Holy Spirit, it has been through the witness of someone else encouraging me, pushing me, and challenging me.
When we make our promises to Bailee and her parents to love and encourage them with our prayers and witness, we are also promising to try and be expressions of God’s love for Bailee in this world. We are promising to help her grow in faith, courage, hope, and love. These are no small promises. They are not lightly made. We make these promises to this beautiful and uniquely wonderful child of God so that she will grow in her own relationship with God, and also that one day she will heed these words in Matthew’s gospel to go out, to welcome others to the table, to make disciples of all nations.
But perhaps most importantly today, what we give to Bailee is the good news that we also remember and joyfully claim for ourselves; no matter what, no matter where we are called, no matter where we are sent, no matter how narrow the way or how rocky the path, Jesus the Christ is with us always to the end of the age. Jesus the Christ is with Bailee and with us always. Always. Always. Yay!
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.