May 7, 2017: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
It’s fitting that we read this scripture lesson today, on the day that we honor and send out our seniors who are graduating. This is a major time of transition in their lives, and in the lives of their families, in the life of this church family. As they move on to what is next and we feel their absence. So too, the passage from the very end of Matthew’s gospel is a story that is all about transition.
You see, Jesus is leaving his disciples, preparing to ascend into heaven. It is time for him to depart so that they can grow and mature as a community, following their calling to be the church throughout the world. But before he leaves, he gives them this is the charge, the Great Commission that echoes throughout throughout the centuries.
Before we focus on Jesus’ words, let’s notice a few things about the group he is speaking to. Who are they? They are his students, his followers, his closest friends. But here they are referred to as “the eleven disciples.” The eleven—there had been twelve at first, but in the events that have taken place with Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion, one of their number, Judas Iscariot, was no longer with them. They are “the eleven,” not “the twelve”—name them this way is a reminder of brokenness and betrayal. They are an incomplete, imperfect community
And notice what these disciples do when they get to this mountainside meeting. The scripture says “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” They all worship him, and some of them doubt. I am fascinated by the honesty of all that is held together here. Rather than ignoring or denying their doubts, on the one hand or being overcome and petrified by those doubts on the other hand, the disciples are honest about their doubts, and yet they still worship the risen Lord, the living Christ. They worship with their doubts and their faith. Their worship is real, it is authentic.
So this is the context for Jesus’ final goodbye in Matthew’s gospel. This broken and battered community, this incomplete and imperfect ensemble of faithful doubters has come back to Galilee to see Jesus one last time and to hear his final charge to them. What Jesus tells them will echo through the generations, down to our very lives today.
His words begin and end with talking about himself. He says that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him.” In him, in this one, heaven and earth are united. The one who rules the angels and archangels also now rules our live and our world as well.
And then he ends his message with the promise that he will be with us always, even to the end of the age. He will be “with us.” With us. Remember, at the very beginning of the story, at Jesus’ birth he was proclaimed to be God-with-us, Emmanuel. And now, at the end, Jesus promises to always be with us. Those two words, “with us” are the most significant words in the gospel of Matthew, and perhaps some of the most important in our lives of faith today. In Christ, God is with us always!
So, Jesus begins and ends his final message by talking about himself, but in the middle of this Jesus sandwich is his charge and commission to the church through the ages. He says, “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.”
Of particular importance here are the verbs that Jesus uses: Go. Make-disciples, baptize, teach, obey, and remember.
“Go,” he says. It reminds me of when I was standing in the same places as our seniors today. About to finish high school an my home church had a graduate Sunday when they honored us as we headed off to college. They gave us all a book, a book that many of you may have. It’s gotten to be a pretty cliché graduation gift. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. It tells the story of a young man setting out on life’s journey and all the wonderful and amazing places that he (that is you) will end up. At first I thought this was a cute little gift. Here we were, 18 years old—old enough to vote, old enough to register for the draft—getting a children’s book. But through the years as I’ve travelled down my own path and read this book (and read it to my children) I’ve grown to appreciate part of the wisdom that is in it, because it doesn’t just praise you for the successes you will achieve—the fun and exciting places to go—it also gets real and honest about the places we don’t want to go.
“Whether you like it or not Alone is something you’ll be quite a lot. And when you’re alone there’s a very good a chance you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants. There are some, down the road between hither and yon, that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on. But on you will go though the weather be foul. On you will go though your enemies prowl. On you will go though the Hakken-Kracks howl. Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak…You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. (Sounds pretty Presbyterian.) Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.”
Oh the places you’ll go. Oh, the places that Jesus sent them. Those eleven disciples. He didn’t send them out to be successes. He didn’t send them out to fun and exciting locals. He sent them to teach his message. He sent them to places that they didn’t want to go. To places of failure and hardship. He sent them to places where they would be persecuted and put to death for the faith that they taught. He sent them to serve…and they followed.
To our seniors, to our children, to our retirees…Jesus says, “Go.” To our young married couples just setting said, and to those navigated the rough waters of divorce…Jesus says, “Go.” To those just starting out and those who feel stalled out, to you and to me and to the whole Christian community…Jesus says, “Go.” Go—not to the safe places, not retreat into the familiar to hide behind what we know, not to succumb to the temptation of the sentimental. No, Jesus says, Go!
And what does he want us to do when we go? Quite simply, to be the church. Make disciples, teach and baptize. He says, Go as servants (not as those in power, not with force or violence. For we today are still that broken and battered incomplete group of eleven nobodies. And the deep irony is that Jesus sends us, as he did them, into all the world—not as conquerors or colonizers, but as servants and teachers.
And finally, he says, “Remember.” Remember all the ways that God is with us. Remember this story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for us. Remember what God has done for us that we could never do for our selves. Remember. “Remember I am with you always.” That’s precisely what this table is all about. The good news of this meal is that the Risen Christ continues to be with us on the journey. He continues to meet us and welcomes us with all our brokenness and imperfections, all our faith and our doubt. The good news of this meal is that as we go throughout all the transitions of life…as we welcome in and send out, as we celebrate achievements and fall flat on our faces in failure, when we feel lost and lonely, and when we feel found, when we say goodbye to those we love the most, and when we face our own final transition beyond the grave…the good news of the gospel, the good news of this feast table is that the one who rules heaven and earth, the one who died and rose again for us promises to be with us to the end of our journey.
To God alone be the glory!