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The Great Commission

commissionMatthew 28: 16-20  
Introduction to the reading
We have arrived at the last Sunday in the season of Easter, the continuing celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.  Since the middle of April, we have been hearing Gospel accounts of how Jesus appeared to the disciples after he had been raised from the dead.  Today we will read another such story from the Gospel of Matthew.

But this week our readings also include a portion from the beginning of the book known as the Acts of the Apostles. This is the account of the Ascension, which Peter read.  The Ascension is a transition from the post-resurrection appearances to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which is next week:  “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” Jesus told them.  They will go out to parts known and unknown to spread the word of the saving grace of God.

The passage for today essentially does the same, in very particular terms.  It is known as the Great Commission.

There’s an old story about what happened when Jesus arrived back at the gates of heaven following his ascension.  All the heavenly host were gathered to welcome God’s Son, to celebrate his return home.  Everybody had questions.  They’d heard of his exploits on earth.  Now they wanted to hear it straight from him.

Jesus described his adventures at great length: the preaching, the teaching, the healing.  They laughed when he told them how he’d tied the Pharisees’ theological arguments up in knots, and they wept when he described both the agony of the cross and the joy of resurrection.

Someone asked him, “Lord, now that you no longer physically walk the earth, who will spread the good news?”

“I’ve got a plan,” Jesus said.  “I’ve chosen eleven of my followers, my closest friends.  I’ve given them that responsibility.”

“They must have some incredible talents,” remarked one angel.

“Well, actually no,” the Lord responded.  “They are average people with ordinary abilities and ordinary flaws.  They are vain and sometimes foolish and stupid.”

“But, Lord,” objected another angel, “how can you be sure they’ll get the job done?”

“To be perfectly honest, I can’t be sure,” he replied.

“What do you mean, you can’t be sure?  What if they fail?  What’s your backup plan?”

Quietly, Christ answered, “I have no backup plan.” (“Scheduling” 39)

So, as we know, it started with those first eleven disciples – the students, the followers – who became apostles – the ones sent.  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.  You and I, along with all the others in the world who call themselves Christian, have inherited the work of Jesus Christ; we are, so to speak, the backup plan.
We are the ones who are called to do all that the Great Commission implies.  By instruction and demonstration, teaching and example – love your neighbor as yourself; pray; care for the least among us; repent from sin; strive for peace and justice; welcome the stranger and offer hospitality; show mercy, righteousness and forgiveness.  All that and much more.

So, how’s that going for us, would you say?

As the organized church, sometimes I really wonder, especially as I hear the extreme – and extremely vocal - political positions of the “Christian” right, which often seem so very far from what Jesus taught.  Is that what non-Christians think Christians are?
I see the Jesus example lived out more by individuals, one-on-one, person to person.  Our good friend and church member Don Giantomasi, had hip replacement surgery last Monday; it went very well.  He told me how grateful he was for the care given him by the nurses and therapists and aides – their compassion, understanding and good humor was vital to his recovery.  Many of us have had that same kind of experience with health care givers.  He was indeed glad for the knowledge and skill of the surgeon and the operating team.  But when it came down to it, the personal care was every bit as important.

Likewise, when national issues like immigration, same-sex marriage, drug and alcohol addictions, mental illness, gun control, or criminal justice reform come close to home; when you know someone affected, when you are close to someone, when you love someone, it is very difficult to take a stance against what Jesus preached and taught – if you are a Christian, entrusted with the Great Commission.

And here’s the important thing.  Jesus may have ascended into heaven, but he is nonetheless, never far off.  

  • Notice today’s Thought for Worship from just a few verses before in Matthew:  ...go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’  Galilee was their home, their familiar territory.  And wherever our home is, whatever is our familiar territory, there Jesus will be also.
  • Moreover, Jesus is wherever we are, even when we follow his orders and leave homeGo, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…  True, ‘all nations’ in our 21st century world are a lot more numerous than in the 1st, but even the most remote places are accessible now in ways that weren’t so then.
  • Finally, Jesus is close in time.  For the last line of the Great Commission is this:  “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

There is no place, in time or space, where God is not.

“Scheduling Problems” Homiletics May 2017: 36-41.   

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
May 28, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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