Sermon, June 15, 2014

Published July 7, 2014 by

Worship Doubt and Witness
Phil Campbell, Northern Light United Church, Juneau, Alaska
Text: Matthew 28: 16-20
16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Some of you know that before I came to be with you in Juneau I taught at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. I have continued to teach for Iliff online as an adjunct professor since arriving here. This year I led a reflection seminar with those who were doing their internship. Students from across the Western United States – Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, and Colorado – were in my group. Their concluding assignment was to write a theology of ministry paper. Two of this year’s students began their papers with these verses that Tom has read for our hearing: “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.” They have been claimed by this text and it motivates their ministry. This instruction to “make disciples” has come to be known as the “Great Commission,” and it is referenced in our church’s mission statement that is printed atop the order of service each Sunday: “The mission of our church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ through God-centered worship and people-centered ministry.”

What do you think of the “great commission?” Is this what propels you in your life of faith? Are you energized by the prospect of going out into the world baptizing all the nations and making disciples? Or are you a little hesitant about that enterprise? It has been said that Christians can be divided into two groups. There are “Great Commission Christians” and there are “Great Commandment Christians.” Meaning that the primary focus of one group is evangelistic zeal to go out into the world and make disciples. The emphasis of the other group is showing the love of God and neighbor, following Jesus’ teaching about the most important commandment that is actually two: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22: 37, 38). There is nothing mutually exclusive about these two “greats” of course, but for most, there is more emphasis on one than the other. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it often is.

What of you? Are you motivated by the Great Commission? And if so, what are the implications? I confess that as important as I believe it is, and as committed as I believe we are to making disciples of Jesus, there are expressions of the Great Commission throughout history that I find troubling. We have just concluded the biennial observance of Celebration. It is a wonderful gathering of people from throughout the region, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, who give thanks for, celebrate, and affirm their culture. But I am also aware that there was a time in Juneau when there was no such thing as Celebration. The missionaries who came before believed that the cultures they encountered had to be extinguished – replaced by a European version of what it meant to be human and faithful. Baptize all the nations and make them disciples. When the Great Commission is applied thusly it does not lead to excitement about being a disciple of Jesus, but generates coerced oppression as Christianity is foisted upon people.

Look again with me at the text; I invite you to consider anew some of what it might say. It may reveal dimensions previously unobserved. Verse 17, for instance. The New Revised Standard tells us that the disciples worshipped Jesus. But notice what comes next: “but some doubted.” It is curious enough even if this translation is an accurate representation of the verse’s meaning. Jesus tells the disciples that he is sending them out to baptize and make disciples. He didn’t say, “I’m sending those of you who worshipped me.” He said, “I’m sending you [all of them] out.” It is pretty surprising – the doubters commissioned right along with the worshippers. Why would this be? Perhaps there is an alternate translation that sheds some light, albeit light that will remain surprising for some of us. The words translated, “but some” could also be rendered “and they.” Instead of “they worshiped him but some doubted” it could be “they worshiped him and they doubted.”

I’m sure you are relieved that I told you that! That explains everything, doesn’t it? Actually, I think it may. It says something about the life of discipleship. To be a disciple is to be a learner. To be a disciple is to continue to grapple with understanding. If we read the stories about the first disciples, we see that they struggled with what it meant to follow in the way of Jesus. They wrestled with what it meant to live out the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. Lessons about love for neighbor, and not only the neighbors we like. Our neighbors include our enemies! They struggled with what it meant to find security in God instead of in the accumulation of things and in the building systems of weaponry that supposedly make us safe, but really drain our coffers and make us worry about everyone who is “out to get us.” Jesus’ message is not easy, but it is compelling because it is life giving. The disciples react to it understandably, not as cocksure zealots that have all the answers that they’re going to impose on everyone else. They respond as learners who are trying to follow in the way and incorporate new insights into how they will live. They worship their teacher and also they doubt. They wonder if it is a realistic way to live, but they are drawn to it. They keep on following in the way of Jesus and sometimes they do so better than others.

What if this is what it means to make disciples? To invite those we encounter into a similar way of living, moving, and being? To engage in faithful struggle as we seek after God and live attentive to Jesus’ teachings? That is a different message than imposing our faith on others.

But what about baptism? We’re told that the disciples are to baptize. When we baptize at church, it is moving and life embracing. I hear from some of you that you experience it this way. One of the most wonderful things that I am honored to do is to baptize someone, be it an infant, or an adult, or a teenager as we did most recently. To welcome someone into the faith. In addition, many of you have been here for our annual renewal of our baptismal vows, and it’s been a powerful service. We reclaim our connection with the way of Christ, and we are reaffirmed in our identity as children of God. We hear again that we are God’s beloved. Baptism is a sacrament of joyous entry into the church.

By contrast, I remember a baptismal renewal service one Sunday at the church I served in Denver. It was celebratory for many, but I noticed one man who did not come forward to engage the baptismal waters. I could see how troubled he looked; he left the sanctuary quickly after the service. He was someone I knew rather well, or at least I thought I did, and I checked in with him later that day. What I learned was that when he was a young man in the church in which he grew up – a “believer’s baptism” congregation – someone “made” him get baptized. He was pressured into it. He was forced to the baptismal font against his will. Bowing to pressure as teens so often do, he was baptized. In the renewal service, he was not recalling joy and thanksgiving for his acceptance by God and his welcome into the life of the church. Instead, he was a reliving of the trauma of someone inflicting their will on him. I cannot believe that that is what the text intends when we read that we are to go and baptize the nations. But sometimes in its zeal the church has acted like that is what it means. Conversely, when Jesus went to be baptized, he had to talk John into doing it! Baptism is for the willing. To make disciples and to baptize them is an invitation to consider, not a command to comply. I believe that discipleship is a wonderful way to live, but I can’t decide that for someone else.

The problem is compounded by the connotations of the English rendition of the instruction – “make disciples.” How do you feel when someone tries to “make” you do something? In the Greek, “make” is absent. In the Greek, “disciple” becomes a verb. We are to “disciple” the nations – to invite them into a life of learning, exploration and growth. Discipling can mean sharing with others your experience of worship and doubt, of learning and struggle, of insight and figuring it out one day and then messing up the next, of being forgiven and being able to start anew, and of living another day to experience the possibility of a fresh start and new life! Share the invitation. If it is not the way of the one with whom you have shared, it’s not their way. We continue to live the great commandment, loving God and loving all our neighbors. With the great commission and the great commandment, may we live humbly and faithfully as Jesus’ disciples, and may our commitment to do so show forth in word and in deed. Amen.

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