First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday
May 26, 2002
The Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20
Sermon: "The Great Commission"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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."
The Great Commission
First Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday
May 26, 2002
"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." We commonly know these words as the Great Commission. We have heard them often in our lives as members of the Christian Church. I would like to propose that these words are both dangerous and demanding.
How are these words dangerous? They are dangerous because one's actions as a Christian can be directly related to how one interprets these words. Since these words were written down they have been misused and abused by people who interpret them incorrectly. Let me give a few of the extreme examples. Nazi Germany claimed to be a Christian country. Please note I am not talking about Germany I am referring strictly to Nazism. The Nazis took Poland, Belgium, France and a host of other Christian countries. The people they conquered lived in fear. To disagree with the Nazis on any subject meant incarceration, punishment and death. It didn't seem to matter what religion you were either, but for God's sake don't be Jewish. Jewish people were condemned to death simply for being Jewish. The commission is to make disciples, to baptize and to teach. Nothing in the commandment says anything at all about killing those who don't believe like you. Yet, the words inscribed on every private's belt buckle in the German army were, "Gott in Hirnmel”, In God we trust.
Another example, Jim Jones, a self-proclaimed minister, started to preach and teach. He started with the scriptures. Then one day something snapped. The interpretation changed. He began teaching his way instead of God's way. Finally, he turned away from the Bible itself. He stood in front of his congregation and asked them this question, "Are you going to believe me, or are you going to believe this book? If you believe me then follow me." With those words he threw the Bible on the floor, walked out the door and led many members of that church to their death.
Those are some of the extremes. We have all seen other ways, ways closer to home, where this commission has been abused. Some people believe you aren't a Christian unless you believe in God the exact same way they do. We have to be baptized the same way. Or we have to interpret the scriptures the same way. We have to be able to speak in tongues or perform other supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit on a daily basis. We have to say the same prayers in the same way every week. Everybody and everything has to be exactly the same. Christians are to follow Christ. Therefore, they must be identical, right?
I'm sure we agree that these methods of following the commission of Christ to make disciples are dangerous and wrong. In fact, several of them are physically, mentally, and spiritually deadly. Yet, all of these ways are based on the interpretation of this scripture to teach and baptize.
How can we properly accomplish the task? There are many ways, but let me use two ways as examples. A Roman Catholic missionary by the name of Donovan went to Africa. He was in an area called Masailand. The church had missionaries there for a long time. They had established schools and hospitals. The missionaries took supplies to the schools and brought in the sick. Donovan noticed something odd. No one was speaking to the Masai about God. The schools and hospitals were full, large amounts of money were spent, but the Masai were not responding. In fact, they were considered true pagans. As soon as a Masai student finished school they went back to their tribe never to be heard from again. Noticing this peculiar set of circumstances, Donovan decided to do something radical. He wrote his bishop and asked for permission to take the Gospel to the Masai. He went to the villages and made a deal with the chiefs and elders. He brought no supplies. He would come by once a week to the village. He would talk with them about God and Jesus Christ. At the end of one year the tribe could ask him to stay and teach and baptize or they could ask him to leave and promise never to return.
In order to do his teaching he had to rewrite some of the parables. The Masai are a culture based on cattle production. The New Testament parables are based on an agrarian society. He adapted the stories to fit the Masai culture. At the end of the year, he went back to each village. Many of them asked him to stay, to continue to teach, and to baptize. A few villages asked him not to return. He honored his promises and many Masai, pagans by others' standards, believed. The word of God was brought to them and shared with them. The love of God for all people was made known to them, and they understood.
Another example is a man who was an entrepreneur. He owned his own business, had a small staff, and did very well. He had martini business lunches two to three times a week and usually came back late in the afternoon to the office. He went on a Christian spiritual weekend. When he came back he had changed some. There was a Bible in his office. It had been in the comer and had a thick layer of dust on it. He took the Bible out, dusted it off, and placed it on the comer of his desk. Instead of going to business lunches so often, he brought his lunch. He would sit and read a few verses of scripture and eat. After finishing the meal he placed the Bible on the edge of the desk. Over the next year, every employee came into his office and spoke to him about God and their beliefs. These conversations never happened before. Several of them began attending church again. They had slacked off. A few continued to question and to ponder. Everyone in the office was affected in some way. Not once had the entrepreneur gone into the office and announced his personal revival. Not once did he put down anyone else in the office. As his employees came to him, he listened to them and he shared his own story. Like the Masai the impact was varied. Some believed, some were curious and some turned away.
Compare these two men to the first examples. They simply followed the commission. Go, baptize and teach. Sure they approached the task differently. One went out directly to the people. The other one simply opened the door to his office and put a Bible on his desk. Each man had different gifts. Each man was in a different place. Each man was working with different people, Yet the result was the same. People became disciples. Not all, but some.
Of course we are not all missionaries in Africa or entrepreneurs in our office. We are different people with different gifts and abilities. We have been commissioned to take the message of God's love into the world. We have been told to go. That brings us to the point that these words are demanding. We are not given an option. As disciples of Christ, Jesus tells us to go. He doesn't say stay at home and wait for people to come to you. He doesn't say we are to be private about our beliefs. He doesn't say we can be Christians on Sunday and whatever the rest of the week. The commission is to go, to teach, to disciple, and to baptize. As the community of disciples we are commissioned to go to the world. As Christians we take responsibility for sharing the Good News. We also take responsibility for the content of the message. Like the missionary and the entrepreneur, we can be loving, compassionate and caring. Or like some of the other examples we could be dangerous. The reality is we are already delivering one of those two messages. Many people know what church we attend. Many people know what we say we believe. We are delivering the message of Christ to others and yet we may not speak one word. Still we are told to go. Still we are commanded to go. Jesus has given us the command, the responsibility. Jesus has also given us one other gift. We are to take the message. We are to do our best to teach about the love of God. However, we are not responsible for the results and we always have Christ with us. As sure as Christ said, “Go.” Jesus also said, “And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age." We go. We teach. We disciple. Most of all, we are with Jesus.