The Great Commission in a Time of Turmoil

As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

— (Rev) Andrew Jensen

The Great Commission in a Time of Turmoil

Scriptures: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Matthew 28:16-20

Today is Trinity Sunday and today’s Lectionary readings are chosen to emphasize the doctrine of the Trinity. Our passage from Matthew’s gospel is almost always part of that emphasis.

I propose to look at this scripture from a different perspective today: from a place of 21st century turmoil, where our social order is being challenged.

This passage is a challenge to the social order of Matthew’s time. We call it the Great Commission, where Jesus sent his disciples out into the world to make people his students and to baptize them, essentially welcoming them into God’s family.

This is a remarkable reading, firstly because it comes in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew is the most Jewish of the evangelists. He is clear that Jesus came to minister to the Hebrew people. And while there is an acknowledgement in this gospel that God works with gentiles, the emphasis on the law and the fulfillment of the law makes it clear that Jesus is working from a solid foundation in the covenant made at the time of Moses, between God and the people of Israel.

Yet here, right at the end of the gospel we have this remarkable instruction to take Jesus’ message and go share it with everyone –

EVERYONE, without hesitation; without bias against background, language, race or any of the other things that divide people.

This is a major change in understanding. Previously, Jewish thought certainly recognized that God worked with other people. There are many examples in the Hebrew scriptures, but it was always sort of incidental; the focus was always on the relationship between God and the chosen people.

Here, the commission is to go out to where these strangers live, meet them in their own circumstances and cultures and share with them the good news that in Jesus, we have a direct connection to our Creator.

In Jesus we have a message of transformation that levels the injustices of the world, turns the first into the last and the last into the first, finds strength in weakness and makes us all into family; sisters and brothers, in defiance of social status; even overcoming powerful barriers like the difference between slaves and their owners.

If only we had taken that commission seriously and understood its implications fully!

When our society was empire building, Christian missionaries went out to all the nations, yes. But the message included a lot of extra baggage. Particularly: that there was a world order that had to be respected with those on the top staying firmly there and those from “uncivilized” cultures staying firmly at the bottom. There was no question that race got tied firmly into this, and at the time this attitude supported the slave trade and the taking of lands either by force, or by unjust trade. The attitudes of this approach echo still today in powerful and destructive ways.

We can’t miss this fact. The protests against racism in the United States this week have been powerful, and have scared many people in power.

Those protests have spilled over into Canada, and we don’t like that.

We would like to say: “That doesn’t apply to us! We’re a kinder, gentler nation! We’re not racist!”

Except that recent events in several parts of Canada underline the fact that black people and indigenous people are very much more at risk from institutional violence than would be most members of this congregation.

It’s real, and we can’t deny it however well-intentioned we are.

The first Christians did a remarkable job of sharing their faith with a broad variety of people. The ancient Ethiopian church is evidence of the way that culture took their message and made it their own. I would encourage you to do some research: it is very different from what we know, and still very Christian.

We have to find a way to re-capture that original attitude; the one that says: “We have something to share,” not: “We know best, let me tell you what to do.”

And if we can re-capture that attitude, we will discover that we are working with a tainted environment. There is a history, and a lot of baggage to overcome. Modern jargon calls this institutional racism and colonialism.

Those words are accurate as far as they go, but they should also be reminders to us of what happens when we try to be Christian using short cuts; where we tie our message to the powers that be; whether that be Constantine and the Roman Empire or the British Empire or other historical powers.

That includes the self-serving leaders of the world today who would tie religion to patriotism and use the Bible as an excuse to use violence to keep the first in first place and suppress the last, or even kill them.

What a breathtaking perversion of the message of Jesus!

None of this is simple. And when violence erupts at a protest, we who are comfortable lose our sympathy really quickly, without acknowledging the violence that has been going on all along.

Yes, there are groups that try to take advantage of legitimate, peaceful protests to do nasty things. But we have to be careful that we do not hold our oppressed people to a higher standard than we hold ourselves or our structures. When we do, we are failing again in our Great Commission. We are not going out to where others are; we are insisting they come to us; that they meet our demands before we will share our good news of welcome, freedom, and reconciliation with God. Such demands are NOT our calling.

In a few minutes, we will be joining together in Communion: “the Family Feast of the People of God.” This sacrament reminds us of our connection across time and space with all other followers of Christ, regardless of who they are and where they come from. It reminds us, indeed, of our shared connection with Jesus himself and through Jesus, with our Creator.

As we approach the table, let us consider how welcome we really consider other people. Consider what barriers we put up without even thinking about it. And let us also consider how we can tear down these barriers:

  • the ones in our hearts and minds;
  • the ones in our social structures and powerful institutions;

all the barriers that separate us from each other, and put stumbling blocks on the path to God

We have stumbled enough. And we have contributed to enough stumbling in others that it’s high time we sorted this out and worked to really live out our Great Commission.

Only when we do that will our communion approach that intended full fellowship that Jesus proclaimed for ALL of us.

Amen.

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