Matthew 28:16-20 (NIV)
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go 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 I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
A few people were interested in the artwork we had on screen last week, so I thought we could start by taking a closer look at it. It’s called The Great Commission, and it’s by Chinese artist He Qi (pronounced Huh Chee), who draws on elements of traditional Chinese art as well as modernist and cubist techniques. We are perhaps more used to seeing biblical scenes depicted in Western styles, and they may feel more familiar, but really they are no more truthful. I think it’s important that we remember that all art is interpretation, and also that every culture has the freedom to represent the person and life of Christ in ways that feel familiar to them. Jesus came to identify with all of us, and Christian art that draws on our own cultural heritage and experience can help us understand that on an emotional as well as an intellectual level, while Christian art that draws on a cultural heritage and experience that is not our own can open us up to new perspectives.
One of the things I really like about this painting is its ambiguity and anachronism. The buildings in the background look distinctly modern and the figures could read as female. It is as though the original great commission has been overlaid with centuries of disciples being commissioned and commissioning others. This is not just the story we read from Matthew's gospel, but the story the church has been living out ever since. There are lots of other wonderful details, like the dove descending from the top of the picture, recalling Jesus' baptism and the time he went into the synagogue and read from the scroll of Isaiah, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor...” I also love the vibrancy of the painting, as the colours speak of the life and energy and joy of the great commission.
I encourage you to take a closer look for yourself, but for the moment I want to return to where we ended last week, as I encouraged you to think about what the good news of Christ is for you. Making disciples is about inviting people into a community and a way of life, and that community and that way of life are shaped by that good news, and so we need to know what it is and how we can share it. But knowing and sharing the good news is more than just being able to tell the gospel story, it is being able to speak of what that story has meant for us. The point isn't to learn a script that someone else has polished, but to be able to speak authentically of our own experience. I want to give us all a chance to do that in a short while, but I thought I would get the ball rolling.
When I think about what the good news of Christ is for me, the word that most readily and clearly comes to mind is ‘hope’. Every miracle of healed bodies and full bellies, every parable of growing trees and kind strangers, speaks of hope that things can be better. The incarnation answers our hope that we are not alone, and the resurrection dares us to hope that there will always be love and joy and life beyond hate and sorrow and death. And I have known that hope for myself, particularly through my experience of mental ill health. I lost it for a while, and I understand why Kierkegaard spoke of despair as the sickness unto death. But God proved faithful, and my hope was restored, and it has sustained me through grief and fear. You know that I still weep for myself and the world because you've seen me do it, but those tears are never without hope. I believe that love and joy and peace and justice are possible because one morning two thousand years ago God walked out of his own grave, and suddenly nothing could ever be impossible again. That for me is the good news of Christ.
[At this point we made space for the conference to reflect on and share what the good news is for them, and it was good to hear from several folk.]
I said last week that we would think more practically about how we live out the great commission, but the truth is that there is no ten step guide that I can share with you. The only thing I know to do is tell the good news as I have experienced it and with the voice I have been given. Your experience and your voice are your own, and so I cannot tell you how to use them, only encourage you to do so. That doesn't mean you're totally on your own to figure things out though. I was at the association ministers' conference this week, and our speaker was Steve Holmes, who spoke on the final morning about improvising in the key of gospel. Speaking musically, improvisation is spontaneous in the moment, but rooted in the practice that came before it. If we are going to go out into the world and improvise in the key of gospel, we must start in the church with deep practice in prayer and scripture. We can support one another in that, listening and discussing and sharing together, so that we build the confidence to speak to others of the good news we have experienced in the voices we have been given.
But what might improvising in the key of gospel look like? It might look like a church throwing an extravagant party for a traumatised teenager to show her how deeply she is loved. It may look like a simple question about what you've done that week and an answer that leads to a discussion about the nature of God and the problem of suffering. It may look like a chance encounter with a stranger that opens the way to a prayer request. We can't plan for these improvisations and the opportunities they bring, but we can prepare for them by always being ready to “speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are”, as The Message translates 1 Peter 3:15. The great commission is not just for the evangelists and the extroverts among us, and in fact we would do ourselves and our creator a great disservice if we all tried to squeeze ourselves into that mould. The great commission is for every one of us with a story to tell about the wonderful things God has done. Sing it loudly with a light show from a stage. Write it confidently with long words in a book. Speak it softly over tea with a friend. Just tell it somehow. There's a world out there that needs some good news.