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Sunday Worship 4 February | The Great Commission: Part One

Updated: Feb 11

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.”

Last week we heard the story of Jesus' baptism, which marked the beginning of his public ministry. This morning we have jumped to the great commission, which is really the end of his earthly work. We will go back and fill in some of the gap over Lent and Easter, but as Paul made his baptismal promises and the rest of us were invited to reaffirm our own faith commitments, we spoke of Christian life and service, and so it seemed good to think a little more about what that might look like. Christian life and service should not be reduced to the great commission, but Jesus’ final words to his disciples are significant in how we understand what it means to be a follower of Christ in the world, and so we are going to spend the next couple of weeks with them.

It can be tricky to keep a sense of narrative when we jump about in the gospel story, so to help us locate these verses, I'll attempt to summarise what has happened since last week's reading. Jesus has spent around three years travelling around Galilee and Judea, healing the sick and preaching about how to live in the kingdom of God. He has gained many followers, including a particularly close cohort of twelve chosen disciples, but he has also upset many people, including powerful religious leaders. These men have convinced the Roman authorities that Jesus is dangerous, and with the help of a treacherous disciple, he has been arrested and tried and beaten and executed. But death is not the end of this story, so he has risen from the grave and has been seen by some of the women who were faithful to him. The disciple who betrayed Jesus has hanged himself, but the other eleven have returned to Galilee to meet with him, and that is where they receive the great commission.

Perhaps the first thing to note is that when Jesus appears to the disciples, some of them worship him but some of them doubt. In Matthew's account of events, this is the first time they have seen him since the resurrection, as the call to meet in Galilee was relayed through the women who saw him outside the tomb. They are still trying to figure out what has happened and what they believe, and yet they are called to go and make more disciples. Jesus was surely not oblivious to how they were feeling, so the fact that he commissioned them even as they doubted is really significant. Neither being a disciple nor making a disciple requires having everything neatly sewn up. Questions are not only allowed but expected and perhaps even needed. They take us deeper into authenticity, and they make room for other people and their questions. Being and making disciples calls for commitment and a degree of confidence, but too much conviction can blinker us, and there can be something quite off-putting about running into a wall of someone else's certainty. Being honest about our doubts keeps us open and curious, and can invite others in to explore faith with us. 

So into this space of doubt, Jesus says those oft-repeated words, 'go and make disciples'. I think it's important to note what Jesus does not say here. He does not say 'go and evangelise'. That word is so often reduced to ‘sharing the good news’, but what Jesus is talking about is so much more than that. The disciples were a community who walked together in the way of Christ, and so making disciples is surely about inviting people into that community. Telling people about Jesus is a great start, but we are meant to be calling them into a new kind of life, not just giving them a different bit of knowledge. Perhaps that sounds even more intimidating, but I think there is something far more appealing about being invited to belong to something than being instructed to believe in something. We will make disciples not by educating or arguing them into faith, but by loving them into a community where God can be revealed and faith can emerge. 

And going back to Jesus’ words, he does not say ‘go in order to make disciples’. We're reading words that have been translated from Aramaic into Greek and then into English, so we have to be careful about putting too much weight on linguistic nuance, but the Greek has a sense of ‘go and make disciples along the way’. The disciples are being sent back into their normal lives, but with a new commission to be woven through them. Making disciples is not not only for those with a full time calling, it is for all who have chosen the way of Christ, and it is something that happens in the course of everyday life. I've spoken before about living questionable lives, lives that make people ask questions. About where our hope comes from. About how we can be so gracious. About why we care so much about people and planet. It is in responding to those questions that we can invite others in to share the answers.

None of this is to say that we should never be deliberate about sharing the gospel. Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that they must 'teach everything I have commanded', and that won't happen entirely by accident. As people start to ask questions, we need to be ready to give answers. Those answers don't need to be perfect or definitive, they just need to be honest to our understanding and experience, but that understanding and experience should be rooted in the person and teaching of Christ, and so we need to be spending time in prayer and scripture to learn what Jesus commanded, both through what he said and through how he lived. As Fiona led me to realise this week, the sermon on the mount may only be recorded once, but Jesus probably preached a version of it in every town he went to, so the disciples would have heard it again and again. We need to immerse ourselves in Jesus' life and words in the same way, so that teaching them becomes as instinctive as it is intentional. 

So what have we learnt so far from the great commission? In true Baptist style, I'm going to leave you with three points. First, we can bring our doubts and our questions to our worship and to our witness, because they keep us open and curious, and they create space in which others can also discover and explore. Second, we are called to invite others into the community of faith by living lives of hope and grace and care. And third, we need to be so familiar with the person and teaching of Christ that we are always ready to share our understanding and experience. Next week we'll try and think a bit more practically, but until then there is something I would like you to think about. In just a few sentences, what for you is the good news of Christ? And I don't mean ‘how would you give a sixty second summary of the gospel story?’ I mean ‘how has Christ been good news in your life?’ I really encourage you to give that some thought this week, and I would be delighted if a few people would be happy to share their answers next Sunday.

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