Sixth Sunday of Easter
Rev. Ryan Slifka
This morning’s passage is the kind thing that freaks people out about Christians. Especially in our modern, western culture with its emphasis on diversity and tolerance, Jesus’ command to go out to make disciples just seems arrogant, or offensive. Dangerous. Destructive, even.
“Go out and make disciples” is one of the reasons why Christianity went from a small Jewish sect to the world’s largest religion. It’s why missionaries converted indigenous people, why they continue to plant themselves in Africa. This command is part of the reason for churches signing on to run Residential Schools for the Canadian government. And this is why Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons come knocking at our doors. All because of this passage, which is usually called “the Great Commission.” These are Jesus’ instructions to his followers. To “go out and make disciples of all nations.”
It freaks people out, simply because of the image it conjures. Christians steamrolling the world and forcing conversion. It freaks people out, because it’s burdened with so much historical baggage. Much that’s true. And much that’s untrue as well.
One way we’ll respond is by getting defensive. We’ll skirt the issue, downplay negative things that Christians have done in the name of Jesus. Things weren’t that bad, people actually meant well. Or we’ll point out how Christianity has helped produce the best in the modern west.
Or, the other way we respond is by ignoring Jesus’ instructions altogether. I remember the United Church Observer, the monthly magazine published by our denomination the United Church of Canada, took an ad out in the secular Walrus Magazine. The ad led with the headline “we won’t try to convert you.” Out of shame, or embarrassment, we see “making disciples” as something primitive at best. Evil at worst.
But the truth is that, like in so many things in life… it’s complicated. Following Jesus’ instructions to make disciples can be arrogant, it can be oppressive. But it can also be life-giving. I mean, we wouldn’t be here today without it. I know countless people who have been transformed by it (even in this room!). And I wouldn’t be the same person that God is making me in to today. I owe my life to someone following these instructions. So it can also be transformational.
So the question for is how do we tell the difference? How do we follow Jesus’ instructions to make disciples without falling into arrogance? Or coercion? The stuff that freaks people out?
Something I’ve always found helpful when it comes to the teachings of Jesus is what I’ll call the IKEA approach. By the IKEA approach I mean keep re-reading the instructions. Don’t just look at them once, then toss them (along with your Allen key) in the recycling because you figure you’ve got them mastered. But keep re-reading the instructions Jesus gives over an over again. Because if you don’t, your end product is a twisted perversion of the original. Or maybe that’s just my experience with IKEA.
So let’s look again at the instructions. Let’s read Jesus’ great commission closely and carefully.
First page of the instructions: Drop the pre-existing agendas.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Jesus says here. In the thinking of the New Testament, the world, under the powers of sin and death have rebelled against God’s original good intent for creation. Other spiritual forces have attempted take the authority that only belongs to God. Whether it is kings, rulers, governments or powers. In Jesus’ time, the spirituality served the agenda of the religious authorities, who served the agenda of the empire of Rome (who—according to Matthew served the agenda of the devil). When it came to First Nations folk, we assumed that making disciples meant making Europeans, or good English-speaking Canadians. We confused the Good News of Jesus with western culture.
So often our agendas serve authorities other than Jesus. Nations, governments, politics and ideologies. And we’ll do anything to achieve them. But Jesus says “all authority has been given to me.” To follow Jesus’ agenda, as articulated by the Lord’s Prayer, is God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. To bring heaven and earth together. To mend God’s image in humanity and to nullify its great divorce from God. Fullness of life for every creature.
We’ve got to drop our agendas in order to fully embrace Jesus’ agenda of loving God, loving neighbor first. Jesus is Lord, God’s kingdom is on the way, not ours. Drop the agenda. First page of the instructions.
Second page of the instruction booklet: it all starts outside our own doors.
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus continues. So often the Christian life is all internally focussed. All about the church. All about bringing people in to the church to join up, to be more like us. Bringing people to church isn’t a bad thing, of course. But when we focus on coming to church, and when we focus only on our individual spirituality, we miss that the mission field is primarily outside these doors. We come together as the people of God to be built up to be sent out to meet other people where they live. And the thing is, that it’s not just some foreign country we’re talking about. We don’t have to go on a mission’s trip to Mexico, Africa, China to find it. In fact, very few followers of Jesus have left their own neighborhood and countries. Rather, it’s that anyone can be a disciple, and that following Jesus can happen in any corner of the earth. No matter age, country, race, culture. The mission field is right here. Right now.
It’s not about someone else over there and far away who needs Jesus. No, for the most part, it’s about heading out the door into your own life. Your own neighborhood. We’re built up here, to make disciples out there. It starts outside our doors. That’s the second page.
Third page of the booklet: only disciples make other disciples.
Jesus continues. “Baptize them,” he says, baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Baptism is, of course, officially becoming part of Jesus’ body on earth. But it’s also the entry point into the Jesus Way. It’s a ritual entrance in to a way of life, baptism is a practice. And notice how Jesus doesn’t say “ensure everyone is following the law.” Or “make sure everybody does what I say.” He says “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” It sees both the people who are on the inside on the same level as those who are on the outside.
And the teachings it’s talking about are the teachings Jesus shares earlier in the sermon on the mount. Stuff like “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” “forgive seven times seventy.” Douglas Hare says that “the disciples are the instruments of Jesus’ activity.”[i] Rather than seeing ourselves as the people who’ve it figured out and need to make other people like us, it sees Jesus as the master. And each person as an apprentice, held to the same standard. Everyone in need of the same mercy. The same grace for falling short.
We have no right to share something we aren’t practicing first. Only disciples make other disciples. That’s the third page.
And now, here’s the fourth and final page of the booklet. It’s about God. It’s about God.
Jesus ends his final teaching, and Matthew’s gospel with these words: “Remember,” he says, “Remember that I am with you always, to the end of the age.” I think Jesus says “remember” because this is the page that always gets forgotten in the Xerox process, or left at the printer. Emmanuel, God-with-us, the very presence of the Holy One in our midst. Sometimes we forget that this is what the Jesus Way is all about. Not just morals. Or social justice, ideas or teachings. Not even as a way to recruit new members to take over our jobs! But a way of life lived in the light of a living other, the living God. A God who is with us in our struggles. And for us in our brokenness, healing and making new. That’s the good news. Easy to forget.
Here Jesus promises his very presence with his followers until the end of time. Jesus isn’t saying that “I have endorsed everything you do where ever you go.” But he sees the community of Christ-followers as carrying his life-giving, life-changing, healing presence and power where ever they go. Day, after day, after day, until the end of time. For us to be a priestly people. Where others look and see, reach out and touch, step in and encounter God. The very presence of the risen Christ.
It’s not about us. It’s about God. The God who our lives point to, and bring in to focus. It’s about God. That’s the fourth and final page.
Now, it’s true that the Great Commission, that Jesus’ instructions have been used and abused in countless ways. But the Great Commission still sits at the heart of the good news. None of us would be here today without it, because life with God is a gift that has the power to change lives, and even transform our world. So rather than denying or distancing ourselves from it, a far more fruitful, faithful way is reclaiming it. And we do so using the IKEA method. Always returning to the instructions. Over and over again.
And when we do, we learn to drop our own agendas. We discover that God’s work begins the moment we step outside the door, and God is at work calling people to herself in every corner of the globe. It begins with our own obedience to the way of life Jesus lived and modeled for us. But it doesn’t end there. It ends with the presence of the risen Christ, and the promise that God is with us. Today and every day. Until the end of time. Making us, and all things new again.
May we always remember the IKEA approach. May we never forget to read the instructions again.
[i] Douglas R. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation Commentary for Preaching and Teaching.