Sunday, February 7, 2016

Going, Going, ...Going?: Sermon on the Great Commission and the Apostolicity of the Church

Short of John 3:16 and maybe the Lord's Prayer, no verses in the Bible may be more familiar to Evangelicals than three closing verses in the Gospel of Matthew. We love the Great Commission! We love it so much, we gave it its own special nickname: “The Great Commission!” How many other verses have their own nickname like that? 

But here's something interesting for you. In Matthew, Jesus does not actually say “go and make disciples.” In what he says, there is only one verb in the imperative, only one direct command. And that word is “disciple.” He doesn't outright say, “baptize” – he says “baptizing,” to explain how to disciple, how to train fellow Jesus-followers. Same with “teaching.” And when our Bibles say “go,” the Greek actually says, “Going.” As in, “As you're going, disciple all nations.” More literally: “Having gone, disciple all nations” (Matthew 28:19). 

The Cotton Patch Version gets this one right. You ever hear of that, the Cotton Patch Version? A Southern paraphrase from back in the sixties. The translator, Clarence Jordan, who corresponded with Martin Luther King Jr. and whose Koinonia Farm gave rise to Habitat for Humanity, has Jesus closing the Gospel of Matthew with these lines:

Every right to rule in both the spiritual and physical realms has been given to me. As you travel, then, make students of all races and initiate them into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to live by all that I outlined for you. And you know, I am right in there with you – all the time – until the last inning.

There it is again: “As you travel,” “As you go.” Whatever you might find in the other Gospels, Matthew's Jesus doesn't have to tell you again to go, by this point; Matthew's Jesus assumes that by chapter 28, you're already heading out the door! You're already on your way! 

Is that so surprising? I mean, just look at all the movement in the Gospel of Matthew. First there's Jesus – he starts in Bethlehem in Judea, goes to Egypt (probably to Alexandria), comes back to Nazareth in Galilee, goes to the Jordan River and to the wilderness, returns to Galilee, goes to Capernaum, walks all through Galilee from village to village, goes up a mountain, walks down again, goes to Capernaum, sails across the lake to the Gentile Decapolis, goes back to Capernaum, walks around to “all the cities and villages” (Matthew 9:35), talks for a bit before making yet another tour of the towns, goes for a walk in some fields, goes back into town, goes back to the lake to tell some stories, takes a trip to Nazareth, goes out to the deserted countryside, takes a hike across the lake to Gennasaret, walks to Tyre and Sidon, goes back past the lake up a mountain, walks to Magdala, walked to Caesarea Philippi, went up another mountain to chat with Elijah and Moses, walked back to Capernaum, finally quit Galilee to walk south to Judea, passed through Jericho, went to the village of Bethphage, finally went into Jerusalem, shuttled back and forth between there and a village called Bethany, went to the temple, went away from the temple, walked up the Mount of Olives, went back down to Bethany, returned to Jerusalem, walked to the Mount of Olives and then the Garden of Gethsemane, got arrested, went to the high priest's house, went to Pilate's fortress, walked the Way of Sorrows carrying a cross up to a hill called Golgotha, died, was taken to a tomb – and still he refused to stay put for more than three days there! Amen? I feel exhausted just thinking about how Jesus was always on the move!

And then there's what Matthew's Jesus actually says. What does he say when he meets Andrew and Simon at the lake? “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). He tells them, “Hey, I'm on the move, come be on the move with me.” Within the next six verses, a big crowd all wants to be on the move with Jesus – they may not know where he's going, but they know they don't want to stand still and watch him walk away just yet (Matthew 4:25). 

Four chapters later, Jesus kicks Legion out of its host and sends the demons into a pack o' pigs – and the pig farmers go running into town to tell the story (Matthew 8:33). They saw what Jesus did, and whatever they thought about it, one thing they couldn't do is stand still. Jesus inspired them to get a move on! And then Jesus runs into Matthew himself, says, “Follow me,” and just like that, now Matthew's on the move too (Matthew 9:9).

With the pack of twelve key students rounded out, Jesus authorizes them to get on the move in their own right: he tells them to “go” to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” – and then he describes what they'll do as they're going: “Proclaim the gospel: 'The kingdom of heaven has come near'” (Matthew 10:6-7). And they do just that. Later that chapter, he says that unless you follow him, unless you're on the move in his way, the way of cross-bearing, then you aren't worthy of him (Matthew 10:38). 

Nine more chapters of travel, and he tells a prospective disciple, “If you want to be perfect, go … and then come, follow me (Matthew 19:21). Sadly, that man would rather stay put with his nice house and all his fancy toys. After that, Jesus keeps talking about going to Jerusalem, and then he does. And even after he kicks death to the curb, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene to go to where the other disciples are, and to tell them to go to Galilee, which is where the angel already told her that Jesus was going (Matthew 28:10). We've got a going gospel going on here.

By the time we get to the Great Commission, Jesus doesn't have to tell them to “go” again – he already told them to “go” when he sent them out on their Jewish mission (Matthew 10:6). It comes as no surprise that they're ready to go – or, in Luke's rendition, will be as soon as the Holy Spirit joins up with them (Luke 24:49). They have the example of their Master Teacher. And he already told them to get going on the Jewish mission. All that the Great Commission really changes is to extend what Jesus already instructed them. Back then, they were limited in going just to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” not even to the Samaritans or the Gentiles – though Jesus branched out into reaching both even then. Now, what they did for the Jews first, they do also for all nations: disciple them as they go.

And that's just what the Twelve did. Tradition tells us that Andrew went to what's now Turkey. Thomas went to Syria and even ended up in India. Peter ended up in Rome, but his prize student Mark, the Gospel-writer, went to Egypt. Philip may have ended up as a missionary to Carthage in north Africa. Bartholomew – well, who knows? Various traditions send him to India, to Armenia, to Ethiopia, to southern Arabia.... And then there's Simon the Zealot, who went perhaps to Persia; John, who of course went to Turkey and was buried at Ephesus, where his tomb is still marked to this day – I know, I've been there, I've seen the engraved words, “Tomb of St. John” – and Judas' replacement Matthias joined Andrew on a trip to Syria. Matthew himself may have gone to Persia and Ethiopia on his missionary journeys. I wish we had a few more volumes of Acts, describing all the stories and experiences of all the apostles! But ever since then, believers have often gone on foreign missions – traveled to distant lands, whether on short-term trips or for much longer stays, even for life. Talk about taking the Great Commission to heart!

Now, maybe you're thinking, “Whoa, hold on just a minute! I can't drop everything and go off to some other country! I'm not called to foreign missions! My home is here, right here in Pennsylvania. This is where my kids and grandkids live, where my house is, where my parents and brothers and sisters are buried. I'm just not up to jetting off to Timbuktu! I don't think God is really asking me to do that.... is he?” Maybe that's what's going through your mind, there in the pews.

Well, alright, you caught me. All of that may be true. God may not be asking you to go into foreign missions – though it's probably worth asking him, just in case. Not every Christian is called to that kind of service. “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:4). In fact, I will grant you this: the Great Commission is addressed, first and foremost, mainly to the Twelve. That's who was standing there, listening to Jesus, when they heard it with their own ears. They were the ones who had been living a lifestyle of 'going' throughout the whole Gospel of Matthew. They were the ones who'd been following Jesus around for a few years. They were the ones commissioned already with the Jewish mission that was now opening up beyond Judea and Galilee and Samaria to stretch out to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8). They were the ones sent to disciple all nations, to baptize in the Trinity's one name, to pass on all the words that Jesus had been drilling into them over those years of strict training in his school on the road.

We know that most first-century Christians did not go out on “mission trips.” Most people were not Paul. In fact, his letters are littered with the names of house-church leaders and other local believers – folks like Nympha in Colossae (Colossians 4:15), Philologus in Rome (Romans 16:15), Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi (Philippians 4:2), and of course Philemon (Philemon 1:1). Most of them were probably born and bred in those cities, and most of them never traveled with Paul on one of his journeys. That was home. Paul didn't drag them off to the northern coasts of Africa, didn't take them with him to Arabia, didn't book them a one-way ticket to Spain. They were not commanded to be what we'd call foreign missionaries. 

But does that mean that the Great Commission wasn't for them? That they'd be expected to read the Gospel of Matthew, walk away, and think, “That was a nice story about the Twelve,” and not have to do anything with it in their own lives? No way! The Gospels end with some version of the Great Commission for a reason – because the writers, and ultimately Jesus himself, want us to know that our Christian lives need to be shaped by it!

Or think about this: how has the church, for nearly the entirety of its history, described itself in the greatest statement of faith we've ever written up, the Nicene Creed? Now, if the name doesn't ring a bell – our bad. Actually, in a large part of the Christian world, they recite it every Sunday, and for good reason. At the first ecumenical council in Nicaea nearly 1700 years ago, a meeting of the leaders of the whole church, they approved this statement of faith to guard against some very bad ideas that tried to make Jesus into something he isn't. At another meeting fifty-six years later, they freshened it up into this declaration; we should all be familiar with it:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages – Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made: who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom shall have no end. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets. And I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come. Amen.

Wow – I get excited every time I read it, every time I hear it, every time I say it. That's the faith! That is what Christians believe, there in a beautiful nutshell! And toward the end, did you catch how they describe the church? Four words – the church is “one,” the church is “holy,” the church is “catholic,” the church is “apostolic.” Don't be scared of #3, by the way: the word “catholic” – little 'c,' not big 'C' – is from a Greek phrase that means “belonging to the whole” – it can sometimes be translated as “universal” – the church is for everyone, the church is defined by things that all believers are called to share. The gospel isn't some hidden message for people in just one place; it isn't just for a few clever folks who managed to figure out the secret for themselves. The gospel is for everybody, and it doesn't leave out any pieces to appease our naturally narrow tastes. An edited gospel isn't a catholic gospel, isn't a universal gospel, isn't a gospel “belonging to the whole.” Real catholicity, in the Lausanne Covenant's words, is for “the whole church to take the whole gospel to the whole world.” The church teaches all that Jesus commanded, and teaches it to all nations (Matthew 28:19-20).

But I'd like us to look at the fourth word there: “apostolic.” Now, what on earth does that mean, to call the church “apostolic”? Partly, it means the church is defined by how it continues what Christ's apostles taught. The church doesn't go changing its basic doctrines, swapping them out for whatever notions it blindly swipes from the culture's bargain shelves. No, for all our differences over some minor points, the church as a whole clings to the basic faith that the apostles were sent out to teach. Do we mess up now and then, here and there? Absolutely we do – just like don't always act as one, we don't always live as holy, and we aren't always very focused on “belonging to the whole.” 

But at our heart, this is who Jesus called us to be: the apostles' church with the apostles' faith and doctrine. For some Christians, calling the church “apostolic” also requires that our leaders descend from the apostles themselves in a chain of ordinations: the apostles ordained Bishop So-and-So, and Bishop So-and-So ordained Bishop Such-and-Such, all the way down to your bishop and pastor today. I'm not going to touch that controversy here.

I want to suggest, though, that there's one other big meaning in calling the church “apostolic.” What does the word “apostle” mean, after all? Does anybody know? There's a reason that “apostle” sounds so much like “epistle” – and it's not because the epistles were the apostles' wives! An epistle, a letter, is something you send to somebody. An apostle is someone you send – it's someone who gets “sent out.” Jesus is called an apostle in the Bible – “the apostle and high priest of our confession” (Hebrews 3:1) – because the Father sent the Son into the world. 

And then Jesus sent his own apostles – the Twelve, sure, but also Paul and a few other folks named as “apostles” – to go around spreading the message from land to land. You could just about translate the word “apostle” as “missionary.” Paul gets the nickname “Apostle to the Gentiles.” Remember how Mary Magdalene took news of the resurrection to Peter, John, and the rest? That earned her the nickname of “Apostle to the Apostles.” St. Patrick was called the Apostle of Ireland. St. Boniface was the Apostle to the Germans. And so on.

Why does the creed, the statement of faith, call the church “apostolic”? It means that the essence of the church is missionary! The church is a sent-out people, a people on mission! Whenever we recite those time-tested words, we're confessing that we are committed to being a missionary church, a church that goes. Now, what could that possibly mean for a congregation in ancient Ephesus, ancient Corinth, ancient Philippi? What could it mean for a local church like ours, in Lancaster County in the early twenty-first century?

You're right: you may not be called to transplant to some other geography. Certainly, our whole church probably isn't supposed to pick up and go to South Korea. (For one, it's gotten to the point that South Korean churches are sending missionaries to the United States – we have to get used to thinking of right here, not just 'over there somewhere,' as the mission field.) We are the church here. How do we be the church here, and still be a missionary church? Supporting missionaries is part of it, and we do that, and we can keep doing that. But there's got to be more – and there is.

The Great Commission is for here. The Pequea Valley, the Welsh Mountain, needs Great Commission Christianity. Gap, Kinzers, Narvon, Intercourse, Bird-in-Hand, Paradise, Gordonville, New Holland, Honey Brook, West Chester, Coatesville – they need the Great Commission, they are covered by the Great Commission. We are called, just like the Twelve were, to disciple “every nation” – you could paraphrase that, you know. “Every nation,” ta ethne, every people-group – you could paraphrase that to, “every demographic.” 

Every ethnicity, every generation, every culture and subculture, every club and institution. German-Americans – disciple 'em. Welsh-Americans – disciple 'em. African-Americans – disciple 'em. Senior citizens – disciple 'em. Baby Boomers – disciple 'em. Teenagers – disciple 'em. Kindergartners – disciple 'em! Amish, English – doesn't matter, disciple 'em! The historical society – disciple it! The Lions Club – disciple it! The township board of this, board of that – disciple it! 

You get the picture, right? Disciple each and every demographic, every family, every club, every institution, within our reach, in this area where God has called us to live, this field that God has placed within our stewardship.

And do it, “as you are going.” Yes, we still have to go. But we don't have to put too much mileage on our cars to do it! As you're going into town... disciple. As you're going into a store... disciple. As you're going to the hospital or doctor's office... disciple. As you're going to a restaurant... disciple. As you're going to a farm or a park, to a library or a school... disciple! Most of us already go to those kinds of places, don't we? But we need to go in Jesus' name and with Jesus' purpose. 

What's more, for those places and for the other places we may not go as much, we can start going as a church. We have the chance to move into the community in new and exciting ways! I know it may not be easy. I know we've had our share of hardships recently. I've had some close calls, and several of us have had hospital stays just this past week. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Enemy ain't too thrilled at the idea of us getting out on the move and getting to work. I vote we disappoint the devil. Nothing scares Satan like a prayer-soaked, Christ-centered, Spirit-driven, Great-Commission-minded church on the move!

Let me say this: We are called to follow Jesus. We read it, we say it, we sing about it. But try to look in the Gospels and see how long Jesus seems to stay still, to put down roots. If the church isn't on the move, then either Jesus has stopped in his tracks, or we've gotten sidetracked from the journey. Like Thom Rainer says, “A church without a gospel-centered purpose is no longer a church at all.” Have we gone? Are we presently going? Or have we been on pause? 

Recently, we have started a conversation here at Pequea EC about how best to do this – where to go first, what to do when we get there. We need your prayers, we need your voice, and we need your will. We need your movement. Don't look at me: I'm not the one who first said, “Go.” Jesus invites us to be going, going... let's go. 

For our prayer today, I'd like to close with the words of a hymn by Frank Houghton, a diligent servant of the Lord through the China Inland Mission and eventually its general director. Let this be our prayer, our resolution, our commitment:

Facing a task unfinished
    That drives us to our knees,
A need that, undiminished,
    Rebukes our slothful ease,
We who rejoice to know you
    Renew before your throne
The solemn pledge we owe you
    To go and make you known.

Where other lords beside you
    Hold their unhindered sway,
Where forces that defied you
    Defy you still today,
With none to heed their crying
    For life and love and light,
Unnumbered souls are dying
    And pass into the night.

We bear the torch that flaming
    Fell from the hands of those
Who gave their lives proclaiming
    That Jesus died and rose;
Ours is the same commission,
    The same glad message ours;
Fired by the same ambition,
    To you we yield our powers.

O Father, who sustained them,
    O Spirit, who inspired,
Savior, whose love constrained them
    To toil with zeal untired:
From cowardice defend us,
    From lethargy awake!
Forth on your errands send us
    To labor for your sake.

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