Sunday, November 13, 2016

Back to the Mount; or, Commissioned Church: Sermon on Matthew 28:16-20

Sometimes, you have to go back where you started. For the last fifteen weeks, we've studied the Greatest Sermon Ever Preached, the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus' key instructions for the crowd and disciples to know what his plan for a new people of God looked like. It wasn't what the Pharisees offered, it wasn't what the Zealots longed for. It was radical, and it invited everyone, even villagers in Galilee. 

 And when the sermon ended, the disciples who followed Jesus probably thought they were done with the mount. It was behind them; they moved on. But it stuck with them. For three years, they followed Jesus. They heard him use stories to illustrate his message about God's kingdom. They watched Jesus as he lived out every detail he'd spoken. They saw miracles that boggled their minds again and again; they watched the powers of darkness overthrown. And they wondered, “Is this what the Sermon on the Mount makes possible?”

But then Jesus started talking more darkly. He told stories that ended with injustice, bloodshed, murder. He talked about us marching toward death, carrying heavy crosses to be put down like criminals. And he began looking in the direction of Jerusalem. You couldn't distract him. He seemed determined to be there. Maybe, they thought, a different look passed over his face. Peter tried to talk him out of it, tried to get him to stop all this talk. He got shot down pretty quick, though. But through it all, Jesus never wavered from what he'd said in that sermon.

And then it happened. A meal after dark. A march into an olive grove for a private retreat. It's getting late; everyone's falling asleep – but not Jesus. And then the sound of footsteps. The flickering shine of torches through the trees. Soldiers come. Jesus surrenders. Everyone runs. The next hours are a blur. And his disciples can only watch in terror and heartbreak, most from a safe distance, as the nails go through his shredded flesh, as the cross is hoisted high under the brutal noonday sun, as the crowd mocks him for hours while he gasps for breath – and finally stops. The Teacher is dead, dying while hanging on a tree, which the Law of Moses called the curse of God (Deuteronomy 21:23; cf. Galatians 3:13).

After the crucifixion, the disciples were disheartened. The disciples were disillusioned. Put yourself in their heads; eavesdrop on that inner monologue. They've invested the last three years in this teacher. But now he's dead. And they're still thinking a dead messiah is no messiah. If he wasn't real, if he wasn't legit, what good is his teaching? How can someone who dies under God's curse tell us anything about what kind of life God blesses? What good is the Sermon on the Mount? That's not practical. It's not useful. Because Jesus lived that way, and living that way is what got Jesus killed – for nothing. Or so they might be tempted to think.

Afraid for their lives, they hunker down in Jerusalem's nooks and crannies. But then they hear strange news from that hysterical Mary Magdalene – never the most stable person, they must think in retrospect – after all, she used to host not one but seven demons, and who knows what that did to her brain? But still, they sneak over to the tomb, and that little limestone shelf carved into the rock is topped by linen wrappings – and no body. What a confusing turn of events. And in all her babbling, Mary makes one thing clear: if you want to unravel this mystery, if you want to somehow see Jesus again, you need to go back to Galilee. And not just anywhere. He set a rendezvous point: back to the mount (Matthew 28:16).

So that's where they go, this little band of eleven beleaguered disciples. This is the only resurrection appearance in Matthew's Gospel; that's how he chooses to narrate it. So there they go, a band of disciples no more numerous than we here this morning. Up the mountain they go. Was he already visibly standing there, I wonder? Did they spy him from a distance and race up the mountain? Or did they wander back to that spot and wait, feeling profoundly silly as they just stood around? But in either case, the mystery unfolded. Because back on the mount, they saw Jesus, risen again from death, towering above them on the mountain, probably from a distance.

And seeing that, how could they not worship him? How could they not be filled with awe and amazement, and just bow down and surrender? But Matthew records a weird little detail: “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Some doubted? He's telling the resurrection story, and he includes doubt? But that's what happened: some were doubting.  Some wondered if that figure could really be him, if their eyes weren't playing tricks on them. Some wondered if Jesus could really be alive. They wondered if he could really be everything he says he is – the Promised One, the Son of God, the Lord in person. 

They doubted. Does Jesus really open his Father's family to us? Does Jesus really interpret the Law with authority? Does he really give the blessed life? Can the Father be as near as Jesus says? And is Jesus' kingdom really worth going through the narrow gate and walking that hard road that leads through the cross? Some in this little crowd have their doubts – and maybe we've had a share of our own, too.

And so Jesus approaches them. He reveals himself by coming near to them, collapsing the distance. They see him up close, they handle him, his identity isn't in doubt. He makes clear to them: the answer to all the above is yes. And what does he say? “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). 

Is that not amazing? Is that not awesome? If Jesus has received all authority in heaven and on earth, the kingdom has to be on its way! And this kingdom covers everything! If Jesus has all authority in heaven, then Jesus and Jesus alone sets the terms of the blessed life – he decides, he decrees what's good. He is the only way; he is the boss, he's in charge, he's heaven's Lord. He gives the true Law, he breathes the true Spirit.

And if all authority on earth is his, that means we can't stuff Jesus in a little box we call 'church' or 'religion' or 'Sunday morning.' It means that in everything we do, we are answerable to Jesus. In everything that anybody does, they're answerable to Jesus! Nothing is exempt. His throne is over all worldly powers. His throne is over all politicians, all campaigns, all governments – they all answer to him. Jesus raises up and casts down at his pleasure and in his timing; he is “the Most High [who] rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:32).

We sit here this morning, and we're in the midst of one of the stranger transitions of power most of us have ever seen – it's been a bizarre year and a bizarre election. And with the results unveiled this week, some of our neighbors are gleeful and celebrating; some of our neighbors are cautious and uncertain; some of our neighbors are apathetic or resigned; and some of our neighbors are disgruntled or upset or angry or even frightened at what might come next. I've got family members, all decent and upstanding Americans, at both extremes. Some of our neighbors have reason to celebrate; some have reason to be cautious; and some, like the wonderful neighbors I met when I visited a local mosque two days ago, feel fair reason to be concerned. 

Some of us may fall into one or more of those camps: gleeful, cautious, resigned, upset, fearful. We in this sanctuary may run that same range. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep; live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:15-16). But never forget: Jesus has authority to raise up and cast down. And this same Jesus will lead us through the next four years. But he asks us to walk in faith (and not fear), to hold on to hope (and not despair), and to reach out to all our neighbors in love (and not judgment). Because all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ.

And so back on the mount, two thousand years ago, Jesus authorizes his disciples, his little fledgling church, to help wield that authority in heaven and on earth. It's true: he shares that authority with them, with us. That's why he brought us together in the first place. It's why he called us back to the mount. He wanted to give them, give us, a commission. A charge to keep we have. There are veterans among us this morning, those who served in this nation's armed forces – and veterans know, maybe better than anyone else in the world, what it means to be commissioned, to be given marching orders from a commanding officer who has the authority to give them. That's what we have here this morning: our final marching orders for our whole earthly deployment.

So what are Jesus' marching orders? First, they involve going. He takes almost for granted that we will go out into the world. We won't stay cloistered in our homes. We won't build a compound to keep the world at bay. We won't create a bubble of Christian subculture to insulate ourselves. (...Uh, oops.) No, no, we'll go out into society. We'll mingle with and build relationships with people who aren't like us, whether we go near or whether we go far. And while we do that, Commander Jesus' orders are to reach and train all nations, all groups of people.

That's what he says: “Disciple all nations” (Matthew 28:19a). Train America. Train Russia. Train Japan and Saudi Arabia, train Nigeria and Syria, train all nations, and don't leave any out. Go out and train Jews and pagan Gentiles. Go out and train Buddhists and Hindus and Muslims and atheists and, yes, longtime churchgoers, too. Train veterans and civilians and draft-dodgers, train old and young, train rich and poor, train white collar and blue collar, train men and women, train country bumpkins and city slickers and small-town folk and suburban soccer moms, train Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and independents – train all of them, because we all need discipleship, and we all need each other in Christ Jesus. Politicians may focus on courting this or that special interest group, this or that identity bloc, to the exclusion of others. But not Jesus. He wants everyone, and his message is the same for everyone. None are exempt from Jesus' authority. None are beneath the good news, and none are above the good news.

And how does Jesus want us to do it? How do we do it? Jesus tells us, first of all, we do it by “baptizing them” (Matthew 28:19b). The disciples knew by now what baptism meant. It means that we show people that Jesus is the Gate, and we show them that you enter by faith, and we take them by the hand and lead them through the Gate. It means we introduce them to his death and resurrection – because that's what baptism is. Baptism requires repentance, decisively turning your back on your old life, your old identity; it means dying to self. Baptism is following Jesus through death, being buried with him, and emerging clean into life again. So we do that, we lead people through Jesus' death and resurrection by faith, which cleans them of their sins and opens wide forgiveness.

And we do it “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19c). One name of “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.” Because we baptize by authority of, and into the life of, the whole God. And really, what does the doctrine of the Trinity tell us? It tells us that God's inner life is like a community – it's a fellowship of love, shown by the Father to the Son, by the Son to the Spirit, by the Spirit back to Father and Son, from and to all eternity. To be baptized into Christ is to be brought into that eternal fellowship of love. And on earth, that fellowship, that community, is called the church. That's just what the church is: the earthly extension of the loving oneness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

There's no such thing as being saved alone, apart from the church and the one faith she confesses. We're baptized by one name into one body, and we travel as one. In the early church, being an 'unchurched Christian' wasn't considered an equally good choice; Paul referred to exclusion from the church's worship and fellowship together as “being handed over to Satan” (1 Corinthians 5:5; cf. 1 Timothy 1:20). It's sad when our brothers and sisters opt by choice to embrace a life the apostles imposed as the worst punishment; that's not how it's meant to be. We are designed and meant to live as one body, not just in theory but in practice. So when we baptize people, we introduce them to the church's fellowship. We're stronger together.

And then, as they share in the faith and the fellowship, we carry out our commission by “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20a). And the word 'observe' here means to 'keep intact,' to safeguard, to practice as one entire lifestyle. And what does Jesus mean by what he's commanded us? Well, where did he ask the disciples to meet him? Back on the mount! Everything we've covered in the last fifteen weeks, everything we unpacked from the Sermon on the Mount – that is the cornerstone of what Jesus tells us to teach people.

We lead people to faith. We help them become new like little children. We welcome them into the Father's big family. And we show them how the family lives. Our customs, our family tradition, is the sermon's message. The Sermon on the Mount just is how God's family lives – how we live when we're behaving like his children. It's the lifestyle, not by which, but for which we're born again. This is what we're training all nations, all kinds of people, to do. At least, that's what our marching orders tell us.

It can be intimidating to live that way. I mean, Jesus modeled it for us, and he got whipped, beaten, spat on, and nailed to a cross. That fear, or plenty of other fears, or plenty of other desires, can lead us astray to alternative lifestyles – anything that doesn't match what the Sermon said. But Jesus doesn't want us to surrender to those fears or those desires. So he closes our marching orders with one last promise: “And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b).

What a promise! Jesus is always with us – he always has been, he always will be. As long as this age lasts, as long as we're in a world where the Sermon on the Mount isn't how everybody always acts, Jesus is with us. He is with us in times of war and in times of peace. He is with us in times of sickness and times of health. He is with us in times of sorrow and times of rejoicing. He's with us no matter where we go, whether he sends us somewhere safe and comfy or somewhere dangerous and harsh. He's with us no matter who sits on any court, no matter who lives in any palace, no matter who writes the laws. He's with us no matter what happens or what comes our way. Because he has commissioned us with our marching orders, and he's in it with us. Always and forever, he's with us – are we with him?

Throughout our history, the church has adopted so many pet projects. There are so many little commissions that we've given each other or given ourselves:
  • We've commissioned ourselves with church growth, just getting people in the door. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves with institutional maintenance and fiscal responsibilities. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to be traditional or contemporary, to sing hymns or have a rock band, to waft incense or fire up the fog machine. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to be seeker-sensitive or follow all the latest trends – or the oldest trends, just like granddad used to do it. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to be powerful and influential, to be a respected keystone of the community, to speak loud and proud. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to affirm and include indiscriminately or to reject and exclude zealously.
  • We've commissioned ourselves to have power and prestige. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to pursue personal happiness. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to quest after wealth, success, popularity, and security. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to climb the ladder. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to enjoy 'religion' as part of a balanced diet of life, or as a fine hobby for those who like that kind of thing. 
  • We've commissioned ourselves to advance some political party's agenda, some social program, or some electoral candidate's defense.
And in all these little self-made commissions, we've run the risk of being sidetracked, becoming entangled with what Paul called “civilian affairs.” But that's not what soldiers do. Good soldiers aim to please the one who enlisted them (2 Timothy 2:4). They obey their CO. They follow their orders. They carry out their charge, their commission. And we are the commissioned officers of the Resurrection and the Life. 

So what he actually said, his last words on the mount – that's the commission that really matters. It's the one Jesus really gave us. It's our calling, the one that completes everything he said on the mount before. The church Jesus died and rose to make must live as a commissioned church. We carry the good news – the best news ever – and we need to share this road and the life it brings. So come on, church: let's make our commission great again, to the Father's glory. Amen.

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