Sunday, October 31, 2021

The True Witness

Eleven apostles could scarcely believe their eyes. They'd walked all the way back to Galilee to keep a strange appointment with Jesus, who'd been crucified the other week. And here he was again. No matter how many times they saw him, they still couldn't shake the “Pinch me, I must be dreaming” of it all. But now here he was, strolling down a mountain to where they were bowed to the earth. Laughing, he raised them up. He told them that he'd been given complete authority in heaven above, and complete authority in earth below. And out of that authority, he had a charge to give them. “Going, therefore, disciple all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:16-20). A very great commission indeed.

We've heard these words many times. Out of all the passages in the Gospels, they're maybe one of the pieces we stand the best chance of reciting by heart. But let's slow down. Let's rob ourselves of that familiarity, lest it breed contempt or presumption. To whom is Jesus speaking? And what, exactly, is he telling them?

First, Jesus presumes that the apostles are going to be 'going.' And how could he not? They're his apostles! He used that word for a reason. 'Apostle' is somebody you send out, somebody you propel into motion, somebody you dispatch on a mission from one place to another. 'Going' is baked into the concept. Jesus doesn't expect them to stay cooped up in Jerusalem or in Galilee forever. Theirs is, fundamentally, an itinerant ministry, a get-out-and-spread-out ministry. These eleven men, and the one soon to be added to their number, have plenty of mileage to rack up. Not everybody who comes after, who succeeds to them by the laying on of their hands, is going to be 'going' quite that far. When the apostles go out, they'll pass on authority to people usually stationed in different areas. But even those people will be 'going,' even if just from street to street in their city.

Second, the apostles are 'going' with a purpose – and that's to “disciple all the nations.” Now, we've managed to build up a lot of mystique about these words. So let's take stock of their sense. What is a 'disciple,' in Greek? It comes from the same root that gives us 'math.' To be a disciple is to be a student, ready with a listening ear for instruction. It's to be an apprentice, carefully watching the master at work. It's not Christianese. It's a word with a common meaning and common use. But the verb is rarer. And you'd fairly paraphrase it as 'enroll somebody in school.' It means to treat somebody as a student, as an apprentice. That's why, when early Christians translated this verse, they usually quoted it as “Go and teach.” No special fancy word – just 'teach.'

So who are the apostles going to teach, going to enroll and enlist in this Jesus school? “All the nations.” Note: it's not “make disciples from all nations,” as if the job's done when you get five Italians, six Canadians, and so on. The nations themselves – whole organized communities – are the ultimate objects. It might have to begin person by person, or proceed person by person, but the goal is for communities to be collectively taught, to be transformed as a group, as a society, as a culture. The apostles are to “spread [Christ's] peace throughout the nations with holy instruction and rid the world of its ills,” as one paraphrase of this verse read.1

So how's it to happen? Discipleship starts, Jesus says, with baptism. The apostles are to go to the various tribes and nations of their world and start baptizing people, giving them the new birth into the church. Of course, for somebody to get baptized, under ordinary circumstances, they need to know it's an entrance into life with God. And they need to have that God accurately announced to them: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There's got to be a basic acceptance that this God is worth trusting, worth being marked by, worth siding with.2 So the commission to baptize presupposes evangelism. The apostles are going to stand up and cast this new vision of God revealed in the Jesus who was nailed to a cross and executed and buried and came alive and went to God's realm and is pouring down his Spirit and is appointed to some day return and judge the world that once tried to condemn him. Read Acts, and that's the gist of what the apostles go around saying. That's the gospel they're preaching.

Then, when somebody begins to latch onto that good news, the apostles baptize, or they appoint somebody to baptize. Baptism's essential – it's the beginning of Christian life, it's what Jesus called being 'born again,' it's how sin gets washed away and identity gets reforged. It's rebirth into the church, into union with Christ. Of course, the early church knew there were exceptional cases. Some people still learning the faith got caught in persecutions and killed before their scheduled baptism day – so the church decided they were baptized by their blood. Others still learning the faith got sick or had an accident before their scheduled baptism day – so the church expressed hope that, under the right conditions, those people were as if baptized by their expressed desire for it. But those only highlight how foundational baptism is for discipleship. It all grows out of that baptismal faith in Father and Son and Spirit.

So what then? Then, discipleship continues with the apostles “teaching them to observe all that [Jesus has] commanded you.” Baptism was birth; now it's time to grow, and grow by being informed of the better way to think and see and live, and then be disciplined to understand it and keep it. As one early Christian summed up the Great Commission: “Our mortal birth is changed by the rebirth of baptism, and the teaching of godliness shuts out the teaching of godlessness.”3 What the apostles are hearing is that they've got to take people deeper than the basics. They have to rule on how life in the kingdom looks, and then train their students to flesh it out in their lives. That's a job for the apostles and those they appoint: it calls for Christ's delegated authority over minds and hearts. They won't just pass on the teachings of Jesus but interpret and apply the teachings of Jesus. They'll strengthen their students in faith and hope and love. They'll rule what's in bounds or out of bounds, helpful or unhelpful. They'll teach doctrine, direct in commandments, nurture Christian life, encourage, correct. It's like the Apostle Paul told Bishop Timothy: “Preach the word..., reprove, rebuke, exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). That's what Jesus authorizes the apostles here to do.4

You can read in the New Testament how they lived this out. Acts focuses on the first half of Peter's career, then switches to Paul's, as the pair of them ultimately converge on Rome, capital of the empire. Along the way, they preach, they baptize, they found churches, they teach people to observe the whole counsel of God. Some of those they teach, they appoint to offices in the church. A bishop, filling an apostle's shoes in a place, must “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5), be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2), “able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Others whom the apostles teach, they don't appoint, but do encourage to live the gospel fully and to collaborate in the work.

The apostles pressed on to the death. Peter and Paul died at Rome. John ended up in Turkey. Tradition adds that Thomas went to southern India, Andrew went to the Scythians beneath Russia, Matthew might have gone to Persia. Wherever they went, all but one are thought to have been killed for their gospel. So, for that matter, did many who believed them. On and off for centuries, early Christians faced waves of persecution – sometimes one place, sometimes all over. When that happened, some Christians bowed to pressure, but others embraced an opportunity. As one early Christian said while being led to execution: “Now I am beginning to be a disciple!”5 Believers like him boldly confessed their faith in public, declaring Christ as a Savior worth running to and King worth dying for. Their tenacious deaths became a testimony to the worthiness of Christ. Their deaths preached the gospel. So they became known as 'witnesses' – in Greek, 'martyrs.' And the church defied their persecutors, saying: “Crucify us, torture us, condemn us, destroy us … They are an enticement to our school. We become more numerous every time we're harvested by you! The blood of Christians is seed. For who isn't stirred, by contemplating it, to inquire what's really beneath the surface? And who, when he's inquired, doesn't approach us?”6 Through the witness of martyrs, the church multiplied, the gospel spread, even emperors slowly listened.

A few years after the persecutions ended, a pair of Phoenician Christian boys named Frumentius and Edesius joined their uncle on a long boat trip. But when they stopped at a Red Sea harbor, locals killed all grown-ups aboard and took the boys as slaves to the Ethiopian king. He found them impressive, trusted them, and when he died, he set them free. But he left behind boys of his own, and the queen asked these two young Christians to stick around as royal tutors. Once Prince Ezana was old enough to take the throne, the brothers left. Edesius went home to Tyre. But Frumentius went to Alexandria, begging for a bishop and priests to be sent to Ethiopia. The patriarch decided Frumentius was just the man to lead the mission. He ordained him bishop and sent him. So Frumentius returned to King Ezana, whom he'd helped raised, and baptized him.7 Ezana testifies in his own words how God “made me the guide of all my kingdom because of faith in Christ..., and I believe in him, and he has become my Guide.”8 Frumentius, for his part, spent the rest of his days spreading the gospel in Ethiopia, where we're told that “a countless number of barbarians were converted to the faith.”9

Meanwhile, Christianity worked its way through the Roman world, even to Roman-occupied Britain. Just a couple years after Frumentius died, a Christian family in western Britain welcomed a newborn son: Patrick. In his teen years, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland as a slave, who was bought and put to work as a shepherd.10 The trauma awakened his dormant faith, he pledged his life to Christ, and six years later, he escaped. He went home to Britain, then to France to study. Ordained a priest, he eventually achieved his dream of being appointed missionary bishop to the Irish.11 “I have a part with those whom God called and destined to preach the gospel... to the very ends of the earth,” he said.12 Returning to the land of his former captivity, Bishop Patrick fearlessly preached the word of God. He “baptized so many thousands of people,”13 “innocent Christians whose numbers I have given birth to in God and confirmed in Christ.”14 He gathered sons of chieftains as disciples, organized churches and monasteries. “I live for my God to teach these peoples,” he'd say.15 “I cannot be silent... about such great blessings. … This is how we can repay such blessings: … to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven.”16 “Therefore, it is very right that we should cast our nets so that a great multitude and crowd will be taken for God; also, that there should be clerics to baptize and encourage a people in need and want.”17 Patrick believed it. Patrick lived it.

Meanwhile, the collapse of Roman presence in Britain led to the land filling up with pagan tribes. A century after Patrick's death, Pope Gregory decided things needed to change. He enlisted a missions team, and at the head of the team he put a well-trained Italian monk named Augustine. Gregory sent Augustine and forty other monks to France to enlist priests as translators.18 In 597, they landed in Kent, a kingdom in southeast England whose pagan king was respectful of his French Christian wife. And they began preaching in the Kentish capital Canterbury.19 In the first year, they baptized the king. It didn't take long for their gospel to start sweeping the kingdom. “Every day,” we read, “more and more began to flock to hear the word, to forsake their heathen worship, and – through faith – to join the unity of Christ's holy church.”20 Once these new believers numbered in the thousands, Augustine wrote back to Gregory for advice on how best to instruct and discipline and guide the new believers – how to teach them to observe all that Christ wanted of them. And Augustine got answers.21

He got even more than that. The same year he died, another team of missionaries arrived from Rome to fortify the work. One was a monk named Paulinus. After two decades of ministering in Kent, the Kentish king's sister married the pagan king of Northumbria, so Paulinus was ordained a bishop and sent to the Northumbrians, to York.22 He preached evangelistically, but had little success. But the next year, after surviving an assassination attempt, the Northumbrian king started listening “to learn the faith systematically” from Paulinus.23 Even the pope wrote to the king, urging him to “accept the teaching of the preachers and the gospel of God which they proclaim to you,” and be “born again by water and the Holy Spirit.”24 Within two years, after plenty prayerful and patient witness by Paulinus, King Edwin was convinced. He “renounced idolatry and confessed his faith in Christ.” He was baptized. Suddenly, many others followed Edwin's example.25 Paulinus traveled the kingdom, announcing the gospel, baptizing crowds, building churches. Edwin even helped other kings come to faith.26 Alas, not all their hard work stuck for the long haul. Later, Irish missionaries would come revive the mission.

Around the time the Northumbrian mission was collapsing, a boy named Wilfrid was born there. As a teenager, he ran away from home and was sent for education by an Irish missionary. Years later, Wilfrid took Paulinus' chair as bishop of York.27 But one day, he was stripped of his position. He set sail for Rome to get it settled. His ship landed in pagan territory: Frisia, the Netherlands. There, Wilfrid “preached the word of God daily to the people, telling them of the true God, the Almighty Father, and Jesus Christ his only Son, and the Holy Spirit co-eternal with them, and of one baptism for the remission of sins; he also taught them clearly about life everlasting after death in the resurrection.” During his time in Frisia, thousands “accepted his teaching” and “were baptized by him in the name of the Lord.”28 Once Wilfrid finished his trip to Rome and returned to England, he spent five years in pagan Sussex. For months he preached, seemingly fruitlessly, until at last the scales fell from their eyes, “and a great door of faith was opened to him, and many thousands of pagans of both sexes were baptized in one day … They deserted idolatry and made confession of faith in Almighty God.”29

Meanwhile, Wilfrid had been a mentor to a Northumbrian boy named Willibrord, who then went to Ireland to be discipled by a holy man named Ecgberht.30 Ever since his twenties, Ecgberht had a passionate vision for evangelism, with his eyes set on the Frisians. In time, Ecgberht formed a team of twelve, including Willibrord, and sent them. But Frisia wasn't ripe yet. Willibrord retreated to France, where he “carried out the task of evangelization, and... the seed of life, watered by the dews of heavenly grace, had, through his preaching, borne abundant fruit in many hearts.”31 Willibrord went to Rome to get commissioned. In 695, Pope Sergius ordained him and assigned him jurisdiction as bishop of the Frisians.32 He went to Frisia, visited the Danes, confronted villagers and kings, declaring to them, “There is no God but one, who created heaven and earth...; and those who worship him in true faith will possess eternal life. As his servant, I call upon you this day to renounce empty and inveterate errors... and to believe in the one Almighty God, our Lord Jesus Christ. Be baptized in the fountain of life and wash away all your sins, so that, forsaking all wickedness and unrighteousness, you may henceforth live as a new man in temperance, justice, and holiness.”33 As Willibrord later retraced his steps, he “exhorted the people in cities, villages, and forts where he'd previously preached the gospel to remain loyal to the faith and to their good resolutions, and... the number of the faithful increased day by day.”34

Two decades later, an English monk named Wynfryth took it on himself to go to Frisia to join Willibrord. He came at a bad time: a changing political landscape let Frisia's pagan king persecute the church. Both Willibrord and Wynfryth fled.35 Wynfryth made his way to Rome, where the pope renamed him 'Boniface' and assigned him to preach to the German tribes.36 He spread the gospel in Bavaria and Thuringia, and even rejoined Willibrord in Frisia for a couple years. Parting ways with Willibrord, Boniface began evangelizing in Hessia – preaching, baptizing, building churches – and nudging his way toward the Saxon frontier. In 722, he went to Rome to be ordained bishop, and was sent back “for the enlightenment of the people of Germany sitting in the shadow of death.”37 But when he got back to Hessia, he found many of his converts had fallen away amidst a harsh winter war. So he gathered his supporters, went straight to an oak tree sacred to Thor, chopped it to the ground, and built a church from its wood. And we read then how, “little by little, the number of believers increased, the preachers grew more numerous, church buildings were restored, and the word of God was published far and wide.”38 To Boniface, it was as important to confirm and teach as it was to baptize; baptism wasn't the end but the beginning of a life of becoming a Christian in practice.39

Boniface built up monasteries, places where intentional communities could take in and disciple local children to be native evangelists carrying on the work. Others now came from England to work under Boniface, and, we're told, “working in widely scattered groups among the people of Hessia and Thuringia, they preached the word of God in the country districts and villages” so that “many thousands of them were baptized.”40 Boniface finally began breaking into pagan Saxony. In October 739, the pope wrote Boniface a letter of congratulations on hearing of Boniface's hundred-thousandth German convert.41 Meanwhile, Boniface wrote back to England, asking people to double-down on their prayers for the conversion of the Saxons.42

In his late seventies, Boniface realized he didn't have much time left. So he gathered some helpers and set out one last time to Frisia. He managed to evangelize and baptize thousands of Frisians before finally his enemies surrounded him and cut him down as a martyr.43 With his blood, he sealed the Christian future of Frisia – one of his German disciples Gregory took charge of the work there. Later, Boniface's Bavarian disciple Sturm and Gregory's Frisian disciple Ludger kept up the evangelization of Saxony.

Had I limitless time, I'd go on. I'd tell you of the Frankish monk Ansgar, who heard in prayer the word to “declare the word of God to the nations,” and so gladly accepted when he was sent to Denmark and Sweden to preach and baptize and nurture the church.44 I'd tell you of Cyril and Methodius, brothers from Thessalonica who were called to the already evangelized Moravians to instruct more thoroughly, and how they invented an alphabet and translated the Bible,45 and laid the groundwork not just for the gospel to reach all the Slavic peoples but for doors to soon open in Bulgaria, and one day even in Russia. I'd tell you of Adalbert, a Bohemian who evangelized Hungarians and Poles and Prussians and died a martyr. And I could go on, and on...

It was from the work of people like them that your ancestors and my ancestors first heard the gospel. Trace your family tree far enough back, and maybe the first Christian you find there was discipled by Ansgar or Boniface or Wilfrid or Augustine. Our having heard the good news, our being baptized into Christ, our having been shaped to live as Christ commanded, depends on the work they did. Which brings us to today. Today is a day you know: Halloween. And Halloween, for all its medieval pageantry and modern secularization, is a Christian holiday. 'Halloween' is short for 'All Hallows Evening,' 'All Saints Eve' – the vigil night before All Saints Day tomorrow. And on All Saints Day, we celebrate all the great saints who over the years have given examples of heroic holiness – such as the missionary bishops and their co-workers – as we try to learn from them how to live into fuller saintliness here and now ourselves.

From examples like those, you could believe evangelism was just for the apostles and bishops. But that was never true. The missionaries and martyrs made the headlines, but we know some more intimate stories – like the case in the second century of a Roman noblewoman becoming Christian, being taught to change her life around, and trying to “persuade her husband” to likewise heed “the teachings of Christ.”46 Stories like that must have filled in all the gaps between the large missionary triumphs: a believer trying to get through to a loved one, or one believer trying to call back another from an ignorant path. In the early church, these words were said, not to bishops or priests, but to everyday believers: “You laypeople should be like wise doves, at peace with one another, striving to fill the church, converting and taming those who are wild, bringing them into her midst.”47

We celebrate by name the great missionary saints of ages past, for their witness was true, and they held it openly in heroic ways, in the face of great opposition, and thereby proved their holiness in Christ. But the best way we can honor them, the best way we can celebrate them, is to join them. It's to treat their work as work that's still worth doing, and their word as a word that's still worth saying, not just by the 'professionals,' but by all of us. The Great Commission is for the church together – not to all the same way, but to all in some way. For we, too, can convert and tame wild people, can bring them into the church's midst, can strive to fill the church.

And this true witness – sharing the gospel, telling people the good news that Jesus is Lord and Savior and Head of the Church – is the antidote to false witness. So often, we're led into false witness when we get off-track, to things we can't be sure of. But we can be sure of Jesus. We can be sure he's the Way, the Truth, the Life. We can be sure he's good and lovely. His name is the gospel-truth witness into which nations can be discipled, heart by heart. And each and every one of us can and must help. The mission isn't across the ocean. The mission is next door. Maybe even the next pew. You may not be able to hop a plane to the other side of the world, but you can go as far as your telephone or your neighbor's porch. You may not preach in the streets, but you can tell a stressed friend that there's hope thanks to Jesus. You may not know much to say, but you can listen long and speak a good gospel sentence from the heart. You may not have a well-crafted presentation, but you can recite the creed and answer questions. You may not go forth baptizing, but you can bring people here to be baptized. You may not meet many old-school pagans, but you can invite back a child or grandchild who's fallen away from the life of the church. You may not bind and loose with the authority of an apostle, but you can exhort any and all to holier living in Christ. You may not be able to do it all, but we can work together as the church to see the gospel bear fruit, each of us, according to our station and gifts, taking our share of the work.

Here where we are, let us publish glad tidings, let us tell our neighbors, let us bear the truest witness, for Jesus Christ is Truth, to the glory of God the Father and the salvation of a waiting world! Amen.


1  Sedulius, Paschal Song 5.418-419 (early fifth century)

2  Jerome of Stridon, Commentary on Matthew 28:19 (late fourth century): “It isn't possible that the body receives the sacrament of baptism unless the soul first receives the truth of the faith.”

3  Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on Romans 5.2.11 (mid-third century)

4  Compare Jerome of Stridon, Commentary on Matthew 28:20: “After faith and baptism, they're to instruct them in the things that must be observed. … Thus, those who believe, who are baptized in the Trinity, must do everything that has been taught.”

5  Ignatius of Antioch, Romans 5.3 (early second century)

6  Tertullian of Carthage, Apology 50.12-15 (late second century)

7  Rufinus of Aquileia, History of the Church 10.9-10

8  Ezana king of Aksum, inscription DAE 11. See discussion in Rugare Rukuni, “Negus Ezana: Revisiting the Christianisation of Aksum,” Verbum et Ecclesia 42/1 (February 2021).

9  Rufinus of Aquileia, History of the Church 10.10

10  Patrick of Ireland, Confessio 1

11  Patrick of Ireland, Confessio 16-23

12  Patrick of Ireland, Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus 6

13  Patrick of Ireland, Confessio 50

14  Patrick of Ireland, Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus 2

15  Patrick of Ireland, Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus 1

16  Patrick of Ireland, Confessio 3

17  Patrick of Ireland, Confessio 40

18  Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People 1.23

19  Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People 1.25-26

20  Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People 1.26

21  Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People 1.27

22  Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People 1.29

23  Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People 2.9

24  Pope Gregory I, letter to Edwin of Northumbria, in Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People 2.10

25  Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People 2.12-14

26  Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People 2.14-16

27  Stephen of Ripon, Life of Saint Wilfrid 2-9, 11-12

28  Stephen of Ripon, Life of Saint Wilfrid 26

29  Stephen of Ripon, Life of Saint Wilfrid 41

30  Alcuin, Life of Saint Willibrord 3-4

31  Alcuin, Life of Saint Willibrord 5-6

32  Alcuin, Life of Saint Willibrord 7

33  Alcuin, Life of Saint Willibrord 11

34  Alcuin, Life of Saint Willibrord 12

35  Willibald, Life of Saint Boniface 4

36  Willibald, Life of Saint Boniface 5

37  Pope Gregory II, letter to Boniface, 4 December 724, in Ephraim Emerton, The Letters of Saint Boniface (Columbia University Press, 1940), 51.

38  Willibald, Life of Saint Boniface 6

39  John-Henry Clay, In the Shadow of Death: Saint Boniface and the Conversion of Hessia, 721-754 (Brepols, 2010), 108

40  Willibald, Life of Saint Boniface 6

41  Pope Gregory III, letter to Boniface, 29 October 739, in Emerton, Letters of Saint Boniface (Columbia University Press, 1940), 72.

42  Boniface, letter to the Anglo-Saxon church, c. 738-739, in Emerton, Letters of Saint Boniface (Columbia U.P., 1940), 74-75.

43  Willibald, Life of Saint Boniface 8; Eigil, Life of Saint Sturm 15A

44  Rimbert, Life of Saint Ansgar 11-12

45  Old Church Slavonic Life of Cyril-Constantine 14-18; Old Church Slavonic Life of Methodius 10, 15

46  Justin Martyr, 2 Apology 2.2 (mid-second century)

47  Didascalia Apostolorum 2.56.4 (end of third century)

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