How do we live out the Great Commission today?

Hespeler, 18 February 2018 © Scott McAndless
Matthew 28:16-20, Romans 10:10-17, Psalm 2:1-12
A
month ago, as you will remember, I had Andy Cann tell me what to preach about. He was given that privilege because he had the top bid in the auction last fall when I put up the right to name a sermon topic. There was also a second highest bid in that same auction and Jean Godin agreed to match Andy’s bid and be able to name a topic for this month.
      And I like Jean, I really do. In fact, I know many people who would only too happily attest to what a wonderful person she is. But I am going to confess to you that there were a few times as I prepared for this morning’s sermon when I wondered whether or not she liked me. (Just kidding, Jean.) The topic that Jean chose was this: How do we live out the Great Commission today? On the surface it is a wonderful question, of course, something that gets to the heart of what the church is supposed to be. It’s just that when you really take the question seriously (as we should all such questions) it seems to raise some issues that make many fine upstanding Presbyterians (and other Christians) uncomfortable.
      The Great Commission is a popular name for the passage that we read this morning from the Gospel of Matthew – in particular, the part where Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you.” For generations, Christians have taken those words as the clearest statement of the task that Jesus gives us. It is our commission – our assignment. And the traditional understanding of this assignment is that that we are to announce the basic message of the Christian gospel to people in every nation of the world, convert them to our faith and baptize them into the church. Since this is such a big job, it is called the Great Commission.
      And, not all that long ago, Christians would have probably felt quite fine with the idea that our main job as Christians was simply to go out there and preach the gospel to everyone in the whole world, make them Christians and bring them into the fold of the church. But many Christians are not quite so comfortable with that whole line of thinking these days. Part of the reason for that is that, in former times, Christians only had to deal with other Christians for the most part. Western Society, by and large, was Christian Society. Yes, there were a few Jews here and there, but that was about it. Non-Christians or pagans were usually people who lived in far-off countries on the other side of the world. So it was fairly easy to think that we had it all right and they were all wrong.
      We live in a very different world today where followers of other religions or of no religions at all are not across the ocean, they are across the street. They are our neighbours and coworkers and friends and, what’s more, as we get to know them, we recognize that they are decent people who, like us, are mostly just trying to get by in this world and do the right things. So, while we still may hold to our scriptures and our doctrines, we have to recognize that it is not just people who believe exactly like us who are good people. To think otherwise is just to be petty and maybe racist.
      So we find ourselves in this situation where it doesn’t seem right to tell people what they ought to believe – not in any forceful way. But that is only just part of the problem. Not only have we begun to suspect that non-Christians might be good people all on their own, we have also seen things that make us suspect that at least some of those who are enthusiastic for the task of sharing the gospel with everyone might not be the best people.
      The group of people that today are most associated with the idea of preaching the gospel to the whole world are Christian evangelicals. Evangelicals have long worked hard at preaching the gospel to any who would hear it. But, in recent years, some of the choices that many representatives of this group have made have seemed a little bit suspect. They have entered into alliances with particular political groups, most significantly in the United States with the Republican Party. And some of the ways in which they have been acting in recent years have left people with the impression that they are far more interested in gaining power and influence for themselves and their policy goals than they are truly dedicated to living out the gospel.
      One example stands out in the last couple of months. Recently the report came out that the American president had had an affair with a porn star and had paid her off to keep silent just before the election. And I don’t really know (or much care) if the accusation is true. That’s not why I bring it up. The disturbing thing about it is that some key evangelical leaders apparently assumed that it was true and they didn’t care at all. Take Tony Perkins, president of the very prominent evangelical activist group, the Family Research Council, for example. He apparently believed it but his response (and this is what he actually said) was that he figured that evangelicals should give the president “a mulligan.”
      A mulligan? A consequence-free do over offered to a man who he accepted had probably had an affair just after his wife had given birth to his son? It seemed to be a prime indication that people who were supposed to be only interested in telling some good news were much more interested in power and influence and were willing to abandon some of their core convictions in order to get it from powerful people like presidents.
      I realize it is very unfair to tar all evangelical Christians with the brush of a few leaders like Perkins or Jerry Falwell Jr, (who has also said similar things recently). Of course, not all Christians who are keen to preach the gospel are seduced by the lure of power – far from it! But fair or not, I am afraid that it has entered into the common perception that the people who push the Christian gospel message these days have not the purest motivations.
      So, for all of these reasons, the very idea of evangelism – of sharing the Christian message with people who aren’t already Christians – has fallen into some disrepute these days even among Christians. All of this certainly makes Jean’s question a very timely one indeed. We do feel a certain discomfort with the very notion of living out the Great Commission. But, of course, none of this changes the fact that the Great Commission is there and if we have been commissioned to preach the gospel to everyone, then shouldn’t we just get over whatever we are feeling and get on with it?
      Perhaps, but maybe, before we get too far, we should look closer at what Jesus actually says and what he really expects of us. First, let us look at the context of the Great Commission. It comes at the very end of the Gospel of Matthew and definitely picks up some up the major themes of the whole gospel. For example, the very last words that Jesus says are And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
      Does anyone remember how the Gospel of Matthew starts? We read it not too long ago at Christmastime. It starts with the story of the birth of Jesus and says that his birth is a fulfillment of the promise of Emmanuel which means “God with us.”
      So actually, the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t end with a commission, it ends (as it began) with a promise and that promise is, “I am with you.” Remember, Jesus is speaking to his disciples here just after the resurrection. They haven’t really grasped what has happened here, they just know that everything has suddenly changed. Some are so bewildered, Matthew tells us, that they still doubt despite seeing the risen Jesus right there! So I think that, whatever we take from this passage, it is important that we take these words of Jesus as encouragement and hope, not as mere burden and duty.
      Nevertheless, there is a commandment in what Jesus says, and we want to take that command seriously, so let us focus on that. Jesus says, Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you.” Now, that is a long and somewhat complex sentence in the Greek original. There are four verbs: Go, make disciples, baptize and teach but actually only one of those verbs is in the form of a command and that is the verb that is translated as make disciples. So basically the order that Jesus is giving is make disciples and he is saying that the way to do that is by going, baptizing and teaching.
      Now here again is something that picks up on the entire theme of the Gospel of Matthew which has been all about how Jesus chose these people that he is talking to and made them his disciples by teaching and training them. He is telling them to go and do for others what he has done for them.
      And I think that is a key point that we must keep in mind as we consider what it means for us to follow the Great Commission in the world today. The goal, Jesus makes absolutely clear, is to make disciples. The goal is not to go out there and preach the gospel message at people everywhere. Yes, it is true that making disciples will likely include some preaching, but if you think that you could fulfil this commission just by preaching to everyone in every nation, you have another think coming.
      What Jesus is looking for is not converts or church members, he is looking for disciples – for people who are willing to do what he had done and put their lives on the line for the sake of what is right. It is not about making people believe certain things or join an organization, it is about changing people’s lives for the better.
      And I don’t necessarily see that there is a huge problem with that. Think of it this way: what if each one of us here made a decision over the next couple of years to invest ourselves into someone’s life – someone, maybe, in need of finding a better path. What if you decided to do the kinds of things that Jesus did for his disciples, if you shared your time and wisdom with that person and showed you really cared for them. Can you see how something like that could transform a person’s life? What if you really built that person up? And in the process, shared your own beliefs and priorities with them – not as a way of saying, “here, this is what you have to believe,” but more by saying, “This is what has worked for me, maybe it will help you too.”
      If you could do that, you would be responding to Jesus’ commandment because you would be making disciples or at least giving someone the chance to be best disciple that they can be. That is what the Great Commission is about. It is not about preaching a specific message to people everywhere, though it could include some of that. It is certainly not about building up the power and influence of particular institutions. It is also not about making everyone believe exactly the same things. It is about being involved in people’s lives for transformation – just like Jesus was involved in his disciple’s lives.
      I think that if the church could put its energy into that – and not into protecting its own interest and complaining about the power that it has lost, the idea of being a church that takes the Great Commission seriously would not be something to be embarrassed about. It is not about an obsession with numbers; it is about finding the time to build up those who do come along so that they can change the world. 

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