Christ's Continuing Commission
Preached in St Cuthbert's Church, on the Occassion of the
Read : Matthew 28 : 16-20
I want to think about the Great Commission, because it's a crucial text. I hope you'll not mind if I use that text quite autobiographically. I think I'm doing that, because at the Conference we've heard many erudite papers and some deep thoughts, and being a bear of relatively little brain, I want to revert to things that emerge out of my own life, out of what is a crucial text.
This is the end of Matthew's Gospel, where Jesus gathers his disciples together, and out of all the possible things he could say to them, He tells them to go into all the world, He tells them to baptise people, to teach them everything that they have heard from him. He tells them to make disciples, and He gives them the promise that He will be with them to the end of the age. Looking back, that has been a text that has both fired me and daunted me, throughout my life.
It certainly was a text that fired the people at the 1910 Edinburgh Conference. "The evangelisation of the world in this generation" they said. With zeal and passion that you rarely see in a large group of people, they went from this place around the world. One of the great joys of being at the conference, was to see the multitude of people from around that world. People who have become Christian disciples, and who have come to bear testimony to that fact. This great, rich plurality that Professor Dana Robert (Boston University School of Theology,) when starting the conference, likened to the picture in the book of Revelation. Where people from the north and south and east and west, gathered together before God, and worshipped the lamb.
The conference has been an embodiment of what was written in a book a few years ago that said "the genius of Christianity, is its sheer translatability", and we have rejoiced in that this week.
So, this text has fired me through my Christian life. I had a vibrant conversion, as a 17 year old teenager from relatively outside the church. Within 6 weeks, I was armed with various tracts, a Yamaha guitar, and two mates. We stood in a park in Otley in West Yorkshire, telling anybody who would listen, that Jesus loved them, that they ought to receive the tract. We got into all sorts of interesting conversations, and I don't regret a minute of doing that. In fact it's through doing that, that some people had the weird idea that I ought to become a Methodist minister, and the rest is history as they say ! But I look back on that time with mixed feelings. Not in the sense that I want to disown it, but one of my best friends, recently said to me about that time, "do you know Martin, I became such a good evangelist at work, that no-one would ride with me in the van." Somebody put it just this week, in very stark terms, when they said to us "you have no right to make me a Christian, but I have every right to become one." That caused me to rethink where we were with this.
Anyway, obeying the call of God, I went to theological education. It was 4 years full time in those days. I had this growing disquiet, something that very often comes when people are exposed to theological education for the first time in their lives. Perhaps going into all the world, is pretty wrong, because why interfere with people's lives ? Evangelism is, to quote Rebecca Pippert, "something that you really wouldn't want to do to your dog, so why engage in it ?"
The chink of light for me, was that my New Testament tutor was the last year of the great FF Bruce, Fred Bruce, who was brilliant. (I have this abiding memory of him, always putting on his glasses on to look at nothing, and then taking them off to read his script.) When he was dealing with the Acts of the Apostles, I remember he said to us in that gentle brogue he had, "Gentlemen" (because in 1977 we were !) "Gentlemen, in the Acts of the Apostles, it is as if God drops a pebble into the pool of human history, and you watch the ripples". Just occasionally in the middle of my four years of exposure to great and good thinking, when I lay down on my bed and thought, "Who am I ? Where am I ? Where am I going ?" it was his voice that made me think that going must be right.
Declaring the Gospel is inherent in the business of being a Christian, but alongside that, you have to learn how to be respectfully and culturally aware, and how, with sensitivity and aptness, to do what John Wesley described in that short phrase "offer Christ". I also came to a realisation that, without our forebears doing that, none of us would actually be here. Christianity would have remained culturally captive to a pretty sectarian view of Judaism, in what we now call the first century.
So, I studied for a PhD, and was looking specifically at Methodist doctrines of initiation, and particularly in relation to Baptism. Even there I can see the hand of the Holy Spirit, as I ploughed through this dissertation, (that has never since seen the light of day - so you can tell how good it was !) only to become aware of this mission-rumbling thought. Why has the Protestant church decided that that the two dominical sacraments, (the sacraments that Jesus tells us that we have got to do, ) are Holy Communion - "do this in remembrance of me", and Baptism - "go into all the world baptising".
Why is it that the church has domesticated the Great Commission, by the Sacrament of Baptism, rather than the absolute sacramental nature of the sent-ness, and the proclamation, and the disciple making ? Why one, and not the other ? Looking back, that might be why, as soon as I finished that thesis, I found myself increasingly involved in mission studies, where I was exposed to a completely different set of thoughts.
David Bosch asked "Are you aware that compulsion was the major theme of medieval Christendom ?" When that happens, instead of praying for people who are in need of the Gospel, we begin to pray for those who are in error, because they don't have it, and so the tone of prayer changes altogether. "Were you aware that it is colonialism that characterises the last 200 years of the great missionary enterprise ?" Why on earth would we want to continue doing that ? So why don't we just give up on the whole idea and have, what a few decades ago was called, "a euthanasia" of, or "a moratorium" on, mission ? The chink of light then came to me in a number of ways, but I want to share just one with you.
I went to Sierra Leone, within a few months of the end of the terrible war there in West Africa, between Sierra Leone and Liberia. I went because, as often happens under the wonderful inspiration of the Spirit, during those years of absolute horror, people had been called to be Christians, and people had been called to be Christian leaders. Everything was wrecked though, and so people offered to go over and spend some time, to take out books, give lectures, and generally share, and I was one of those who went over.
I remember now travelling along laterite roads, rattling around in a white UN land rover, with a Nigerian peace-keeping troupe. There was an automatic weapon maybe 6 inches away from my head, and every time we went over a bump I would think "Lord, let him have the safety catch on". They dropped me off in the middle of nowhere, somewhere outside of Bo. I was met by a man who said "Dr Atkins, we are delighted that you have come to speak to us, let me take you to the village", which was about a mile off the main road. I couldn't help but notice as I met him, that he only had one arm. So as we are walking the mile, the twenty minutes to this village, I said to him "brother what has happened to you ?" so he told me his story. He said "I only became a Christian about five or six years ago. I come from a people who have no word, no understanding, no language or conception, of forgiveness." Then he said to me "I am so grateful to you, for bringing the Gospel to us, because I have now begun to learn how to forgive the person who cut this arm off with his machete." Then very quietly under his breath, he added brokenly, "and killed my wife and daughter".
Well two things, one was I thought "help - what on earth am I going to preach to this group of people ?" But the second was an abiding and reflecting feeling, that the Gospel is Good News. That the Gospel does change people's lives for the better. So to abandon spreading the Gospel too easily, even on the basis of good questions, is just as much a mistake as it is to promote it in an unthinking and insensitive way. For this man in Sierra Leone, in his situation, receiving Jesus Christ and becoming a Christian, in his words had been "the greatest thing in the world".
A friend of mine recently became a Christian, and she came up with this fantastic line at her Baptism, which was a great occasion. She said "Jesus has turned my life upside down", and I knowing a little about her life I knew she was right. Then she said "so now I'm the right way up !"
And so my tussle goes on.
Nowadays for me, it's what it means to "make disciples" that interests me. Jesus said "Teach everything I have commanded you". I suspect that in a "white enlightenment" way, a western way, we've taken that to mean university education, and quite linear ways of teaching people. But for me, stale catechisms and learning by rote, and gaining divinity degrees, don't seem to me to be what it's about any more. I think it's more about each of us striving, separately and together, to be "Beatitude" people. Almost certainly, so the scholars say, when Jesus was saying to his disciples "everything I have commanded and taught you", he meant everything that had gone on, certainly what we read in the whole of the book of Matthew. It includes the Sermon on the Mount. It means not just teaching, as in doctrine, but becoming like Christ. It's about Christians individually, and corporately, becoming Jesus-people. It's about becoming, as the great Methodist Minister Donald English used to say, "people whose lives and lips agree".
I have a quote on my desk in London, by Minutius Felix, a man who most people have never heard of. We know nothing about him apart from the fact that he died about AD 160, but he wrote this "Beauty of life causes strangers to join our ranks. We do not talk about great things, we live them." That's the challenge that the 2010 Conference will leave with me. After all, everybody likes free samples, but not many people like sales people.
The Great Commission must be retrieved and owned in every generation. This is a large part of what the 2010 Conference this week, has been about. We have begin to reflect on what it means to be a worldwide, pluralist, broad, wonderful, messy and glorious church, as we face the future with all its needs, with all its opportunities and its challenges.
Some think that when Jesus gave the Great Commission, He gave it only to the Apostles, so that when the last Apostle died, that was it - job done. The Reformers, were distinctly iffy about the Great Commission, (which wasn't called the Great Commission by them, by the way). As a Methodist, I always reflect on the intriguing thing that John Wesley who died in March 1791 said, "I regard the whole world as my parish". This was just a matter of weeks before a young William Carey went down to London, and said to a group that would become the Baptist Missionary Society "I feel the need to go into all the world", which was greeted by this great reply "sit down young man, if God wants to convert the heathen, He'll do it without any help from you or I."
And yet ! And yet - today we must choose, in the 21st century, just how seriously the words of Jesus to his followers are to be taken in our own time. Hence my wrestling with scripture. If it's the words of Jesus to His disciples, and I am a disciple, then although I might want to read the scripture, I find that it constantly wants to read me.
And finally, a bit of what some might view as heresy "I am with you always to the end of the age". The heresy is, is this a conditional promise ? It's difficult to tell in the original Greek, and I'm not a Greek scholar, (I gave it up after FF Bruce told me I was no good at it). Does this passage of scripture say "if you go into all the world, if you disciple as you go, if you teach everything I have commanded you, if you make disciples, if you baptise people, then I am with you to the end of the age" ? And therefore by implication, if we don't do those things, how much can we guarantee the presence of Christ ?
I am reminded of the beginning of Matthew's Gospel, where Matthew records that 'His name shall be Immanuel' which means God is with us. How interesting then that the last line of Matthew's Gospel is "I am with you". There in lies my hope, because it makes a mission, a "co-mission". When we engage in this, we hand ourselves to the Holy Spirit, and we ask God to lead us sensitively to understand what it means to be a missionary people. Then, I do trust that Christ walks with me, that the Holy Spirit is given to the church. Then, I can almost guarantee, that if there is any doubt about conditionality of this passage, that God is with us.
At the end of the day, as you will have gathered, or me this passage is one of challenge, and one of chinks of light, but it is the Commission of Jesus and for me that's why it's Great. And as the 2010 Conference ends, I think we're all invited again, to share in the Commission of Jesus, which is great and glorious. Amen.
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