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This Father’s Day I’ll be preaching to Fairview Presbyterian Church on a text that will be familiar to many of you— from the last chapter of Matthew. (Some of you may know it better as “The Great Commission.”) My sermon comes from Matthew 28:16-20: “16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
It’s not just coincidence that Jesus’ very last words in Matthew’s gospel are what they are.
Last words tend to carry extra weight. And, studies show the easiest things to remember are those that come either first or last in a sequence. You can pretty much forget about the middle.
By that logic, I could wrap up this sermon now with one final benediction and we could all go get lunch. If you’re like the average church attender in this country—which of course you’re not, because you’re the gracious, God-fearing people of Fairview Presbyterian—the main meat of my sermon won’t matter beyond that plate of ribs you’re dreaming of right now. But, if I end my sermon with some inspirational story or all the fire and brimstone of a Jonathan Edwards’ “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” you may at least be able to recall the last point of my sermon until maybe bedtime.
Last words— last acts—are memorable. We parents know this; fathers (in honoring you today)—you maybe especially know this. Your kid stomps off to his bedroom refusing to apologize to Mom for disrespecting her, and you, Dad, issue that last stern warning: “Come out and say sorry now or you lose your T.V. and computer privileges for the rest of the week.” Sure enough, usually in a few short moments that door is opening again…
Or, by way of another illustration, those of us who can regularly exercise our T.V. and computer privileges and are at least a little up on pop culture might remember other more famous last words:
- Beetles singer and songwriter George Harrison was recorded as saying before he died, simply, “Love one another.”
- And, can you guess the American distiller Jack Daniel’s last request? That’s right: “One last drink, please.”
- Some of you may remember Steve Irwin, the Australian wildlife thrill seeker who starred in that crazy documentary series known as “The Crocodile Hunter.” His last words, before dying from a stingray’s puncture wound to the chest, were, unfortunately, “Don’t worry. They usually don’t swim backwards.”
But seriously, when we’re aware that something we’re about to say or do will be the very last thing we say or do, we usually tend to value our message more, don’t we?
As a hospice chaplain, I see this sort of thing play out all the time at the bedsides of dying patients. They, and their family members, want their final words to mean something lasting: to encapsulate their love in a way that endures beyond the grave.
Last words are important at other times, too—not just at death. Before a long trip, maybe. Or a new season of life. When I was heading off to college, my father’s one requirement (command, really) was that I take a self-defense course. This meant I spent one whole summer practicing defense moves on instructors who, encased in thick protective padding and bulbous head gear, made unconvincing fill-ins for a would-be assailant. (As extras in an “E.T. goes home to Darth Vader” sequel? Maybe. As your run-of-the-mill attacker on an inner-city college campus, not so much.)
But my dad was sending me a message. I needed to be able to protect myself in that great, big, dangerous world I was heading off to as young co-ed.
In his last appearance to the disciples before ascending into heaven, Jesus sends a different sort of message, and it’s really a two-part message: part command, part promise and assurance.
First, a command that issues from Jesus’ authority over all heaven and all earth: “Go 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 I have commanded you.” It’s a command that has been played and replayed by the church across the centuries, so much so that while we might not forget these famous words, we can find it easy to overlook how terrifying they would have been to hear in their original context.
To contextualize that terror a bit more, let’s recap what has just happened to the disciples leading up to this mountaintop farewell. A strange prophet and teacher, with an other-worldly authority to do all sorts of miracles and a knack for raising the ire of the religious types of his day, shows up one day, calling these men to leave everything and follow him. The disciples do just that, and in the process are transformed. But just when they’ve come around to believing that Jesus is in fact their Messiah, the Savior of their people, Jesus ends up dead on a cross. Naturally, the disciples scatter and flee only to discover three days later that their Messiah is not dead but alive and in fact rose from the dead.
Understandably, such events could be discombobulating and even traumatic for the average person. (And Scripture suggests that Jesus chose very average—maybe even below-average—people to follow Him.) Imagine, then, that after undergoing these things and beginning to see in them the very in-breaking of God Himself in the flesh, you were next told, shortly thereafter, that this God in the flesh would be off now, leaving you to take up His business. I’m guessing shivers might run down your spine. You might think twice. You at least might have a few questions for Jesus, don’t you think?
Jesus, do you have a manual for this baptism and teaching stuff?
Jesus, if you’re making a heavenly getaway on this whole operation you started, by sending me down this mountain to finish your business, can I at least get a golden parachute? (Pun intended.)
Jesus, who is the Holy Spirit, anyway?
There would be plenty of questions, the most fundamental of which probably would be, Why exactly are we standing here on this mountain now saying goodbye to our Messiah?
Which is why I am grateful for that little clause that precedes Jesus’ command: “but some doubted.” (Want proof that Christianity is not a made-up cult? All you need to do is quote back to people that phrase. Some doubted. That says it all. No cult would allow room for doubt.)
And I’ll say it right now: if I were in this story, I’d be among them—the doubting disciples, I mean. With a big, open-mouthed look of wonder that a guy who had been my saving hope was now taking off into the great, blue sky without abandon. Because the messianic party had only really just started, and now the host and the star of the party was taking off. The Messiah’s new triumphant order of things, of a world made right, of a people restored, was just starting to settle in when bing, Jesus was pressing the elevator button leaving me behind. Leaving me to do the talking before chief priests and angry mobs and Roman tribunals, all of whom would prefer my head on a platter to hearing about a Messiah named Jesus.
Frankly, that kind of ending sounds anti-climactic if you ask me.
So I can readily imagine that for the first disciples, or at least for some of them, Jesus’ Great Commission could have sounded a whole lot more like this: “Gotta run, but keep the party going for me!” Or worse, “It’s been fun. Don’t forget about those dirty dishes!”
And maybe today Jesus’ “Great Commission” still sounds a bit like dirty dish duty for many of us. In a day and age when so many people are leaving church and not looking back, when the church itself and its leaders can fail us, when we ourselves are among the doubters, how can we not be chastened— if we’re at all honest with ourselves—by a sense of our own failure? Surely most of us can appreciate by now that we, like the first disciples, are pretty incompetent when left to our own devices.
Baptizing the whole world in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Teaching them to obey all God’s commands? These are not small requests. Jesus is entrusting us with a great responsibility, one of witnessing to the whole world about the whole story of God’s love for us. Baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, isn’t really as simple as sprinkling a few drops of water in a church service: it’s not even as hard as (for our former or resident Baptists here today) a full dunk.
No, “baptism,” when paired with the teaching of Christ’s commands, is about letting God work out in us and in the communities in which we find ourselves, or to which God sends us, the same love of God that bleeds through the lines of Jesus’ story. That love does not come easily. It’s a sacrificial love, a love that puts others first and is not afraid to die for another, or, in Jesus’ case, for a whole world. Nor is such love afraid, in an age of political correctness, to say why it is so lavishly and foolishly for the world God created.
We the church can often do a poor job at this task. It’s almost comical if it weren’t so sad. Most of the time, we prefer to stay in our comfort zones rather than risk a journey that might just change us. Or we judge others rather than love them, choosing the safety of self-righteousness over the adventure of learning from another human being. Or we fight over the small things, like morning worship, and avoid bigger matters like social justice. Or we cling to our money and time as our own possessions rather than give these away with the recognition they were not really ours to begin with.
In short, we can’t fulfill Jesus’ command on our own or in our own power. When left to our own devices, we like the first disciples, pretty quickly desert anything that remotely resembles the love of God in Christ Jesus. Which is why we so desperately need the second part of Jesus’ last message to us, which technically and thankfully are Jesus’ very, very last words as recorded in Matthew: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
We will doubt. We will stumble. We will fail. But Jesus’ command here ultimately does not depend on us, even if it asks for our all.
Jesus’ command ultimately will prevail because Jesus, who is God Himself, will be with us always. And because Jesus will be with us always, we will have all the grace we need to share God’s love in word and deed.
Let me say that again, because they’re the last words of this sermon: because Jesus will be with us always, we will have all the grace we need to share God’s love in word and deed.
Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, You are in charge of this whole mission to love the world—not us. We can barely love our own selves sometimes, not to mention our neighbors. Remind us that your grace really is sufficient to love each person you put in front of us today and throughout this week. Whether through word or deed, may your love be evident in us by the power of your Holy Spirit and for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.