Sunday, April 16, 2023

Phil Kniss: Jesus: Do what you saw me do

Jesus reveals the mission of God
Matthew 28:16-20

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You probably know that I like to complexify things in my sermons.
The reason, from my standpoint,
is that popular Christianity likes to over-simplify.
I think many preachers feel pressure to oversimplify.
People in the pews are coming in from an often confusing
and ethically ambiguous world,
and walking into a religious container, a sanctuary,
a box where they want clear answers
they can take to the bank,
to tie up their questions and doubts
and put them away in a safe.
So Christian preachers have kind of a reputation,
for being slogan-eers,
for churning out cliches, and quotable quotes,
for making things binary—
either/or, this or that, right or wrong, good or evil.

I prefer to complexify. To find the nuance.
To uncover hidden truth that lurks in the shadows.
I think that ends up being more authentic, and true,

But then . . . I have to admit . . .
some things really are simpler than they look.
Sometimes, when a biblical concept doesn’t quite work for us,
we add layer upon layer
of complex and multiple meanings
bending it to make it work for us,
and we end up making it nearly unintelligible.
Sometimes we just need to cut to the core,
and find the singular nugget that was there all along.

I think that’s what we’ve got in today’s text from Matthew 28,
the “Great Commission.”
The church, throughout history, has way overworked this text.
We’ve used it to justify all kinds of different philosophies
for Christian global mission,
or . . . used it to argue against those same philosophies.

We’ve taken these concise and poignant words of Jesus,
and used them to justify missionary programs
that ride on the coattails of white, western colonialism.
And ages ago, Christian crusaders even used
Jesus’ command to baptize,
as an excuse to slaughter those who refused such baptism.

So today, I will de-complexify. I will simplify.
These parting words of Jesus in Matthew are, in fact,
simple, and beautiful, and shimmer with truth.
And for Matthew’s community,
that group of beleaguered Christians in 70 A.D. Antioch,
these words were both comforting and affirming.
They assured these oppressed and traumatized disciples,
who were being told daily their own human worth was in doubt,
that as a matter of fact, their lives have purpose and value,
and that God has made them indispensable
to God’s own mission.
God is counting on them to be agents of shalom to all nations.

Matthew 28 is no excuse for Christian triumphalism and domination.
Not by a long shot.
This is God’s invitation to become partners
in God’s good purposes on the earth.

Let me start with the grammar of the text.
There are six verbs in these two verses, 19 and 20.
But there is only one imperative. One!
A single command.
Our translations don’t make that clear.
We see three or four or more.
Go, make disciples, baptize, teach, obey.

But in the original Greek, only one is a direct command.
“Disciple.” You disciple.
It might sound awkward, but it would be accurate to translate it,
“Having been on the go already,
disciple all people, as you go along,
baptizing and teaching them to imitate me,
as the opportunity presents itself.”
Going, baptizing, teaching, obeying—all are important!
They’re all part of the package.
But the weight of the Great Commission
lands squarely on one word—disciple.
If you want to cut to the core of this commission,
know what it means to form a disciple.

To disciple, is to grow an apprentice.
To form a follower.
To mentor a mentee.

This Great Commission is not first and foremost,
a command to organize mission projects,
nor a command to baptize as many souls as we can,
nor to establish and grow the Christian church,
nor, even, to convert people to a new religion.

No, it is a command to form imitators of Jesus.

That’s why Jesus prefaced his command
with words about authority.

We so often take those words the wrong way. Jesus did not say,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,
and I’m handing it over to you.
Now you have all the authority in heaven and earth,
so go and do what you need to do,
to establish your religion and grow your institutions.”
So much harm has been done on the false assumption
that Jesus gives us a blank check of authority,
that we can write out as we see fit,
and do whatever we need to rack up more numbers.

No, Jesus said, “I have this cosmic authority from God,
so I have the right to ask, and expect, you to imitate me.
To teach what I taught.
Live as I lived.”
It’s like Jesus is telling his disciples,
“It’s not an ego trip—for me or for you.
It’s the way God set things up.
God loves this world, and wants it to be whole.
God has a healing mission, a shalom project.
God sent me here to set it in motion,
and has now authorized me
to have you carry the work forward,
to keep on doing exactly what you’ve seen me doing.”

To his small cadre of followers,
who remained faithful through the great trial
Jesus says, “I have taught you
what life under the reign of God looks like.
I have set an example for you,
so you can go from here and imitate me—
be my mirror, my reflection.
And bring others along as next-generation imitators,
keep the movement going,
to all the nations, all the peoples, everywhere.

That’s the shining golden nugget of the Great Commission,
look and act like Jesus, everywhere and to everyone.
And as you go, help others look and act like Jesus, too.
Disciple people, mentor people, form people
into the way of Jesus.

Some of those other things that we read into it,
might well happen along the way—
baptisms, organized mission programs,
growth of churches and institutions.
But those are potential results, they are not the motivating factors.
They are not the shining center.

The sole rationale, the sole expectation of Jesus, for his disciples,
the shining center of the Great Commission,
is, in Jesus’ words, “Do what you saw me doing.”
“And bring people around you who will also learn
how to do what you saw me doing.”
“Then all of you, together, will keep learning.
You will be my life-long apprentices,
my forever friends and disciples.”

This Great Commission is for everyone of us who claim
to be a disciple of Jesus, who claim to follow Jesus.
If we are not actively learning to look and act like Jesus,
if we are not winsomely, through word and deed,
inviting others to learn to look and act like Jesus,
if we are not pouring ourselves into a community
that seeks to look and act like Jesus,
then we need to go back to the core of these parting words of Jesus,
and open ourselves to the Spirit’s work in a new way.

Human beings are born. But disciples are grown.
And growth takes effort, intentionality, commitment to a purpose,
joining to a community of disciples, and intentional practice.

These words were written for Matthew’s community,
but they are also for every disciple
who has ever read Matthew’s witness to the Gospel of Jesus.
And now, friends, we have read this Gospel. From beginning to end.
May God help us live it more fully.

one God who loves all the world with an everlasting love,
We confessed we have not always heard or heeded 
your invitation to follow you into the world 
and continue your saving and healing mission.
all Forgive us. Open our hearts to the world.
one I forgive you and love you without condition.
My invitation remains.
Follow me into the world.
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

—Phil Kniss, April 16, 2023

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