[I preached a version of this sermon on June 16, 2019 at Christ Church of Austin. The audio for it can be found here.]
Good morning Christ Church! It’s great to get to share with you today for the first time since starting in my new role as the Director of Vocation on staff – and also to be part of this sermon series on witness, which is a big part of how I think we need to understand our common vocation as Christians and the calling to be witnesses. It’s also Trinity Sunday, so I get to say something not only about our commissioned witness as a church, but also about how God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, goes before us and sends us into the world to make disciples – goes before you, and sends you, into the world to make disciples, wherever you live, work, and play, and through how you live, work and play.
Right away when many of us hear just the phrase, Great Commission, I know there are probably immediate connotations of global missions. Going– right, going – usually gets the emphasis, to the nations (i.e., cross-culturally), to tell people about Jesus, to proclaim the gospel, to those who haven’t heard – or just to those who, for whatever reason, have not believed the good news. And this is not necessarily bad, but it has limitations and can prevent us from understanding and appreciating the real emphasis of this instruction from Jesus.
When I was a senior in college, I was experiencing a revitalization of my faith in many ways. I was still very young and immature with a lot of growing up to do, but it was nonetheless a season of growth, passion and learning. One of the catalyzing events of this growth period for me was a mission trip that I went on to Juarez, Mexico, over Spring Break. And I know it might not sound like a very big sacrifice, but going on a mission trip for Spring Break when you’re a senior in college, at least if you were me, was already a significant change. I could have gone on a beach trip with some of my best friends. Whitney and I were dating at the time, and her family had invited me on a ski trip over that same Spring Break. I originally said yes, and then I actually backed out to go on this mission trip. I’m not sure how we ever got past that, but I guess we did!
All that to say, I was zealous for Christ and really just wanted an adventure. The idea of going to this border down and to some of the roughest areas of it to preach the gospel had been completely romanticized in my mind and captured my heart, so I was all in. I had studied abroad in Spain and was studying Spanish in college, so I was asked to be a translator for one of our teams on the trip, which I didn’t think sounded so bad. Little did I know, this also meant that I would be asked not only to translate but to preach – and preach in Spanish. Through a megaphone, on a street corner, in the Plaza Mayor – the public square in the city of downtown Juarez. No big deal. I was just that guy…
And unsurprisingly, the gospel for me and my church at that time was primarily about the forgiveness of sins, rather than also involving the redemption and restoration of all things, the coming of the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven, etc. My gospel was too small, in other words. There was a big hole in it, to use Richard Stearns’ language.
Interestingly, these two men came up to our group after I spoke and seemed curious about us – which I thought was a good thing – but I quickly figured out that they didn’t want to talk about anything I had said to them. They wanted to know if we knew what it was like to live in Juarez. They were wondering if we had heard about the escalating drug-trade related crime and violence. They started talking about La Linea, the Border, and immigration, unemployment, poverty, and the growth of low wage factory jobs since the inception of NAFTA. I understood that all of these things were unjust and legitimate problems, but what I didn’t understand then was what they had to do with what I just told them about Jesus!
So, I couldn’t make the connection between the gospel and what they were going through, and I didn’t have anything to say them about God’s will for their situation.I didn’t yet realize how the gospel was good news for them in the midst of all of those things, and so I missed an opportunity. And I’ve never forgotten it.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20
One of the things I think we have to do first to get a better understanding of discipleship and the Great Commission than I had when I went to Juarez, is to make sure we know what a disciple is. I like the way Robert Mulholland defines it, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, but he says:
A disciple is someone in the process of being formed in the image of Christ for the sake of others – Robert Mulholland, Invitation to the Spiritual Journey
This is a good summary statement, I think. And I especially appreciate his emphasis on the transformation dimension of discipleship rather than just the behavior. And then also that he extends its purpose beyond that of the individual. I would maybe just want to add one more definition. And I’m taking this from Dallas Willard. This one’s in the first person.
As a disciple, I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life in the Kingdom of God as he would lead my life if he were me. – Dallas Willard
That is to say, if Christ lived when and where you lived, did what you do, had the same relationships as you, and so on. And the reason I believe it’s important to add this additional clause, is because sometimes we can feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the famous Christians we know. Famous preachers and theologians, maybe, or just all the amazing things Jesus himself did, or Paul or Peter in Acts, or whoever.
But we’re actually not called to be those people or do exactly what they did – not even exactly what Jesus did! Which makes sense if you think about it, right? Jesus had a very unique mission that we can’t repeat. And yet, there’s something about how Jesus did what he did that can surely be translated into any situation and into any particular person’s life and calling – any particular person’s vocation.
And then of course, most importantly, by looking at Jesus’s own teachings themselves, we know that the process of becoming like Jesus occurs by way of obeying what Jesus commanded (v. 20). This is the “how” of our formation into his image and likeness. As we learn and practice what Jesus instructed us to do, our desires themselves will be increasingly disciplined by God’s desires themselves so that what we want what God wants, by nature – not just by doing what he said to do. The result is inner transformation rather than merely outward conformity.
So what did Jesus command? Well, of course, there’s a lot that he taught, but I do think it can be succinctly captured in just a couple of sentences. When asked what the greatest commandment is by a lawyer, Jesus replied in Matthew 22:
37 “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment.39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love another.” – John 13:35
To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.” – John 8:31
This is sometimes called the Great Commandment, and the passage we heard today is known as the Great Commission.What I want to suggest to you is that the Great Commission can only be properly understood in the light of the Great Commandment. Commenting on the relationship between the Great Commission and Great Commandment, the 20thCentury Anglican priest and theologian John Stott says this:
What is the relation between the two? Some of us behave as if we thought them identical so that if we share the gospel with somebody we consider have completed our responsibility to love that person. But no. The Great Commission neither explains, not exhausts, nor supersedes the Great Commandment. What it does is add to the requirement of neighbor-love and neighbor-service a new and urgent Christian dimension.” – John Stott, Mission: Rethinking Vocation
And in case the Great Commandment isn’t clear, we have the Good Samaritan parable in Luke to help us with the question who counts as our “neighbor.”And basically Jesus’s answer to that question is everyone – everyone, but particularly those who we don’t like or who would even consider our enemies.
The Jews at this time were still living under Gentile imperial rule with the Romans lording over them and oppressing them in all kinds of ways. Jesus was essentially commanding them to love their enemies when he said this. Earlier in the gospel of Matthew, even Jesus seemed to have a concern first and foremost for the people of Israel, but now that’s all changing. Jesus is telling them to go and love and serve and teach their enemies to love God and love others.
Now, Overall, you could say the Great Commission and this work of witnessing to the gospel and to Christ has tended to be interpreted in one of two ways:
- Discipleship has been reduced to conversion, or in the worst cases, even coercion and violence. In other words, the Great Commission replaces the Great Commandment.
- The Great Commission is entirely optional or gets replaced by merely the Great Commandment: “Preach the gospel. When necessary, use words.”
For much of Protestant history in the West – not all, but much – the Great Commission has been confused with a command to make converts rather than disciples. So much so that, in some cases, Christians have used whatever necessary violent and coercive force. I’m speaking here of Western imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and military conquest…. This is to say, making people Christian or “like us” was put before the Great commandment to love them the way Jesus has loved us. Or the commandment was completely ignored. Anytime we put the Great Commission before the Great Commandment, we’re in serious trouble. Chronicling a fairly comprehensive history of Christian mission the West in the last few centuries, missiologist David Bosch observes that
“A not-so-subtle shift occurred in the original love motive; compassion and solidarity were replaced by pity and condescension.” – Bosch, Transforming Mission
“When sending becomes the overwhelming focus, the reconciling deeds of the kingdom are diminished or lost.” – Michael Stroope, Transcending Mission (my world Christianity professor in seminary!)
And again, I do not mean to suggest that this is the whole story of our missionary history as Anglicans and Protestants, but it is part of our story, and we still have name it, own it and continue to repent from it– even if you yourself don’t feel like you’re responsible or guilty of it. That’s part of being members of church, is that we have a corporate and collective identity, and therefore, corporate and collective confession and repentance – sometimes even for things that happened a long time ago.
However, we should also be encouraged that, by and large, Christianity is no longer a white, Western European or predominately North American religion — if it ever even really was. No, and we’ll get to talk about this in a few weeks with Philip Jenkins from Baylor at the “Mind Matters” Wednesday series, which just started this last week. And what we’ll see that the majority world, which is not us, has long been learning how to do Christianity and be Christians – live out the Great Commission – on their own and not on European or North American terms. So the Spirit is on the move in the world in genuinely indigenous gospel expressions that will take your breath away, and ways that don’t look very much like how we assume they would or should.
So we have to love people before we proclaim the gospel, before we teach them to obey what Jesus commanded, and before we baptize them. And this is what was wrong with my own attempt to preach to the people Juarez, Mexico. I didn’t know them. I didn’t know their culture, their political and economic reality, their context, their aspirations, their struggles. And so while I wanted to love them, maybe, I didn’t know how, and they couldn’t receive my love or God’s love.
Just to add another layer to this: Being able to love someone take even more than simply knowing them well. We also have to allow ourselves to share in the burdens that they’re carrying. This is what incarnational or embodied witness is all about. And this why the way Jesus loves us is so effective. Because he steps into our shoes. He suffers, he cries, he mourns, and he hungers, he’s betrayed – he’s in solidarity with the human condition. I definitely was not in solidarity with the Juarez condition. This is why good missionaries, real missionaries, spend years and years, learning, inculturating themselves, and getting to deeply know a place before they have much influence.
But if historically as Christians in the West we have tended to confuse discipleship with making converts or even just Western cultural imperialism, then today I’d say we’re equally in danger of the opposite problem today. Many of us are keenly aware of the mistakes of our past and our completely discredited witness in the public sphere because of so many bad examples of Christianity at the popular level and in the most extreme cases. And because of this, we’re timid. We’re insecure, we lack boldness, confidence and maybe conviction to sense the urgency any longer of the Great Commission.
And I want to make just two observations about this: one is that, I think Protestants have done a pretty good job of understanding that the gospel gives us direct access to God without the mediation of a priest or a church or any institution or good works. We know this, at least in principle. We certainly teach it, and growing up Baptist, I definitely learned that the priesthood of all believers was a big deal.
What hasn’t sunk in as much, and I fault clergy like myself and ministers for this more than anyone else, is the Great Commission of all believers. Not the priesthood of all believers, but the Great Commission of all believers. What I mean by that is, God’s blessing through Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit for everyone to be a minister of the gospel wherever they are and whatever they do. This is not primarily the job of gifted preachers or evangelists or theologians. No, it’s actually your job more than it is even mine.
It seems that for a long time the pastors and church leaders have given the impression to their congregations that your work, and your jobs, and your vocations, your resources, and your callings exist to support this institution and my calling and ministry, our calling and ministry, as clergy, priests and pastors. That’s exactly not the case.
Instead, what I what I want to tell you is that my ministry as a priest, and as someone who is employed by this church, exists to support, equip and serve you in your ministry as disciple-makers where you live work and play– so that you can better love God and love others in the places God calls you to be.
What is more, to say that my ministry, and the staff at Christ Church’s ministry, exists to support your ministry, is not to say that you we’re trying to just get you to do stuff around here in this building and with our mission trips and Sunday morning volunteering and small groups and all that. Sure, that’s all good, and I hope you do those things. But here’s what it really means:
Christ Church exists to enable you to be disciple-makers, ambassadors, salt and light, witnesses – that’s our word – witnesses – where you spend most of your time and most of your day. In your work places, in your homes, in your neighborhoods. And not because – and this is crucial – not because those things, your work places, your homes and your neighbors are just means to the end of evangelism and discipleship. No. We exist to help you be witnesses in those places because God cares about those very places. This is where God is already at work, bringing forth the kingdom, going before you, to prepare people to hear, to receive, to respond and to know the love of God that is our in Christ.
It’s the stuff of your work and your day that God wants to redeem. Your very home and neighborhood and company, and this city — the arts and the sciences, music, politics – all of it. All of it belongs to God. All if it is being invited to participate in the Triune life of God community of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
So the commandment to love God and others isn’t just a call for obedience because God said. It’s offered as an invitation in response to what God has already accomplished and done for us. This makes a big difference in how we understand what love is, I think.
You know, the Trinity has only become more powerful in the last Century as an analogy for how we’re supposed to live. One of the things we’ve discovered about the physical world in the past 100 years is that it’s not primarily made up of material or matter, but rather that more than anything else, the universe and the earth is part of one enormous field of energy and particles in dynamic relationship to each other – which is not unlike some of our best Trinitarian theology.
Augustine is famous for describing the Holy Spirit as essentially the loving relationship between the Father and Son. It’s so strong and so dynamic, that it’s actually best understood as a third member of the Trinity altogether, coequal with the Father and the Son. And this love is where we’re invited to live. When we live out the Great Comission, we’re getting ourselves caught up in the Triune flow of giving and receiving.
And over time, theologians throughout Church history begin to describe this relationship between the three persons of the Trinity as one of perfect and total giving and receiving between each member all at once! It’s this complete image of each of the persons, being fully known and fully loved by each other despite their different functions. Their nature is common, but their roles are distinct.
So when we’re sent, we’re not sent out on our own to carry the weight of the world. Christ and the Spirit go before us already doing that. We just get to be part of it. How freeing and how empowering is that?
Our own culture context and moment makes this more difficult, but the best and most common way that we’re going to be able to train people in Christian living is by loving them unconditionally, earning their trust, and listening for when and how the Holy Spirit might be creating an opportunity to articulate the reason for the hope that we have – and then continuing to build relationships that foster transformative learning in how to follow Jesus more fully and faithfully.
One of the marks of the first Christians, who were a minority group in a Greco-Roman, pagan world, was a posture of both peace and urgency when it came to their witness. They knew that the Holy Spirit was the one who was actually going to transform people’s hearts. That’s not our job. At the same time, that doesn’t exempt us from communicating and witnessing to our faith in Christ in a way that connects and resonates with people around us.
In John, Jesus shows the disciples his pierced hands and feet and then says to them: “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent me, I also send you” (John 20:21). So what’s really essential is the wounds and sacrifice. Our going and being sent is simply the natural byproduct of God doing this for us. We already want to do it if we’ve really come to know the love of God. We can’t help but do it. It compels us. It leads us into the ministry of the Trinity, and the ministry of making disciples, Monday through Saturday, where the Spirit is already drawing people into God’s love and into relationship with Christ. Let’s pray.