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Called To Do Some Hard Things

The Reverend Dr. Fred Morgan

June 11, 2017
Matthew 28:16-20

A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “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. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Dora Vetters was in her late 70s and a member of the first congregation I served. She was an amazing woman. First woman elected in the mid-1960s as a ruling elder in a congregation of South Texas Presbytery and ordained at Woodlawn Presbyterian Church, Corpus Christi, TX. She was always on the move from before dawn till after sunset: mowing her lawn, planting, harvesting, and canning vegetables, visiting the sick and infirmed. Dora was always busy with some project around her home, in the church, and out in the community. Once I commented on her activity level at her age. Dora replied: “Pastor, when my brother retired from PPG in Corpus Christi at 65, he went out on the front porch and sat down.  That’s where he was most of the time. Within three years, he was dead.  I don’t think the Lord made us to sit for very long.”

The closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel are usually referred to as the “Great Commission.” Jesus tells his disciples not to be sitters; but rather he commissions them: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” We have understood these words as a call for the church in every generation. Jesus is telling us that we’re not made to sit because we are under his commission.

Now, there is a little comment in the original commission that is frequently overlooked. Matthew’s post-resurrection timeline differs from that of Luke and John. In Matthew’s account when the 11 disciples—those remaining after the defection and death of Judas—come to the mountain in Galilee for a rendezvous with the resurrected Jesus, it’s the first time they has seen Jesus since they ran and hid at the time of his arrest. So sticking to Matthew’s account,  “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” But some doubted is the little comment that’s often overlooked.

I can imagine that seeing a dead person alive again was so far outside anything they’d ever experienced. Perhaps they weren’t sure whether their eyes were playing tricks on them. Matthew’s comment about their doubt applied to the whole experience on the mountain in Galilee, because Jesus commissioned them do three tasks. And they may have wondered how those three tasks could possibly be accomplished.

The first task:  Jesus told them to go and make disciples of all nations. Remember the disciples’ world was much smaller than the world of our day. For example, they had no idea of the existence six continents as we know. They were, also, limited by first century modes of travel and communication. So restricting their world to the geography they knew, making disciples of all nations must have sounded like a daunting task.

Beyond the dimensions of the mission, distrusting foreigners was huge problem, especially for 11 disciples who were neither well-traveled nor learned. Even in our day, still there are challenges for many of us to relate across cultural and racial lines. What’s more, the disciples had no power base to start from [unless you count the Holy Spirit, but in Matthew’s timeline Pentecost hadn’t happened]. And, the 11 disciples belonged to an oppressed subgroup – the Jews – within the Roman Empire.

Yet, Jesus says to his ragtag team of disciples:  Go turn the world upside down. Such a commission must have sounded like a monumental, if not impossible, undertaking. Nevertheless, Jesus did tell the disciples to go and make disciples of all nations.

Second task:  Jesus told the disciples that once they got moving on that first work, they were to baptize the people of those nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now, as you know, baptism is not the first step in adult discipleship. For an adult, baptism takes place after a person has been evangelized and decides to embrace Christ as their Savior and Lord. So what Jesus was telling the 11 to do was huge. He was telling them to publicly identify themselves as followers of someone who had just been executed as a criminal of the Empire. So, Jesus was telling the 11 to give personal witness to their faith in Christ – we Presbyterians know how hard that is!

We do know from the Book of Acts that once Pentecost happened, the disciples found greater impetus to proclaim the gospel, but as I said, in Matthew’s timeline Pentecost had yet to happen.

What about us?  We do live on this side of Pentecost, which we celebrated in grand style last Sunday. Yet still, most of us don’t find the evangelism process easy. In fact, from my pastoral experience, I know how intimidating it can be. Nevertheless, Jesus commissioned the disciples to baptize the people of all nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Third task: Jesus told them to teach new converts everything he had commanded them – the 11 – to obey. If the first and second tasks sounded difficult, this third task must have sounded like mission impossible. Even assuming a few of them had the gift of teaching, where was the curriculum? The gospel message had yet to be written. The Apostle Paul had yet to be converted. And his letter to the emerging Christian communities across the Roman Empire would eventually become most of the New Testament. As the 11 disciples received the Great Commission, the church hadn’t been formed, theological doctrines hadn’t been formulated, and Confessions of Faith were still centuries in the future. No wonder some of the 11 doubted that day!

Yet, these three tasks were their Commission:

  • Make disciples of all nations,
  • Baptize those new disciples in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
  • Teach the new converts everything Jesus had commanded the disciples to obey.

Initial doubts not withstanding, the great miracle is somehow they pulled it off – or at least they got big start.

With the passage of time, the Great Commission was passed to a new generation of Christ followers. And each succeeding generation of followers have the same Great Commission. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are to be: movers, shakers, tellers, proclaimers, explainers, teachers, witnesses and more, but not sitters. Jesus never said it would be easy but he did say – just GO do it!

It shouldn’t be a surprise that what Jesus asks is hard. It’s right in line with others things he taught, like those from his Sermon on the Mount:

  • Love your enemy. Hard to do!
  • Turn the other cheek. Not easy to do!
  • Rejoice and be glad when people revile you. Difficult to do!
  • Don’t worry about tomorrow. Challenge to do!
  • Do to another as you would have them do to you. Hard to do!
  • Be doers of God words and not just hearers. Challenge to do!

Thankfully, those 11 disciples, who gathered on the mountain in Galilee when Jesus gave the Great Commission, didn’t let the difficulty of the mission stop them from trying. They did not sit. They got up, and did what God through Holy Spirit enabled them to accomplish.

And even to this day, God did not create us to be sitters. We are made to be up and moving, telling, explaining, teaching, proclaiming why and how Jesus Christ is our personal Lord and Savior. If we are committed to following Jesus, then we need to accept that there will be some hard things to tackle. Yet there is good news!  The Spirit of the living God will be with us as we endeavor to live out the Great Commission in our days.

To God be the glory!