The sermon below was delivered at Hope of Christ Presbyterian Church in Summit Hill, PA (June 11, 2017). Based on Matthew 28: 16-20.
“Daddy, where is Jesus?” our inquisitive kindergartener asked one day on the ride home from school.
Normally, my husband would say, “Jonathan, that’s a mommy question.” In our home, all theological questions get punted to the professional in the house. But it was just the two of them in the car so Dan took it upon himself to answer the simple question.
“Well, Jesus is everywhere.”
“Everywhere?!” Jonathan replied. “Is Jesus in the gas tank?”
“I suppose he is, buddy.”
Silence passes between them before Jonathan cautiously says, “Is Jesus right next to me?”
“Yes, he’s there too.”
Startled, my five year old jumped in his seat and leans a bit closer to the car door. He turns his head and looks suspiciously at the empty seat next to him. His eyes go up and down as if he is checking out the invisible man sitting next to him. As time passes, his body goes from tense to relaxed as he settles into the reality that this Jesus, whom he cannot see, might actually be in the gas tank, sitting right next to him, and just about everywhere else he can imagine.
Nothing has strengthened my faith quite like my son, Jonathan. There are times when he sweetly asks to read his children’s bible during our bedtime routine or, when we had planned to go apple picking on a Sunday morning and were rained out, says, “Well, we could go to church.” The night when he walked into the kitchen with one of his arms pulled through the neck of his shirt so that it looked like a tunic and said, “Look, mommy, I’m Jesus.” These are moments that make a pastor proud that we are sowing seeds that take root in his life.
But there are other days when Jonathan says, “I don’t believe in God.” Or the Sunday morning when he’s rolling on the floor in the narthex of the church crying out that he does not want to go to church while congregation members literally step over him to get into the sanctuary. Or the debates before we even get to church about why coffee hour (his favorite part of Sunday morning) isn’t before worship.
Those are the days when I just wish that he could have a taste of what the disciples and the early church had; a closeness to the physical Christ who lived among them. At least it would make explaining the Christian faith a bit easier for him…and for us as parents!
We’ve got a bit of Scriptural whiplash this morning as we move from the joyful movement of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church to the whole world in Pentecost to tearful, uncertain goodbyes on a mountain in Galilee. But if there’s anything that I can say about our reading from Matthew this morning, it’s that at least the eleven disciples had the resurrected Jesus right in front of them!
But let’s back up a bit. The beginning of this chapter opens with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary slowly walking toward the tomb. I imagine they’re preparing themselves for the worst, balancing the emotions of losing their messianic rabbi with the relief that the suffering and torture of his execution are over. Yet when they arrive at the tomb, they are welcomed with an earthquake and an angel that tells them Christ is no longer there. Instead, the women are to return to the disciples and relay the message that Jesus will meet them in Galilee.
Now, there were guards at the tomb that day who reported back to chief priests all that they had seen. Frightened and thinking quick on their feet to adjust their plans, the priests paid the guards a large sum of money to keep the story to themselves saying, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep. If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” (Matthew 28: 13-14)
It’s right here where the Gospel reading begins this morning. The disciples are where they were told to be, in Galilee. The resurrected Jesus meets the eleven men for his final moments with them. But here’s what’s so interesting to me…those words are not full of reassurance in the way that they might have hoped. There’s no pause button for their work! Instead, he says, “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.”
Jesus tells them that there is still work to be done and that they are the ones to do it. Perhaps some of them were still holding on to the hope that this resurrected king would finally march into Jerusalem and win back the city for them. Others might have just wanted to rest a bit from the emotional rollercoaster of the past few days. But no, Jesus tells them that it’s time to get moving! And, they are sent not only to the Jewish communities of which they are familiar, but also to all nations to make disciples of everyone whom they meet.
As I was preparing for this sermon and thinking about this daunting call to disciple making, it made me glad that Jonathan is hesitant about what he believes. It means that he is still willing to ask questions and challenge these things that my husband and I take for granted as “just because.” But even more than that, I know that the stakes of believing in the risen Christ comes with a challenging calling. It means proclaiming a God who created all things, a God who then came among us in flesh and blood to transform what had become a religious status quo even though it lead to his execution, and a God whom we say equips us for mission even today through the movement of the Holy Spirit. It’s radical…and, perhaps, absolutely nonsensical.
I’ve done a fair amount of travel around the church to regional governing bodies and local congregations of various denominations. What I have found across many of these contexts is that there is anxiety of what might be next. We can’t just open our sanctuary doors and expect people to walk through them on a Sunday morning. Loyalty to a denominational community has been replaced with consumerist interest in what we can get out of it. Churches are no longer the center of an area, instead becoming just one of many places that people find community. Church leadership worries about the decrease in worship attendance coupled with rising budgetary needs and the ways that we can compete with the unrelenting invention of new, technologically advanced ways to engage in the world, overall. Often I hear stories of people who feel as though they are running behind and trying to catch up with what might be next for their church rather than leading confidently into the future. It feels more like survival that a hope-filled life in whatever may be the future of the church.
Here’s the thing: We believe that the church’s mission is God’s mission, but too often we put our mission first. What if we were to trust that God has a mission for the world? (Working Preacher Podcast, Trinity Sunday A, 2017) That God’s mission has been in place long before we were ever on the scene, from that first breath that brought life to Creation all the way to this place right here, right now. It’s our Creator who calls us forth to participate in this mission. God’s mission is our mission….not the other way around. By trusting that, in all things, we engage in God’s mission, we bring all that we are and all that we can be to participate in the work that is already making disciples of all nations! We are a part of this greater story, a chapter in the ongoing narrative of the Triune God throughout all of creation.
Now, don’t get me wrong…the stakes are high. You’ve come here to worship while others decided to head to brunch or had to attend soccer practice or thought that extra hour or two of sleep would prepare them more for the week than sitting in a pew. But just like the disciples that day who were relieved to see Christ and yet sent out to baptize all nations, you, too, are called to share this life-giving story with others. Then, and now, in circumstances that seem less than optimal (or at times, even impossible), Christ calls us to the act of disciple making. Despite all that has happened or will happen, discipleship is still possible.
Probably the greatest reassurance for me is that some doubted among the eleven who gathered on the mountain top that day. When they saw Christ, they worshipped him but there were still some who can concerns and worries. And yet Jesus still empowered them to go out and baptize disciples near and far…to lands known and those yet unknown. The disciples that day, and even those of us gathered here today, have the power to be a part of God’s ongoing story. We’re invited to participate with all that we bring: power, knowledge, and doubts all bundled together.
As Eric Barreto said in his commentary for this week, “The key ingredient of the right use of power is not being right. It is not being the smartest person in the room. It is not about charisma. It is not about being the best dealmaker. It is not about self-aggrandizement. Power, rightly used, is about trust. The trust others place in someone. The trust someone asks others to invest in her. The trust, most of all, that someone places in God to show her the way. For, if we are honest, the exercise of power is a humbling matter, one that pushes us more toward doubt that certainty. Here, we are reminded anew by Anne Lamott that the opposite of faith is not doubt; the obverse of faith is prideful certainty. Faith leans on God; certainty says, “I know better.” Faith trusts when we can’t see the path before us; certainty steps forward no matter who might be trampled as we stomp our way through the world.”
The Christ’s blessing to the eleven men gathered that day on the mountain is the same for us today. Despite the worries and concerns that we have, whether they be for the church or the personal weights that we bear on our shoulders, this blessing sends us forth to a world that is in desperate need of God’s abundant love. I want to leave you with a poem written by the artist, Jan Richardson, titled, “Blessing that Does Not End.”
From the moment
it first laid eyes
this blessing loved you.
from the start.
It cannot explain how.
It just knows
that the first time
it sat beside you,
it entered into a conversation
that had already been going on
Believe this conversation
has not stopped.
Believe this love
still lives –
the love that crossed
an impossible distance
to reach you
to find you,
to take your face
into its hands
and bless you.
does not end –
that this gesture,
Believe this love
goes on –
that it still takes your face
into its hands,
that it presses
its forehead to yours
as it speaks to you
in undying words,
that it has never ceased
to gather your heart
into its heart.
Believe this blessing
Believe it goes with you
Believe it knows you