Reclaiming the Great Commission


A Sermon by

The Reverend Barbara Mraz

June 15, 2014

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St. Paul, Minnesota

Happy Father’s Day. Happy Trinity Sunday.

As significant as these occasions are, it is the Gospel that sends a powerful and unavoidable call for our attention today.

During college, I seriously considered becoming a lawyer.  I liked the idea of trotting around the firm in a designer suit, cool high heels, and carrying my Coach briefcase to court where I would always win.

I still like to push for clear arguments supported with convincing “evidence:”

At home: “So what evidence can you produce that your sister started that argument?”

At Blake: “Exactly how and at what point did your dog secure physical possession of your homework before eating it?”

At church: “Excuse me, Jered, but I’m not sure the survey supports THAT particular conclusion…”

Perhaps my tendency to cross-examine is NOT the most attractive aspect of my personality, so it’s good that literature and the arts lured me away.  Pretty much.

Jesus hardly ever defined his terms. Even when the disciples said, “We don’t get that,” he often answered with a story or a parable.

This is certainly true of today’s gospel, what has come to be known as The Great Commission. It is sometimes considered the Mission Statement of the Church, its marching orders, its Strategic Plan:  “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.” …

First, we have to acknowledge that this verse has prompted absolutely scandalous actions by Christians. It has been used as a mandate to conquer, to convert, and as a vehicle for religious bullying. “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war…” says the old hymn. Most Evangelicals say the Great Commission is to go everywhere in the world to convince people to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior, and therefore gain eternal life.

Really? It says that?

Let’s define some terms.

How do you “make disciples?” By arguing them into saying they believe a certain thing to save their eternal soul from damnation in hell?

No. You do it the way Jesus formed his disciples: he loved them, he taught them, he blessed them; he helped them. And later, when he sent his disciples out into the world, he said that if someone doesn’t welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust from your feet and move on. This doesn’t sound like a convert or perish situation.

In New Testament terms, “all nations” is widely understood to mean the Gentiles, as well as the Jews. It’s hard to imagine this meant proselytizing outside the mosque in Portland or the temple in St. Louis.

“Baptism” is initiation into a community and of course, you can’t baptize all nations. You can’t baptize one nation. Baptism is the result of and the sign of a freely-made commitment, not fire insurance against hell.

In other words, you can’t make law out of gospel. You can’t say that this passage from Matthew means that Jesus wants you to convert the world to Christianity by any means necessary.

But suppose we take the Great Commission on more defensible terms, and see it as a mandate to love and serve, following the example and teaching of Jesus. In fact, later today we will celebrate and salute those volunteers at St. John’s who have stepped up to serve God’s church and people within it and without its walls.

The traditional reasons we engage in mission (whether it is giving our time, talent or treasure) are varied.

We may do it in gratitude for what we have been given or for what someone has done for us. We’ve just observed the 70th anniversary of D-Day when Allied Forces landed on the beaches to begin the libration of France. Out of gratitude, the French promised this regarding the fallen American soldiers at Normandy: “We will take care of their graves as if they were the tombs of our own children.”

We do “mission” because we empathize with the pain of another, so we make a financial gift to Hazelden or a campaign to prevent bullying.

We do mission to relieve guilt, so we take some things to the food shelf, maybe prompted by a visit to the supermarket when we put our overflowing cartful of organic groceries on the checkout counter, along with expensive shampoo, portion-size containers to help us eat less, and a guilty pleasure copy of People magazine, while the person in line behind us is purchasing eggs, bread, milk, hamburger and cereal and is searching for change and coupons in her purse.

We do it because of fear that if we don’t do something, people we love could be at risk, so we find out how to work against gun violence.

But there’s more to it.

In stewardship campaigns and in requests for volunteers and in spiels to support various causes, we have all heard appeals that address some of the rewards I’ve just mentioned. I think the underlying question in our minds is this: What’s in it for me to give something up? What do I get out of making a change?

So what if we heard the Great Commission, as we have defined it, in a different way? As an answer to the question: “What’s in it for me?” besides a momentary satisfaction or reduction of guilt about our lifestyle?

What if Jesus was saying go forth and love – not only because others need this – but also because you need it. You need to go forth taking with you your doubts (the lesson says that some of the disciples doubted), your theological uncertainties, your mixed motives. You need to “go forth” from a place of comfort or complacency or your spiritual growth will be stunted and you will undergo a sort of death, a death by separation from each other and from God caused by passivity combined with fear.

This mission stuff is serious business. Elie Wiesel says that every day we make the decision to repeat ourselves or choosing to grow. The Great Commission tells us that we need to be more intentional about this choice.

It doesn’t have to be a gigantic unrealistic sacrifice. You don’t have to fund a foundation or join the Peace Corps for ten years – unless you can and want to. Scripture says that we are all given different gifts and it would be stupid to pressure yourself to do something you aren’t good at or give up something that jeopardizes your own future.

The key is this, says Frederick Buechener: to act at those points where your deepest gladness and the world’s need intersect, at the heart of the Cross.

So someone I know gives time to play the piano in hospital wards of sick children. Someone in this parish mends clothing for women at a shelter and teaches them to sew. During WW II, the Navajo Indians offered their language and became known as the Code Talkers, not once having their top-secret message system broken. And in one of the most stirring acts of ministry I have ever witnessed, the priest who started Holy Apostles, Bill Bolson, gave a kidney to one of his Hmong parishioners who could find a match nowhere else.

It’s as if, at our birth, God front-loads us with so many resources we couldn’t begin to use them all during our lifetime. When we “go forth” out of our comfort zones, as Jesus tells us to do, we are put in touch with what we have inside to give, we are empowered, we are transformed, we feel differently about ourselves. That’s why the call to mission is about us, not only those at the receiving end of our efforts.

Columnist David Brooks writes, “The information universe tempts you with mildly pleasant but ultimately numbing diversions. The only way to stay fully alive is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep. Down there it’s possible to make progress toward fulfilling your terrifying longing, which is the experience that produces joy.”

Because if you have the courage to admit what you love and love to do and then do it not only for the benefit of others but for the joy it brings to you, the “terrifying longings” we all feel, the loneliness, the fear we have made no difference, are eased.

For quite a while I was puzzled as to why this Sunday’s Gospel was paired with the story of the Creation from the Hebrew Scriptures. But then I saw it: In Genesis, the first person of the Trinity—the Father, the Creator mirrors what Jesus urges us to do in The Great Commission. The Creator goes forth and makes the world and comes into relationship with it and us and, pronounces it “good.”

And during all of this movement, this “going forth” we are offered the promise of presence. Our lesson today is the final verses of the book of Matthew and says this: “And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” And how does Mathew begin? With the birth of Jesus, with the Incarnation of God in human form, called Emmanuel, which means God with us.

I said before that this mission stuff is serious business. A huge study by the Pew research group concluded that the attitudes of Americans are more polarized today than at any point in recent history. This is not only in Congress—where the polarization has become so extreme almost nothing gets done—but also in the fact that politically engaged liberals and conservatives don’t even want to be neighbors any more. They want only to live near people who agree with them. We don’t want to converse; we don’t even want to be in the vicinity of the other. This is frightening.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible describes an interaction Jesus has with one of the disciples and concludes this way: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” The looking and the loving are connected and maybe the first step is to really look at each other without criticism.

Twenty years ago, President Reagan visited the beach at Normandy to commemorate the 40th anniversary of D-Day. He paid special tribute to the Army Rangers who took the cliffs at Point du Huc where German guns were trained on Omaha beach as the Allied forces came ashore. Two hundred and twenty-five Rangers went out on this mission to climb the cliffs and disable the guns; only 90 came back.

Reagan then nodded to the group of old soldiers sitting in the front of him, some with walkers or wheelchairs, old men, moving slowly enough to be annoying to some people, easy to disregard if you saw them on the street.  And the President said this: “Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

And Jesus looking at them, loved them.

And Jesus, looking at the German soldiers on the hill, loved them.

And Jesus, looking at us, loves us, and says, “Go forth.”


David Brooks, “The Art of Focus,” New York Times, June 2, 2014

Pew Research study on political attitudes, June 13, 2014

Ronald Reagan, speech at Normandy, June 6, 1984

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