Summary: The risen Jesus commands us to be a disciple making, grace offering and teaching, learning, obedient people who by faith know that he is always with us
It is good on this sort of occasion to go back to basics and to remind ourselves what sort of community we are called to be. And for that I have turned to the last few words of Matthew’s gospel and what is known as the great commission.
The disciples have gathered together and Jesus has said to them: ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me’.
I guess that is easier to take from a man who has risen from the dead.
Clearly Jesus has authority over the processes of nature and over death.
And he has authority over the lives of men and women.
God, by raising Jesus from the dead, has shown them that he is the Messiah, the One who He promised to send as his ruler, who has authority over all people and over all rulers.
There is a booklet that has been produced about our Queen, called The servant Queen and the King she follows. If you are introduced to the Queen, you will bow or curtsey. It is a mark of respect, and a recognition that she is the head of our state. But our Queen freely recognises the authority of Jesus Christ as her Lord. She, as far as I know, curtseys to no person, but she curtseys to him.
And when we pray for the rulers of the world we are actually doing something quite radical: we are stating that we believe that there is a power, an authority, that is greater than them. That is why totalitarian rulers struggle with an active and lively church – or, for that matter, any faith, where people recognise a higher authority than them.
And as one who has all authority, Jesus gives his followers a task to do.
He calls us to go and make disciples.
It would have been so easy for the first disciples to keep together, secure in the knowledge that they had been chosen by Jesus, that they had intimacy with God, and that they had a glorious hope. But they are told to ‘go’.
For some that is an actual call to relocate.
Many people have heard Jesus’ call to go and serve him and make him known in other cultures. I pray that as a parish we will get behind Tom and Jemma as they go to Ethiopia. I hope that we will pray for them, support them (and Ellie May and Mim) and give to their work. It would be great if we could ‘go’ with them as a parish together.
And often we need to hear God’s call to ‘go’ to a different place, not only because the desire of Jesus is for the people of all nations and cultures to become his disciples, followers, but also because so often it is when we relocate that we find we become much more dependent on him – and therefore open to him. And some of us here may need to hear that.
But ‘going’ is not necessarily about moving on. It is also about an attitude of mind. It is very easy for us to do the same old thing because it is easy and safe. New people, new things, new ways require effort. There are challenges and opposition that will need to be overcome. And it is very easy to become lazy or ‘weary with doing good’.
We need that ‘go’ attitude. In fact, I would argue that the church of today particularly needs to hear the command to go.
That is why I am delighted that St Peter’s is setting up this new service, Sunday at 4. Even though we are inviting people into the building, it is about an attitude of ‘going’. It is why I am encouraged when people set up initiatives: Inspiring women, mini church, little fishes (a new creche based at St Mary’s), Sometimes on Sunday, work with 18-30 year olds.
And we need to recommit ourselves to ‘go’ – even if it simply means getting out of the armchair, turning off the telly, moving out from the familiar group, breaking a routine that is in danger of stifling us - and getting down on our knees, listening to God, and then picking up the phone and ringing someone, or visiting a neighbour, or inviting a friend to an event, getting involved in something different or even – if this is what God is calling us to do -putting up the ‘for sale’ sign and moving.
But this is not going for ‘goings’ sake. It is not just a question of moving out of our comfort zones. We are called to go with a very specific purpose.
We are to be a disciple making community.
Only God can make disciples. Only he can give men or women a desire for him; only he can give life to someone who is spiritually dead.
But we have our part to play.
We are to pray – pray that spiritually blind eyes are opened, that those who have spiritually closed ears will hear.
We are to proclaim the good news: of our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, of sins forgiven, of the presence of the Holy Spirit and intimacy with God, of peace and purpose; of the present and future kingdom of God.
And we are to encourage people as they begin to respond; we are to support them when they waver or struggle; we are to teach each other and learn from each other.
We are not called to expect people to be perfect. It is only God who can do that, and it will take time! We are pilgrims not perfected saints. We are sinners inviting other sinners to walk with us on a journey as we follow Jesus, as we learn from him. And because we are sinners, church will be very messy. There will be conflicts, frustrations, wrong routes taken, disagreements. But we are disciples together, heading in the same direction. We want to become like Jesus and to be with him.
And notice, please, that this is something that includes people from all nations. I do not yet know how I am going to vote in the referendum. I still struggle to see what are the issues underlying the decision. But I would remind you this. If you plan to vote to stay in, so that we only have Europeans coming here and can keep people from other continents out, or if you plan to vote out so that we can close our borders to everyone, then we have forgotten God’s vision for humanity: of people from all nations together in unity, recognising our need for each other, gathered together in worship of the one who loved us, and died for us, and rose from the dead.
We are to be a grace offering community.
If you join any society then you usually have to do something to qualify for membership. You have to pass an exam, go through some sort of ritual, be recommended as a decent sort of chap.
The only thing that Jesus asks you to do to become a member of his church, to become a disciple, is to allow someone else to throw some water on you, not in their name but in the name of God! (The bible doesn’t even say clearly how old you need to be when it happens or how much water). And the water is a symbol of his washing, of forgiveness.
It is all about grace. To become a member of God’s church, all you need to do is receive the gift of forgiveness that God offers you. That means, of course, that you need to recognise that you need forgiveness (quite a few stumble over that) and that forgiveness is a free gift. You can’t earn it. You can’t baptise yourself. It is a gift.
So we need to urge people to be baptised; to receive the free gift of God; to become part of the life of God – the intimacy that is shared between Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and of the community of people who are disciples of Jesus. It means that we need to be people who welcome sinners: whether they seem to have it all together or if they are obviously messed up.
And we are to be a teaching, learning and obedient community.
Jesus calls his disciples ‘to teach them to obey everything I have taught [you]’
The first disciples of Jesus did that through their teaching in those early Christian communities – and we have their teaching in the New Testament. They passed on what Jesus had taught them.
And that is why we do put stress on teaching here: whether it is at services, small groups, weekends away, and through personal study. It is why, after worship (the first reaction of the disciples when they see the risen Jesus is to worship him), our priority in this parish is to teach the bible. And we do try to be faithful to his teaching, and to pass on what has been passed on to us.
We need to be teaching churches.
But there is a flip side to that.
We need to be learning churches: people who seek to learn, and to grow in our knowledge.
But more importantly, we need to be people who are obedient. We are not learning in order to win a bible trivia quiz, or to make ourselves sound good. We are learning so that we can ‘be obedient’ to Jesus.
There is the story of the three people talking about which version of the bible they prefer. One said they preferred the language of the KJV. The second said they preferred the clarity and accuracy of the NRSV. The third said they preferred their mother’s version. ‘What’, said the other two, ‘has she translated the bible?’. ‘No’ says the third, ‘but she lives it’.
What we have in Matthew 28.16-20 is a great event (the resurrection), a great truth (Jesus has all authority), a great task (to go and make disciples) and a great promise: Jesus promises to always be with us.
For those first disciples that was important.
Jesus was physically present with them, but was about to go away. They would no longer see him. But he would still be with them, as he is with us, through his Spirit.
And for us it is equally as important. Because in doing the task, it is very easy to forget that it is ultimately about relationship with him.
There will be times when we clearly experience his presence – that is when it is easy.
But there will be many times when we do not. And that is when faith kicks in.
When we get up out of the armchair to ‘go’, we believe he is there.
As we are obedient to his command to make disciples, to baptise, to teach, we trust that he is with us.
When we face difficulties, discouragement or opposition, by faith we know that we are not on our own.
When nothing seems to happen, our lives don't seem to change, the world remains stubbornly godless and our prayers appear unanswered, we know that it is not futile and that we are not praying to no-thing but to some-one.
When it seems that he is so distant, we cling on to this promise that he is with us.
This is a promise for that time each day when you stop and remind yourself of his presence with you and you consciously seek him; it is a promise for our very ordinary daily lives often when nothing special seems to happen or for the moments of pain, frustration, confusion, doubt or fear; it is the promise for when we step out in obedience and do a new thing.
Jesus, who rose from the dead, who has all authority, who has given us a great task, will always be with us.