224th Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — July 7, 2010
Preacher: Jonathan Shively, executive director of Congregational Life Ministries for the Church of the Brethren
Text: Matthew 28:16-20
Well, what a week! For many of us it has been exhilarating. For some comforting. For some frustrating. For others disheartening. For some of us this has been a mountaintop experience. For others a descending, darkening valley. Some of us will leave encouraged. Some go forth feeling justified. Some will leave perplexed. Others will leave despondent. Some are leaving injured. Many have simply gone already!
The Brethren have been to Pittsburgh together. We’ve done business, worshiped, prayed, sung, studied, eaten, celebrated, grieved, fought, reconciled, laughed, cried. We have given everything we’ve got, exhausting body, mind, and emotion. In spite of an inhumane schedule, we have been human together, and we have been church.
So what does it matter that we have been together these days? What difference does it make, for me, for you, for the Church of the Brethren, for the world, to God?
So what value has been added, reward gained, investment earning realized by spending $.5 million dollars to gather together this week inside the world’s most eco-friendly convention center?
So what contribution has been made to the world’s ability to see sign and symbol of another way of living, of the timeless story of God and the reconciling ministry of Jesus?
When the eleven remaining disciples encountered the ascending Jesus on the mountaintop, they were being obedient to the angelic messenger’s directive and the risen-but-not-yet-ascended Jesus to return to Galilee and meet him on the mountain. They worshiped him on that mountain. And they doubted him.
Perhaps they were saying, “So what?!”
Jesus, we have lived with you, loved you, misunderstood you yet have given up everything for you, followed faithfully yet not always full of faith. You were mocked, tried, killed. Dead. We understand that part. You appeared after your burial, alive, mocking the power of death in return. Here you’ve called us to return to Galilee. We worship you; we remain doubtful of you.
Are any of you here this morning familiar with this paradox? We worship Jesus. We have our doubts. Here we are on this “mountain” at our annual Galilee gathering, seeing Jesus, sharing in worship, and yet wondering.
So what? Now what? So, what is next?!
Throughout this past year, we have been provoked, cajoled, invited, and encouraged to take Jesus seriously. The reminder to take Jesus seriously is very simple, and yet there is a quality about it that seems impossible, that raises questions for us about our ability to perceive what it means to seriously follow Jesus, let alone how to go about it.
Captured in the 2003 surfing documentary Step Into Liquid by Dana Brown, Dale Webster engages the impossible, pursues the simple, and demonstrates remarkable persistence. Dale’s quest began September 3, 1975.
For Dale, that’s what taking something seriously looks like. It is persistent. In pre-view it is impossible. And yet, from what I could determine, his daughter was right: the streak continued well past the 25 years through at least 28.5 years, over 12,000 consecutive days, and for all I know might still be going strong.
While following Jesus for most of us likely doesn’t involve a surfboard, and while Dale’s life philosophy doesn’t square well with most of ours, following Jesus does involve the type of ferocious persistence that Dale Webster exhibits. Some might just use the phrase “git ‘er done.”
Jesus’ words to the disciples speak to us Brethren as a “get it done” call to action, a task list of sorts. After all, we are very good at getting things done. Homes for Haiti, health kits, community food pantries, building projects, curriculum, conferences, retreats, reports, meetings, meals, mediations: need to get it done? Call a Brethren. We’re likely up to the task.
A task is something that we define clearly, develop a plan of accomplishment around and then follow through to its completion. There is joy, pride, and relief in naming, pursuing, and finishing a task. As technology-driven as my life is, I still keep a paper task list and relish the ink that flows from the pen as it covers over a completed task.
So in a task-oriented, measurable-goal-oriented society, it is easy to hear the Jesus mandate, what popularly is called the “Great Commission,” as a task list. Go. Make disciples of all nations. Baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Teach obedience to Jesus’ instructions. And remember.
Certainly there is an expectation for accomplishment present in these final words of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t just want the remaining eleven to sit around and wallow in nostalgia about the good old days when Jesus was hanging out with them, or to live on their laurels among those who encountered a post-death Jesus.
Jesus does want us to go, like BVSers, church planters and missionaries, into the world. He does expect us to usher new participants into God’s reigning community through baptism, like the Eder River Brethren or your local church “dunking days.” Jesus is concerned that our actions arise out of learned responses to conditions and situations of daily life, and that they be consistent with his teaching to love God completely and the other with equal passion, like our public advocacy, service, peacemaking, and community gardens.
But “to do” lists can also get us into trouble. They are necessarily limiting. A “to do” list that says “write a book” or “make some phone calls” is not particularly helpful. What kind of book? Phone calls to whom? Finish chapter 2 on discipleship or “call Lidia, Monique and Raphael” is much more specific and much more helpful. Even better is to add the “complete by” date to the item. There is necessarily a reductionist quality to our task lists, both in terms of specifying what the task itself is and the timeline on which it will be accomplished.
Unfortunately, applying this type of reductionism to the words of Jesus diminishes the point. If we convince ourselves that Jesus simply wants us to complete the tasks (go, disciple, baptize, teach, obey, remember), then it is possible that we focus so narrowly that we end up missing the main point. We stare at the trees without seeing the forest.
The final words of Jesus in Matthew are so much more than a task list. They in fact define a mission, the mission of God in the world, and clarify the disciples’ role in that mission.
The WORK of the disciples is always secondary to the PRESENCE of Jesus himself. The EFFECTIVENESS of the disciples is always secondary to the POWER of God. The RESPONSIBILITY of the disciples is always secondary to the AUTHORITY of Jesus.
Put more succinctly, the disciples (and we) are indisputably called to live as followers of Jesus, dynamic partners in God’s mission, engaged with our families, friends, neighbors, enemies, all nations, the whole of creation.
BUT, we are not Jesus!
When we reduce the mission of God to a task list, we unwittingly displace Jesus from his position of authority. We create our alternative to Jesus, a “check-off” list instead of a relationship.
That list takes lots of different forms. It may look like assent: get someone to agree that Jesus is Lord and Savior of their life; an important step in discipleship, but not a “check-off” item for Jesus. That list may look like behaviors: get someone to act in a certain manner; an important component of discipleship, but not a “check-off” item for Jesus. That list may look like practices: get someone to the baptismal pool, Sunday worship, or Lovefeast; important touchstones in discipleship, but not a “check-off” item for Jesus. That list may look like sacrifices: get someone to give up something significant for the sake of Jesus; important relinquishment for discipleship, but not a “check-off” item for Jesus.
In a culture which covets power, it is possible that we reduce Jesus to a task list because the real significance of Jesus, “God with us,” “life conquering death,” “cosmic, timeless authority,” is beyond our control. We do not hold the power; God does. Thankfully God’s choice to use that power is for the benefit of God’s own people, God’s own creation.
Remember Jacob, also called “Israel?” At Beersheba on the way to Egypt, God interrupted his night to declare “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again.” (Genesis 46:3-4) Jacob is certainly required to act, but God is THE ACTOR, the one with the power and authority.
Remember Moses, called to bring Israel out of Egypt? “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” (Exodus 3:12) God sent Moses. God went with Moses. Moses acted, reluctantly at times, but God was THE ACTOR, the one with power and authority.
Remember Joshua who finally led Israel into the land of promise? God declared to him, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5) Action? Joshua and the Israelites. Main ACTOR? God.
Today’s text is about Jesus, God in human form. Matthew’s description of this event begins with a genealogy which culminates in this promise: “She (Mary) will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” (Matthew 1:21-22)
And where and when is God with us? “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” promises Jesus in Matthew 18:20.
Which brings us to the “great commission.” Note how it begins, and ends, not with tasks but with mission. “For all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me . . . . And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The power and presence of Jesus cannot be confined to a task list, nor can it be limited to a statement of doctrine, nor can it be moderated to our level of comfort. To be disciples of Jesus, to take Jesus seriously, is to defer our own power to Jesus’ power on Jesus’ terms, not on my terms or your terms. We are not made powerless; but all of our power is seconded to us by Jesus.
In the Matthew 28 text today, the disciples are still trying to figure out what is expected of them as Jesus followers. There are the tasks that are articulated: go, disciple, baptize, teach, obey, remember. But there is also a greater expectation, one of quality, one of duration, to the end of the age. While the tasks involved in taking Jesus seriously are significant (the disciples are, after all, given something to DO!), the larger discipleship issue at stake is our capacity to concede the mission’s scope which is beyond our ability to task into being, and to remember where ultimate authority lies. Serious discipleship is defined by our living, lifelong relationship to Jesus. Period. Ultimately. Forever.
How will you take Jesus seriously? Will you continue to focus on your check-list for obedience? Or will you focus on the dynamic, life changing relationship he wants to have with you? Will you hear this simple invitation as one which is impossible to live up to, or even live into, or will you open to the embrace of the loving God, shown in Jesus, a love which transforms the impossible by virtue of being so simple? Will you consider the possibility that taking Jesus seriously may mean that we stop taking ourselves so seriously?
Go from this place today into the world. Make disciples, passionate followers of Jesus. Baptize others into the community of Jesus’ authority and God’s power. Teach the story of who Jesus is, the way he is a leader, what he has taught, and how it is that he remains among his people.
But in all this doing, never forget that the mandate for mission that we receive in Jesus’ final words of Matthew is a mandate for the long haul. It is an assurance that in spite of how well or how poorly we fulfill our to-do lists, the single-most important element of taking Jesus seriously is not something we can check off, but rather is something that we can count on: Emmanuel: God is with us!
The News Team for the 2010 Annual Conference includes writers Karen Garrett, Frank Ramirez, Frances Townsend; photographers Kay Guyer, Justin Hollenberg, Keith Hollenberg, Glenn Riegel; website staff Amy Heckert and Jan Fischer Bachman; and news director and editor Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford. Contact email@example.com .
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