Matthew 28:16-20 — The Commissioning of the Disciples
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
Sermon: Good things come in threes…
Let’s pray; May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our creator, redeemer and enabler. Amen.
Today is Trinity Sunday. It is an opportunity to focus on our understandings of God as being one and yet also being three.
They say that bad luck come in threes… But good things can come in threes too. And that is what I have titled this sermon, “Good things come in Threes…”
Our gospel reading this morning comes right at the end of the book of Matthew. Jesus is crucified, and rises after three days. He appears to the women and tells the women to instruct the men, to go to Galilee where they will see Jesus again. The eleven remaining disciples go north to Galilee, climb a hill and Jesus appears to them as promised.
Note that Jesus reappears to the women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary – first. They are the first people to visit the tomb when the Sabbath is over. It is the women who tell the men to go back to Galilee. The women are the messengers. The writer of Matthew’s gospel also gives women prominence in the genealogy at the start of the gospel, that traces the line from Jesus back to David and then back to Abraham. Both women and men have a full part in these stories and in spreading the Good News of God’s love for us.
There are eleven male disciples remaining after Judas has left. For Matthew it isn’t important to make the number back up to twelve, so his gospel has no story about appointing another disciple to take the place of Judas Iscariot. Eleven men, a small group, are enough to set the vision of the kingdom in motion.
Did you note in the reading that the disciples worshipped Jesus when he re-appeared to them, but some doubted. Not just doubting Thomas who we hear about in John’s gospel, but maybe 3 or 4 others too! Don’t be too quick to judge the disciples who weren’t sure that they were seeing Jesus and whether or not they could do the things that he was asking of them. If we were there, that might have been our reaction too. And anyway, I think it is better, healthier, wiser even, to ask questions and be sure in your own mind that you are doing the right thing, before setting out on a new mission.
These men had left their businesses, work, maybe wives and families, and land, to follow Jesus up to now. And that hadn’t worked out very well for them. Jesus hadn’t defeated the Romans, hadn’t overturned the Jewish political and economic authorities and powers that be, and hadn’t made their lives any easier. The disciples and the rest of the un-named people in the group that had followed Jesus, were now at a turning point. They had to make a decision: go back and pick up their old lives as best they could, or persist in working towards Jesus’ vision of a better world for all.
Go back or take a step forward in faith, to a hopeful, but uncertain future.
The Jewish community in Jesus’ time had many laws and rules and regulations written down in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Also known as the law of Moses. These laws are summarised in the Ten Commandments, which still provide us with useful guidelines for living today. But for every rule there is always someone who wants to find a loophole, and so the regulators, mainly the priests, had to keep refining and clarifying the laws, down to the last detail. They ended up with many different rules about what sacrifices were required at the Temple and about what activities did and didn’t constitute work on the Sabbath, and so on. I’m not entirely sure whether all Jewish people actually bothered to try to follow all these rules in their day-to-day lives. We know that the Sadducees and Pharisees groups did try to live by the rules. Probably the rest of the Jewish community would follow them as best they could.
But the trouble with such detailed and nit-picking laws is that they become a burden and people lose sight of the intent of the original rules — how to live well, alongside others, in peaceful communities. Jesus was a back to basics sort of guy. He put people before rules. If someone is hungry on the Sabbath, then pluck that corn and feed them now. If he can heal someone with a withered arm now, even though it is the Sabbath, then how dare you make that person wait another day to be healed. How obscene to let his suffering continue another minute, just for the sake of a precious rule.
What do we think about the Bible now? What is our attitude to it?
Some Christians believe that every word in the Bible is literally true, factual and historically accurate. And furthermore, that if any part of the Bible is not true, then the whole foundation of their faith will be shaken. The Bible then becomes a rigid text, that can be interpreted in only one way. It becomes a weapon to beat those with different ideas into submission.
It will not surprise you to learn that is not my attitude to the Bible, and I don’t recommend that you treat the Bible that way either.
The Bible is full of foundational stories and wisdom, about people relating to God and to each other. We can reach into the depths of this book and pull out treasure for our lives today. The issue is not whether a particular story in the Bible really happened the way it is written down, whether it is true in any absolute sense, but rather what value and encouragement can we take from it today? The Bible is a beautiful and powerful thing, which needs to be treated with respect.
Let’s get back to those disciples on the mountain in Galilee. What does Jesus say to encourage and persuade them, to help them move through and beyond their doubts?
First: I make the rules now and I give you permission to act. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Don’t look to your law books and scriptures, don’t look to your Kings and priests, ignore the Romans – I, Jesus, have all the power you need. And I’m offering it to you. All you have to do is say, “Yes.”
Second: What do I want you to do? “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, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Let’s break that down. “Go.” Don’t stay here in a pious huddle, take that first step, start your journey.
“Make disciples of all nations.” That means tell everyone you meet on your travels about the good news that God loves us and that there is a better way to live. But what if they already have a good, nurturing religion of their own? (I’ll come back to that!)
“…baptizing them” Baptism was a serious and often dangerous commitment for a follower of Jesus to undertake in the first century. It required training over several months and was often performed at Easter. The Romans persecuted and attacked Christians, so worship was often held in secret, in private houses.
“in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” Matthew’s gospel was probably written down in the 80s of the first century – about 50 years after Jesus died. My theological reading suggests that the concept of the Trinity – Father, Son & Holy Spirit – probably wasn’t known to Jesus, but was developed later by the early church. Jesus came to be known as Jesus the Messiah, or Jesus the Christ, but I think these are terms that were applied to him by his followers long after his death, as they struggled to come to terms with his crucifixion and started to build a new theology that would serve the developing Christian church. The Council of Nicea in the year 325 was still arguing over the fine points of how Jesus could be both human and also divine. Jesus key vision was always of a just society, where everyone had enough – of the kingdom of heaven, here on earth.
“and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” What did Jesus command his disciples to do? Actually, his instructions were quite simple: Love God, Love your neighbour, Love yourself. That is the sum total of Jesus’ law. There are no loopholes to sneak out through. Either our lives meet these simple standards or they don’t.
Third: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is harder to interpret. In what way was Jesus with the disciples after he died and rose? How is Jesus with us here today, how do we know? When does the age finish? Does it ever finish?
I find the usual descriptions of the Trinity, of God being Three in One, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a bit distant. The modern usage of Creator, Redeemer and Enabler is more appealing, but I have come up with my own description.
Worship God, Follow Jesus, Spirit Filled.
Worship God, Follow Jesus, Spirit Filled.
To me this has an implied movement, freedom of action and purpose. It is not a static theory.
We here this morning are worshipping God. (Remember, I’m just up here leading and guiding you, I am not the focus.) If we worship God, we are saved from worshipping possessions or worldly power. And God is found through the week in our everyday lives, in beautiful unexpected sights or interactions with other people. When we keep still and listen, God is with us.
I find it helpful to make a distinction between Jesus the man who was born and lived on this earth and died just like us, and Jesus the Messiah or Christ of faith. We can then focus on what the Bible tells us Jesus the man said and did, and try to do the same. We will fail as often as we succeed, but we need to keep doing and saying the things that Jesus’ example showed us.
I see Spirit as Energy. The Spirit is that flash of inspiration and second wind that we get when we have run dry. Spirit is freedom. Spirit is power. Spirit is light and music. Spirit is the good in you and the good in me.
If we are filled with the Spirit, we also recognise the Spirit at work in other people. Pala explained to me recently that the greeting and action of Namaste [demonstrate] is more than just a polite greeting. It has a deeper spiritual significance and conveys the meaning: The Divine in me bows to the Divine in you. Isn’t that beautiful! Namaste.
Some closing thoughts:
Step out in faith, encouraged by Jesus’ message and example, and recognise the good in others.
Live well, alongside others, in peaceful communities
Here are two sample poems from Meg Hartfield’s A Celebration of Life
The book is available in print and in 3 eBook formats – see below for ordering links.
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We had heard Mary rapturous, glowing afire with excitement “We have seen him – he spoke to me!” Well, we know women – the harrowing, terrible last few days prostrated with grief obviously her mind unhinged – women are unreliable witnesses that is well known.
So, wearily, returning home seven miles, from Jerusalem to Emmaus – but seeming longer, discussing, despairingly the seeming futility the end of our dreams.
The stranger was not noticed was obviously ignorant of events so momentous to us – so we told him. Strange the way he responded – explaining courteously we invited him in.
And as we ate, amazingly, the stranger became host broke the bread, passed it – a stunned moment of recognition – only one man broke bread thus! Jesus! alive! here! gone! Seven miles was as nothing with winged feet returning bursting with incredulous joy.
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Swords Into Ploughshares
Ploughshares – implements for cutting furrows Swords – implements for cutting people.
Ploughshares – fixed in a frame drawn by a horse guided by a man Swords – fixed in a hand wielded by a man.
Ploughshares – used before sowing Swords – used for cutting down
Ploughshares – used for rooting out weeds Swords – used for rooting out lives
God help us to prepare our life-soil to receive your seeds of fruitful love.
The full text of the reflection is shown below after the video.
Reflection: Who is my enemy?
Let’s pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God, Amen.
Jesus parables were always challenging and in that style I have titled this reflection: “Who is my Enemy?”
The ideal of loving God and loving your neighbour was not new in Jesus’ time. In Leviticus 19:18 we are told “Don’t seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people. Love your neighbour as yourself.” The ten commandments given to Moses are rules about living harmoniously in community with our neighbours. So these ideas had been part of the Jewish tradition for many centuries before Jesus.
In Matthew chapter 5 we find Jesus sharpening, making more provocative and demanding, the commandments in the Old Testament. There are a series of teachings in the pattern: “You have heard that it was said…But I say…” For instance:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement;”
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Jesus adds to the commandments to love God and neighbour, the challenge to also love your enemies.
Here is a paradox: If you can learn to love your enemy, can they still be your enemy?
Two things have brought this question into focus for me.
I have been reading Jewish academic Amy-Jill Levine’s book “Short Stories by Jesus: The enigmatic Parables of a controversial Rabbi.” She has lots of stimulating ideas about how to interpret Jesus’ parables, as they have come down to us in the Gospels, in modern translations of the Bible. In her comments on the Good Samaritan story, in which the lawyer asks, Who is my neighbour, Levine says something remarkable.
It relates to how Hebrew is written down. In the formal written Hebrew used in handwritten scrolls of scripture, only the consonants are printed. The person reading the text has to mentally add in the appropriate vowels, based on the context of the rest of the sentence.
Let me demonstrate in English with the consonants T L L.
We can form many words by adding vowels to these letters. The context will help us, for example:
“A child is short, but an adult is…. TALL.”
“Ask me no questions, TELL me no lies”
“The shopkeeper put the money in the TILL”
“She paid a TOLL to cross the bridge.”
“And for fans of early 1970s folk rock, we have the band Jethro TULL.”
You get the idea.
Back to Amy-Jill Levine.
In Hebrew, the words “neighbour” and “evil” share the same consonants (Resh ר Ayinע); they differ only in the vowels. Both words are written identically. ע ר
So on the page these two consonants can stand for two opposite ideas.
Combined with Hebrew vowels this way, the resulting word means
friend, comrade, buddy, colleague ; neighbour, another
Or combined with vowels this way, the resulting word means
רַע שֵם ז’
bad, evil ; villain ; trouble, ill
(Sorry I can’t pronounce the Hebrew words.) But can you see the challenge here?
You or I reading the text have to decide whether it means enemy or neighbour based on the context. The meaning is not fixed, but flexible.
Taking this idea one step further, if we can choose to interpret the same text two different ways, can we also choose whether to consider another person as a neighbour or an enemy? I think we can.
Today is the 15th anniversary of the event that Americans call 9/11. After the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York were destroyed, people in the United States flew flags from their houses and many started going back to church again. In the face of an identifiable enemy and threat, they united behind traditional symbols of meaning and togetherness.
The government response was to seek revenge by going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Horrifying wars, which have led directly to many of the conflicts we see today in the Middle East. The prophesy from Jeremiah we heard this morning brings to mind the devastation to people, and to the land itself, that war causes. It is a warning to follow the ideals of loving God and neighbour, or face catastrophe.
Many odd things happened on 9/11. There is a lot of speculation about what really happened and why?
What is clear is that people in the United States identified themselves as us the good guys under attack from them, the enemy.
That’s where the trouble starts, by identifying and naming someone else as different, as other, rather than looking for the things we have in common.
How can we discover what we have in common with another person?
I find social occasions with lots of people making small talk very difficult. What works for me is to find one person to talk to and by listening carefully to what they are saying, find a topic that is important to them to talk about. Then I can contribute my ideas and experiences and we get to know each other a little.
The second thing I want to share with you is a visual idea I have been mulling over since February.
Religious beliefs can divide or unite people.
Imagine for a moment that this segment represents Methodists. The darker shades at the top of the segment are where we find the sacred texts, rituals and traditions that we hold onto most firmly. John Wesley’s sermons, Charles Wesley’s hymns, an open communion table and a concern for social justice. These are things which Methodists identify with.
Lets say that the next segment represents Catholics. The darker shades at the top of the segment represent devotion to the Pope, rosary beads, regular confession – the things that Catholics hold dear.
Lets say the next segment represents Islamic faith. The darker shades towards the outside of the segment represent a belief in the prophet Mohammed, the Koran, pilgrimage to Mecca and the other things that Moslems hold dear.
Now lets complete the circle with other faiths.
Note the black lines separating the segments. They symbolise the divisions between people of faith. These divisions can lead to intolerance and conflict. Taken to extremes they can lead to violence and war. I imagine this as a journey into the darkness, which swallows up all the good things about faith and leads to oblivion.
[Show slides of circle receding into blackness]
What if instead we look inwards to the centre of the wheel, towards those things which we have in common with other people and other faiths. And let’s remove the borders between us. Now as we journey towards the light at the centre, we are free to sample the ideas and ideals of other faiths and discover the things we have in common.
Loving God (or Gods) and loving neighbour are universal ideas, shared by people of faith.
[Show video of turning circle]
And what if the Holy Spirit blows and the circle rotates, pivoting around the light in the centre and blurring the distinctions between us?
Is world peace really that easy? No, but Jesus pointed us in the right direction.
In the Good Samaritan story the lawyer wants an easy, tick the box answer to eternal life. Instead Jesus tells him to love his neighbour, a lifelong commitment. So the lawyer asks, OK who is my neighbour? and gets an unpalatable answer. Your enemy, the Samaritan, is your neighbour too.
Jesus’ wisdom that we should love our enemy still challenges us profoundly today.
If you can learn to love your enemy, can they still be your enemy?
No, because of your change of heart, they are now your neighbour.
I led worship at St Luke’s Methodist Church, Pukerua Bay today – 19 June 2016.
Here is the text of my sermon. I have added links to online resources.
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Let’s pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God. Amen
On the internet I follow an American Presbyterian minister John Schuck who does half hour interviews with authors about their recent books. His website is calledProgressive Spiritand I download and listen to the interviews on my phone. These are free. He has just talked withPatricia Tull, who is another ordained Presbyterian minister and a professor of the Hebrew Bible. Her book is calledInhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis. A couple of points she made struck a chord with me.
First she talked about the Exodus and the lessons that God wanted the Israelites to learn during their years of wandering in the desert. Manna was provided from heaven each morning. There was enough food for each day, but it did not keep for long. This meant that the greedy or entrepreneurial couldn’t hoard the manna and try to sell it later at a profit. And the considerate people who held back politely, waiting for others, could also gather enough. As it says in Exodus Chapter 16: “…those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.”
On the sixth morning of the week a double helping of manna was provided, so the people could gather enough for that day and the Sabbath, the following day, when they could rest from the work of gathering and preparing food.
God wanted the people to see food as nourishment rather than a commodity to be hoarded and commercialised. And the people needed to learn to be grateful to God who could be relied on to provide for them. These principles were important training for the time when the people came to the promised land, the land of milk and honey, where food was plentiful. Then in the time of plenty the people would respect the land and treat each other fairly.
Another point that Patricia Tull made was about the verses in Genesis Chapter 1 that talk about God giving people dominion over the land, the animals, the fish of the sea and all creation. We people have been all too ready to translate that word as giving permission to dominate and exploit the land and the world’s natural resources. For instance, in America there are many Christians, who take a conservative, literal view of the Bible, as giving them permission to exploit coal reserves by ploughing the tops off mountains to get at the coal. They also deny or ignore the effects of human caused climate change, when the coal is burned for electricity generation, on the basis that they will be saved by the rapture if the end of the world comes in their lifetimes. Yes, that really is a commonly held attitude.
Food production methods in America are a cause for concern today. A hundred years ago farms were small and held by families. They had a few cows, pigs and chickens. They planted a variety of crops, rotated where the crops were planted from year-to-year and enriched the soil by ploughing back in the animal manure. Topsoil was retained. The farms supplied local communities. The food was healthy and varied.
Today most crops are grown on huge farms owned by corporations. They plant vast expanses of a single crop. The topsoil is lost through wind erosion, so the fields have to be fertilised with artificial fertiliser, which runs off into streams and aquifers. Beef cattle, pigs and poultry are raised in feed lots – huge sheds and barns – where they are given corn to eat, rather than grazing in fields of grass. They produce so much manure that the farms cant handle it and it runs off into streams and aquifers. The food they produce is lower quality and less healthy, with a lot of corn starch getting into people’s diets through processed foods. These farming methods are bad for the land, the animals and for people.
New Zealand is little better. Early European settlers clear-felled the native trees for timber and to make way for pasture for sheep and cattle to graze on. As a result in the hilly country we have slips and soil erosion, and need to top-dress artificial fertilisers to keep up the grass growth. On the flatter land big dairy farms create problems with needing to irrigate their pastures, so putting pressure on scarce local water resources. Run off of fertiliser and effluent from the stock pollutes streams and rivers. The government therefore lowers the standards of water quality in our rivers so that being able to wade in them is good enough – forget about swimming in them.
I am very concerned about the current and future impacts of climate change. The sea levels are rising now and will rise a lot more in the rest of my life-time. Storms are becoming more intense and extremes of rain or the lack of it will cause bigger floods and longer, harder droughts. Continuing dumb farming practices will put food security at risk, even in countries like ours.
How should we respond the these issues? Despair and anger are two entirely reasonable options. But I suggest instead that we increase our knowledge and understanding of what is happening, and cultivate an attitude of hope.
There are many good books, documentaries, news articles and internet resources that describe what is going on and the imaginative options for changing our approach. I like watching YouTube videos by climate scientists which give me the latest facts and findings.
There are also lots of inspiring local initiatives around the world to discover. Local farmer’s markets are a great way to buy fresh food direct from the growers. Many smart dairy farmers in New Zealand are planting trees alongside streams and fencing them off, and the quality of the water in their streams is slowing being restored. Some are milking only once a day and finding that the improvements in the health of the animals, their land and the quality of the milk, make up for the lost income caused by producing less.
As people of faith we have the stories and lessons of the Bible to sustain and encourage us. We need to interpret them with good hearts and intellectual honesty. Instead of treating Genesis chapter one as permission to dominate the earth, we should read it as a reminder to be grateful for all that God has given us, and to take seriously our role as servants and guardians of the land. We hold the world in trust for future generations – our children and their children and so on. And as the Israelites in the desert learned, we too can learn to be satisfied with having enough, and put aside the greed that causes us to always want more.
In the letter to the Galatian church (Gal 3: 23-29), Paul tells us that he turned around his thinking. He admits to previously having a legalistic, literal interpretation of the Law that kept him prisoner and led him to persecute those with a different approach to faith and to life. Paul interpreted the Law – that is, the first 5 books of the Old Testament – especially Leviticus and Deuteronomy – in a pedantic way. He forgot that the original intent of the laws was to help people live well together in community. His spirit-filled experience on the road to Damascus changed him.
Listen again to this beautiful new vision: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Warm hearts, open minds and wise actions are necessary to safeguard the earth. We all need to work together.
May the winds of the spirit blow freely among us, and fill and inspire us with life-giving joy. Amen.