Matthew 28:16-20; Daniel 7:9-14
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
18 May 2008
Growing up as a Southern Baptist boy when I did, this gospel passage is the text. Matthew 28:16-20 was second only to John 3:16. Missions was at the heart of what it meant to be a Baptist, and remains so in moderate Baptist churches. To this day, I cannot hear this passage without my deepest heartstrings being tugged.
Herein lays the program for the church:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, unto the end of the age.
We are first to go – so the focus of the church is always to be outward, spreading the good news of Jesus. We are always a people on a mission, always on an adventurous journey.
We are to make disciples of all nations. In our going, our purpose is twofold -- to create radical followers of Jesus Christ and to unite the world. Ours is a global ambition. The good news of Jesus is not limited by race, class, creed, culture, or national origin. Our purpose is no less than a radically new humanity.
Next, we are to baptize in the name of the Triune God. This is not simply a command to follow some ritual. To baptize someone is to give them a new identity. The identity they had before their baptism ceases to exist, and they become a new creation, born again. When we are baptized, we become part of God's story. Central to God's story is the ecstatic fellowship of the Trinity, and that same ecstatic fellowship with God and with all creation becomes our story as well.
Once the church gives a person his or her new identity, it next must teach them. We must learn from one another how to think, how to act, and how to relate to one another. Spiritual formation, Christian education is essential to the program of the church. A Christian must be engaged in active, regular learning.
Teaching leads to obedience to the commands of Christ. At this point the Great Commission connects back to the Sermon on the Mount and the ethical program for the church. What we must be learning to obey are the self-giving, community-building, cross-shaped teachings of Christ.
And finally there is one more commandment. In the King James Version it is simply translated "lo," in the NIV it is "surely," and in the NRSV it is "remember." Despite the vast differences between those words in English, they are all accurate translations of the Greek phrase kai idou. The phrase kai idou calls our attention, tells us to sit up and take notice, because something new is being introduced, something that requires our contemplation and consideration. That's a lot for two little words.
The final commandment of Christ in this Great Commission is for us to remember that this whole program of going, making, baptizing, teaching, and obeying is "not about us."
So, what is God's word for us today out of this most inspiring of texts? I think there are two key messages for us. This text tells us something about this small group of Jesus followers which applies to us. And it also tells us something about God that we must remember.
In Mark Labberton's commentary on this passage, he drew attention to the fact that there were not twelve disciples in this group. Why is that important? Why should we remember that there are only eleven?
Well, for Matthew, the symbolic connections with Israel's past were very important. The twelve disciples paralleled the twelve tribes and signified that the church was to become the new Israel. That the new Israel is not whole is important to understanding the passage. Labberton writes,
The mission mandate about to be pronounced by Jesus is not given to the perfect number but rather to the less than full complement. This quiet fact underlies that it is to fallen, tempted, limited human beings that the mission of God is entrusted, including those who have denied Jesus.
Stanley Hauerwas, in his commentary, points out that this commissioning is occurring in Galilee, not near Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives, as it is recorded by Luke. For Matthew it is significant that the Jesus movement does not begin in Jerusalem, the center of the world for the Jewish people, and the center of religious, political, and economic power. Instead, the Jesus movement begins in the backwater.
These sorts of details in the stories, often easily overlooked, are themselves communicative of deep truths. The people whom God is trusting to change the world are not powerful, rich, connected, spiritually healthy, emotionally mature, wise, and courageous people. They are politically, economically, and religious oppressed. Mostly poor. Common and mostly uneducated. So far they've proven to be pretty oblivious to what it is that they've signed up for and then pretty cowardly when confronted with the truth of what it means to be a part of the Jesus movement.
Yet, these are precisely the sort of people that God is going to use to change the world. And, guess what, it worked.
Now, in terms measured by the world, we already start out better off then these guys. There are more of us. We are better educated and have far more money. We are better connected and more powerful. Though still oppressed, we live in a far freer society. And we have two thousand years worth of mentors to guide us.
But sometimes even these supposed advantages are disadvantages. Why? Because the advantages in the way the world measures can lull us into missing the radical nature of our calling and the commitment that it requires us. For example, this week Bill Powell said to me that he has long feared that our worshipping in this beautiful space for very little cost would lull us into thinking that everything was easy.
The point is what do we do with the challenge when it is presented to us? Do we despair or do we rise up to meet it? The truth is that our little group here still has the power to change the world. If you need proof that it is possible, read your Bible.
Now to the second thing this text has for us today. It's about God, the source of that power to change the world. Because, the truth is, we do not do it. God does it, through us. What is required of us is faith and faithfulness. Then we become the instruments of God.
Notice that this is a resurrection story. The Jesus who is speaking in Matthew 28 is the slaughtered and risen lamb, the Risen One, the one that God has raised from the dead and given all authority.
Each of the Gospels records the resurrection and Christ's appearances differently. In Mark the women come to the empty tomb and go away afraid and Christ does not appear. In Luke and John there are multiple appearances of the risen Jesus, including the heart-warming stories like Mary Magdalene in the garden, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, or walking with Peter before breakfast on the beach of the Sea of Galilee. In Luke's account there is also an ascension into heaven, which we commemorated two weeks ago.
In Matthew two women come to the tomb, not to finish the preparation of Jesus' body, like in other gospels, but to see. It is as if these two followers of Jesus were alone in understanding what he had said would happen after he died. In full view of the women and the Roman guards, an angel descends and rolls the stone away and announces that Jesus has gone to Galilee and they are to tell the disciples to follow. Then, as the women are returning to the disciples, Jesus appears and the women worship him, for the first time fully aware that this is the incarnation of God.
In Matthew Jesus appears to the disciples this one time in order to empower them for mission, and, instead of disappearing into the clouds, tells them that he will be with them always. The Risen One is always with us, inspiring us, guiding us, and empowering us for the journey ahead.
Notice, also, that this is an Exodus story. It really does all go back to the Exodus. The Exodus is the story that tells us the character of God. God is one who listens when creation cries out in need of liberation. God then intervenes within human history, calling forth prophets to lead the people. God, then, fashions those people into a new people with a mission for all humanity.
Stanley Hauerwas reminds us that Matthew's gospel is an on-going re-interpretation of the story of Israel in light of reality of Jesus. So, on the point of the resurrection, Hauerwas writes, "A people who believe that God raised Israel from Egypt might well believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead."
Finally, notice that this is an apocalyptic story. Apocalyptic is that big bible word that describes a genre of literature that you are most familiar with in the Book of Revelation, but which really permeates the New Testament. Apocalyptic literature uses evocative symbols to reveal God's plan to defeat evil within human history in order to bring about God's will for creation.
Now, you might be wondering, where is the apocalyptic in this story? There aren't any blood colored moons or the sky being darkened by attacking locusts. There is no flaming sword coming from the mouth of Jesus. Well, the apocalyptic is subtler in this text and appears as a quotation. Before commissioning the disciples, Jesus says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." That is a reference to Daniel 7 and the passage we read early.
Daniel 7 records a vision of the prophet Daniel who lived in Babylon during the exile of the children of Israel. Daniel 7 is the vision of the four beasts – the winged lion, the great bear, the four headed leopard, and the devouring beast with ten horns. These beasts represent the oppressive power of human empires. These beasts are powerful and inspire awe and terror.
In contrast to these beasts there appears the Ancient of Days, God enthroned in majesty, passing judgment upon the beasts. To whom does the Ancient of Days give power? Not to one of these mighty beasts, but to one like a human being.
In Matthew 28 Jesus says, "I am that man." I am the one to whom God has given all dominion, glory, and kingship so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve me. Jesus is saying, it is this missionary movement I am starting today which will bring ultimate defeat upon these powerful beasts.
This story tells us that the God we follow is the God who raised Jesus from the dead and who remains forever with us, who heard the cries of the children of Israel and set them free, who judges the nations, and who empowers a small group of people, like you and me, to change world.
Jesus is saying, it is you rag-tag, incomplete, broken people to whom God is giving the power to change world.
So, then, it is important for us to remember that we have the power to defeat mighty beasts. That as long as we are faithful, there is no challenge we cannot meet.
Therefore, let us go, make disciples, baptize, teach, obey, and remember.