Preached by Fr Phil Ritchie
The Gospel today is often referred to as The Great Commission and it is not a passage that I have ever felt drawn to! Maybe it’s my taste for drama but I have always preferred Marks final lines (before the later addition) which just say: They went away afraid and said nothing to anyone – Now that sounds like an event or the beginning of something worth investigating. By contrast Matthews ending reads like Conservative Party conferences of old or the cricket club AGM – well organised with all the controversy, the fear and the rage written out to avoid arguments. You get the feeling that Matthew felt Mark bungled the ending and he, Matthew, is sorting it out.
Jesus meets his disciples on a mountain – as he did earlier in the Gospel in his famous sermon. You have to hand it to Matthew, he gives us a bit of narrative tension, the disciples worship him – but some doubted. Maybe Matthew knew there was uncertainty, ambivalence, doubting in his own community? However, Jesus’ response is part enthronement hymn and part commissioning. Standing on the mountain before his worshipping disciples he tells them ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me’ and then that well-known commissioning ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the son and the Holy Spirit.
That’s the section where a community like ours often starts to feel squeamish – we don’t want to tread on anyone else’s toes, our faith is personal and even maybe private. A lot of us may feel more Mark than Matthew, and in fact, we might actively disapprove or dislike Matthean evangelists.
As part of my attempt to break out of my own cosy English bubble of ritualistic, social Justice orientated, evangelism phobic liberal Catholicism I have been reading Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven church – It is quite scary, kind of the Great commission on acid. But it is good on this passage. He points out that the Greek text of Matthew 28 – contains 3 present participative verbs: going, baptising and teaching. And that Baptism features so strongly in the passage because it symbolises one of the purposes of the church – fellowship, identification with the body of Christ. As Christians, we are called to belong not just to believe.
So on this Trinity Sunday I want to talk briefly about Going, about baptising and about teaching.
Going. Go therefore and make disciples. It’s a strange thing but I think it is actually true that we have become terrified of what this might actually mean for us, and that we have created this frightening binary opposition between Christians who help people and Christians who make disciples, we stay in the first and we leave those others to do the second. Often in rather disparaging way we say that they can convert them and then we pick them up when they want something a bit deeper or a bit more socially engaged. The great medieval mystic Meister Eckhardt says that even those who are given to a life of contemplation still cannot refrain from going out and taking an active part in life, those who are given to a life of contemplation and avoid activities deceive themselves and are on the wrong track. Contemplation and action are part of all our callings. And surely part of action is the business sof making disciples. Go, therefore…but how?
Jesus tells us to Baptise people. Our translation of that sometimes seems to miss the point. I have baptised a small number of people at the font at the back of church, not many of those people are still here. But maybe we need to back up a little to look at what it means to re-imagine what Baptism is. That in Baptism we become one with Christ in his death and resurrection, that by this grafting into Christ we become part of the divine dance of God as Father Son and Holy Spirit. That Baptism is both an invitation to live in the mystery of God’s love and also an invitation to not only be a new creation but to live a new kind of life. When we live that life we become a beacon for a different kind of living. The ‘Go, therefore’ bit becomes easy. The problem is we have made too much of the faith about learning how to behave, as if what we told people about the Christian life was just what they can and can’t do. Herbert McCabe writes:
“Ethics is entirely concerned with doing what you want, that is to say with being free. Most of the difficulties arise from the difficulty of recognising what we want”.
To journey ever closer to living through Christ in the dance of the Trinity teaches us true freedom – it reminds us of what we most deeply desire.
Go, Baptise, teach. If we thought Going to make disciples was bad, and Baptising a bit of a tall order, then teaching is in another league! And our fear is, like with the ethics, that it will be rule bound, that it won’t be about freedom, that it will pen us in. For me this is partly because in a society obsessed by immanence we are terrified of speaking about transcendence. One American writer has spoken of the process of ‘immanentization’ in our society. Basically what he means is that we have ditched any notion of the transcendent – of a God out there. There is the material world, the natural world, and humans in charge of it trying to flourish. This secular world view has also taken over sections of the church with a singular focus on the incarnation, on the good man Jesus with an associated fear of the otherness of the supernatural, of a God who exists outside of creation.
Mark Vernon in his lovely little book about Love says it comes in three movements: First we love ourselves, but this is just a preparation for realising that there is another in the world whom we might trust to love and be loved by too. Romantic love tries to tell us that love ends there in that second stage, that love is fulfilled in the one who loves us back. But there is a third kind f love which brings with it the possibility of sharing in circles of love, family, friends, community – and the more subtle capacity to stand back and reflect on life and love itself. But a few pages later he goes on to talk about a fourth shift, an awakening to the transcendent. He ends by saying:
‘It seems as if a final barrier has been dissolved. The most basic truth in life is not that we yearn for more when clumsily we love, though we do, but that the constant unclouded love of God yearns for us. The revelation is summed up in the formula: God is love.
Go, Baptise, teach this simple truth, this is the heart of the great commission, the love that is revealed to us in the mystery of the Trinity.