Matthew 28:16-20 (NRSV)
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The Impossible Commission
Have you ever walked across the Mackinaw Bridge? I bet that some of you have. Although the bridge walk has been cancelled this year, every Labor Day people are allowed to make the 5-mile walk. The Mackinaw Bridge is one of the most impressive constructs over a most beautiful and scenic area connecting the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan. When Jane and I served for a time in the upper peninsula, I always consider one of the perks to be the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the area while travel there or back.
It is worth noting that this bridge really began with some people in the late 1800s looking across the span of water and believing that a bridge should or could be built.
David B. Steinman eventually designed the bridge and it was opened in 1957. The bridge is 26,372 feet long, the world’s 24th-longest main span and the longest suspension bridge between anchorages in the Western Hemisphere, but it took a dream and a lot of hard work to make it a reality.
It may remind us of what can be accomplished in this life. There are many things in life that remind us that the impossible can be possible. Often, we see this in the lives of people. Stephen Hawking, although mostly an agnostic or atheist, nonetheless was considered one of the most notable theoretical physicists of contemporary time even though he was immobilized by ALS. Helen Keller led a most remarkable and accomplished life even though she spent her life unable to see or hear. Beethoven produced amazing works of music even after loosing most of his hearing. He was quite deaf. Finally, Albert Einstein is considered by some to have probably struggled with Asperger syndrome and dyslexia. He often skipped classes in high school, but eventually applied himself, and the impact of his work is still with us today.
Albert Einstein once said: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it’ll spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Perhaps the difference between failure and notable success is having a dream that is big enough and being willing to preserve in accomplishing it.
In Matthew’s gospel, we read what we usually call “the Great Commission.”
Here, Jesus tells his disciples to “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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
We hear these words as being not just for the disciples, but for the church throughout time. However, there is a little comment Matthew includes in the narrative that we sometimes overlook. In Matthew’s gospel the eleven remaining disciples are seen initially meeting with Jesus after his resurrection on a hillside in Galilee.
And there Matthew comments, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” Isn’t that odd. Some doubted? With the resurrected Jesus standing right there in plain sight, some of the 11 who had been with him throughout his ministry doubted?
Perhaps Matthew’s comment about their doubt, however, applied to the whole experience there on the mountain, because Jesus told them to do the impossible. We often read over the great commission from the vantage point of time, sacrifices already made, accomplishments, and church growth, but what would it have sounded like to the disciples’ ears.
Perhaps Jesus command would have seemed like an impossible task. A dream beyond the likelihood of being accomplished.
The first impossible task: Jesus told them to go and make disciples of all nations. The world of the disciples was smaller than the world as we know it. They had no idea of the existence of North and South America. The known world to them was fairly much encompassed by the Roman Empire. However, they were limited in how quickly they could communicate and travel. If you want to preach Jesus in Rome, how quickly can a boat sail there? Paul wrote letters, but even these traveled the same way he would have. Go into all the nations. That was a lifetime commitment, with a lot of hardships involved in traveling. How many times was the Apostle Paul shipwrecked? (A trivia question)
Beyond the dimensions of the mission, they would have to engage other cultures and races. Bridging the divide between people was probably as difficult for them as it is for us, but they were called to carry that message to all people. God didn’t give hope just to a few and Jesus didn’t die just for some.
What is more, the disciples had no power base to start from (unless, of course, you count the Holy Spirit, but Pentecost hadn’t happened yet). And, they were at best members of a vassal state to the Roman Empire. They were not first-class citizens to the powers that controlled their lives.
And yet Jesus says to these most unlikely of candidates: “Go turn the world upside down.” Maybe they thought, “I don’t know Jesus are you sure?” Weren’t we trying that and you got crucified? It must have sounded like a monumental — impossible — undertaking.
The second impossible task: Jesus told the disciples that once they had gone out into all the world and told people about him, they were to baptize the people of those nations in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Baptism followed evangelism. After a person was persuaded by the gospel message and embraced Jesus as Lord and Savior, then they were to be baptized. In effect this was the process for forming a church –creating a body of believers.
Jesus is telling these 11 guys to go out and change the world. Share the gospel with strangers. Publicly identify themselves as followers of someone who had just been officially declared an outlaw and executed, and be a personal witness for their faith. (To some extent we all know how hard that is!).
The third hard task: Jesus told them to teach these new converts everything he had commanded them to obey. That, too, must have sounded like mission impossible.
They had no specifically Christian Bible, (No Mathew, Mark, Luke, John, or the letters of Saint Paul) no hymnal, no catechism, no creeds, no schools of theology or theologians. What were they supposed to teach anyway? What were the laws and rules for them in this new age of the resurrected messiah? What was it that Jesus taught them that they were supposed to share as doctrine and truth?
Perhaps it is no wonder that some of the 11 doubted that day! They were probably really listening to what Jesus was telling them. Maybe they were thinking Lord, why me? I am just a guy that used to make my living catching fish by the sea. Now Jesus wants them to be world travelers, and motivational speakers, organizers of a bold new religion that came up out of the backwaters of Nazareth?
But here is the thing. The other side of the coin. Jesus is alive. All they had seen and done in the previous few years was not a flash in the pan, but merely the beginning of miracles.
Here is the thing. They were not alone, but they found themselves walking through this life with God by their side. This baptism that they were called to share in and with others was a promise and a binding to something greater. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was about to enter into life with them, and life on this earth was never going to be the same. So why not change the world?
Here is the thing. Jesus reminded them that he would be with them until the end of the age. This age that is being spoken about refers to the period of time that our world shall last, until the end of the world. This promise was for the church throughout time.
Is it an impossible task, or a hard task? Isn’t all of it God’s task and God’s work within us?
This past week I have been pondering on the story in the news about President Trump clearing away the protesters, and walking across the street, so that he could hold up a Bible in front of the Episcopal Church, and have a photo op. At least that is the way it seemed. The Episcopal Bishop railed at the idea of his actions.
Personally if I were bishop, I think I would have said, “President Trump if you want to come to church I think that is great, but you should let me know you are coming and I would have met you there. And President Trump I see you are carrying a Bible, I think that is great. Let us open it up and see what it says. At our church we think reading the Bible is better than looking at it. We may discover that Jesus avoided military conquest and shows of force. What does it mean that he rode into Jerusalem not like a king, but as a servant of peace?”
You know what I think is true? The only way to change the world is to change the human condition. The only way to change the human condition is to change the human heart. No amount of religious social verbiage is going to make the difference. The human heart is changed when we allow Christ to be within our lives. It all goes back to that same impossible commission that began about 2000 years ago and is still ongoing.
C.S. Lewis got it right when he wrote, “Christ says, ‘Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good … Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked — the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.'”
God’s commission upon to us is impossible. Changing a human life is impossible. Changing our world is impossible. Having a truly God fearing, and God lead leadership for our country is impossible. Rooting out the causes of racism, hatred, and violence in life is impossible, but we should know better than to doubt. Our God is the one who does impossible things all the time. Nothing is impossible for God, or us when we live into our baptism of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and serve a Holy purpose founded in love. Nothing is impossible when we allow Jesus to be present within our lives as he has promised. Perhaps all it really takes is for us to allow God’s will to be our direction. That makes the impossible commission the great commission and moves us toward great things. Amen.