Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Great Promise

Sermon on Matthew 28:16-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 15, 2014 (The Holy Trinity)

Today’s text is often referred to in today’s Church as the Great Commission.  It speaks, after all, of how the Church is to carry the Gospel everywhere, to as many as will hear and believe.  In a way, it’s the most basic blueprint for what it is the Church is to be about.  It’s how the Holy Spirit will work in men’s hearts to bring them to the saving faith, and therefore to fellowship with the Son, and therefore to the eternal love and bliss of God the Father.  It’s hard to underestimate the importance of these few verses to the Christian Church.  While everything it says is also taught elsewhere in Scripture, it’s the most concise statement of what God does in and through the Christian Church.

The thing is, St. Matthew originally recorded this passage in Greek, not English.  The translation with which we are all familiar is accurate as far as it goes, but ever since the Tower of Babel no translation ever completely captures all of the meanings and nuances of the original.  And, like it or not, the translation we all know does tend to focus on the Law aspect of these things.  And because it does that, it condemns us.  All of us have failed at any number of points in our lives to speak God’s saving Word where we have been given opportunities to do so.  All of us, both individually, as a congregation, as a Synod, and even as Christians in general, have failed to live up to Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations.  Even when we have spoken, we can come across as too needy or even too zealous, and ended up driving away the very people we were trying to reach.  Yes, there are also a lot of things we’ve done right.  And, no, the fact that we are a small congregation with very few young people does not mean that Holy Cross has somehow failed to obey this passage more than other congregations.  If I may be permitted to brag like a fool like St. Paul does to the Corinthians, it’s my opinion that this congregation is, per capita, the most active and involved Missouri Synod congregation in Racine.  Nobody else in the Racine/Kenosha bi-circuit can match us in terms of what percentage of our active members are involved in the work of the Church in the Racine community.  Of course, that’s speaking in terms of percentages, not absolute numbers.  We’re very small.  Which means that the fruit of our labor has, in most cases, blossomed elsewhere than in this building.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  God is the one who gives the growth, when, where, and as He chooses.  But my point is, every Christian, every Church, every Synod, every missionary, every pastor, every teacher, DCE, DCO, and whoever else you may care to name, has failed to follow Jesus’ command here.  It’s the simple truth.  Nobody is safe from the accusation that we’ve all failed here.  Big churches just as much as small ones.  Active and involved members just as much as folks who are only here on Sunday morning.  This hits everybody.

The problem, then, is where we go from here.  We’ve all failed.  We’ve all missed opportunities, and we’ve all fumbled opportunities that we have recognized.  How do we react to that fact?  Where can we go to find help to get us out of the muck we’ve stumbled into here?  I’ll tell you one thing we shouldn’t do.  We shouldn’t use the Great Commission as a mere slogan, giving ourselves a pep talk and saying that, well, God really wants us to do this, and so, by golly, we’d better pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and go do it.  God isn’t a cheerleader, and He’s the one who spoke this text.  Dealing with failure by means of pep rallies to go do better next time just ends up simply burning people out eventually.  The corporate world has come up with a strategy of motivating people by means of “mountaintop experiences.”  Store and district-level management are brought to a conference at a posh convention center or the corporate headquarters, and then in that artificial environment they are made to participate in what amounts to an extended pep rally about the latest sales strategy or slogan, and then they are sent back home to spread that zeal around.  And as one who works for the world’s largest retailer, and as one whose wife works for our nation’s largest drug-store chain, I can tell you for a fact that it doesn’t actually work.  Associates who really know how to give good customer service don’t need those slogans, and for those who don’t it really doesn’t help, because, let’s face it, you as customers know when a cashier or sales associate is just parroting a slogan like “Be Well” or “Save Money, Live Better” and really doesn’t care about you personally, right?  The only reason executives think that it does work is because store-level management enforces the use of the corporate slogans with the threat of write-ups if they don’t follow the script while the boss is in the store.  I don’t know why we think that something that keeps failing in the business world is somehow going to actually work in the Church.

But that still doesn’t answer the question.  How do we get up and get going again, after having realized that we’re just not as good at doing this as we think we are?  The answer, I would argue, can be illustrated partially by way of re-translating this text in a way which brings out aspects of the text that aren’t completely captured in the traditional English translation.  “As you go, make hearers of all nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and teaching them to treasure everything I have told you.”

Notice that the word “go” is more literally translated, “as you go.”  Don’t ever let anybody guilt-trip you into thinking that the best or most important way to fulfill the Great Commission is to become a church worker, pastor, or missionary.  I went to one of our Concordias, I heard plenty of my classmates (as well as myself at times) saying that the reason they wanted to become a pastor, teacher, deaconess, DCE, or whatever was because they wanted to “serve God” with their lives, and they couldn’t do that if they weren’t in some sort of church work.  Baloney.  Every legitimate vocation serves God in some way or another, and everybody has the opportunity to talk to their friends and neighbors about the hope that lies within us.  In fact, ordinary jobs give us much better opportunities to both confront and comfort the truly unchurched with the forgiveness won by Christ on the cross.  The job of church workers and pastors is to give the Good News to those who already happen to have some sort of connection to the institutional church.  And, yes, that’s necessary and good too, but it isn’t even half the story.

Well, what has God told us?  What things has He commanded us, not merely to obey, but to treasure?  First and foremost among those things is the Gospel itself.  The first place you should see yourself in the Great Commission is not as the one who is “going,” but as one who is being made a disciple, a hearer, a student of God’s Word.  The most important thing He has given you to treasure is the gracious promise that His death, resurrection, and ascension are for you, that you are saved, that you will spend eternity with God.  You are the ones who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and thereby joined in the love and fellowship of the Holy Trinity.  Our place in the Christian Church is always first and foremost as hearers of that good news before we are anything else.  And because we’re always both saint and sinner at the same time, we never, ever, ever move beyond the need to hear that above all else.  It’s only then that we become those who make hearers, students, disciples of others, giving to them the gracious promises we have been given.

And that, after all, is what we’re all about.  We have been baptized into the love and fellowship and eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, by means of sharing the death and resurrection of the Son Himself made man.  We will live forever surrounded by the love by which the Trinity Himself is bound together, because God the Son has made into His own body.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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