6/11/17: Commissioned by the Spirit, Matthew 28:16-20
Commissioned By the Spirit
First Lesson: Psalm 8
Second Lesson: Matthew 28:16-20
Rev. Scott Dickison
I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother's body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I'd say, What?
And he'd say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I'd say, What?
And he'd say, This, sort of looking around.
The poet Marie Howe, wrote this poem, entitled, “The Gate,” about her brother, John, whom she lost to AIDS many years ago when he was still a young man—twenty-eight—as the poem says. She was with him the last few weeks of his life, and recalled the conversations they would have. He was that sibling—and she comes from a big, Irish Catholic family—he was the sibling that was the best of them all. He had a way about him—a smile, a grace, a spark. He was the first among them to get sober at 23. She would describe him later as her “spiritual teacher.” For instance, he taught her here what it was that she had been waiting for all these years.
He, knowing that he was about to pass on, pointing to the space they shared for those last weeks in his apartment. The cheese and mustard sandwich she was eating. The sheets they folded, the glasses the rinsed under cold and running water—all the mundane, ordinary tasks that make up so much of a life. This, he tells her, is what she’s been waiting for. This.
His death and the time they spent just before it would be, for her, a kind of commissioning. It was “the gate” through which she “finally entered this world.” (1)
We stand here this morning with the disciples at their gate; where they finally “entered this world.” Their sending, too, came from a beloved brother. Though not before his death, but, through the miracle of God, after. We know it as the Great Commission, the charge of the risen Christ to the disciples here at the very end of Matthew to “Go ye therefore,” the King James puts it, “and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
This is the culmination of the entire gospel. It’s not an epilogue, tagged on at the end; it’s more the resolution. The passion of Jesus: the crucifixion and resurrection—are certainly the climax of this story, but it’s not the end of it. The end of this gospel story about the earthly life of Jesus is his sending of the disciples to do likewise. To step through this gate into a new world, or really, to step into the world—the only world we have—again, for the first time. To be born again, we might say. This is where their journey with Jesus has taken them; really where it was headed all along: to their sending.
They’re called to go out and share with others what they have known, what they have seen and heard and tasted. They’re to bring others into the fold, baptizing them, bringing them into the church, yes, but more than that: bringing them into the family. It’s no accident that language of the Trinity is familial: the Father and the Son, and then the Spirit, the love, the life, that flows between them. We can think of the Holy Spirit as that mysterious bond that holds families together—whether their families of origin, or the families of friends we choose. We get held up on the mathematics of it all, the 3 in 1 and 1 in 3, but the trinity is really the our tradition’s way of remembering that God is first of all relational. That even as God is one, God is also “with.”
To be a follower of Christ is to embrace your spot in the family; to embrace your identity—that you have had all along—of being a daughter or son of God. As a sister or a brother to your fellow humans. Too often Jesus’ commission here is used to emphasize the divisions among us between—go make disciples of the nations, of all those foreigners, go make them like us. But if we believe that God is the creator of all things and all people, isn’t this really a call to invite people to embrace who they already are? To share with them, and remind ourselves, that we already belong to each other because we belong to God? How would this change our understanding of what it means to evangelize, to “share the good news?” That it’s not so much about calling people to become like us, but a call for all of us to become something new.
This past week a combined group of eight of us from our church and our brothers and sisters at First Baptist Church on New St. traveled up to Duke University to take part in their Summer Institute for Reconciliation, an intensive, weeklong program where we were immersed in the language and theology and practice of reconciliation in all its forms: racial reconciliation, reconciliation between religions, reconciliation with creation—how we care and fail to care for earth and its creatures. Even political reconciliation—how we might mend the tears in our social fabric along political lines, a task which at the moment seems almost unimaginable.
Darlene Flaming, Rick McCann, Margaret and Harry Eskew, and I represented our church, long with Pastor Goolsby, Bea Ross and Richard Mathis from First Baptist. It was a rich, rich week, and there will be much more to discuss. But along with feelings of being overwhelmed by the many problems and issues before us: all the conflict and pain and violence in the world, which is truly staggering, we were also humbled by the work already being done by so many. Our fellow participants had come not simply from all over the country, but the world. From as far as Japan and South Korea. Many had made the trip from the continent of Africa, from South Africa to war-torn regions of Rwanda and South Sudan—our planet’s youngest county, formed just 6 years ago, and already deep into a bloody civil war. It was inspiring to know that so many others were committed to this work, to hear them speak passionately about being called to it; of feeling sent into these places. Of finding strength in that. Others were from closer to home. School teachers from Virginia, social workers from Indiana, even plain old church folks from Charlotte, NC. But each claiming—almost scandalously—to have been sent by God wherever they are. And in talking about these things, I noticed that our group began to wonder if we, too, had been sent. Sent there, but also sent here, to this church. Perhaps even that our two congregations had been sent, in some mysterious way, to each other. And so convictions started to be uncovered. Hopes started to materialize. Courage started to coalesce. There’s great power in being sent.
Sending is part of discipleship. In fact, to be a disciple is to be sent. This calling is not optional—in fact, it is the call, wrapped up in choosing to follow Jesus, of being baptized, joining the church, attending Sunday school, bringing deviled eggs to the covered dish supper, volunteering at VBS, arranging the flowers, singing in the choir, and all the rest of it. Each of us is sent. And the church has probably not done a good enough job of communicating this. We get hung up on certain “sendings,” to ordained ministry, for instance; the call to be a pastor. And that’s a fine calling—but it’s not the only one. And it’s no more vital to the Kingdom of God than any other. Some of us are sent to seminary, but others are sent to business school or law school or trade school. Others are sent to teach or to build or to manage. Others to nurture and give care. And we must be careful, too, that we don’t collapse our professions: what we do for a living, into our calling: where we are sent by God. Because it’s not the simple. The wider truth is we are sent into the world as Christ’s ambassadors whenever we open our eyes in the morning. When we walk out of our homes and into the world and our lives. Whenever and however we enter the world we do so as Christ’s ambassadors: commissioned by Christ to be his presence in the world.
And even before this, aren’t we send when we open our eyes for the first time? Isn’t this what we mean when we say each new life is a gift from God? That each baby who is born has been sent by God for some purpose in the world? We would never question this of the newborn in our arms, or as we parade them around the sanctuary to dedicate them as we did last week for Alex Ingoldsby. But when it comes to ourselves? You were a child once—in someone’s eyes you still are. You were once held in the arms of a person who loved you. Someone once dreamed of all God has sent you to do. Someone dreams still. You have been sent, and you are sent, still.
It’s a truth we remind ourselves of each and every Sunday at the close of service. When we all stand and receive our benediction, literally our “good word” to leave and live by. Worship ends in the sending. This isn’t something apart from worship, the sending is its conclusion: we are sent out into the world, that is desperate need of the light you bring! The doors to this sanctuary are a kind of gate. A gate opening us up to the world each time we leave through them. A gate opening us to nothing more and nothing less than “this.” To the world. To our life. To our families, our homes, to Macon, GA. This, after all, is what we’ve been waiting for.
This was worth Christ’s coming, Christ’s dying and his rising again. And so this must be worth your living, your sending. Alleluia! Amen.
(1) Marie Howe discusses this poem in a beautiful interview with Krista Tippett on On Being, https://onbeing.org/programs/marie-howe-the-power-of-words-to-save-us/