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Rev. Derek Penwell
Ian Bedloe, the hero of Ann Tyler’s novel, Saint Maybe, blames himself for the “accidental” death of his older brother and drops out of college to raise his brother’s three orphaned children. Nurtured by the good people in the Church of the Second Chance, Ian opens himself up to a faith that other people in his life can never seem to understand. When he explains his plan to raise his dead brother’s children to his parents, they react with disbelief:
“Ian, have you fallen into the hands of some sect?” his father asked.
“No, I haven’t,” Ian answered. “I have merely discovered a church that makes sense to me, the same as Dober Street Presbyterian makes sense to you and Mom.”
“Dober Street didn’t ask us to abandon our educations,” his mother told him. “Of course we have nothing against religion; we raised all of you children to be Christians. But our church never asked us to abandon our entire way of life.”
“Well, maybe it should have,” Ian said.
A lot of people likes us like their lives, for the most part, the way they are. Oh sure, they could use some tweaks, but change is tough, and it’s often easier to hope things stay close to the way they are. That’s not to say there aren’t problems; everyone has their own share of pain and doubt and anxiety and frustration, but at least our worries are ours and not somebody else’s.
We live in a culture that convinces us that the future is ours to secure, that the course of our lives is ours to determine. So we buy plenty of insurance, put up chain-link fences, and install alarms on those possessions most precious to us.
In our world it’s so tempting to buy the lie that if we’re only careful enough, if we look both ways before crossing the street, if we limit our carbohydrates and get enough aerobic exercise, we can insure our safety, we can beat the actuarial tables. Make sure you buckle your seatbelt, stay away from the Twinkies and Doritos, no more than two drinks a day, wash your hands after you go to the bathroom . . . you know the drill.
But here’s the thing, it’s almost too easy to mistake a little common sense for a free pass to an ouchless existence.
But Jesus has more in mind than that. Think about Jesus’ life for just a moment. If you’ve spent any time with Oreos and purple Koolaid in Sunday School, you know as well as I do, that Jesus could have avoided the cross, could have stayed on the good side of the powers that be, didn’t have to start throwing ethical gas on the religious leaders’ theological fire. But Jesus has more in mind than that. He has to tell the truth, has to do God’s will, has to open up his big mouth when keeping it shut could have saved his life.
But here’s the thing: Jesus has entrusted his life to someone else. He’s decided to live it as he’s called to live it, and let the chips fall where they may. And you know how that all ended.
By the grace of God, of course, Easter comes along, death is conquered, and Jesus is raised. But here at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, even after all the fireworks of Easter Sunday, Jesus is stirring it up all over again.
Matthew, in our text this morning, is wrapping things up. Jesus, preparing to leave his disciples for good, gives them final instructions.
That seems pretty innocuous, doesn’t it? “Do your chores and be good girls and boys while I’m gone. Listen to the babysitter. And for God’s sake, don’t let the dog get out. You remember what happened last time. And I promise you, I’m not cleaning that up again.”
That doesn’t sound so bad. Just, “Do what I’ve told you to do.” Right?
Only, what is it Jesus has told them to do?
He’s told them to go “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.”
“So what?” you say. “Big deal,” you say.
“All right. Granted, the whole going to all the nations thing is a pretty tall order—so we’ll have to check on the kids’ soccer schedule, make sure the rent’s paid up. Besides, we can pay people to do the hard parts of the work Jesus has for us. But other than that, it all seems pretty straightforward, pretty tame. The rest of it we ought to be able to knock out by taking an hour on Sunday, and the occasional Wednesday night. I mean, after all, once you’ve baptized them you’ve already made disciples of them and taught them, haven’t you? What else is there left to do?”
It’s tempting to let it go at that, isn’t it? A little here, a little there. Nothing too drastic. Let everyone keep their lives basically the same. But let’s just suppose for a moment that Jesus has more in mind when he says “disciples” than the typical American church expects. Maybe on the lips of the resurrected Jesus “disciple” means something more than “casual follower,” or “dutiful church-goer,” or “Jesus-y bumpersticker-haver.”
As the Jesus’ first disciples prepare to say goodbye to him, we need to point out a few things that might otherwise pass by unnoticed. First, this final sequence in Matthew takes place where?
That’s right. Galilee. Jesus passes along a message— through the angel at the tomb—that his disciples are supposed to fire up the minivan, and head up to Galilee—the same Galilee where Jesus started his ministry in Matthew’s Gospel all the way back in chapter four. The same Galilee where Jesus started calling disciples in the first place.
Well, but what’s so special about Galilee?
Galilee was way out in the Judean backwater. It was on the edge of the sticks for people who lived out in the sticks. But by beginning and ending his ministry in Galilee, Jesus accomplishes something very important. Not only is Galilee mostly rural, it’s historically associated with Roman imperial aggression against God’s people; it’s also the place where the radicals tired of that imperial aggression gather to organize to stand up to the bullies in Rome, and right the wrongs committed against a people who had little power to defend themselves.
Naming Galilee in this way, as the beginning and ending of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew links himself to God’s saving work in hearing the cries of the oppressed, the rural peasants, those who’ve lived under the boot of a system designed to keep those in power in power, and those without power stuck way out in the hinterlands.
I’m not Corey Lewandowski, but I’ll venture out onto a limb and say that this isn’t a very auspicious place to anchor you political career to. If Jesus were going to make a difference, shouldn’t he associate himself with someplace a bit more relevant?
But you see, this attention to geography in Matthew subtly underscores what Jesus’ ministry is about: He calls into question traditional power arrangements by heading out to the middle of nowhere, by standing with those forgotten ones out on the margins. And in Matthew’s hands, Galilee (a symbol of resistance to the deadly system of power) becomes the gateway to the whole world—which is where Jesus is sending his followers. It’s the launching pad for a ministry to a world itself dominated by those same deadly systems of power.
Moreover, these followers gathered together in Galilee still haven’t quite wrapped their heads around what Jesus is all about. Matthew tells us that the first time they laid eyes on Jesus after the resurrection, they worshiped him . . . yes.
But tickled as they were to see him, “some doubted.” Not quite sure what to think. The word used offers us a picture of having a foot in two different worlds. They’re with Jesus, of course, but you know . . . These aren’t the X-men we’re talking about here. Jesus isn’t sending out the all star team. He’s sending out folks who altogether sure about what they’re getting into— which becomes clear when we notice something else Matthew says.
Matthew begins this farewell speech by noticing that only 91.7% of the original twelve disciples are even still around. Only eleven show up in Galilee. So?
Well, Jesus has already lost one disciple—not to mention his own life while on this journey. And we’ve read to the end of the story, so we know that significantly more of those referred to as “disciples of Jesus” will meet their untimely demise precisely because of their designation as “disciples of Jesus.”
And that’s the part it’s so easy to lose track of, isn’t it? Disciples of Jesus were stoned, burned, crucified, beaten, imprisoned, beheaded, exiled—not because they were bad people, not because they were knocking off liquor stores or embezzling money from the corporate slush fund—but because they were followers of Jesus. Somebody took them out in a river and baptized them—taught them everything that Jesus had commanded, and it cost them their families, their jobs, their friends, and their lives. You never know. You baptize somebody, and you may be signing that person up for a tough road. Teach a person everything that Jesus has commanded and you may totally screw up somebody’s life.
This is tough stuff. Following Jesus isn’t for wimps. According to Terry Eagleton, “The measure of your love in [Jesus’] view is whether they kill you or not. Christians who are not an affront to the powers-that-be, so he suggests, are not being faithful to his mission.”
Theologian James Cone writes about Civil Rights activist, Mary Dora Jones, who “at the risk of her life and threats to burn down her home, took in seven [black people] and four [white people] during the Freedom Summer of 1964 in Marks, Mississippi.
“‘Some of the black folks got the news that they were gonna burn down,’ she reflected. ‘My neighbors was afraid of getting killed. People standin’ out behind the buildin’s, peep’ out behind the buildin's to see what’s goin’ on. So I just told ‘em, “Dyin’ is all right. Ain’t but one thing about dyin.’ That’s make sho you right, cause you gon’ die anyway.”
Keep this in mind when you bring your children to church: You may not be prepared for the consequences. It can be dangerous to have your children hang out with Jesus because, if they do, someday they might just hear his voice. They might drop their nets and follow him, and then one day head out into a world that doesn’t want to hear what they have to say about how God wants to see the world work.
They start talking about things like loving gay people and trans people the same as everyone else, and looking out for poor people (even the ones everyone else says don’t deserve it), they start talking about things like refusing to be silent when black men and women die in the streets—just because of the color of their skin, and not cooperating with authorities who want to split up the families of undocumented immigrants . . . they start talking about stuff like that, stuff that they hear in this place in the middle of Sunday morning worship, and take it from me, they’re going to run into people who don’t like it. They’re going to make respectable people uncomfortable. They’re going to make the people in charge nervous.
Of course, so did Jesus, so they’ll be in pretty good company. The problem is, though, keeping company with Jesus can get you killed. It costs to follow Jesus.
You see, that’s the problem with making disciples. The great commission isn’t just a memory verse to learn at Vacation Bible School, not just a nice little saying you cross-stitch onto a pillow and put in the parlor. You start baptizing people, teaching them everything Jesus commanded, and pretty soon things are bound to get messy.
Today is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday we celebrate the amazing complexity of the godhead. God, in revealing to us the true nature of the godhead, sent us Jesus so that we might catch a glimpse of eternity. But lo and behold, rather than the ineffable riches of heaven, the unspeakable glory of paradise, what we beheld was a broken Judean carpenter, nailed to a piece of rough-cut lumber as a warning by the state to people tempted to follow him. Jesus was killed for revealing the true nature of God.
How absurd that we who are his followers believe that we might get by with anything less.
“But our church never asked us to abandon our entire way of life.”
“Well, maybe it should have.” Maybe it should have.
As a matter of fact, as a follower of Jesus, you’re asked not only to abandon your entire way of life, you may at some point even be asked to abandon your life. Lord knows, it’s been asked before.
“Dyin’ is all right. Ain’t but one thing about dyin.’ That’s make sho you right, cause you gon’ die anyway.”