Monday, June 12, 2017

Trinity Sunday 2017: And so it goes

11 June 2017 

Isaiah 65:1-10
Romans 10:14-21
Matthew 28:16-20

“The devil himself desires nothing more than this, that the people of any place should be half-awakened and then left to themselves to fall asleep again.”  John Wesley

St. Augustine of Hippo once questioned the newness of Jesus’ “new commandment … to love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34) in light of the ancient commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  He pointed out that even though Jesus referred to it as a “new command”, it may be more appropriate for us to think of a renewed spirit of love and hospitality in active discipleship rather than a brand-spanking-new commandment.

When Israel was called together as a nation, it was to be a divinely appointed “priestly nation” – not individual priests but the “chosen status” of a whole people who would testify to this amazing God not merely by their existence but, rather, by the purpose of their existence. 

This purpose would be expressed not only in the written Torah (“law”) but in the lives of those who understand what Torah means.  More than memorizing the words, The Word itself would become ingrained into their souls, into the fullness of their being – the Torah written on hearts of flesh rather than on tablets of stone.  Their collective life as The Nation of YHWH’s Chosen would be their very identity – not as a matter of individual privilege but as of collective duty and responsibility.

So given that Israel was intended as a “witness to the nations” (Isaiah 43:10) – yes, even to those nasty Gentiles – what is so new about the Great Commission?  Though we read it as a new charge to the soon-to-be-called ekklesia (church, congregation), the mission remains essentially the same.  It is, and has always been, our Father’s intent that all would turn from their wickedness and be saved (Ezekiel 18:23). 

After the Exile, however, when the people of YHWH were returned to their homeland to rebuild and reclaim their identity, it may be said they tended to turn a little too inwardly and had become a little too exclusive; they were not so much about “mission” as about “survival”.  When the people confessed their unfaithfulness after Ezra’s prayer and confession for the nation, it was determined that foreign-born wives and their children would be sent away as a means of atonement.  “Ezra stood up and made the leading priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear that they would do as had been said.  So they swore” (Ezra 10:5).

Harsh.  Cold.  Incomprehensible.  Yet it was a command of YHWH Ezra had recalled in his prayer: “We have forsaken Your commandments, which you commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land you are entering to possess is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands … therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, never seek their peace or prosperity (Dt 7:2,3) …” (Ezra 9:10-12).

Full repentance meant they would not only stop doing what they had done to break covenant with YHWH, they began to undo all that had been done.  They attempted to go back to square one.  Maybe for the sake of Israel’s purity, the pendulum swung too far. 

It must be said, however, that the essence of Israel’s very being never changed.  They were still to be “set apart” from the nations not to the point of exclusivity but for the purpose of calling the nations to a much better life; the worship of the One, True God that did not involve child sacrifice, temple prostitutes, or laws subject only to the whims of a culture.

So what was so revolutionary about the Great Commission?  And what is so radical about it now that it is only a passage in the Bible that has been robbed of much of its meaning in favor of individual salvation?  And how have we – as individuals who call ourselves “members” of the Body of Christ, the Church – somehow decided it doesn’t mean “me”?  Especially when we reason to ourselves and to others that we don’t know or keep company with any non-Christians, that “all my friends are Christians”?  Such statements do not speak of faithfulness; rather they affirm the failure of the Church to live into its purpose.

The Great Commission would have been revolutionary to a small band of Israelites who were about to be pushed way outside their homeland, from their friends and from their comfort zones.   It would also be radical to modern-day Christians who might reason that “all nations” have been made aware of Jesus but have rejected discipleship as a way of life and living.  In other words, the burden of the Commission has been met by the Church; it is “the nations” which have failed to respond adequately. 

Not quite.  There is some truth to that, but not quite.

Much like the radical, post-Exile days of the Ezra period in Israel, perhaps the Church has taken a similar approach in light of the constant challenges from the outside, some insidious challenges even from within.  Though we are not deliberately sending people away, maybe we have drawn a little into ourselves for some sense of protection from the outside, some measure of doctrinal security, or just keeping people we don’t “like” out. 

Maybe we have become so concerned with the wrong “yeast” permeating “our” church that we no longer have a sense of being the Body of Christ at all.  Just a meeting house filled with generic, cultural “Christians” with no real sense of direction, no real sense of purpose, and no real sense of identity as a community of disciples.

Yet when we get a little too full of a radical orthodoxy that demands rigid adherence to a certain creed or when we demand that admittance into a particular body requires the recitation of a certain prayer or baptism done only a certain way – and when we align our religious identity with national politics – we’ve gone too far inward and have lost any sort of momentum we may have once had.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not advocating that we disavow our orthodoxy (system of beliefs) since I am probably among the most rigid of orthodox Christians and preachers.  But when we “make disciples” as our Lord has commanded His Church, what is wrong with receiving – or at least inviting – persons who are not quite “all in” at first but are at least willing to hear, to listen? 

Jesus requires we first “make disciples” – notably, not converts.  How?  By first living in such a way – individually and collectively - that the Gospel and our Christian identity are unmistakable.  This goes far beyond simply being our culture’s – or our own - notion of a “good person”.  It means a radical giving of ourselves as Jesus gave so completely of Himself way beyond only those we happen to “like”.  It means being disciples ourselves (which can in no way be confused with “generic, cultural Christian”), faithfully following and constantly learning from the Word, sitting at Jesus’ feet with an open ear and a willing and eager heart.

The Great Commission is the very heartbeat of the Church, not the “programs” nor the facilities.  It is the only Vital Sign of a church alive in the Spirit.  It is the only evidence of Pentecost ever having taken place.  It is the only evidence that the Body of Christ is the Reality rather than only a theory or a mere choice.

But The Great Commission is not exclusively a thing the world must respond to.  Rather it is the thing the Church must first engage while trusting the Holy Spirit to evoke responses.  It is the way by which any program of any particular church must be measured as to effectiveness – “making disciples”.  There is no other reason for our existence, for it is the soul of the Church, its true – its only - identity.

The Great Commission is itself the “rivers of living water” and the “narrow gate” through which all must enter.  It is not a story to be modified to accommodate any culture for the sake of its sensibilities but is, rather, the “old, old story” that is good for the ages. 

First things first, however, “The Story” itself must be learned before it can be told.  Not “my” story or “your” story; THE Story.  The narrative into which we are all invited, the narrative which has been since the Beginning.  Then will we know we are truly alive and well.  Then will others believe us.  Amen.

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