Thursday, May 26, 2011

Because Jesus Has Ascended, We Are To Go! A Homily for 6.1.14, Ascension Sunday from Matthew 28:16-20

Thoughts on the Gospel Reading 
Homily for the 7th Sunday of Easter, Year A
Ascension Sunday
first posted June 5, 2011
The Gospel lectionary reading for today, the 7th Sunday of Easter and the celebration of the ascension of the Lord, offers us the opportunity to break open a most familiar text within the church.

As you know, this text is called the great commission, which in general is the given authority to perform a task or certain duties, and specifically is the calling given by Jesus to his disciples to take the message of the King and the Kingdom to the rest of the nations.

There are three questions I want us to think through from the text today:

It seems clear from the text that the original disciples were commissioned to take the words and the works of Jesus and to offer these to all other nations, and by extension it also seems just as clear that this commission has come down to us. Like those first Jesus-followers, we too have been called to go make disciples, but in our context and in our moment, what does that mean? What does it mean to go, now?

This question is important because going does not mean for us what it meant to the generation just past. In fact, this difference may mean we are closer to those first hearers than ever before.

During the heyday of Christendom, when our attitude was one of triumph and our cultural position was one of respect, we could go from a position of power. But now, with the church's cultural position in tatters, with all the mistakes we've made on our own, and especially with the stark divisions within the church as a whole, we no longer command respect and prestige. It's as if the culture has examined our goods and moved on to other, more exotic wares. We've been weighed in the balances and found wanting.

In general, I think an argument can be made that the unconsidered response of the church to this cultural shift has been to to camouflage, to hole-up and hold back. That is, all to often we have taken sanctuary in our sanctuaries. We speak the language of church, a language only we understand. We huddle, creating our own sanctified, sanctioned brand of holy-hyphenations. What occurs within the culture we mirror. They have rock? We have christian-rock. They have fiction? We have christian-fiction. In this way we are a mere sub-culture and not the kingdom counter-culture.

It is interesting that Jesus used this same word for go twenty-eight times in St. Matthew's Gospel, two of which are especially germane to the question we now ask:
“What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray?” (Matthew 18:12)
“Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.” (Matthew 22:9)

The first text reminds us that no matter how many we have in the sheep pen, the one in danger is our responsibility too, and the second text tells us that the command to go is really an opportunity to share an invitation to a party. Both envision us taking this calling with all seriousness and moving beyond the walls.

I wonder what those early disciples thought when, as Hebrews, they were told to take the words and works of their Master to everyone, even non-Hebrews? This approach is a reminder to us that the Gospel is for everyone in the sense that people like us and people not like us are called to be part of the party that is the Kingdom of GOD. And, it is a reminder to us that to follow Jesus' words and "to go," is always difficult no matter when the moment.

These thoughts obviously lead to the second question. Within this current context, which has become decidedly cold for gospel-sharers, what does it mean to make disciples for Jesus?

In general, to be a disciple is to follow the precepts and instructions of the master-teacher. Here the learner attaches herself to the master's school and learns the craft by observing and doing.

Following Jesus is different.

First, learners do not flock to this Master, they are recruited, initially by the Master himself ("he chose the 12 to be with him"), and then by those the Master trains.

Second, the craft we are learning and teaching is not some philosophy of life to be mulled and thought, but a new life and a new way to live. Supremely, and we must never forget this, the Jesus-way is something to be done. This is a difficult path to introduce to the uninterested, especially in such a data rich environment like we have.

Let me attempt to say this bluntly: Our culture is much too distracted to re-read the gospel story. Their preoccupation with the new and the novel allows Jesus to only be seen through the lens of their past church experience (which could be no more that some TV preacher's rant). To most Jesus is hackneyed and derivative, and they do not care for the what they perceive as its life-denying odor.

What are we to do?

To make disciples, to teach the observation (read: practice) of all that Jesus did and said, first we must actually and consistently practice discipleship ourselves. Then, and only then do we attempt to make disciples.

Second, to make disciples today we must toss out our Christian vocabulary; we must go in the position of weakness not triumph (a theology of the cross, not a theology of resurrection), and we must, by all ways and means necessary, shut up.

That is, we never bring Jesus to the conversation; and we especially never bring church. We answer questions obliquely. Instead, we live out the gospel mandate of love, acceptance and forgiveness and we learn the story of the person in front of us. We listen. After this, when perhaps out of their own boredom or curiosity they ask us our story, then we can tell them, not about church, but about that existential moment we met the living, risen Christ.

Which, in the end, opens to us the final question, what does Jesus mean by saying he will be with us always? It is important that we know the answer to this because one thing is sure, we cannot go discipling to the other nations across the street without divine help, both in guidance and strength.

First, we know that Jesus is with us through the daily experience of the Holy Spirit, who comes to us as power (Acts 1:8). This is power for living out the practices of the Christ -- all that Jesus said and did, and this is power for living out the calling to make disciples -- today's go and make disciples.

This means we know that we are too weak to live our lives following the Christ without being empowered by the Spirit, and we know that we are too culturally captive, unless empowered by the Spirit, to make anything but disciples of our own brand of Christendom’s churchianity. Without these honest confessions, that by ourselves we will never be able to follow Christ and make disciples, we will never even be on the disciple’s road.

Second, we also know that the lived-out practice of following the Jesus-way that I have proposed today only works if our lives are also displayed and empowered through the Spirit in such a way that others see more than is there! That is, the other must come to see the life of the Christ somehow oozing through these broken vessels that is our life. Only the Spirit can do this.

And, finally, we know that the continuing presence of the Christ, who is with us through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, will enable us to see our discipleship task through all the way to the end. It is the Spirit-of-the-risen-Christ who strengthens us when discouragement clouds our way, when hardship marks the narrow path, and when we become weary in well doing.

Matthew 28:16-20