The Invitation to Go: The Church’s Story
August 23, 2015
Rev. Louis Timberlake
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
“Therefore Go.” It’s an apt description of parenthood. Kate and I are now just 8 weeks into it. And it’s awesome. But we’re basically just figuring it out as we go. I remember one church member, I won’t say who, talking to us about when they had their first. While they were at the hospital, it was great. You have nurses coming in every 10 minutes, showing you what to do. I mean, it makes it tough to sleep, but sleep is basically a wash at this point. But, then they got home and remember putting the baby down, looking at it, looking at each other, and saying, “What do we do now?” Therefore go. Ready or not, go.
It also reminds me of college commencement. Therefore go. I mean, this is what we tell college graduates. Have a big two-hour ceremony, hand them a piece of paper, and bring in a speaker that will give them the “therefore go” message. Therefore go and change the world. Therefore go and pursue your dreams. Therefore go and live life to the fullest.
And so, therefore, you go...to finish cramming stuff in your car, because you have to be out of your dorm two hours after the ceremony. And then you drive back home and dump all your stuff in your parent’s house, because you don’t have an apartment, because the job market is abysmal—particularly for someone with an art history degree. Now, I’m not picking, an art history degree is probably more marketable than my religion degree. But, you go from this climactic moment, where you are all set to be unleashed as a force for good and change, to hitting the wall that is the real world, where you learn that many people aren’t all that interested in your grand, naive ideas.
It’s the core phrase of this passage, “therefore go.” The “therefore” is important. The “therefore” sets up the “go.” Without the “therefore,” there is no “go.” Without the “therefore,” the disciples have no concept of what it means to go or why they should go. “Therefore” is one of those weighty words, isn’t it? It really has no meaning or substance in and of itself, but it carries a lot of weight. It marks a conclusion, the culmination of all that has come before, pointing to a specific end. Now, some might argue that the “therefore” refers to the previous verse—Jesus has all authority, therefore go. Like a parent who tells their child to do something and the child asks why and the parent says, “Because I said so. Because I am the authority.” But I don’t think that interpretation captures the weight, the depth of this “therefore.”
This “therefore” marks the culmination of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This therefore holds up everything that the disciples have experienced over the past few years and says, “Go.” Take all that you have witnessed and go. Go and make disciples of all nations. Go and tell people the story of Jesus, baptize them, teach them, help them learn what it means to follow me. Go.
Now, the problem with this passage is that we don’t know what happens next. I mean, we do. We have the rest of the New Testament. We know the history of Christianity. We see the churches on every street corner. But, we don’t hear what happens exactly after this statement. Knowing what we know of the disciples from scripture, I think we could probably guess. My guess would be that they stood staring at Jesus for a moment, glancing sideways at each other to see how the others were reacting. Then, they probably started asking Jesus a bunch of questions at once. “Go where?” “How do we do that?” “But where are you going?” “All nations? Really?” “Which one of us is in charge?” “Can I be in charge?” After that, I’m guessing they argued for a little while. Then, if they were anything like us Methodists, they formed a committee.
You think I’m joking. Read the book of Acts. They have all sorts of meetings. Ever since there has been a church, there have been committee meetings.
It is a safe assumption that the disciples didn’t feel all that equipped to “therefore go.” But, friends, the beautiful thing about Jesus is that he calls imperfect, unequipped people to go. We actually get this in verse 17. They worshipped, but some doubted. Some are gung ho and some are still trying to figure out what is going on, but Jesus sends them all. The command isn’t to get it all together, figure it all out, and then go. It’s simply “go.”
You know, that’s part of the reason I’m a Methodist. There are churches that would tell you that salvation is all about a moment. One moment, and everything changes. One moment, and then Jesus comes into your life and makes everything right. If that’s the case, then Jesus needs to up his game, because churches are full of people and pastors that aren’t right.
But, in our tradition, the Methodist Tradition, we believe that it’s a journey. That God is active in our lives before we even know it, inviting us to recognize our need for God and to respond. Then, if we respond, God continues to work in our lives, shaping our hearts and minds to better reflect the love and grace of God. It’s a journey. And you don’t have to wait to reach a certain point on that journey in order to do the work of God in the world.
It’s a good thing that God works that way, particularly for the Methodist Church. You know, “Therefore Go” is the theme of General Conference, which will take place in Portland, Oregon next year. For those of you that don't spend your spare time studying the organization of the United Methodist Church, General Conference is the gathering of United Methodist clergy and lay delegates from around the world and it happens every four years. It's important because only that body can speak for the UMC. We send delegates to make decisions about how Methodist churches around the world will function. Now, the idealistic side of me would tell you that it’s amazing to see people from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Germany, the Philippians and Alabama worshipping together and dreaming about the future of the church. The more critical side of me would tell you that we spend an absurd amount of money to engage in politicking, arguing, and committee meetings. The pastoral side of me would tell you that these gatherings are too often full of pain, bitterness, and division, when truly we should be seeking to build relationships and try to figure out together how and where God is leading us. In reality, all of these descriptions would be somewhat accurate. At General Conference, just like in any church, you catch glimpses of beauty and glimpses of brokenness. The problem arises when we let the brokenness overshadow the beauty.
But, then you hear about Methodists helping to eradicate malaria across Africa. About Methodists working together to offer education, develop agriculture, and provide clean water in impoverished areas. About Methodists fighting human trafficking. About Methodists working towards reconciliation in communities that have been wrecked by racial injustice and violence. You hear these stories and begin to think, maybe God can work through imperfect people, through an imperfect church. Maybe the light is truly greater than the darkness.
Therefore Go. That’s Jesus’ final command in the Gospel of Matthew. Therefore Go. He tells the disciples to go, not because they’re ready, not because they have all the answers, not because they are perfect, but because they have known him and others need to know him. He tells them, “Go, because you have encountered the living God, caught a glimpse of the big story of what God has done and is doing and others need to hear that story.”
That’s our story. The story of the church. We are the people who go. We go, even though we are far from perfect. We go, even though we still have lots of questions. We go, even though we sometimes don’t know where it is that we are going.
If you were in Awakening or Spark last week, you heard James preach a great sermon. In it, he mentioned the Hobbit, which got me thinking this past week about the Lord of the Rings Trilogy--the movies, though the books are fantastic. One of my favorite moments in the film series takes place towards the end of The Two Towers, the second film. Frodo and Sam are beyond weary. They have journeyed far from home, survived multiple battles, and are mentally, emotionally, and physically spent. But, the hardest part of their journey still lies ahead.
In this moment, Frodo looks at Sam and says, “I can’t do this.”
Sam sighs and gives this beautiful response, “I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.”
Frodo questions back, “What are we holding onto, Sam? “
And Sam answers, “That there's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo... and it's worth fighting for.”
How often do we feel what Sam says? “I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here.” How did I even end up in this position? If I had to bet, I’d say more than one of the disciples had that very thought in this passage.
Then, Frodo asks the fundamental question, “What are we holding onto?” What is it that drives us? That gives us strength, even in the most difficult circumstances? That keeps us going, even when we feel that we can’t. What are we holding onto? Why do we go?
We go because there is injustice in our world and God sends us to seek justice.
We go because there is suffering and God sends us to show compassion.
We go because people lack access to education and God sends us to build schools.
We go because people lack the basic necessities of life and God sends us to share our abundance.
We go because some have known only hatred or disdain and God sends us to love.
We go because the beauty is greater than the brokenness.
We go because we have encountered the living God, the risen Christ, the transforming Spirit and, if we don’t tell that story, if we don’t tell the story of how a relationship with this God transforms lives, then who will?
We are the church. And the church is the community of people who go. Therefore go.