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Action Words

Doug in Riverside

based on Matthew 28:16-20

My message this morning is going to be about verbs, about action words. Notice how central verbs are in the Great Commission from Matthew, where the risen Christ commissions his disciples for mission in the world: “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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Life in the post-Resurrection, post-Pentecost world--life in the church--is a time for activity, not passivity.

After the Resurrection, when the disciples met the risen Christ on a mountain in Galilee--just as Moses met God on a mountain in Sinai--they heard some verbs addressed to them in the imperative mode. Now the first of those imperative verbs is short, sweet, simple, and strong. GO! Makes me think of a multitude of Little League games, when I have been the third base coach hollering at my runners to Go! Go! Go! Run hard, I tell them in practice. And when you see that the ball has gotten past the outfielder, think home run. Run like the wind! Go!

In a kinder, gentler sort of way, this impertaive verb “Go” makes me think of one of the verses to one of my favorite hymns [“Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ,” Fred Kaan, 1975]: “Jesus calls us in, sends us out/ Bearing fruit in a world of doubt/Gives us love to tell, bread to share/ God (Immanuel) everywhere.” Jesus calls us in--to sacred space, during sacred time, into the community of his sacred presence--then sends us out--on a journey and on a mission. Just as God sent Jesus into the world--to heal, to reconcile, to make new--so Jesus sends disciples into the world bearing in our lives this same ministry of reconciliation.

Go therefore, says Jesus, and make disciples. Now this second verb, this second action word, works better in Greek than it does in English. In Greek, it’s one word without a space in between: makedisciples, or perhaps discipleize. In any event, the meaning is not hard to discern. Jesus sends us into the world with a specific task: to make disciples. Jesus doesn’t send us into the world to be silent about what we have seen and heard and tasted. Jesus doesn’t send us into the world to be all puffed up about how much better we are than those folks who don’t go to church, or those folks who go to a different church. Jesus sends us into the world to make disciples: to bring others into the discipleship community and equip them for ministry.

Now what is a disciple? A disciple is a follower. A disciple is a student: someone who is learning a skill from her or his teacher, and putting that skill into practice. A disciple is someone who represents her or his teacher.

A disciple of Jesus is a follower of Jesus: someone who has been captivated on some level by the ministry or message or memory or image of Jesus. A disciple of Jesus is someone who is constantly learning from Jesus how to be fully human in the world. A disciple of Jesus is someone who represents Jesus to the world. A disciple of Jesus is someone who is constantly learning how to better love God, self, neighbor, and nature.

Go therefore and make disciples, says Jesus, baptizing them and teaching them. Is this a scriptural mandate to establish a traditional Sunday school, with cradle roll, church school classes, and confirmation? Yes it is, in part. Years ago in our tradition, it was common practice for parents to present their children for baptism at an early age, to enroll their children in Sunday school, and to expect that their children would be prepared for church membership in early adolescence.

So yes, making disciples means in part baptizing and teaching children. But it also means baptizing and teaching adults. And there are two kinds of baptism for adults: water baptism and spirit baptism. For most of us adults, our water baptism took place when we were infants or children. Spirit baptism, which is what Pentecost is all about, is another matter entirely. You know you’ve received spirit baptism when you can feel deep down in your being that God is real, that God is love, and that God loves you, with a passionate, demanding, challenging, comforting love.

You don’t have to be a “holy roller” shouting “Hallelujah!” to know that you’ve been baptized in the Spirit. As Paul wrote in the letter to the Galatians, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” So if your life in Christ has brought more of any of these spiritual qualities into you life, then you know you’ve been baptized in the Spirit.

If Jesus calls us to baptize and teach, Jesus also calls us to learn. Now those of you who are teachers by profession or vocation know that you have to learn in order to teach, and you also know that you learn as you teach. When I was in graduate school at Boston College back in the 1980’s, I learned a lot from my teachers. But I also learned a lot from my teaching, when I taught a freshman course titled “Introduction to Christian Ethics - Catholic and Protestant.” Not only through preparing to give a lecture or lead a discussion, but also through participating in conversation with my students, I learned much even as I taught.

Part of what we are called to do when we participate in worship is to learn more from God and from one another about what God is calling us to do and to be. Worship is many things, but it should always include us and involve us in teaching and learning. I don’t accept the pessimistic view of the book of Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun. There’s always something new to learn. Why, just this past week, I had to learn how to isolate and eliminate a virus called “Happy99” from my computer. Not a happy task, to be sure, but one that has apparently been successful!

Go and make disciples, says Jesus, baptizing them and teaching them to observe (obey) all that I have commanded you. What the church has learned through the centuries is that there is in the teaching and example of Jesus an unavoidable tension between gospel and law, between grace and responsibility. So yes, those of us who teach, whether in worship, Bible study, individual counseling, or through any “teachable moment” have to struggle with this tension. At the very heart and soul of Jesus is the grace of God: our unearned acceptance, our unmerited forgiveness. But this is not cheap grace. It has consequences that are sometimes costly. And so we have to teach, not only the grace of God given to us in Jesus’ death and resurrection, but also the moral claims, the “commandments,” placed on us by Jesus’ teaching and example.

Go and make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them, says Jesus in the Great Commission. And remember this: I am always with you. You are never alone.

How is Jesus the Christ always with us in the discipleship community? My cyber colleague Nail-Bender in NC tells it this way, reflecting on a time when he went with a mission group from a suburban church to the mean streets of our nation’s capital.

“She was such a small [child, she] looked so much younger than her nine years. But her small size certainly did not seem to diminish her demeanor, for to share space with her was to be in the presence of sunshine. She didn't just enter a room, she splashed into it like the laughter of a gurgling brook or the exclamation of a breaking wave just after the first rays of dawn, a statement of delight and beauty and joy. Her smile was infectious and her glance would melt the heart of even the most ardent cynic. Who could not be affected by one who was so full of life? How could anyone be cynical around Cynthia?

I met her as we prepared to go into the city. You see, she was part of this congregation who understood the call to reach beyond their walls, this peculiar group of church folks who understood that one could not claim life apart from those who struggled with the daily reality of death. So each and every month they would gather together, this eclectic community of disciples, male and female, black and white, some young and some not so young, and they would journey to that place where life was not so beautiful. They would pack vans full of food and clothing and they would travel to this urban landscape where success was measured in very small increments, measured by a hot meal on a cold morning, measured by just one day when one was not spit on, harassed, or cursed, measured by the piece of concrete one claimed for the night.

While the adults rushed about, she stood quietly among them, a look of purpose surrounding her small features, like some mini-missionary. She did not seem to understand that most who were not part of this small strange community would consider her of little consequence. She did not seem to understand that in most circles she would have been viewed as a risk. Instead, she stood there with a look which seemed to say, "I was created for this reason," which, of course, she was. Her father, another saint really, introduced her to me. As she placed her small hand into mine, she leaned toward me, drew her lips close to my ear and whispered, "You know, I'll help show you what to do."

Soon we had arrived at our destination, a dirty street corner not far from the world's most famous address, a street corner that was now home to a dozen or so beaten and damaged wanderers. Several of them ambled slowly over to the van and stood patiently at the open door, waiting for a scrap of clothing or a cup of hot, steaming coffee. They stood in silence, like some unseeing, upright corpses, responding only in monotones, hurt and lifeless … until Cynthia moved into their midst. And suddenly, as if they had been resurrected, smiles appeared, smiles and laughter and conversation. She moved from person to person, offering a bit of food, and offering so much more -- a glimpse of joy in the realm of despair, a moment of happiness in the midst of sorrow. She offered the beauty of her spirit. She offered herself. She offered the Word, the Word who was in her flesh, the Word who is hope, the Word who is God. The Holy Spirit blew through this congregation of the forgotten, blew through and embraced them by the presence of this little one. Mere words could never caress as these small hands caressed. Mere words could never proclaim this most concrete sign of the grace of the Word. Cynthia, teaching with her touch, and touching with her love.

And in that place of death, life prevailed.

In a few hours, our food depleted, our emotions drained, we drove slowly back to suburbia, slowly back to the home of this rather peculiar community called church. In the silence of the journey, I found myself thinking of Cynthia, this young and beautiful child of God. Cynthia, this nine year old angel who understood how to love, the young and beautiful child of God who struggled each and everyday with the debilitating disease of Cystic Fibrosis, who always seemed to find a way to bring hope to the other.

And the master, the suffering servant, moved through the crowd touching those around him, giving them life and bringing them hope. Jesus moved through the crowd in the person of a diminutive and miraculous nine year old girl - Cynthia, the Christ.”

“Jesus calls us in, sends us out/ Bearing fruit in a world of doubt/Gives us love to tell, bread to share/ God (Immanuel) everywhere.”

Thanks and praise be to God! Amen.