Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:16-20
Because this coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday, I’m taking a one-week hiatus from the book of Ecclesiastes. The passage above is the Lectionary’s gospel reading of the day. Because it is such a perfect follow-up to Pentecost (the presence of God coming down onto the church that the church may spread across the world), it is a wonderful text to preach because the gospel of the church doesn’t just spread into the world; it spreads Trinitarian-ly (“in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”). This deserves special attention.
The theological culture of the church of my youth had a very high view of “The Great Commission.” It was painted on a wall in the foyer, printed weekly on the church bulletin, set to music, and quoted frequently. In spite of the simple grammar of the passage, the operative word that received all the focus was not “make” or “baptizing” or “teaching.” It was “GO!” I put the word in all caps with an explanation point because that visually conveys the way it was taught that Jesus commissioned of His disciples.
For me and most of my peers, this was understood as a command to go out of the church and do the real work of ministry “out there” somewhere. The real work of ministry wasn’t really taking place in the church; the real work of ministry was getting people to ask Jesus into their heart, baptizing them as quickly as possible, and (far too often) never hearing from them again. Let me be clear: this is not what Jesus was commissioning His disciples to do.
Think with me quickly about the fire, or light, or lamp of God. In the original created order, the sun, moon, and stars were the lamps prepared by God on the fourth day. The glory cloud lamp led the Israelites. There was the burning bush. The same light descended upon Mt. Sinai. In the tabernacle, the fire of God came down to cook the sacrifices. In the nation of Israel, the political and religious leaders were seen as the anointed lightbearers (at their best, at least). Much more could be said through the kings and the prophets and the gospels about the fire or lamp of God.
Christ and the new Israel that He is forming around Himself are to be the light of the world. At Pentecost, the tongues of flame (the breathed-out fire of God) came to rest on the heads of the disciples. This means the disciples are being set up as new lightbearers. Being baptized by the Holy Spirit they are being placed in the heavenly places with Christ (cf. Ephesians 2:6) to shine as stars. Thus, the Church is to be a city set on a hill (a new Jerusalem). The burning bush of the Church is where man now meets with God. Wherever the Lampstand Church is, there is holy ground.
That’s what the church is. The Great Commission is about the church. That’s what is to be spread in your daily goings-about through teaching, making disciples, and baptizing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. That’s what the church does. Jesus is not commissioning His disciples to leave the church; He’s commissioning His disciples who have the fire of God upon them to expand and spread the Temple-Church. The church is a house of prayer for all the nations. It may seem impossible that this will happen since we are a rather unimpressive bunch in many ways. But here is the power: Jesus says, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” That’s how it works: He’s really the one doing it in us such that we are not alone. We not only have each other as the church, His body, but “behold, I am with you always,” He says. That’s the gospel.
Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.