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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

June 11, 2017, Trinity Sunday

 All of God for All the World

Genesis 1:1-2; Matthew 28:16-20

            It was probably one of the most difficult courses I ever took in my life.  Looking back on it, one of the most important as well.  The course was entitled, “Evil and the God of Love,” and it wrestled with those most human questions: How can God be all-loving, and all-powerful, and how can there be so much evil and suffering and tragedy in the world?  I finished my paper.  I don’t mind telling you it was not the worst paper written in the world, in fact my professor like many things about it, but I still remember one cryptic note he added: “You like all your theology, Todd, to have happy endings, don’t you?”  And I have remembered that word.  You know why he offered it, don’t you?  He knows that not every story in our lives ends happily, and that there is much tragedy and sorrow for which we never find a simple or an easy answer.  I have thought back on that comment and I must admit that I still do like “good endings.”  That does not mean they are always happy, but I am never going to let go of my conviction that God promises us a good ending.

            I mention this because this is the ending of Matthew’s Gospel that we turned to today.  Sometimes we lose that element that it plays in the Gospel.  It is kind of interesting to think about how the different Gospels end.  Mark’s Gospel ends where we are told that the disciples flee from the empty tomb because they were afraid, and they said nothing to anyone.  Luke’s Gospel ends with Jesus ascending into heaven, and the disciples with great joy gathering in the Temple to worship every day.

            Matthew ends his Gospel differently with Jesus gathered on a mountain with eleven disciples.  That word “eleven” hits us if we are sensitive at all, because we realize who is not there.  The Gospel always includes tragedy, and Judas, among many other things, is as tragic a figure as you can find, not just in Biblical literature, but in literature anywhere.  And Jesus gathers on a mountain; it is a mountain where He gathers with the disciples in Matthew 5, to offer the Sermon on the Mount.  A mountain is where Jesus appears in Matthew 17, transfigured, dazzling in white before them, alongside of Moses and Elijah who appear with Him on the mountain.  And who doesn’t open the Bible and read the word “mountain,” and not think of that mountain where God appeared out of the cloud to Moses, and granted to him the Law, the Ten Commandments?  I love the phrase that Matthew includes, “When they saw Him, they worshiped Him, but some doubted.”  I think it is Matthew’s way of saying that doubt has a place within the life of the worshiping community.  Most worship the Risen Jesus, but still, with the eleven present, we are told by Matthew that “some doubted.”  Jesus kept preaching to all of them, honoring the place of doubt in any worshiping community.

            Then Jesus follows with what one of my favorite New Testament theologians, F. Dale Bruner, likes to call, “The Five Alls of The Great Commission.”

            The first one is, “All authority in heaven and in earth has been given unto me.”  Note that Jesus is not seizing authority on His own; He is recognizing that all the authority that He receives has been given to Him.  This is not like Alexander Haig.  Remember when Ronald Reagan was shot, and the Vice President was not in the city, and as Secretary of State, Haig said, “I’m in charge”?  Remember how upset everybody was at how presumptuous this claim to authority on his part was?  Throughout Jesus’ life, His harshest critics would ask, “By what authority are you saying these things?” or “By what authority are you doing these things?”  Here Jesus is answering His harshest critics’ question.  “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  All authority is given by His heavenly Father, the God of Israel, of Abraham and Isaac and of Jacob.  

            The Resurrection reveals many things for the early Church, but among them it reveals that Jesus is Lord, and that, as they sing of Him in the Book of Revelation, Jesus is not only Lord, but He is “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”  Why?  Because God has vested Jesus with that standing and that authority.

            Then comes the second “all” in this passage.  Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”  I love this word because it is so much a part of the entire Biblical story!  There is nothing narrow or parochial or exclusive about Christian faith, even though there are many Christians capable of being narrow-minded.  But the faith from the beginning was meant to be a gift for all nations and for all people.  Indeed, the Greek word is the word ethnes, and we could easily say, “All nations, all peoples, all ethnicities.”  This is not new with Jesus.  Remember the call of Abram in Genesis 12, when he is an old man, and Sarai his wife is old as well, and God promises them a child?  God says, “Through your family I shall bless all the families of the earth.”

            I never went to Wake Forest University, but I have a son who graduated from Wake, and we have strong family ties to the school.  Connie’s brother serves as a Trustee at his alma mater.  I have come to enjoy a casual friendship with their President, Nathan Hatch.  Nathan Hatch is the son of a Presbyterian theology professor, and is an Elder, active at the First Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  Nathan Hatch loves to talk about the motto of Wake Forest University.  It is two simple Latin words: Pro Humanitate, For Humanity.  Wake Forest was founded as a Baptist university and its mission was to be “for humanity,” not just a small slice of humanity, but for all of humankind, because the love of God in Jesus Christ is to “make disciples of all nations,” all peoples and all ethnicities.

            The third “all” is not necessarily an obvious “all.”  It is added by New Testament theologian F. Dale Bruner.  He says, “When Jesus says, ‘baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ Jesus is suggesting baptizing them in the name of ‘all of God.’”  

            Let us be honest right from the start.  This is a statement by Jesus that we are often tempted to look back onto and say, “See, here’s the Trinity!”, when in fact, the Trinity did not become a doctrine of the Church for another three hundred years of Church history.  I like to think here that Jesus is not thinking doctrinally when He says, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  I think Jesus is thinking out of the experience of His own baptism.  Remember the baptism of Jesus?  We are told the skies opened up and the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus like a dove, and the voice from heaven said, ‘You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.’”  Jesus experienced God as Spirit, and heard the call of His Heavenly Father, and came to understand Himself as the beloved Son, with whom God was well pleased.  

            Think about baptism!  If we only baptized in the name of the Father, there would not be a sense of God in human flesh, the incarnate one.  We would lose a sense of God willing to be born vulnerable, as a baby in a manger in Bethlehem.  Or think if we only baptized in the name of Jesus, we would miss out on God the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth.  We would have a smaller, more limited view of God.  Or think if we only baptized in the name of the Holy Spirit, we would have a mystical God without any anchorage of the story of God in human history at all.  No, it is in the name of “all of God” – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – that we are welcomed as children of God into the Church through baptism.

            Shirley Guthrie taught theology for many years at Columbia Theological Seminary.  He was a close and dear friend of Tom Walker’s, one of Tom’s favorite theologians.  Guthrie writes, “The same God who is over us as God the Father and Creator, and God-with-us and for us as the incarnate Word and Son, is also in and among us, close to us as God the Holy Spirit.”  And who wants to live in this world without a God who is that large, and that present, and that intimate and personal?

            The fourth great “all” is, “Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”  This comes in Matthew’s Gospel, which in many ways is more of a teaching Gospel than any other Gospel.  It includes the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.  Remember?  “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “blessed are the merciful,” “blessed are the pure in heart,” “blessed are the peacemakers.”  But it does not just include the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew has five separate, large units of teaching by Jesus, likely intending to mirror the five books of the Torah, to say that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Law and all the prophets of Israel.  We baptize people to be disciples, and the word “disciple” literally means “student.”  We are students, all of us, enrolled in the school of Jesus, who bids us to teach everyone “all that Jesus commanded.”  Knowing that Jesus is not simply a teacher, but is The Master Teacher of humankind, is to hear Him say, “Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and you shall find rest unto your souls.”  In Jesus’ teaching we find life, and in Jesus’ teaching we find wisdom, and in Jesus’ teaching we find Truth, with a capital “T” and in the singular.  

            Finally, one last “all”: “And lo, I am with you always,” or literally, “I am with you all the days of your life, even to close of the age.”  The last word in this Gospel is that there is not a last word at all, but that Jesus will be with us eternally.  This is the promise of the Lord of heaven and earth who has bid that He become our friend, and here is the promise: “I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”  This is the last word Jesus speaks in Matthew’s Gospel.  Remember when we first hear of God as God-with-us?  It comes in the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, when the angel comes to Joseph in a dream, and says, “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child she is bearing is of the Holy Spirit.”  And then Joseph is told, “You shall call Him Jesus,” then adds a second name that comes from the prophecy of Isaiah, “He shall be called Emmanuel,” which means “God-with-us.”  Karl Barth says, “In Jesus Christ, God promises ever and always to be God-with-us, and never, ever to be God apart from us.”

            “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 lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”

                                                                                    Amen.

 

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