Two Commands and a Promise
Scripture: Acts 1:1-11; Matthew 28:16-20
Rev. Charles Svendsen, May 21, 2017
This Thursday, May 25th, is Ascension of the Lord day. Every year, 40 days after Easter, the church celebrates and wrestles with the story of Jesus of Nazareth moving from earth into the transcendent presence of his heavenly Father. On Ascension Sunday, we joyfully struggle with a narrative that refuses to be domesticated! These texts in Acts 1 and Matthew 28 elicit wonder and even wildness!
It's Luke, in the opening verses of his Acts of the Apostles, and Matthew, in the final section of his gospel, who give us the clearest account of our Lord's ascension. The resurrection was 40 days past. Jesus had appeared to the disciples and to others on several previous occasions. These appearances by the risen Savior were sources of encouragement and final instruction Christ's disciples.
Jesus had initially told his followers to meet him in Galilee, but they were charged just before the ascension to wait in Jerusalem - wait for a coming promise. The scene before us in Acts 1 is without parallel in the Scriptures. It was Peter and brother Andrew; James and his brother John; Thomas the twin; Philip, later the evangelist; Matthew the converted tax collector; Bartholomew who was also names Nathaniel; James unhappily named "the less"; Simon the Zealot; and unknown Thaddeus.
These eleven disciples with their Rabbi Jesus gathered for the final time high over Jerusalem looking west into the city from the Mount of Olives, there assembled for his departing. In the course of their conversation a question (really an issue) was brought up... possibly instigated by Simon who had a political interest here. The concern was put forth: "Lord, will you now restore the kingdom of Israel?" Hard here to know the meaning of the question. Was it, "Can we have it like it was in the good old days under King David?" or "Will Rome get off our backs and out of our pocketbooks?" Jesus gave an interesting answer... as he had on more than one occasion. Jesus said, "It is not for you to know! For you see, the Father cares for these things; that's God's realm." "But you... you dear friends... you shall receive power and the power as the person coming! The Holy spirit will come upon you, and you shall be my testifiers in Jerusalem in all Judea... in Samaria... and to the end of the earth." Those were Luke's last recorded words of Jesus of Nazareth. And then as they listened and looked on, Jesus... the man from Nazareth, passed into another world - the world of his Father. The eleven stared so long and so bewilderingly into heaven that two angels came and stood with them. In time one of the angels spoke, "Men of Galilee... why do you stand there looking into heaven? This Jesus will come just as you saw him go." The return of Jesus someday, or maybe the power of Jesus coming in 10 days. The day was Pentecost, June 4th this year, when the Spirit of God came rushing into the infant Church like the wind. I read a sermon on the Ascension of Jesus, and the preacher said the point of the Ascension is not that Jesus left, but that the disciples would know that it was Jesus, the one who knew and loved and forgave and comforted them, that this Jesus would someday return. That will preach! If Luke, in the writing of Acts, provides the setting of Ascension Day (the picture of Jesus and the disciples assembled at the Olivet summit) it's Matthew who gives us a zoom lens. The "close view" of the words Jesus begins in Matthew's account with our Lord restating his sovereign authority. Matthew 28:18, "All authority on earth and in heaven has been given to me, therefore, Go." So two commands and a promise Jesus gives the disciples, to the church, and to us. The first mandate that the Great Commission church must dearly love is our Authority to Go.
God extends all power to the Christ Jesus; the messiah co-rules the heavens and the earth with God and as God. And it's here in the Great Commission text that the church of Jesus Christ is granted in all its Christian endeavors to proceed with authority! And I would comment this to us at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In what we preach, in the manner of our visitation, in the sometimes difficult decisions taken, in our plans for the future, as we hear of the progress of our Pastor Nominating Committee today, in the substance and style of this great church's ministry that we "Go therefore" in the authority of God. But please note that authority for us as believers in the ascended Christ is not the world's authority. Not authority backed by threat, or fear, or law, or force, but our authority is as it was for Jesus. Jesus' authority was to forgive... in God's name. Jesus' authority was to be gentile and confident in God's name. Jesus' authority was to be just and bold... not as Lord but as servant when bringing the realm of God on earth. So when we go into the pulpit or into homes, or into small groups, or into choir rehearsals, when we collect for social ministries or collect for worship, we go with the authority of the God who gave authority to the Christ who, in turn, authorizes the church to serve with boldness and gentleness.
It seems to me that in each of the churches in which I have served, we did not want for expertise or control but for Biblical authority - authority to be graceful and in the gospel confident, because Jesus was. Where does Westminster gain its authority to do anything? In its history, or perhaps in its tradition? (You are almost 50 years in this city.) Or is it our Reformed and Presbyterian tradition which reaches back to the 16th century? That's a start, but we really go in the living authority of the ascended Christ, a going in the authority of Christ's courage and compassion. An illustration of going with gospel authority may be that of the "ambassador." In fact, the Apostle Paul on several occasions speaks of Christians as ambassadors for Christ. An ambassador is not simply a visitor in a foreign land, but she or he is given authority to speak and act on behalf of a home sovereign or home nation. The U.S. ambassador (to France for example) ministers with the authority and power of the American government. Yet that authority is tempered by the real fact that an American is a guest of that nation. So power is in diplomacy... in sensitivity, in love. Likewise Christian ambassadors Go in the power of God, but with the compassion of Christ himself. You are Christ's ambassadors in your offices... in Westlake Village and beyond... before your spouses and partners and children.
Power and love.
One of the ministries of our Presbytery is called Bridges. Bridges, born in our own San Fernando Presbytery, trains people and congregations to bring their faith into their communities, usually outside the walls of the church. Bridge ministers are ordinary believers who sit in a Starbucks or coach soccer or, in one example, a mother in Sierra Madre who invited her girlfriends to church... and they went... once. But one busy Friday evening one of those friends came to Jan's front porch and said, "My husband just left me." And something inside Jan said, "Stop making supper for your husband and kids." That she handed off to her husband. Jan invited her devastated friend to sit with her on Jan's front porch, and Jan just listened, a "ministry of presence." And since then, one afternoon a week, Jan has a "front porch" ministry and people come just to sit and talk and pray. And Jan listens in love.
I've often wondered if a church didn't count anything that happened on its campus on Sunday morning - no choir, no preachers, not folks in the pews - how would that church do mission in the community? - in the world? What difference would Westminster, or you, or I make outside Sunday, outside here? Our Presbytery's mantra is "Every Church a Mission." You may be the only face of Christ your neighbors see. You have Authority to go in grace this week!
The second mandate we are given in this Great Commission is to make disciples. "Go and make disciples of all nations." How do we do that? Two ways, said Jesus: "We make disciples first of all by baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier)." "Baptism" is an ancient word for "union." So the ceremony of baptism must give way to the larger picture, a vital (really essential part) of our making disciples for Christ, and that's done by sharing the good news. Sharing the news that God has come in Christ to bring new life to all who would follow the Savior who restores and reconciles and redeems into life. We do that by our words and our deeds. Jesus said we are to "make disciples" by baptizing them in water and in spirit. (Not to forget the spirit!) Remember your baptism? Perhaps your parents do. Give thanks to God. (We did an ocean baptism last year and may do another one soon!) And secondly, Jesus said that we make disciples by teaching them about Jesus. How do we do that at WPC?
Well, we teach in formal ways: in worship, in Bible studies, JYF, SYF, KFC, Sunday School, but come back to the text when the disciples hear these words: make disciples in baptism and teaching. What do you suppose they remembered about Jesus' discipleship of them? I think Thomas remembered the seventh day after Easter when he confessed Jesus as God and Lord. And Peter remembered the Tiberian shore when he was called to follow Christ. And John remembered the last supper, when he leaned on Jesus' breast. You see... discipleship is to baptize and to teach both formally and informally! Discipleship is modeled!
When I was a child I was baptized into a church... when I was a child I was taught the Scriptures... but as a little boy and as a young man I watched people in our church and I observed Christians in our community of faith, and believers came to me and were kind and caring, not a formal thing, but quiet, encouraging Christian modeling. That's where I learned of the faith. Our youth ministry at WPC is modeled on relational discipleship.
So Jesus says to us, "Like my ministry with Thomas and Peter and John, model men and women and girls and boys by your faithful lives as well as your formalities." Who has been your model for discipleship? Whom are you modeling? Models for discipleship.. little eyes are watching you... in the way of Jesus, as gift of the ascension to us at Westminster. And finally, Jesus, in this Great Commission, gives us a promise of presence, and "lo" said Jesus, "I am with you always. Yes, to the close of the age." The very presence of God came at Pentecost and the Church was baptized with the eternal company of the Holy Spirit, baptized to be witnesses to the New Testament word. The word witness is from where we get our word "martyr," and I would submit that that's the real meaning of the presence of the Holy Spirit. The presence of God is promised to us in difficulty and discouragement and defeat.
This book, "Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy", is about German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who during World War II died for his faith. That's the link between the presence of the Holy Spirit and difficulty. Based on this term "witness," martyr, that God particularly comes to those who suffer. This book is a sermon. So we are promised the Spirit of God's own presence in our worst days as well as our best. What kind of days are you going through? "Lord, I am with you always," the "presence of the Spirit" in the "best and worst of times." What a rich comfort! What a hope, the presence of Christ in life, and in death. My brother John the Baptist, helped me recently in a bad time by pointing out Ephesians 4:29, "Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear."
"Go" means go now... go in this year, this interim year, go today. Make disciples means: baptizing and teaching, modeling Christ today and the promise of the presence of Christ. We journey with Christ in the storms and in the favorable winds of our lives. I trust that we will treasure these Scriptures in our hearts and that Christ will whisper gently grace to us all as we reflect upon our Christian faith this Spring and Summer... and today.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to God, through the Christ, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Westminster Presbyterian Church