“Go” Matthew 28:16-20
Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
April 28, 2019
A while ago, the New Yorker ran this cartoon:
There is a man sitting on an empty train bench wearing a shirt saying “ask me about my religion. The caption says “another way to keep an empty seat beside you on the train.”
Or, there’s this bumper sticker:
It says “I’ve got nothing against God. It’s his [or her, I would add] fan club I can’t stand.”
After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to some of his disciples on a mountain. Some doubted, some believed fully. And he called each of them to baptize all nations and teach them to obey what Jesus taught.
What does it mean to make disciples of all nations?
“Depending on whom you talk to,” writes Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, “it seems possible that nothing has cost Jesus more new disciples than the tactics of those most intent on recruiting them.”
One August, I moved from my parents’ house to the University of Kansas campus. I was pretty scared and overwhelmed, walking alone on that large campus, trying to find my way around. A young man walked up to me and introduced himself. He was so friendly, and asked if he could walk with me. He showed interest in me, and I started to feel so much better. And then it came: he told me about the campus ministry he worked for, and how it would be great if I came. And again my heart sank. This was not a friendly face simply wanted to be kind to a terrified new freshman. I was a target. This was his job.
I worked for a campus ministry before I came here to Lyonsville, and I learned there that many ministries had a routine. They would look for the newest and youngest students, those who seemed a bit lost and overwhelmed, and they would shower them with love and care and support. Then and only then did the theology come: to be part of these groups meant adopting their beliefs. Some were perfectly happy with this arrangement, finding meaning and purpose. For others it was fine until it wasn’t, until some pesky questions wouldn’t let them go: “are my friends of other religions really going to a place called hell to be eternally punished?” “why did my friend die of cancer?” “is my lesbian friend really condemned?” and in many cases “are women really inferior to men?” Those are not welcome questions in most of these ministries, which will spit you out with just as much passion as they brought you in. Then the spit out students would show up at our door, looking for faith that truly had room for them, for a community of people who saw them not as targets but simply as companions on life’s journey.
What does it mean to make disciples?
According to Jesus in today’s story, it means two things: baptizing other people, and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commanded. We are here today because our ancestors in faith heard Jesus’ call to “go” and they did. They went out into the world to live their faith: healing the sick, serving the poor, loving neighbors near and far. They went out to follow Jesus and to invite others alongside them. And something funny happened. More and more people kept joining in. And here we are.
We are here because our ancestors left their comfortable places, with people that look like them and talk like them, and go. They didn’t wait for others to come to them. That’s something we tend to struggle with in our corner of the church, where we tend to be more prepared for those who are looking for us, rather than asking where and to whom God calls us to go.
But there are many who don’t struggle at all with the “go” part. Where they seem to get off the rails is with the “obeying everything I have commanded you” part of things. Jesus calls the disciples to help others become more like Jesus, not more like the disciples. The greek word translated “teach” in this story has two meanings. One is the translation we often hear: to teach or instruct. The other is to be a disciple of or to follow someone. And so a fuller interpretation shows that it is not “go and make other people be like you.” It is not necessarily even “go and help other people be like me” though that is closer. After all, Jesus’ disciples are learning themselves how to be more like Jesus. The best interpretation might be something like “go and learn with others how to follow me.”
This may seem like a little distinction but it makes a world of a difference. “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me,” Jesus says. Not to us. It’s not about us, needing to go show other people all their wrong ways so they can be more like us. It is about learning together how to follow this Jesus. It is about believing that this following Jesus thing is so good, so important, so powerful that we want others to be part of that journey. Not for their time or their money. Not to make them be like us. To learn from one another. To grow together.
There are lots of ways to grow a church. You can tell people they are wrong, that they’re going to hell. You can say the only way to joy in earth and on heaven is by coming and being part of us. You can target people in the same way I was targeted that day on a college campus: not as someone to truly share a journey with but as just one more soul to save.
Or, you can do what Jesus’ disciples did. You can go out into the world, living faith as best you are able. Growing with one another, building relationships of love and care and true concern, healing the sick, serving the poor, loving neighbors near and far. Not telling but showing the world what doing God’s will looks like. Trusting that when we do, we will grow in spirit and faith, and maybe butts in the pews. For the Spirit works everything out, not necessarily how we would choose, limited humans we are. But instead according to God’s good purposes, whatever they may be. After all, Jesus has promised. “Lo, I will be with you always, to the end of the age.”
I wonder where God is calling you to go, me to go, us to go next. Wherever it may be, may we have the courage and faithfulness to go, trusting that the journey is good, wherever it may go.
 In Feasting on the Gospels, vol. 2.