Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Great Calling and Assurance

Long known as The Great Commission, the words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 28:16-20, are the gospel text appointed for Trinity Sunday in the year of Matthew.  Undoubtedly, they are assigned to Trinity Sunday because they contain the call to baptize  all "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."  It might be a good Sunday to ponder what it would mean for the Church if we were to cast aside trinitarian doctrine, as some faith communities have done.  What's at stake in this understanding of God?  Of Jesus?  Of the Spirit?

(The following questions are meant to get at some of the fundamental concerns for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are meant to supplement many other fine sets of questions which help us exegete a text.  For a more complete look at this genre of preaching, please see my brief guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word - in this text, Jesus - is functioning mainly to call us to go forth and disciple other folks by baptizing and teaching them.  This is not a gospel function nor is it a law function.  It is a classic call to obedience.  It is the call to respond to the grace given us, by living in the way of Christ.

The Word also functions as gospel in two distinct places:  First, when Jesus says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," and then later when he assures us that he is with us "always, to the close of the age."  These are both gospel functions.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  It is hard in this text to see any word of Law.  Perhaps we gain a hint of our need for Christ when Matthew tells us that "some doubted."  What that means is unclear.  Some commentators suggest that that comment is simply a commonplace in describing post-resurrection appearances.  That we are all prone to such doubt goes without saying.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  Undoubtedly we are the disciples, called to disciple others.  We are those who go about teaching and baptizing in the name of the Triune God.  We are the ones who are assured of the presence of Christ throughout all the ages.

4.  Exegetical work:  It is important to understand that there is only one active verb in the Great Commission, that is "to make disciples" or "to disciple".  The other two verbs present are participles, meaning they do not carry the freight that the active verb does.  One way of thinking about this is to make these participles which describe the means by which we disciple others.  In other words, we could understand the verse to be saying, "Make disciples of all nations, by baptizing and teaching."  Or we could simply understand this as a description of the act of disciple-making.  In any case, we will want to be sure we do not misinterpret these verses to say that we are to disciple, baptize, and teach, as though they are equivalent activities, independent of one another.  Douglas Hare, in his commentary, argues that the term "all nations" should actually be translated "all Gentiles."  Hare writes:  "What verse 19 explicitly does is remove the restriction of the earlier Galilean mission ("Go nowhere among the Gentiles," 10:5)." (Matthew, Interpretation series, p. 333)  John Chrysostom, the fourth century preacher, finds much to celebrate in these verses:  "[Jesus] promised to be not only with these disciples but also with all who would subsequently believe after them.  Jesus speaks to all believers as if to one body.  Do not speak to me, he says, of the difficulties you will face, for 'I am with you,' as the one who makes all things easy.  Remember that this is also said repeatedly to the prophets in the Old Testament."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, Vol 1b, 313).

5.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Charles Rice believed that helping listeners recognize their shared story in the text was crucial.  It might be helpful to understand other "commissions" our listeners have received.  How are our listeners' callings to their own vocation stories that resonate with this one?

Blessings on your proclamation!

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