Call to Worship
To God be all glory, the One who visits us in three persons, the Holy Trinity of faith, hope, and love.
For there is no place which is without you, O God, and no time when you are not there.
For you are the beginning and the end, the source of all that is in the wonder of universal life.
And yet, you take us by the hand and lead us, as the life of Christ walks our human way and shows us that life is stronger than death.
In the Holy Spirit, we are gifted, again and again, and are called onwards toward a future in which we are surrounded with love and grace.
We praise and worship you, O God, for there is no other God like you.
Out of our ordinary, everyday lives, you gather us, Holy God, to this time of worship, to this time of praise.
We join with angels and archangels and all the company of the saints to bless you, to listen for your Word, to immerse ourselves in your grace, in your love.
Open our eyes, our hearts, our minds to your presence with us.
Take the chaos of the world that has found its way into our hearts—speak your Word and give order and form and new creation.
Take the failures and defeats, the guilt and the shame that bind our spirits—speak your Word and set us free.
Take our longings for your goodness to shape our lives, this community, the hurting world—speak your Word and infuse us with your courage and your hope and your love.
Then, awaken us to your Holy Spirit who is making all things new, even us.
We ask in Jesus’ name who sends us out to speak love and mercy and grace to those who are waiting, longing, hoping for a sign that they are not alone, that you are a God of love, that you are a Savior who knows their name, that the Holy Spirit is leading them home. Amen.
Scripture Lesson/Matthew 28:16-20 (NRSV)
16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Nineteen years ago, I graduated from the School of Theology at Virginia Union University, a historic black college in Richmond, Virginia. I will never forget that early May afternoon when I went for graduation rehearsal at the Arthur Ashe Center—mingling with my fellow graduates, everyone elated to having this time of study completed, reminiscing about certain classes and certain professors, slapping each other on the back and congratulating each other. It was a time of joy and celebration. But what I think I remember most about those moments was our Dean, Dr. John Kinney, rushing up to me and telling me that I was class valedictorian and that I was expected to speak at graduation exercises the next day. Now, I was elated to learn that I was graduating first in my class, but I was overcome with this wave of anxiety, given that I had to come up with something to say, and with less than 24 hours to prepare. Dr. Kinney explained that it had to be short and that it should be a kind of testimony to my experience at Virginia Union.
Five minutes, you say? Those of you who know me will probably agree—when have I ever kept anything I had to say within five minutes? I had my family in tow. Marcie was then seven months pregnant with Melanie, Matthew was only six years old, and my parents were in from Tennessee for the occasion and we were all staying in the same hotel room. How was I going to balance all of this and come up with something meaningful to say about my seminary experience. And, being one of the few Caucasian graduates in my class, what in the world could I say that would really mean anything. I didn’t want to come across as patronizing in any way. I didn’t want to say anything that might somehow lessen the experiences of others who did not benefit from white privilege as I did. I wanted to show the great respect that I had for my classmates, many of whom were bi-vocational pastors, working a forty-hour-week as a teacher or attorney or CPA and then coming to Virginia Union of Friday nights and Saturday mornings for their theological education and then standing in the pulpits of their own churches on Sundays. It didn’t seem appropriate to default to the trite, but true, age-old commencement tropes. And, no offense to Dr. Seuss, I didn’t want to run out and purchase a copy of Oh, the Places You’ll Go and read it condescendingly to folks who had worked so hard and sacrificed so much to earn their degrees. My fellow graduates and their families deserved so much better than that.
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very much that night. I hurriedly wrote down a few notes of some things in might say on the notepad in the hotel room, but I wasn’t very happy with what I had come up with. The time came when we had to arrive at the Arthur Ashe Center and get lined up for the ceremony. The seminary students marched in first with the undergraduate students following in the rows behind us. I was sweating like crazy, and not just because I was wearing a cap and gown. As we moved into our seats, we received a program that noted all of the names of the graduates and the order of ceremony. I looked over it closely, so I knew when to go forward to the stage and share my commencement remarks. Based on the agenda, I was to follow the keynote speaker whose name seemed remarkably familiar. Hmmm. Johnny Cochran, I think I heard that name before. Now where?! Oh, yes, he was the noted defense attorney in the OJ Simpson case who famously coined the phrase—“If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.” Seriously, I have to follow him? Again, I looked down at my meagre notes, praying and praying over and over again, “God, please give me something to say. Help me say the right things.”
The time came when Esquire Cochran arose to the podium to give the keynote address. At that time, he was doing research and working to develop a case for potential legislation that would offer financial reparations for the descendants of slaves. By then I was squirming in my seat. Not that I disagreed with his comments, but rather the fact that this 33-year-old white kid from East Tennessee would have to stand at that same podium in just a few minutes and speak a word to all who were there. To be honest, all I can really remember are my feelings, not the words that I shared when called forward to the speak. All I really remember was the attempt to keep my remarks short and focused on gratitude. Thankful for the opportunity to work with Dr. Kinney and all of the wonderful professors I had. Thankful for the welcome, the acceptance, and the friendships that I developed with my classmates. Thankful that Virginia Union had been faithful to the task of training preachers since the conclusion of the Civil War and that all generations who come through those hallowed halls benefited from their blood, sweat, and tears. That the school had come a long way from its humble origins in an old tobacco warehouse in Richmond’s historic Shockoe Bottom, an area that once was the center of slave auctions. That those who had come before had a vision from which we have benefitted, giving us the responsibility to carry it forth so that other generations would also find blessing there.
Needless to say, in that moment I was probably more grateful for the opportunity to scurry away from the podium than just about anything else in the world. Indeed, it was God offering the words because it certainly wasn’t me, I was clueless. Words came out of my mouth that I had neither prepared nor thought of. Whew! The applause from both the students and those thousands of folks gathered there was most generous and seemed to me very genuine. I was just glad my part was over.
In this season of graduation, we come to Jesus’ final words to the disciples. To most of us who grew up in the church, they are familiar to us and we know them as “The Great Commission.” In a way, it was Jesus’ graduation speech, a farewell moment. It was time for him to move off the scene and for those who followed to take up the mantle of preaching and teaching others what they had learned from him. While I know the words of Jesus’ Great Commission and have shared and preached on them many times over the years, I’m not sure I had considered it in context. Jesus’ words always seemed to me to be kind of timeless, a challenge to all generations who would come to profess faith in the crucified and risen Christ. Indeed, that is true. It does reach out to you and to me across the centuries in that way. But I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to consider the feelings and thoughts of those who were there that day and the anxiety they must have been feeling in that moment.
To a degree at least, I think we have domesticated this moment on that Galilean mountain. We’ve cast it as an idyllic moment on a mountain—like the Transfiguration—where something incredible happens, there’s bright light, there’s signs of God’s power, the greats of Israel’s past are there. Something I like to call a close encounter of the holy kind. This time, this trip up the mountain as Matthew tells it offers us something very different. There’s no great light or sign of power or miraculous vision revealed. In fact, it’s not exactly exciting at all and it only takes four verses to describe. In this moment, all we really encounter is Jesus’ final blessing and benediction upon his little band of disciples and then the story ends. If we are both honest with both the text and with ourselves, we will find that this “happy ending” wasn’t some utopian fairy tale. It was tinged with fear and uncertainty. First of all, verse 16 begins with the words, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee.” At the very beginning, we are quickly reminded that there are only eleven disciples, that one of them, the betrayer Judas Iscariot, is absent. That which began with twelve is now down to eleven. It is a terse reminder that things do not always work out the way we hope they will, that imperfect humans aren’t always able to live up to do what they say they will or follow-through on our commitments, that our best dreams often come up short, that greed and the quest for power sometimes overtake our best intentions.
Secondly, in verse 17, it mentions that some worshipped Jesus, but others doubted. Now there’s a juicy detail. One wonders why Matthew decides to include it. But I’m glad that he did. If those disciples who had walked with Jesus for all those years, witnessing the power of God in so many ways and now seeing Jesus, the one who endured death on an instrument of Roman capital punishment, alive and breathing among them—if these folks can doubt, then maybe the times when I find myself struggling in my faith I can be forgiven and given reassurance too. Fortunately for those who doubted, Jesus offers no rebuke. The only other place in Matthew’s Gospel where the Greek word for doubt is used is back on the stormy Galilean Sea as Peter begins to sink into the swirling waves. Theologian Paul Tillich reminds us that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s certainty. Doubt, Tillich says, is simply one element of faith. Let’s not forget that in the verses prior to Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples is one of salacious intrigue. The guards at the empty tomb are bribed by the religious elite to stick to the story that Jesus’ followers had stolen the body. Nothing like a good cover up to squash the rumor mill that Jesus had actually returned from the dead. Rumors were swirling, multiple stories were circulating, what was fake and what was real. Dead people don’t just walk out of graves.
In Matthew’s resurrection account, Jesus shows up once and some of them take hold of his feet and worship him. But the risen Jesus is on the move and instructs them to go on to Galilee. There’s not time for much else. I have to get going and so do you. I wonder, given the same situation, how we might feel in that moment on the mountain. Everything happened so fast. It was like a whirlwind. What to believe? We know we’re supposed to go to Galilee but what then? What will he ask us to do and, if it’s to tell about his resurrection, who is going to believe us? What will we say? And what if they do to us the same thing they did to Jesus? Their doubts and fears seem reasonable enough when filtered through the lens of their context.
Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” but nothing in the surroundings of that moment sees to support such a claim. If Jesus had been speaking to vast multitudes, rank upon rank, stretching out as far as the horizon, with a triumphant choir humming the Hallelujah Chorus in the background, perhaps it would seem plausible. However, Jesus is on an unnamed mountain in backwater Galilee with a congregation of eleven, down from twelve the week before, and even some of them are holding onto their doubts.
Jesus presses further: “Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations.” The word Matthew uses for nations here, ethne in the Greek, doesn’t mean nations in the sense of modern nation-states, but something more along the lines of “foreigners,” “tribes of people who are not at all like you.” Telling this small, disoriented and confused little band of Jewish disciples that they were to go and tell people about this God who welcomes both Jew and Gentile into a new covenant together in Jesus Christ would be tantamount to me telling you to “go into the world and cure cancer, clean up the environment, evangelize the unbelieving, and, while you are at it, establish world peace.”
But perhaps the humility of this scene, with its tiny number and all of its fears and doubts, is the very point of what God is trying to tell us all these years later. The task that we have before us is utterly impossible without God. The work of the Church cannot be taken up unless it is true that all authority does not belong to us but that it truly rests upon God and that, through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, God is always with us. We are utterly dependent on the mercy of God. It’s not in all our materials and programs, it’s not in all of our efforts to cajole others to come to church. Rather, everything must rely on the strength of God—for the right words to give witness to our faith, the right moment in which to speak them, and the right person whose ears and heart might just be willing to listen.
Garret Keizer, a minister from Vermont, tells of conducting an Easter vigil in his tiny church. Only two people show up for the service, but Keizer nonetheless lights the paschal candle and says the prayer. “The candle sputters in the half darkness,” he writes, “like a voice too embarrassed or overwhelmed to proclaim the news: ‘Christ is risen.” Pastor Keizer continues:
But it catches fire, and there we are, three people and a flickering light in an old church on a Saturday evening in the spring, with the noise of cars and their winter-rusted mufflers outside. The moment is filled with ambiguities of all such quiet observances among few people, in the midst of an oblivious population in a radically secular age. The act is so ambiguous because its terms are so extreme: the Lord is with us, or we are pathetic fools.”
And so it is with us. We take a fragmentary community, a fragmentary faith, a fragmentary understanding of the Trinitarian God whom we worship, and we go into the world with everything Jesus has taught us. Either the Lord is with us and all authority has been given to Christ, or we are indeed pathetic fools.
Reflection/The Commissioned (written by Andrew King)
At first it feels like a circle closed, a journey completed,
this reminder of the mountain where Peter, James and John saw the Lord transfigured,
speaking with Elijah and Moses,
the voice that thundered from the enclosing cloud filling the disciples with fear.
It is Christ himself who speaks to us here,
the Lord crucified and now resurrected, proclaiming his authority,
and for a moment the apostles might be tempted to think the mission,
surely, is accomplished, goal achieved:
God reigning through Christ; and perhaps the eleven look around the peak
to see if Moses and Elijah will again appear
for congratulatory clasps of the hand.
But the circle has not closed; the journey has not finished,
it is open-ended as the arching sky and as the road below
that leads to the distant horizon;
open as the mission that here Christ gives us,
as the promise he makes to be always with us,
from now to the end of days.
For disciples must be made in and from every nation,
taught Christ’s ways and words and sent anew
to serve the men and women of the earth.
See how the slanting sun, moving across these Galilean hills,
takes its seat on the rim of the wider world,
inviting our eyes to seek, not the shades of prophets past,
but the shimmer of the new world to come.
See how, as we lift our heads in the gaze
that follows Christ’s lifting from the earth,
we discover no mystifying cloud,
nor faces from only scriptural glory.
Rather see the shapes of the yet-to-be appearing in the echoes of his words:
There we see Paul, in conversation with Peter;
and there is Barnabas, and Phoebe,
and Lydia speaking with Thomas, who will travel to India;
we can see Boniface, and Patrick, and Columba,
standing beside Francis and John and Charles;
a little further over:
Dorothy Ripley who labored for slaves in America;
Mary Slessor, who served so faithfully in Nigeria;
Elizabeth Fry, who did her work close to home;
just a few among hosts of other men and women come to this summit,
hearts receiving Christ’s commission for them;
whose long shadows shine, but in whose shadow –
look, just over here – stands another familiar figure who, like them,
will be helping to re-shape the world
that so needs our obedience to Christ’s love:
It is you.
Prayers of the People
We are a world that is desperate for you, God.
When powers struggle for dominance, and war, oppression, and abuse result;
When groups of people oppose one another because of ideology, religion, culture, or race;
We need a God who is bigger than ourselves and our personal interests.
When people are disregarded and devalued because of poverty, geography or disease;
When compassion and justice is withheld to some because of nationality, race, or gender;
We need a Savior who is more compassionate than we are who includes even those we would exclude.
When resources are mismanaged and abused, and the world and its creatures are destroyed;
When motivation is scarce and creativity is in short supply to address the challenges that we face;
We need a Spirit who is more powerful and more creative than we could ever be.
Lord God, Loving Savior, Empowering Spirit, we offer you these prayers because we need you so desperately.
Captivate us, call us and fill us, that we may be carriers of your eternal life to this world that you love so dearly.
As we pray the words Jesus taught us:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Closing Thought & Benediction
Meister Eckhart, German theologian and philosopher from the Middle Ages—
Do you want to know what goes on in the core of the Trinity? I will tell you. In the core of the Trinity the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son. The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit. The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us.
Go out and in all of life, worship the Lord.
Entrust yourself to the winds of God’s Spirit;
put to death selfish desires,
and offer yourself for God’s mission in the world.
And may God give strength to you and to all;
May Christ Jesus bless you with peace;
And may the Holy Spirit, whispering within your hearts,
give you assurance that you are God’s children.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen.