The Next Step: Commissioned
Today is a Sunday in the liturgical calendar we don’t often give much attention to: Trinity Sunday. It is the day when we celebrate one of the most unique and most misunderstood doctrines of the church: the doctrine of the Trinity, that we worship at God who is “one God, three persons,” Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The word “trinity” to describe God never appears in the Bible. It is a word we have used to describe what we see in the scriptures. Today’s gospel lesson from Matthew is often a text used on Trinity Sunday because it is one of few places where this Trinitarian formula, “of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” is used in the Bible. You might recognize this phrase as one we still use today – they are the words that we use at baptism. We baptize with recognition of our Triune God – one God, three persons. The doctrine of the Trinity is pretty complex, because our God is pretty dynamic, and not easily boxed in. If any of you are ever interested, I could share with you a lot of interesting, quirky facts about how our doctrine of Trinity got worked out in church history. I had a hard time not putting all of that in this sermon today! But even though this is Trinity Sunday, I really want to focus on what’s happening in our gospel text today, aside from the appearance of some Trinitarian language about God.
This passage from Matthew is often described as “the Great Commission.” We have “the Great Commandments” – love God, love one another, which tell us how to live and relate to one another. But at the end of Matthew, we find “the Great Commission,” which tells us more about our purpose, what God means us to be doing. The passage is the very end of Matthew. Jesus has been resurrected. And Matthew has little else to say, once that happens, unlike Luke and John who tell us lots about what Jesus does between the resurrection and Jesus’ return to God. Matthew jumps almost immediately to Jesus returning to God, leaving the disciples with these final words: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." And that’s how the gospel of Matthew ends.
You have come to know over the last couple of years that I’m fascinated by words and their meanings, especially word-origins, and what the origins of words can help us understand. I looked up the etymology – the origin – of the word Commission – since that’s our focus today. In a moment, we’ll talk about what I found out about it, but first I’ll tell you what I wish it meant, and what I think it can mean to us, one part of commissioning that I want us to remember. What I immediately think of when I hear the word commission is co-mission, as in, a mission shared by two or more parties, a purpose shared by two or more groups. And so when I read this text, I think about how we’re co-missioned by God. God sends us out not alone, but together, with each other, with other disciples, with Jesus – he even emphasizes that here – Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age – in case we doubted – with the Holy Spirit that we talked about last week. With God. Co-mission. This isn’t something we do alone – we can’t and we shouldn’t. Serving God is something we do together.
The actual definition of commission means “authority entrusted to someone” or “delegation of business to someone.” This is just right for our passage too. The first thing Jesus says in this passage is “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” So, the authority belongs to Jesus, but he entrusts his authority to us. The task that Jesus sends us to do we do only as delegates, with Jesus’ authority, not our own. That’s another important key of the Great Commission. It is easy to think the mission of the church is our own, and that we’re in control, in charge, of what we do. But we’re delegates, representatives, of Jesus, acting under his authority. That means that our message better be the message of Jesus, rather than our own preferences, our own ideas, our own plans. If we’re commissioned, we’re acting with authority that has been entrusted to us, but really belongs to the one who commissions us.
So we’re commissioned – on a co-mission with God and one another, entrusted with the authority Jesus gives to us to carry out his work. We know what a commission is – but what is the commission? What is it that Jesus is giving us authority to do? He says, “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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Go, make disciples, baptize, and teach them to obey Jesus’ commands.
The main verb in the sentence is, of course, go! In order to do the work of Jesus in the world, we actually have to go and be in the world to do that work. This seems simple and obvious, but our behavior would suggest otherwise. This weekend, I spent some time babysitting my nephew Sam, including getting him ready and sent to bed. Sam is really good and quite adept at all the parts of getting ready to go to bed. He’s equally talented at not going to bed. He can prepare, and prepare: pajamas on by himself, teeth brushed and bathroom routine on his own. I no longer have to read him bedtime stories – he reads his chapter books all in his own. Music on, lights dimmed, stuffed animal nearby, blankets arranged – so many preparations, and Sam can take care of all of it. And then, it’s about an hour of reasons why he can’t really fall asleep yet. “I haven’t even yawned once!” he pleaded with me, wanting to stay awake just a little bit longer. Lots of preparation for sleeping, and very little actual sleeping. Think of all of the things we prepare for, and how senseless it would be if we prepared without actually doing what we’d prepared to do: Planned for months for our Red Bird Mission trip to Kentucky, but then just sat on the bus in the parking lot instead of going on the trip. Setting everything up for the Annual BBQ, and then sat around on the day of the event wondering why there was no food. Confirmands completing all of their homework assignments and requirements to be confirmed – and then not becoming members of the congregation. All of that seems so clearly silly to us. But I wonder, sometimes, in our life with Christ, if we don’t do exactly this all the time. Prepare and prepare and prepare to be followers of Jesus – study the Bible, worship together, spend time planning how to reach out and connect with the community and world, talk a lot about what to do and what’s right and wrong when it comes to our relationships with God – and then, forgetting to actually follow Jesus. Jesus sending us out, us nodding our heads, “Yes, we’ll go, we’ll be disciples, and help others be disciples, yes!” And then expectantly waiting for more information when we already have everything we need to know. Jesus says, “Go!” He doesn’t even ask – the verb is imperative, it is a command, a directive, and we’re commissioned, given authority for the task. Go! And it’s like we say to God, “Yeah, but I haven’t even yawned once yet!”
Maybe we need to review the commissioned, what we’re to do when we go. We’re to make disciples. “Disciple” is fancy church language for students. We’re to help people be students of Jesus, like we’re students of Jesus. People who are learning about how to follow Jesus. We’re to baptize – that’s what we do as a way of celebrating someone’s place in the family of God. It’s an act of initiation, a welcome. We say in our baptismal liturgy that baptism makes us part of the church, that through baptism we’re made part of God’s “mighty acts of salvation,” that we celebrate being made new, and that it is a gift from God offered without price. So we’re sent to offer a pretty awesome thing – a free gift, salvation, new life, without price. And we’re to teach others to follow the commandments of Jesus, which he told us were summed up in loving God with all we had, and loving one another. That’s what we’re to go and do, with authority that Jesus gives us, and with the promise that Jesus will be always with us.
Friends, in order for the commission that Jesus gives us to mean something, we have to actually carry it out. Jesus entrusts us with something very precious. It’s a great honor that God believes that as faulty as we are, we can carry out, in Jesus’ name, the work that he began. Maybe that’s what keeps us in our seats – we’re overwhelmed, humbled, feeling inadequate. But it is also surely a co-mission. We’re not on our own, but with God, with one another, with Jesus promising to be with us always. And our commission is about news that is good, life-giving, invitational, drawing people into God’s family. We go to share a gift of joy! But in order to be sent out, we actually have to follow through with what we’ve been preparing and planning for all along.
On your mark. Get set…and there’s only one thing left! Go!