Our scriptures today the last lines from the Gospel according to Matthew. From the time of discovering that the tomb was empty to the moment where Jesus issues these last instructions to his disciples, there are just a few verses. The women approached the tomb, it was empty. An angel appeared and told them the one that they seek has been raised—go quickly, tell the disciples that he will meet them in Galilee. The woman leave, in fear and with joy we are told. They were scared. Who can really blame them? The tomb that had held the body of their deceased friend was empty and an angel that looked like lighting appeared and spoke to them. Of course, they were afraid. But remember, they also felt a sense of joy bubbling up within them as they ran. The possibility that Jesus was alive changed everything they had experienced over the previous four days.
The Gospel ends with our reading. It ends on a mountainside in Galilee, with the eleven remaining disciples who DID NOT see the tomb empty. Who DID NOT see or hear the angel dressed all in white. However, these disciples, despite not seeing or hearing for themselves, these disciples who were a bit disjointed, a bit discombobulated after the crucifixion of their leader, they listened to the women who HAD seen and heard these things and they took themselves unto Galilee. The women told them to ‘go’ and so go they did. Without witnessing for themselves the miracle at the tomb, without demanding proof, the disciples went. They arrived in Galilee at a certain mountain, and there they discovered Jesus, the Risen Christ. And, although all worshipped him when they were with him, we are told some of them doubted. We are not told what exactly it is that they doubted, but I bet we could come up with few ideas…we know they doubted but we also know that they were not given answers to their questions. In fact, instead of resolving whatever uncertainties there were amongst the group, the disciples were told once again to go. Go forth in the name of Jesus, make disciples of all nations. Remember Jesus, and presumably, God promised to be with them always, until the end of the age. And so, the disciples packed up their doubts and packed up their imperfect selves into their knapsacks and off they went. They headed out and began to share the Good News that death did not have the final word. Love had overcome hate, and the love displayed by Christ Jesus was available to all people, no matter who they were. No matter where they were from. No matter what they looked like. No matter what position they held in the world. God’s love was for them all. They set out to make disciples of all nations.
Isn’t that such a great ending for a Gospel that gave witness to the life, ministry, death and resurrection of the one who became known as the Messiah? It’s awesome. It’s full of drama and intrigue. There’s a miraculous twist ending with people going forth in buoyant hope and with divine purpose. It’s great. Except. Except, we know better now, don’t we? We know now, that if you read this bit of scripture literally, word for word, we know that this is actually a TERRIBLE ending to this story. We, the people who been woke to the brutal truth of what the British Empire did in the name of civilizing other lands know this ending is problematic. We know the truth of what the Dutch, the French and other European nations have done in the name of expansion. We know the truth of how harmful the Doctrine of Discovery—the concept that the Spaniards ‘discovered’ North America, like there weren’t already people living full and robust lives all over these lands now known as Canada, the United States and Mexico before Christopher Columbus first set foot on the so-called New World. This piece of scripture, called the Great Commissioning, has been used for millennia in religious warfare and in the attempted eradication of whole groups of people. Taken at its word, this Great Commissioning has been used by religious leaders—CHRISTIAN religious leaders—to send missionaries off to other lands so that they might civilize and then convert local heathens. Using other bits of scripture from here and there in the Bible, the justification often used for vigorously converting people, is that only those who know and accept Jesus as their Saviour will be saved and be permitted to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now listen, you and I could spend a month of Sundays going out for coffee to unpack just that last statement alone, but let’s focus, right here, right now on the saving bit. For many, many years, Christians were taught that it was their responsibility to save the people of the world by making everyone they met a follower of Jesus. The making disciples of all nations was taken literally. But, here’s a question that needs to be asked. What if, what if back in the day, when missionaries went from village to village on a bike, bringing the Word of God with them. Maybe somewhere in China, Korea, Japan, or Africa—Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Botswana—what if, in the midst of saving the natives, the missionary’s bike got a flat tire? And the missionary did not end up making it to the next village. And, what if in that moment, with terribly unfortunate timing, what if in that exact moment, there arrives the end of the age? Do we honestly believe that God would not have welcomed all people—even those who had yet to meet the missionary and hear the Good News? Do we believe those heathens would not be held in the palm of God’s hand in their hour of need because arrogant and self-righteous Christians assumed those who did not know the teachings of Jesus were ignorant of the Divine’s presence in the world? That God would not be with them, because the missionary whose task it was to save them had the misfortune of suffering a flat tire? No, of course not. God’s abundant grace and love does not work like that.
And, even if the fate of their eternal life really was at stake, tell me which denomination of Christianity has, for real, the right code words—the correct password—to enter into the great unknown with God? My goodness, in chapter twelve of the Book of Judges in the Hebrew Scriptures, one thing leads to another and the Ephraimites, after losing a significant battle, are escaping across a river. The Gileadites, the victors of the battle, had control of the ford. To figure out who was friend or foe, they asked those seeking to cross the river to say a specific word – Shibboleth. It is a Hebrew word which literally means the part of a plant containing grains, such as an ear of corn or a stalk of grain but the meaning of the word is not important. The purpose in the Gileadites choosing this word is because that the dialect of Ephraimites did not contain the Shhh sound. So, when repeating the word, they said, ‘Sibboleth’ rather than ‘Shibboleth’, exposing the Ephraimites as the fugitives that they were. And, because they knew not the password, forty-two thousand men died that day at the river. (As an aside, this is a perfect example of a story we never hear about in the Lectionary but we will be exploring in our Knotty/Naughty Bible study in the fall. Stay tuned.) Anyway, my point is, if something so simple as not enunciating your s-h’s results in total annihilation, who’s to say the loudest or most charismatic preacher has the right words to learn and repeat has the exact right message to get to where you’re told you want to go?
It is estimated that there are upwards to thirty thousand different denominations under the umbrella of Christianity. A denomination can be large and international, like the Roman Catholic Church, it can be a national conglomeration of pastoral charges, such as our United Church of Canada, or a denomination can be very small and be considered an independent church with only one or two communities of faith. Which of these thousands of denominations has the doctrine exactly as Jesus intended it so that one might be saved? How many of us denominations think we have the Way mapped out and dismiss the road maps held by other denominations? And, if each of the Christian denominations believe they are the only ones with the proper way of living in God’s world—where does the saving begin and end? Pope Benedict once called the United Church damaged in the eyes of God—not totally broken but a little bent. So, if we, the royal we of all Christians, can’t even allow for our fellow Christians to be true disciples of Christ and, therefore saved, how then are we to treat non-Christians? I wonder if the splintering of Christianity with its vast array of understandings of what or who God is and the incredible diversity of theologies that range from right to left, I wonder if the growth of interpretation of this foundational text, the book we call the Bible, is not a key to how we have come to better understand the faith traditions that exist outside of Christianity? During the Crusades, it was considered a Christian imperative to destroy all Muslims. Now, here at Symons Valley, as well as many other churches of other denominations, welcome Muslim prayer groups into our church buildings for weekly prayer services. Our own lack of cohesion (I fretted about whether cohesion was the right word but, honestly, how many of us want to admit to being Christian when we travel in the States because we are worried that it might be assumed that we are of the evangelical right that is Trump’s main base of support? So, I’m standing by that word.)—I’m thinking it’s our own lack of Christian cohesion that has opened the door to examine other faith traditions and discover them to also be ways to connect with what, in our tradition, call God. For all we know, their divine, their deity or deities might very well be one and the same as our Divine, the one we have given three names-God our Creator, Jesus our teacher and the Holy Spirit, our inspiration.
We know, back in the day of European nations racing to expand beyond their borders, that lands that did not have people from Europe residing was fair game for colonizing. One of the goals of colonization was to make the people who already live there, who we now refer to as indigenous people, the goal was to make them become like you—through various means of force, power and control. A key component to assimilating the conquered and pagan people into their way of life, was to introduce Christianity to the people and demand conversion. Which you and I know is not how God works. We cannot force the transformation of another. Only God can change the heart of person, not a gun, or a bribe, or a threat. Knowing what we know now and living this life some two thousand years after these instructions were given by Jesus to his disciples, the idea that this large-scale missionary conversion project called the Great Commissioning is anything less than an encouragement for mass colonization is not acceptable. When a group of people insert themselves into a culture and insist that culture begin to change to reflect the language, economy and societal rules of the invaders, valuable differences are lost. In forcing one group to become like another, we now understand that so much is lost. Diversity is lost. Innovation is lost. Creativity is lost.
So, how are we to be disciples? How do we live out this Great Commissioning that Jesus bestowed upon us his future followers? I have not forgotten in my studying and writing for this Sunday that a group of us are going to Zambia in six short weeks. I have been asked many times if this is a mission trip and I always try to resist my body’s natural inclination to shudder at that word. The term mission harkens back to those days of conversion. More recently there is not active conversion taking place but through certain kinds of volunteer work, there are subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, messages that belief in Christ Jesus might make their situation better.
So, no, this trip is not a mission trip. It is a trip for followers of the Way, for Christians to travel humbly and with God, seeking to be kind and just. When I was wondering how I could best describe what being a disciple would look like in this day and age, I realized that maybe I could just describe the purpose and goals of our trip to Zambia—maybe you might hear what we, the leaders are hoping will happen and maybe it can translate to how we can be disciples here at home, in our every day lives.
We will be hosted by Christians from the United Church of Zambia. The Church’s theological students will take turns being our daily guides. We are Christians meeting other Christians who will share with us their stories, their struggles, their pain, their joys and their celebrations. We will learn about their health care and medical concerns, we will explore the impact disease has had on a whole generation of people and how it is that grandmothers have been vital in the raising of the children. We will learn about Zambia’s only resource, copper and may have the opportunity to tour an underground mine. We will ask questions, we will give presentations about Canada, we will listen and we will share. We will worship together. We will go and strive to be disciples, we will endeavor to live out the Great Commissioning by being and offering God’s great and abundant love and by being open to allowing God’s amazing power to work through and amongst us. To guide us and to assure us. Because it is when we open ourselves to those who are around us and allow ourselves to experience their pain and suffering and share compassion and kindness with them, then we experience God’s presence. We know that God is active and present in this world. God is creating and recreating. Redeeming and sustaining. Jesus told the disciples, I will always be with you. You are not alone. We know this. And we take this knowledge with us when we walk out these doors. We are God’s. We belong to God. We are not alone. Thanks be God.