Sunday, June 4, 2000

PAINTING YOURSELF INTO THE GREAT COMMISSION

Sermon Preached at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Sewickley, PA
June 4, 2000

As many of you know, my wife Peggy and I are leaving Sewickley and St. Stephen’s after 21 years to go to Uganda, in East Africa, where I shall take become the first Vice Chancellor, i.e., President, of a new Anglican University. We are not going into a virgin jungle, nor will be evangelizing a pagan people. Uganda indeed is one of the most Christian countries in the world. That it is so is no accident of history but the result of people many years ago and to this day who painted themselves into Jesus Christ’s Great Commission. Let me give three examples.

In 1875, the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley – the one of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame – published letters in the London Telegraph appealing for volunteers to open up the kingdom of Buganda in Central Africa. Shortly thereafter a 36-year old Scot named Alexander Mackay presented himself to go out with the Anglican Church Missionary Society, even though Mackay was not an Anglican. Neither was he a clergyman but an engineer, which served him well in making friends with the King of Buganda. During a tumultuous thirteen years, Mackay preached and baptized the first Ugandan converts and saw forty of them martyred. Finally, Mackay was forced to flee the country due to a Muslim coup and died of malaria in Tanganyika. Nevertheless his work bore fruit for Anglican Christianity in Uganda, and in 1927 his body was re-interred in Namirembe Cathedral in Kampala.

Now a second example. Westerners brought the Gospel to Uganda, but the evangelization of the interior was accomplished by Africans themselves. The most famous of all these pioneers was Apolo Kivebulaya. Kivebulaya was converted and baptized by a CMS missionary at age 30 and immediately offered himself as an evangelist to the eastern kingdoms of Uganda. After many years of work, at age 57, he had a vision of Jesus, who directed him to seek out the pygmy peoples deep in the Congo forest. He learned their language, translated Mark’s Gospel for them, and won them to Christ.

My final example is that of a second generation missionary, Alfred Robert Tucker, who arrived in Uganda as its first bishop in 1893. Tucker, like Mackay before him, found himself in the midst of local and international politics, the end result of which was the establishment of Anglican Christianity as the main religion of Uganda. Tucker had an understanding far beyond his time. He believed that the Anglican Church of Uganda should raise up its own national leaders rather than relying on missionary clergy from the West. Before his death, he managed to found a theological seminary for native clergy, later called Bishop Tucker Theological College. Today all the bishops of Uganda are black and have been trained at this seminary.

And now they have taken his vision one step further, growing this theological college into a Christian university, which will serve the whole country and even beyond to neighboring lands like the Sudan and Rwanda. I have committed to come to Uganda Christian University, a bit like Bishop Tucker, with a firm desire that eventually a Ugandan will take my place at the helm.

What is it that binds these diverse people together – and binds them together with us, who sit here in suburban Pittsburgh. The tie that binds is the Great Commission, read as our Gospel lesson. Jesus’ Great Commission is given in all four Gospels. Many of you may know the most famous version from Matthew, where Jesus says: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:18-19).

I am using St. Luke’s version because Luke more than any other writer shows how Jesus’ resurrection appearances tie in directly to the empowering of the Church for mission. It is also the appropriate text as we look to the feast of Pentecost next week. Let’s look at three aspects of the Great Commission according to St. Luke.

First, there is converting impact of Jesus’ presence. A stranger had accompanied the disciples on the Road to Emmaus on the evening of Easter Day without ever revealing his identity. Now as they gather to break bread, Jesus himself stood among them. Their reaction was similar to that of doubting Thomas. They were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. There was no way in their practical fishermen’s minds that they could explain Jesus except as a ghost. Jesus knew their troubled hearts, and so he did something very practical to change their minds: See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have. And while their hearts moved from troubled disbelief to joyful astonishment, he asked for fish to eat and ate it before them.

There is a famous painting by Caravaggio of the supper at Emmaus, where you can see one of the disciple’s hands thrown out from his body in amazement and coming out of the picture at you. A wonderful symbol of the fact that Jesus’ presence leads to changed hearts and changed lives. And this is the first necessary part of the Great Commission. Unless you have the person of Jesus etched into your heart, unless he is present in your daily life, you simply cannot and will not be able to paint yourself into His Great Commission.

I became a Christian in college. I remember one of the key texts in my conversion was a word from the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He said: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come forth and die.” People have come up to me since we announced our decision to go to Uganda and said: “We so much admire your courage in going, especially at your advanced stage of life!” Which I appreciate. But in another sense, I have to say: “The terms on which we are going to the mission field are no different from the terms on which we became Christians in the first place. There is finally no real difference between the call to discipleship and the call to mission. Maybe we’re further along the base path from discipleship to mission, but all part of the same inning!

A second aspect of the Great Commission we see in the Emmaus account is the power of God’s word in Scripture to hold and lead. Having startled the disciples into thinking “maybe he really is alive,” Jesus goes on to open their mind to the Scriptures by showing them that his Resurrection life and his coming ascension to the right hand of authority were no accident but part of the plan of God, prepared from all time. Everything written about me, he says, in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled. The plan of salvation is all there in the Old Testament, but it is not the plan that Jews were expecting. They were looking for the Messiah to rid them of the Romans by his military victories; instead he rid them of their sins by his death on a Roman cross. Thus it is written, Jesus continues, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.

This plan of salvation is so marvelous that it cannot be confined to God’s chosen people Israel. God himself had prepared for this moment of history when he called Abraham and his seed to be a blessing to all nations. Now the plan is fulfilled when repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem (verses 44,46-47). To be a Great Commission Christian is to have confidence in God’s Word, in the whole counsel of God from Genesis to Revelation, and to believe that His Word can bring salvation and new life to all the peoples of the earth.

I count it as a privilege to have taught the Bible at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry for the past 21 years. My original call was to build up the renewal movement as a scholar teaching seminarians. And I got to a whole generation of them, folks like Coleman Tyler, Paul Fuener, David Brannen, and Jeff Rawn: your rector alone escaped me in the first class at Trinity. I expected to continue in this call, until God, through his Word, intervened last summer.

I am going to ask my wife Peggy to pick up the narrative about how we were addressed by the Word of God very specifically in our call to Uganda Christian University.

*****

Peggy Noll: Prior to our going to Uganda last summer on a trip to explore many things, including a possible call, I had asked people to please pray that we would hear what we needed to hear and se what we needed to see while we were there, and I think someone remembered to pray, as you will see.

I had not at all felt at home in Uganda until the Sunday night that as our first visit to the University and also the last Eucharist of their term. I was sitting at the back of the chapel with the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Bishop Maari, and the Gospel reader stood up and read the lesson for that Sunday. It was the story in Matthew 19, verses 16-22, of the Rich Young Man. That started my tears. I suddenly realized that perhaps God could, indeed, call us. My ears were out to here! At the end of that passage, Jesus says to the man: “Come, follow me,” but the man was not able to and went away sad.

I went away sad for a somewhat different reason, but that night I couldn’t sleep. I thought, I’m going to read the lesson again, and I got out my Episcopal lectionary calendar to see the day’s verse. It said Matthew 10, not Matthew 19, so I thought there might be a loophole, and I quickly turned to Matthew 10:32-42, the lesson for that Sunday. There I read:

Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:37-39)

So I felt that the Lord was not letting me off any hooks. In fact, that was the hard part for me, the idea of leaving the children and family and friends. The one remaining question in my mind was: “Did the people at the University choose the ‘rich young man’ passage to try to lure Steve there” – because I knew they wanted him to come. All that week it bothered me. Finally, I found a service sheet with the lessons on it from the for the Sunday past, and from it I learned that Matthew 19 was the reading, as the Church of Uganda follows the English, not the American, lectionary.

So I concluded that the Lord, in this global church of ours, had used two lessons from Scripture to speak to our hearts and to tell us to follow him, and that’s what we are seeking to do, with your prayers and His guidance.

*****

Stephen Noll. The Great Commission begins with the converting presence of Jesus Christ. We are then grasped by the power of his word. Finally, we are told to be witnesses to him wherever His Spirit leads. You are witnesses of these things, Jesus says. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high. The Great Commission is not fulfilled so much by master plans of evangelism as by people praying for the kingdom and ready to respond to the Holy Spirit when he comes. This is exactly what happened on the Day of Pentecost, and the great advances in world mission that we have seen in recent years are equally sovereign acts of His grace. Who would have believed that the fastest-growing Christian churches today would be in Communist China?

Being a Great Commission witness means living by the Father’s promise, and since He has already made known His will to make disciples of all nations, when He does call, we can be certain of His presence and provision. And how will He provide? Often in sovereign miraculous ways. Just as often He will provide by means of those Great Commission Christians who “remain in the city” and support those who go out.

One of the most awesome pictures of the Last Judgment is the one where the King comes and separates the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Mission support is precisely the criterion of this last judgment:

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-40)

Who are the least of these His brethren? Probably not the poor in general. Rather the least of Christ’s brethren are those disciples who have gone out with only one cloak and staff to take the Good News directly to the nations. And the sheep are those Christians who recognized that Jesus Himself was particularly present in this work. (And I might add the goats are Christians who hardened themselves to the needs of the missionary brethren.)

I titled this sermon, “Painting yourself into the Great Commission.” Maybe “painting” is not quite the right word for our time. Computer editors can now airbrush people out of photos or superimpose figures into events, as was the case in the movie Forrest Gump, where the hero appears at all the major events of the past thirty years.

Be that as it may, in the Gospel accounts of the Great Commission, we are invited, expected, to paint ourselves into the scene at the supper at Emmaus and later on the mountain where Jesus ascends to the Father, and later still at the Day of Pentecost. We are part of the extended fellowship of witnesses. Indeed, since Jesus is now in heaven at God’s right hand, we know the Holy Spirit is available to us in a way he wasn’t on Easter Day.

Will you paint yourself into the Great Commission? Is it possible that God has a call on your life to go out in missionary service? Short term or long-term? Locally in Pittsburgh, or as far as Uganda? Are you at His disposal? And if you are not called to go now, are you at His disposal to support the work of those who are? As I have gotten more involved with the worldwide Church, I am absolutely astounded by how much work is being done. Let me give you one example.

Shortly after I began building support for Uganda Christian University, I was contacted by an Episcopalian in Colorado, named John Linquist. John works for an organization called Engineering Ministries International. EMI, as it is called, is a network of professional engineers, architects, and planners who offer their time free of charge to go to Third World institutions and help build them up. We are already hoping to have a site visit in Uganda from John and a team from EMI as we begin our strategic planning for the new university.

I am proud to have been part of two congregations, first Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax, and now St. Stephen’s that are holding up the Great Commission and supporting those who follow it. We are grateful that we are sent by you and that we will remembered by you in prayer and action. Sitting here a year ago, we would have had no idea what God was going to call us to. Perhaps there are those of you this morning whom the Spirit is leading to paint yourselves into the Great Commission in a new and remarkable design.

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, who revealed yourself to the disciples in the breaking of bread and commanded them to wait for the promise of the Father: open our ears to hear your call, open our hearts to the peoples of the world whom you have redeemed; open our hands to those brethren who go out in Your Name; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is worshiped and adored one God forever and ever. Amen.

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