Thursday, August 31, 2000

Completing the Gospel

Completing the Gospel

Trinity's Baccalaureate Sermon, May 2000

By Stephen F. Noll

THE senior class chose the lessons for tonight’s service and asked me to preach on the Great Commission. Given the fact that Peggy and I will be leaving for mission service in Uganda, this is sort of like giving me one of those large inflatable bats, placing a beach ball on a tee, and saying: All right, go ahead hit it! Thanks, guys. I hope I can. Let me begin with three vignettes from Uganda, the country of my near adoption.

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. The next year, a 36-year-old Scot named Alexander Mackay, presented himself to meet the challenge.

Mackay went out with the Church Missionary Society, the venerable Anglican society founded by Charles Simeon, even though Mackay was not an Anglican, but rather a Calvinist Free Churchman (see, Calvinists can be missionaries!). Furthermore, he was not a clergyman but an engineer, which served him well as he helped the King of Buganda manufacture a printing press and also guns!

During a tumultuous thirteen years, Mackay baptized the first Bugandan converts, stood by helpless as the King of Buganda martyred his Christian page-boys as well as the Anglican Bishop James Hannington. 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 vignette, about missions from within country. According to Bishop Stephen Neill, "Nothing is more remarkable in the early history of the Uganda church than the evangelistic zeal by which its Christians were inspired. . . . 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.

Finally, there is Alfred Robert Tucker, who arrived in Buganda as its first missionary 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. However, Tucker had an understanding far beyond his time: that the Church of Uganda be an "everyman’s church [again quoting Neill], in which national and foreigner would serve together on a basis of absolute spiritual equality." Although his plan was partly foiled by the English missionaries, he managed before his death to found a theological college for native clergy, later called Bishop Tucker Theological College, which today is the setting for Uganda Christian University.

A binding commission
What is it that binds these diverse people together — and binds them together with us, particularly with those who are going out from Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry this weekend? The tie that binds, I would suggest, is the Great Commission, read as our Gospel lesson:

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," Jesus 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Matthew 28:18-20).

The Great Commission occurs at the center point of the New Testament. Yes, it comes at the end of each of the four Gospels. In Luke’s version, the linkage between what comes before and what comes after is clearest: "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" (Luke 24:48-49). The Book of Acts picks up the story with these same words: "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). On the Day of Pentecost, the Great Commission begins unfolding before our eyes. And it is still unfolding, to this very day.

We’re getting ahead of the story. The Great Commission is not a sudden new idea but is the culmination of the Resurrection appearances our Lord, which began on Easter Day, when the disciples found the tomb empty. There is indeed a necessary logic that follows from these appearances. Let’s trace it backward.

Either the tomb was empty that Easter morning or it wasn’t. The overwhelming evidence of the Apostolic writings is that it was. Do you believe it was? Are you willing to stake everything on that tomb?

If the tomb was empty, then the One who appeared bodily on Easter Day was the One who had died bodily on Good Friday. He was neither a mirage nor a myth nor a metaphor nor a moment (to quote Bishop Spong), but He was a man, complete with body and soul and spirit. His resurrection was not a fluke, nor could it be reproduced by some cloning technique. He was the only Person in all history to have given up His soul to death and His body to corruption and then taken them back.

But His resurrection is more than even the reconstitution of a human personality. He had explained to His disciples beforehand that His death was not an accident but a voluntary sacrifice for us, according to the will of His Father. "For the Son of man [He said] came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). Jesus is saying much more in this verse than that he would survive: He says that He is fully human, a son of man, that He is the figure which the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Daniel looked for, and that atonement would be the ground and justification the effect of His Gospel.

To think of Jesus as Son of Man inevitably pushes us back toward the beginning. For He is indeed the Head and Source of all things. He was no ordinary Man but Very Man and Very God, begotten before all worlds and born of the Virgin. For who else could save us from our sins but he who shared in the Divine Nature and yet who was like us in every way except sin? In short, the Jesus who died on the Cross was the Very Word of God, the Logos as St. John calls him, by whom the whole creation and we human beings were made.

Now forward
Now we can understand how the first line of the Great Commission — All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me — completes the story the Gospels tell. Jesus had this authority from before all time. Now that authority is being publicly manifested. Let us now push the logic of this statement forward toward our time.

Do you believe the tomb was empty? And if it was empty, then the Risen Jesus must be alive. Yes? And if he is alive, he must be alive not only in the past but in the future and in the present. Correct? And if he is alive, he must be alive not as a mere mortal but as the living God. Isn’t this necessarily so? And if the living God is the one transcendent creator of the universe, doesn’t it follow that Jesus Christ will have something to say to every generation and to every people, language, and nation?

If this chain of questions must be true, if it is the case that Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and earth, then the imperative of the Great Commission follows necessarily. The reality of Christ’s authority brings with it a command, not a suggestion: Go! That’s short and sweet of it. Go!

To Jewish ears, "Go!" would not be the obvious culmination of salvation history. The primary call of the Jewish people was more like, "Come out and be ye separate, be a peculiar people." The Dispersion of Israel at the time of the Babylonian Exile was seen by Jews as a judgment to be corrected at the end of time. Even the great visions of Isaiah do not have Israel going out to the nations, but rather the nations coming to Israel as a light.

So "Go!" is something new. Or maybe we should say something very old — going back to the first patriarch Abraham, whom God told to Go from his homeland in Haran to a land God would show him. And God continued, "In your offspring all the nations will be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). Going to the nations, it appears, is a call that predates the formation of the covenant people. It is a call deferred until the true offspring of Abraham, Jesus Christ and His Church, should appear.

Go, make disciples. Again, Jesus’ command is a departure from Judaism. Jewish rabbis made a few disciples, and Jesus himself had trained up the Twelve. But now he is making a physically impossible demand, for the disciples to multiply disciples — for Him — throughout all nations and across all time. I say physically impossible — for a mortal human being, that is.

"Making disciples" is Jesus’ term in Matthew’s Gospel for the fullness of bringing people into the Kingdom of God. The Great Commission makes clear that everything we do from beginning to end involves a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the same kind of intimate master-disciple relationship experienced by Jesus’ first followers.

Making disciples
I think we can discern within that broad term "making disciples" three important facets of the Great Commission. First, it means evangelism. The longer ending of Mark’s Gospel says: "Go and evangelize all nations." Once again, the contrast with Judaism is telling: one was born a Jew and simply had to live into one’s inheritance by keeping the Law. But the Gospel for all nations does not work like this. The Gospel we proclaim calls for a revolution and a sacrifice. Jesus had said repeatedly: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). The gift of salvation is no one’s by right or nature. You can’t say, "I’m a Christian because I am an American, or a Ugandan."

The burden and promise of evangelism lies at the heart of the Great Commission, and no one who wishes to be a Great Commission Christian can hide this light under a bushel. Alexander Mackay knew this; Apolo Kivebulaya knew this; Alfred Tucker knew this. We cannot, however, limit the call to evangelize to one-on-one evangelism. Every pastor has a call to evangelize from the pulpit. Preaching is, I think, inevitably evangelical. I have often noticed that I sweat much more over preaching a 20-minute sermon than in teaching for an hour or more in a class. The reason: the promise of Christ’s presence in the Holy Spirit is more immediate in preaching, as people are encountering the Evangelion face to face, or mouth to ear.

What makes evangelism finally a sacrifice is that it is "witness" (martyria) to One who Himself was and is a scandal to the worldly wise and an offense to the powerful. For some, this martyring is sealed in death or in persecution or discrimination. Most of you will not be sent into literal persecution, although I know some Trinity graduates who are near there, but all of you can honor the Great Commission by making the suffering side of evangelism a prayer concern of your congregation.

So "making disciples" means evangelism and witness. Second, making disciples involves "baptizing in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." It means incorporating people into the Church. The call to baptize is necessarily a call to plant churches and to see that those who are evangelized become part of the local Body of Christ.

As some of you know, I started my ministry at Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia, thirty years ago, less one. It was a time of great spiritual renewal. Early on — imagine this! — this newly ordained seminarian was confronted with a couple who announced gleefully that while they had been baptized in the Episcopal Church as infants, they had recently had their baptism in the Spirit sealed by immersion in a local swimming pool. What do you say: "well, I hope one of them took!" Seriously, it presented me and my rector with a problem. Were we to become a charismatic watering-hole, or were we to build up a church? To the disappointment of some, we chose the latter. And I rejoice to say that church is still strong in its witness to this day and has blessed many a missionary.

The call to baptize does not pertain just to the local church. Jesus’ use of the Triune Formula ("Father, Son and Holy Spirit") in Matthew’s rendition connects baptism with the "ecumenical" practice of the Church throughout time and space. Almost all Christian churches in history have recognized this formula as belonging not to themselves but to the whole communion of God’s people. Even when you get re-baptized in a swimming pool! So to follow the Great Commission is to have an ecumenical heart, to work and pray that Christ’s Church may be one and to avoid occasions of division. Being faithful to this call is not easy, as our present Church situation should make clear, because Jesus does not commit us to baptize into a particular institutional Church.

The wish to see the Church united must be paired with the desire to see the Church grow. The first apostles were church planters, and that is a renewed call today, both among unreached peoples and now in "burnt over" Christian areas like England — or New England. Some of you are going out for this important task. Personally, I see church planting, church growth and church renewal as all equally Great Commission work. These tasks may require different gifts, but they are all consistent with the call to "baptize" and, yes, to confirm and call to recommitment people into the fellowship of the Church.

That leads us to a third facet of the Great Commission. Making disciples means "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." This is the particular ministry of those whom St. Paul calls "pastors and teachers" (Ephesians 4:11). I think he means this to be one office, not two. There is a great need in the church for pastoral teaching, i.e., for priests who can integrate the theological disciplines and relate them to life as experienced in our society. It is not enough to be a pulpiteer or to be a warm-fuzzy hand-holding pastor. The pastoral teacher needs to feed and defend the people. This is an awesome task, captured classically in the Anglican ordination service, where the bishop charges the candidate:

Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood. . . . And seeing that ye cannot by any other means compass the doing of so weighty a work, pertaining to the salvation of man, but with doctrine and exhortation [note how doctrine and exhortation encompass the work pastor and teacher] taken out of the Holy Scriptures, and with a life agreeable to the same; consider how studious ye ought to be [yes, even after seminary] in reading and learning the Scriptures . . . .

The end result of such pastoral teaching is obedience. If the goal of evangelism is faith, the aim of pastoral care is obedience. One cannot neatly separate the two: there is a time for parish evangelism and there is a time for teaching those who are not yet committed in the Christian worldview.

The Father’s promise
So the little phrase "make disciples" includes a wealth of activities: from evangelism, preaching, teaching, pasturing. and obeying. To these the Lord adds a promise: "Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age." Here he speaks directly of the coming and presence of the Holy Spirit. Luke speaks of this presence as "the promise of the Father." It has two sides. It is the sovereign act of God the Spirit, and mission and ministry without the Holy Spirit cannot bear any fruit.

The "spontaneous expansion of the Church," which occurred in Uganda one hundred years ago and today throughout much of the Third World, is not due primarily to master plans of evangelism or some new teaching. It is most certainly a sovereign movement of the Holy Spirit.

The "promise of the Father" is God’s act, but a promise in Scripture is never an automatic. It must be grasped by faith. So it is with this promise. Great leaps of mission work have resulted when accompanied by intense prayer. God shows up at Sunday services when people come with expectancy to meet Christ in Word and Sacrament.

And so it will be to the end of the age. The Great Commission, according to our Lord, is a dispensational thing. It holds until the end of the age. If the tomb was empty (was it?), if Jesus was alive beyond death (was He?), if he ascended into Heaven (did He?), if He is seated at God’s right hand (is He?), then just as surely He will come again with glory, and then the Great Commission will be replaced by the Great Communion, the fellowship of saints and angels in Heaven and earth. Come, Lord Jesus!

Trinity’s commission
Now before I dismiss you, let me say a word about the Great Commission and Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. Trinity was founded by a missionary bishop, who lived and breathed the spirit of the Great Commission. Many Trinity graduates have gone to all nations to serve, not to mention to all dioceses of the Episcopal Church. In the 1990s, the seminary intentionally labeled itself a "Great Commission Seminary" and stated as its purpose to "form Christian leaders for mission." We have present with us tonight the first and second Directors of the Stanway Institute for World Mission and Evangelism.

With all this in mind, I give you, the graduates this charge, as you go:

Go be evangelists and preachers. Go be teachers and pastors. Go be reconcilers and defenders of Christ’s flock. Go into all the world, praying for all peoples, especially those who have never heard the Gospel.

Go in the spirit of Alexander Mackay, Apolo Kivebulaya, and Alfred Tucker. Go by the example of Alfred Stanway. Go following the example of the hundreds of Trinity graduates before you.

And Go with me and Peggy, as we begin a new work in response to Christ’s call.

Then trust that the same Lord who appeared Risen to the first disciples will be equally present with you through the Holy Spirit.

One of my early students is now the chaplain on the Logos II, a ship that evangelizes as it docks at places around the world. Coleman Tyler left his parish in Alabama three years ago in response to the Great Commission call. I close with a hymn he wrote and played at his graduation in 1988:

Sing to the Living God, who stooped to earth’s dark sphere;
Sing praise to Jesus Christ who came and suffered here.
Extol the Savior’s grace, who bled upon the Tree;
O Sending God, Who sent Thy Son,
"Here am I, send me."

O cast thine eyes abroad upon the nations bound;
Lift up thy voice and herald now the Gospel sound.
Behold the multitudes, who wait to be set free
From sin and death, from guilt and shame,
"Here am I, send me."

Move forth, ye saints of God, with steadfast hearts aflame,
To plow the fields and sow the seed for His great Name.
Guard well the Trust divine, the Gospel given thee;
Tread well the fields, which bid they say,
"Here am I, send me."

O Jesus, quickly come; Thy bride with joy doth yearn
To greet Thee in Thy reigning pow’r at Thy return.
O nations, mark the hour when all shall bend the knee;
To usher in that Day we cry,
"Here am I send me!"


I preached this sermon as a finale of my time at Trinity School for Ministry in May 2000.

Copyright 2000 Stephen F. Noll.

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