The Rev. Dr. John C. Lentz, Jr.: “The Great Commission”
Several years ago the license plate from the state of Ohio was inscribed with the words: “The Heart of it all.” These word are apt. In the last presidential election no truer words were spoken. The whole nation tuned in to see how the heart of Ohio would beat. So, on this Ohio Day, when we recognize the state which is in “the heart of it all” – we read the words of Jesus which get to the heart of it all.
The Gospel passage is one of great hope: you and I as disciples of Jesus Christ are called to participate in the transformation of the world. We are the ambassadors of this great commission: make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Unfortunately, many of our progressive churches shy away from this commandment to proclaim the Gospel and to baptize, to evangelize – we have handed that word to others. I am reminded of the comment of an Anglican priest from New Zealand who once chided his fellow priests for their lack of evangelistic zeal. “The only words of Jesus we seem to follow these days are the ones our Lord said to a leper upon healing him: “See that you say nothing to anyone!”
But to declare Christ’s peace, to demand Christ’s justice, to share Christ’s compassion, to spread this Gospel to the world is what we do as followers of Jesus. Our “marching orders” are very clear: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And the good news of the Gospel, has, through the ages, set the hearts of people free to love and serve. Through our denominations we have brought help and healing to the lives of millions. The baptism of Jesus rightly preached has liberated many from the bonds of slavery, it has shattered the glass ceilings of prejudice, it has removed the millstone of ignorance around the necks of countless people. The baptism of Jesus has empowered sisters and brothers in every walk of life to live the kingdom life and witness to the kingdom’s new age.
You see, the command “Go therefore and baptize” is not some promissary note for entrance into heaven in the bye and bye. It is rather like being invited to sign on to God’s dance card as we become partners in the dance of creation, or stewardship, of reconciliation, witnessing to the kingdom of God in the here and now.
For Jesus said, the “kingdom of God has drawn close, it is passing by, it is in the midst.” Our Lord echoed the words of Moses in Deuteronomy “No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to do it.”
Disciples of Jesus Christ have witnessed throughout the ages and throughout the world to this great hope. In our history it has led Sojourner Truth, Dorothy Day, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to offer their lives to a reality of God’s kingdom in which all are set free to serve, and all are welcome to participate.
Yes, indeed, a passage of great hope.
And yet there is danger in this passage; a grave danger of misinterpretation. And I fear that this danger, this misinterpretation, is holding sway, perhaps even winning the day in our nation. The danger, of course is, confusing Christ’s commission with some other commission; Christ’s vision, with some other vision; blurring the Kingdom of God with some other lesser kingdom until eyes can’t see and ears can’t hear, and we miss the mark of the Kingdom’s goal.
It is a danger that, throughout the ages, has led to great evil. Crusade, pogroms, destruction of native culture, cultural, political and military imperialism all in the name of Jesus Christ. As Gordon Kaufman once wrote: “what are we to make of the fact that the Christian institutions, communities, and traditions have been responsible for so much oppression and suffering in human history?”
It seems to me that the lines between the Kingdom of God and its baptism of self surrender, servant hood and reconciling love is being blurred in our country by a misguided vision of the American Kingdom and its baptism of self-righteous patriotism, materialism, and suspicion. We pray “Lord, lead us not into temptation” but we are being led into temptation, I believe, “like sheep being led to the slaughter” equating the great commission of Jesus Christ with an imperialistic dream of winning the world for some other kingdom. Winning the world for some Pax Americana at the expense of Pax Christi.
I received just two weeks ago the plan of the Ohio Restoration Project. Claiming the endorsement of major political leaders in Ohio, this so called “project” will target 2,000 pastors in the state to become “Patriot Pastors.” Participating in Pastor Policy Briefings and regional God and Country rallies these “patriot pastors” will be asked to insert voting guides in their church bulletins provided by the Christian Coalition, the American Family Association, and the Center for Moral Clarity. A statewide OHIO for JESUS rally is planned for late February or mid-March 2006. At the bottom of the mailing I received was the statement: “America has a mission to share a living savior with a dying world.”
I do not believe that is America’s mission.
When the church of Jesus Christ abdicates its mission to any nation, to any government—when we confuse the Christian story with any national story, when we superimpose a national agenda onto our Lord’s agenda—we are close, dangerously close, to losing our soul. We are succumbing to the devil’s temptation in the wilderness to bow down and worship him, so that “in an instant all the kingdoms of the world” will be handed over.” (Luke 4:5)
So then, what is this great commission that we are called to? What is this baptism that we are baptized with, that we are proclaiming, that we are offering to the world? What is the good news?
In Luke Chapter 12 and verse 50 Jesus describes his own baptism: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed.” It is a baptism not of triumphalism but of dying to self. It is a baptism of obedience to God alone. It is the baptism of surrender and self-giving. It is the baptism that calls Jesus to stand before the powers and principalities of Rome and declare an allegiance not to a government, not to a policy, not to a party, not to an agenda, not to a cause, not to a flag but to the kingdom that calls all other kingdoms to account. It is a baptism that calls all nations to account for how they treat the poor, the imprisoned, and the hungry (Matthew 25). It is a baptism of loving your neighbor. It is a baptism of radical inclusion.
It is not a baptism to divide the world between the saved and the unsaved, the blue and the red, between Christian and Jew and Muslim.
We who wear the indelible mark of the water of new life whether we were dipped, dunked or sprinkled, and we who eat the bread and drink from the cup of glory do not do so in order to remind ourselves of who is in and who is not, who is going to heaven and who is not, who is blessed and who is not. Rather we bow with greatest humility before the throne of God in baptism and in the Eucharist to give our allegiance once again to the God who has named us and claimed us in a particular way for his own glory.
You see, baptism is not a mark of selectivity, but a mark of accountability to the vision of a present and coming reality in which every child is safe, and the gifts of the earth are evenly distributed, and the prophecy of Isaiah is lived out perhaps not in my day, but in the days to come that… “the wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them…They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
When Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan by John the Baptist, John thought that Jesus was to be the political Messiah to restore the political throne of King David. He was looking for a fight, he was not very civil. In Luke’s Gospel John declares: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? …even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees.” But Jesus didn’t live into his expectations. Jesus’ call to repentance was not a call to repent or to be rooted.
Repent comes from the Greek word Metanoia – “change your mind.” “Get a new thought.” “Get a new way of seeing things.” Jesus was calling on people then and calling on us now to get new eyes to see the kingdom that is present, in a mustard seed, in a child, in the lilies of the field, in the cross of obedience, in the best wine, in the fellowship of a meal. Not to fear, but to love.
John the Baptist wanted to divide the chosen from the sinners, to make it clear. Jesus saw everyone as a beloved child and invited each and all to see the kingdom in the midst and to love it and to choose to live like it was THE central reality.
At the Forest Hill Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio there was a young African-American woman, 15 years old who was recently baptized. I asked her to speak to the congregation about why she wanted to be baptized. She said (Rhonda Register gave me permission):
“When I was younger, I felt that I wasn’t totally there in terms of my spirituality. I hated church, and luckily my parents never forced me to go…[but] A couple of years ago, I started going through some rough patches. I began to doubt the existence of any Heavenly figure. My father, during this time found his faith and began to come to this church. He made me tag along one morning (I struggled and whined the whole way.) [but ] I came through [the] doors and fell in love with everything here…I still have a ways to go, but I’m working on it. A baptism will be my next step towards a new life style.”
There are two things in Rhonda’s statement that moved me. She fell in love. Her baptism was not out of fear that she might not get into heaven, or to separate herself from a sinful world. Rather, Rhonda was ready to give her heart to a God who had already given his heart to her. And for Rhonda the mark of baptism was not an end but a “next step towards a new life style.” Faith is a journey not a goal. It is a journey of growth into a new life style; a life style of radical hospitality – for all are included in God’s kingdom. It is a lifestyle of openness to people and ideas, to joy and diversity. It is a life style of humble service to others. It is a life style that is committed to “(beating) spears into pruning hooks and studying war no more.” It is a life style that does not bring anything to the world that God has not already given for Christians do not bring in the kingdom, we choose to shape our lives by the trust that the kingdom is here and now and so we had better act like we are citizens.
Not imperialism, not winning the world for Christ, for Christ has already won the world, has already spread his mercy, grace and peace. But do you choose to act like you believe it? That is the question?
As you leave this magnificent hall of worship this morning, remember your own baptism. Let your lives be good news. And as Theresa L. Fry Brown once said and it is for clergy and lay folk alike: “Just preach until the lonely feel loved, the homeless have homes, and the naked are clothed. Just preach until everyone everywhere knows that Jesus is love and God is alive.”
Live that word, spread that word. Go forth and baptize!
It is the heart of it all! Hallelujah. Now Go!
Thanks be to God. Amen.