Worship was led by the Revd. Ian Wallis. In his address he used analogies to explain the nature of the Trinity and in his sermon preached on the Commission given to the Disciples – to baptise and bring the word and commandments of God to an audience beyond traditional cultural and geographical boundaries.
Rejoice and Sing 38 Thou whose almighty word
Rejoice and Sing 34 Holy, holy, holy
Rejoice and Sing 39 All creatures of our God and King
Genesis chapter 1 verses 1,2 and 4a
Second letter to the Corinthians chapter 13 verses 13 – 11
Matthew chapter 28 verses 16 – 20
In the aftermath of another General Election, leaving us frustrated, confused and uncertain; in the midst of a wave of terror attacks around our nation, engendering suspicion whilst causing division between differing political, religious and ethnic identities, we read this morning of Jesus commissioning his earliest disciples:
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.
It is, perhaps, the earliest mission charge we possess, authorizing its recipients to go forth to proselytise and recruit new members. This Great Commission, as it is known, has inspired the propagation of Christian faith around the globe and through the centuries, for which there is much to be thankful. In truth, we would not be here today if it were not for those who heeded its call.
But we should also acknowledge that the Great Commission has been made to serve less worthy ends, some of which have been at variance to the gospel of Christ – breeding sectarianism, fuelling conflict, justifying inhumanity, of which forced conversions and the bloodshed of so-called ‘holy wars’ are some of the worst examples.
For it is a text that can readily be accommodated within a politics of intolerance, conformity and compliance – that states, ‘You are welcome here if you believe what we believe and practice what we practice and see the world through our eyes.’
Yet, to my mind, such abuse is a far cry from what Jesus intended. So let us attend once more and discern its meaning for our time. And we begin with an observation that is readily missed, namely, that according to these verses, Jesus commissioned his disciples to baptise.
Looking back over 2000 years of Christianity in which baptism has served as the principal rite of initiation, it may seem self-evident that Jesus should issue such a command, but it certainly wouldn’t have been from the outset – especially, when we recognise that there is almost no evidence that Jesus’ earthly ministry and mission entailed baptism.
It is true, he personally underwent the baptism of John – a baptism of repentance into a remnant of faithful Israelites who had reformed their lives in anticipation of God’s impending judgement. Initially, as a follower of John, he may even have administered this baptism alongside his mentor.
But at some juncture, Jesus’ convictions about God’s action in the world changed dramatically, probably as a consequence of his own experience – as the focus shifts from the future to the present, from judgement to blessing. No longer is the emphasis upon human worthiness, but divine graciousness, as the principal catalyst for transformation.
As the Israelite people, from Abraham and Sarah onwards, were formed out of God’s graciousness so that they may embody that graciousness to the world – blessed in order to bless – so we find Jesus embarking on a ministry of blessing among his compatriots – ministering forgiveness, healing and deliverance, inviting all and sundry to share in the feast of God’s kingdom, where all are fed and each finds his or her integrity within the renewed people of God.
Within such a vision, there is no need for baptism because all Israelites already belong within God’s covenant of grace. What is needed is not some new act of initiation, but rather a fresh realization of true identity before God, along with the courage to inhabit that identity for all it is worth.
That, in a nutshell, is why Jesus didn’t baptise. There was no need – you were born into God’s covenant of grace and required nor further inauguration.
But from what we can gather, various encounters during his ministry caused him to redraw the contours of God’s blessing – of who was a worthy recipient of divine favour.
Recall, the Syro-phoenican woman or the Roman centurion who petition him on behalf of their ailing offspring or entourage – challenging Jesus’ convictions, as the latter elicits from him one of the most extraordinary sayings recorded in the Gospels, ‘In no one in Israel have I found such faith.’ (Matthew 8.10)
So when Jesus, at the conclusion of his earthly ministry, is remembered for enjoining his disciples to baptize, he is thereby acknowledging not the selectivity of blessing, but its ubiquity. No longer does genealogy or residency constitute the people of God; from now on, God’s good will and favour are to be extended to all and can be received by anyone with faith to recognise what is on offer and to respond accordingly.
As with baptism, so also with the accompanying command to make disciples of all nations. We have here an example of what is technically described as ‘synonymous parallelism’ where the meaning of one phrase is elucidated by the one that follows: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. What does it mean to make disciples? It means inducting them in God’s way – in Torah.
Which is what he had spent the past three years doing with his first followers. Teaching them to focus on the commandments that really matter, namely the Shema, to love God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind and all your strength; and to do so – and here comes the truly innovative insight – through loving your neighbour as yourself and even, if you can drill down into those resources to do so, to love your enemies, those who wish you ill.
To love not only the loving, lovely and loveable, but also the loveless, unlovely and unlovable – where love is not so much a measure of our affection as a vouchsafe of our commitment to seek the best for someone, irrespective of their attitude towards us. A love epitomized on a cross where Jesus prays for his tormentors, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’
No longer can we claim to love God in abstraction from how we treat one another. According to Jesus, these are two sides of the same coin: we love God through loving one another; and the more we love one another, the deeper into God’s love we are drawn. A form of ‘love incarnationalism’, if you will.
So gradually a new understanding of Jesus’ final commission begins to emerge. A vocation to reach out to those beyond the boarders defining our religious identity and allegiance that we may embody for them the fathoms of God’s love and the extent of God’s grace.
And, finally, to do so, in the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit. Unsurprisingly, commentators have discerned in this tripartite formula a reference to or, at least, a foreshadowing of, the crystallization of the Christian experience of God in the doctrine of the Trinity which emerges during the fourth century and which, of course, we celebrate this day.
But we’re probably on safer ground when we look not forward to the formulation of what we now call the Nicene Creed, but backwards to the archetypal encounter in Jesus’ life which shaped his faith and empowered his ministry and which is, indeed, the source of all Christian experience, namely his own baptism.
It was then, at this moment of trusting openness and wholehearted dedication, that the constraints of time and place are transcended as Jesus finds himself participating in the loving intimacy and gracious overwhelming that is God. A profound spiritual experience, bringing to fruition the promise of life in all its fullness, which is surely the inheritance of every child of God.
According to the Gospel Evangelists, it was this experience, administered by John, which led Jesus to start celebrating God’s presence in the here and now, as he set about enabling others to do likewise – challenging prejudices, overcoming barriers, raising horizons – helping people, especially those on the margins, to see themselves differently, as beloved of God, citizens of the commonwealth of heaven, members of a new humanity.
You see, when Jesus authorized his own to baptise the nations in the name of the father and of the son and of the holy spirit he wasn’t inaugurating a new religion, but fulfilling the promise of an ancient one. One borne out of the divine economy of blessing where grace engenders grace, finding its ultimate exposition in the gift of forgiveness and the freedom it bestows.
Fast-forwarding 2000 years or so, have you noticed how in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Manchester Arena and London Bridge, survivors and supporters alike could think of nothing better to do than to gather together, to comfort one another and stand in solidarity – finding within their diversity a unity of purpose and common commitment to live in love and peace, as they refused to be cowered by fear or to let their outrage give way to hatred.
Do you remember how in the aftermath of the gunning down of James Kamara on the streets of Broomhall in 2009, we did exactly the same.
Are these not glimpses of this new humanity which Jesus bequeaths to us? Is this not what Trinitarian living entails? Pursuing love’s costly way in the company of friends and strangers, in the face of fear and hatred, in the strength of God’s grace, in the inspiration of Christ’s life, in the irrepressible resourcefulness of the spirit.
This is what we are called to do. This is what we are called to be – in this place, for this community, in the midst of the turmoil and uncertainty of our times. Amen.