And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Jesus’s ministry culminates with a declaration of his authority and it is this authority that is the basis for the marching orders that follow. In the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is declared as someone special, but Jesus, like anyone else who has been chosen to lead, had to establish his authority. Each generation of followers must decide, “Is this someone I will follow? Is this someone to whom I will give authority.” Authority may start with election, promotion, pedigree, educational credentials or even coercion or nepotism but people will not continue to follow someone for those reasons alone. Ultimately, authority is not positional, it must be given by those who would follow. Though we can get away with it for a while, no parent can maintain authority demanding obedience ‘Because I said so!”
Ultimately, we give someone authority because what they say and what we experience are congruent. We may not understand the command: “Don’t play in the street.” when we are three. Hopefully by the time we are twenty three, we can recognize the validity of what was once an annoying restriction. Or as Mark Twain put it: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” Authority is given when what we are taught is verified in our own experience. Once that congruence is trusted, we are vastly more likely to give authority and to follow.
This is an ordinary process in real life. Even so called objective truths are constantly reexamined. We call it the scientific method. Only in retrospect and after further examination do we realize that many things we were sure were true about the world are seriously in error. Scientific authority rests in the process of continual reexamination and verification not the particular truth of a generation. Understanding bacteria changed explanations of disease previously explained as ‘bad vapors’ and toxic blood. Quantum physics demonstrated the limitations of Newtonian physics. Principles that work perfectly well to explain and predict things we can see do not work for things we cannot see (subatomic particles). In real life we spend much of our lives discovering how much we do not know.
The process is both exciting and disturbing. It was no less so in Jesus’ day. On the one hand, it keeps us open to unimagined possibilities and on the other, it teaches that we should never be certain about our claims to knowing—especially claims we know what God wants. People are forever invoking God on opposite sides of human predicaments. In the first century, the Pharisees had spent their lives trying to discern God’s will. Of course they would oppose this upstart itinerant who challenged their authority.
Jesus redefined who belonged, he redefined life itself and he pointed to holiness of the ordinary (the simple breaking of bread together) as a place to find God. Jesus located God in the here and now for all time. He taught that respect, regard and mindfulness are the ways to treat ourselves and others. There were no exceptions—even to those who opposed, ridiculed and finally killed him. Jesus practiced what he preached even unto death. This only made sense to the disciples when they realized Jesus’ most remarkable teaching—the risen Lord could be seen in every time and every place. Love is expressed through our bodies but Love is not contained by our bodies. When the disciples’ experienced the living lord after he was crucified, they finally understood his teaching. They were transformed and they gave him all authority in heaven and earth.
Jesus showed them a way they could verify with their own experience. At least for me, my willingness to follow, my willingness to give authority is based upon years of doubting and confirming for myself that these two thousand year old words are the most reliable guide to real life I have encountered. I take great comfort in the verses immediately preceding today’s scripture which say that when the eleven disciples encountered Jesus, some worshiped and some doubted. Neither made any difference to Jesus. He offered his presence and his teaching to both. He was quite willing for each of them to check it out for themselves.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….
“Making disciples’ has been tricky over the years. How can you tell if someone is a disciple. All too often, it is measured by some kind of confessional or creedal statement. In such cases, it is easy to confuse discipleship with agreement with what we define as Christian. ‘‘Making disciples’ ends up becoming an attempt to make others like us. ‘Are you saved?’ or, ‘Do you believe?’ become litmus tests rather than inquiry. The way Jesus made disciples was his willingness to meet, to see and to accept each of us as we are. That is what we are called to emulate. Once a gift is given, we lose all control of how it is received.
Jesus was willing to offer his gifts whether or not he was received. Such a life demonstrated that coercion cannot coexist with love. Over and over we want to add conditions to what we are ‘giving’. There really isn’t anything wrong with adding conditions—but that makes it a transaction, not a gift. When we claim it is a gift but require something in return, it ceases to be a gift. In fact, our ‘giving’ becomes coercive. That is not the way Jesus loved. He healed whether or not anyone said thank you. He fed people because they were hungry. He did not retaliate when he was mistreated.
In real life most of us cannot live by such a standard and over the years, there are some extreme examples of coercion—for their own good—that have led to major missteps. Sometimes this coercion is subtle and sometimes it is blatant. In its most extreme, the tortures of the inquisition could be justified by the belief that ‘confessing Jesus’ would save people from an eternity of pain. More recently, the goal of many mission outreaches was to save the heathen—to bring civilization and the love of God to the lost. Unfortunately, such efforts ended up trying to impose our images and meanings. Feeding the hungry had a huge condition attached. I will give you food if…. There is a pejorative term, ‘rice Christians’, that suggests a ‘false’ conversion in order to get a material gain. The term itself reflects the expectation that our gifts be used wisely. But it is one thing to want our gifts to be used wisely and another to expect or demand people conform—and to think less of them because they do not.
Marriages almost certainly fail when partners keep private scorecards. These scorecards are used to ‘ensure’ fairness and reciprocity. Though we all carry lists of ‘what I’ve done for you’ in our pockets, those lists rarely match. Keeping score leads to resentment. I often must tell couples they must put their energy into what they are willing to offer over what they expect to get. We can only be in charge of what we offer.
Jesus does not make such conditions. He simply makes the claim that his way leads to life. Care does not depend upon the response and it is extended to all. Disciples follow that example. Such regard is holy. It is up to us, and anyone else, to find that out for themselves. When and if that happens, authority is given.
Making disciples means doing for others what has been done for you. Jesus does not make conditions and nor should we. He simply makes the claim that his way leads to life. Care does not depend on response and it is extended to all. That is radical inclusion.
Teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
Jesus’ commandments are standards we cannot measure up to. We will fail. They are, however, standards we can aim for. In real life they are road signs to help us stay oriented. Following such standards (obedience) is based on the internal realization that there is a better way. I am convinced that if we only follow our biological imperatives—survival of the fittest, we will be trapped into spending our lives trying to get an edge. Human ways lead to adversarial competition, coercion (both subtle and explicit), rankings of relative worth and the diminishment of other people. The promise is that when we give authority to another way— a way of regard, mindfulness and love, we will find life. That is what Jesus wants for us.
Remember, I am with you always.
Finally, Jesus’ charge to all generations is not remotely possible alone. I am not even sure we can imagine such a way of life if left to our own devices. We need something beyond ourselves to teach us. We need to see it is possible and we need to be in community. That is how Jesus lived and what he offers us. It is the basis for his authority in our lives. We believe and trust that God is with us. Disciples of every age have questioned, doubted and confirmed these promises.
Jesus shares our lives and knows us from the inside out. There is no greater love that we can receive or offer. It is the way, the truth and the life. Let it be so.