With Us to the End of the Age

Trinity Sunday
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

And Jesus came and said to them, “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.”

Talk about God’s authority over all things can make people uneasy. “Authority” sounds like it might be a threat to our freedom, as when, in the movie “The Truman Show,” the director of the reality show that is Truman’s life controls every circumstance in his world. He finally speaks to Truman from the fake clouds in the set’s fake sky: “In my world, you have nothing to fear. I know you better than you know yourself….I’ve been watching you your whole life.” We cheer to see Truman refuse to live as a slave.

That kind of domination is what happens when humans try to be God, to control each other. The first reading shows us, by contrast, God’s authority in action: God speaks and life springs forth where there was only a void: abundant, varied, and fruitful; beetles and tulip poplars, rivers and penguins, comets and human persons. And it is good. It is very good.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Ps. 8: 3-4)

God is not merely mighty, like a champion weightlifter except much bigger. God does not dominate material from the outside, forcing it into a shape. Rather, God creates the growing in each thing into its own peculiar, free, wonderful life. At the divine word, order arises into a flow of give and take as each creature follows its own freedom: evening and morning, water and land, plants and animals. Each pursues its nature and contributes to the wellbeing of others.

But sin happens, and a long story of God’s work of redemption stands between that hymn of creation and the end of the gospel of Matthew. Across all that distance, though, it is that same creating God of Genesis whom we meet in Jesus. Having poured himself out for humanity and been raised, in his fullness of authority, he speaks a new life-giving word to creatures now made friends: “Go and make disciples of all nations…”

For us, “the great commission” has a ring of something other than good news. It may simply make us nervous: does Jesus really want me going door-to-door with a pamphlet? At a deeper level, though, given that the history of missions in the past six hundred years cannot be told apart from the history of European colonialism, racism, and economic imperialism, this text rightly evokes a moral horror in both those who have been subject to injustice and those whose forebears participated in them.

Nor is this only in the past: the habits of American exceptionalism, paternalistic justification for dominating other nations, are alive and well. This passage from Matthew can be proclaimed as a call to make everyone in the world “one of us,” which means getting control over them and wiping out all that is different about them, for their own good, of course. This “authority” sounds awfully close to permission for domination. How can this be good news?

But Matthew’s Jesus reveals the same God, who rejoices in allowing all creatures to live fully. These disciples are not an army ordered to make all nations subject, nor are they franchise owners sent out to increase market share for the brand. They are followers of the Crucified One, sent to welcome into their motley company (numbskulls, cowards, and squabblers that they are) all of the broken and beautiful people of the world.

Disciples, after all, are not slaves. They are a family learning through grace to love one another. Jesus’ friends are to teach everyone (and keep learning for themselves) to obey all he taught, which is to say to turn the other cheek when attacked, to go the second mile when dominated, to hand over their shirt with their coat when unjustly accused, and to give to all who ask. They are to love one another, to love their enemies, and now to welcome strangers and neighbors alike into their own community of mutual love.

Just how is this supposed to work? If even many of those who met Jesus during his ministry did not become his disciples, how are those disciples supposed to “make disciples of all nations”?

Apparently, the answer is “through God’s patience.” The building of broken humanity into a fellowship of disciples will happen one uncertain encounter at a time. Encounter is always fragile and risky. It has given us great saints and inspiring movements, artwork and hymns and scholarship and organizations for mutual aid, dancing and singing and drumming and strumming and horn-blowing and wise preaching in more than a thousand languages, all now carriers of the word of God. It has also given us both martyrdom and scandal, the horror of Christians “making disciples” by means that betray the one they claim to follow.

And so the most important part of the “Great Commission” is this: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew notes that some of those present, even after the resurrection, did not believe. We still struggle to believe: that this Crucified one was raised, that he can call all creation to full life, and especially, above all, that he is still with us. Mistrusting, we hear his call as a burdensome task of conquest done to prove ourselves, rather than as our sharing in the wave of love that overflows into all the world.

When, at the end of 2 Corinthians, Paul begs the believers to “Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace,” he is calling them to hear just this same good news: God is making all things new, including amazingly, even making all of us damaged and foolish and amazing people of the world, into disciples of the one who emptied himself, for the life of the world. Learning to love as Jesus does is the way we make and become disciples.

We are not commanded to conquer or manipulate, whether by marketing techniques or by enslavement. But we do touch each other, for good or ill. God’s creation, Jesus’ sharing in our human nature, the Spirit’s outpouring of love upon us all welcome us into the wonder God is growing within our world: an unpredictable and yet recognizable beauty. Only God can do that, and God is with us, to the end of the age.

3 Responses to “With Us to the End of the Age”

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  1. Phil says:

    Kelly, you write….

    “They are followers of the Crucified One, sent to welcome into their motley company (numbskulls, cowards, and squabblers that they are) all of the broken and beautiful people of the world. ”

    As a numbskull squabbler myself, I found your expression artful and engaging. And as a numbskull squabbler, I am in the habit of asking annoying inconvenient questions such as…

    Why is every site on the Catholic web about Catholics talking to other Catholics?? For a project I was doing a few years ago I looked at something like 2,000 Catholic sites. As best I could tell, they are all about Catholics talking the Catholic talk with other Catholics.

    How is Catholicism supposed to reach out to and welcome the broken and beautiful outsiders if the focus is always on talking to insiders??

    Where are the Catholic sites set up specifically to engage non-Catholics in a REAL dialog? By “real” I don’t mean Catholics talk and everybody else listens, Catholics teach and everyone else is the student. I don’t mean, Catholics publish their sermons and then ignore any response from the audience.

    I mean an ongoing exchange of views among those of diverse perspectives where everybody learns from everybody else.

    I respect your good intentions and writing ability, and don’t mean to pin this burden on you personally for obviously I’m referring to Catholic culture at large.

    But honestly, when I read, “…we are sent to welcome into our motley company all of the broken and beautiful people of the world…” it kinda sounds like just more wonderful sounding empty Catholic rhetoric, and my itchy numbskull squabbler fingers start dancing on the keyboard in frustration.

    But, I’d love to be wrong. If you know of any sites such as I’ve described, please share, thanks.

    • Kelly Johnson says:

      Hi, Phil,

      Thanks for the comment. Actually, the Ekklesia Project has relatively few Catholics involved at this point, which is why I went with the Common Lectionary readings rather than the Catholic readings in this post. Have you been at our gatherings? Ecumenism is fundamental to what we do, though I’d say collaboration on shared concerns is more of our focus than is ecumenism, per se. Other from EP might say more about that.

      But as to Catholics mostly talking to each other, in my experience that shoe does fit. One reason for that is that the Catholic community is big and deeply diverse (economically, racially, politically, theologically) –in the US but even more so globally. And it’s also pretty tormented at the moment, right? Catholics talking amongst themselves makes for a very motley and troubled conversation, and one that many Catholics are giving serious energy because they think so much is at stake.

      But those aren’t the only reasons, and some of the others deserve less sympathy. I still regularly hear Catholics relying on stereotypes of other Christians (and vice versa, to be fair): the assumption that all Catholics who aren’t Christian read the Bible simplistically or are theologically individualist or are opposed to reason and nature or focused on word in a way that rejects sacrament, and so on. I don’t know, but it may be that concern for interfaith relations has eclipsed the ecumenical moment. Certainly the concern about “nones” is taking a lot of energy as well. And all of us tend to talk to those we talk to more easily. I know from long years of living among Methodists, Baptists, some Presbyterians and Bruderhof and Quakers and Mennonites and those nutty Stone-Campbellites (that’s said with deep affection to my EP friends), that it is often hard to understand the deep presuppositions that divide us. So it’s work, that sort of dialogue.

      Prayers for your good work.

  2. Phil says:

    Kelly, thanks for your thoughtful response.

    Yes, I agree, the phenomena of preaching to the choir is hardly limited to Catholics, or Christians more generally. I’ve spent a lot of time on atheist forums over the years and they do the same thing, gather in circles of the like minded to reinforce and validate each other’s perspective. In defense of atheists however, they are not commanded to “share the good news” with the world so their insular social behavior seems less self contradictory.

    I’m very much in favor of ecumenism, but would still be frustrated if that concept is limited to Christians. As I see it, such a process is only slightly expanded beyond Catholics talking only to Catholics.

    I’m arrogant enough to think I do “understand the deep presuppositions that divide us” and would enthusiastically welcome such a discussion should it interest you.

    Briefly, I’m obsessed by a thesis that the source of the divisions that plague us is not found in the content of thought (this ideology or that ideology) but in the inherently divisive nature of thought itself. As evidence, every ideology ever invented seems to have inevitably sub-divided in to internal warring factions, which points to a source of division deeper than the content of any particular ideology. To the degree such a thesis is true, it would seem to have significant implications for the art of theology.

    Returning to your article, you write….

    “And so the most important part of the “Great Commission” is this: And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

    If I understand this teaching, it would seem to mirror the Catholic expression of “God is ever present everywhere in all times and places”. If I understand these teachings, and if they are true, then these words too would seem to have profound implications for Christian theology.

    If God is everywhere, and with us always, then there is no where anyone can be but with God. Thus, any perceived separation from God is not real, but only an illusion. Thus, the word “God”, which as a noun implies division by design, is more than a little problematic. Thus, none of us need to be “saved” because there is no where anyone or anything can be but with God. The job of religion is thus reconceived as a collection of techniques for overcoming the illusion of separateness.

    I can go on like this all day, and best end here now before I do. 🙂

    Thanks again for the reply!

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