2 Corinthians 13: 5-11; Matthew 28: 16-20
When Jesus offered his famous words that we call “The Great Commission-”
All authority in heaven and earth have been given unto 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, teaching them all that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age-
the world was not brought to a halt by a sweeping pandemic, nor was Jerusalem in any specific uproar like we have faced in our cities this past week. The Great Commission that I shared with the children today are words offered during a hopeful time, but, as we shall hear, the message also goes out in times of uncertainty. Today’s uncertainly started with a pandemic, but last week included the sight of a man’s head being forceable held against pavement with pressure on his neck for more than 8 minutes. And that was not done by one we normally name as a criminal. It was done by a man wearing a uniform usually reserved for those who “protect and serve:” men and women in blue. To see a man with that uniform, and to see three others with that uniform, stand idly by as a person’s life was snuffed out has enraged and saddened people of every color in our nation. Some have taken the destructive response too far. But others have stood in the giant footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who participated in and gave examples of how to offer passive resistance to such injustice as this. In a speech given on April 14, 1967, that still seems apropos today, he said: “I think that America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.” We still need to remember the lessons of such resistance as history has shown us. Today we look at Jesus’ Great Commission with those words in the background. Usually when I offer Jesus’ great commission, it is at the end of an uplifting service of worship, or a joyful wedding. Sometimes it is offered by evangelists such as the late Billy Graham. Sometimes, as today, it is offered to boys and girls, and also to youth and adults, to always tell others about Jesus. There are, however, men and women in our world who don’t trust Jesus because of abuses done to them in the name of the church. I get that. We never know another person’s story—whether they are protesting with signs in city streets or on highways; whether they are masked and overcome with sorrow in hospital hallways; or whether they silently hide their brokenness by a reclusive lifestyle or by dulling their pain with drink or drugs. Some of them have walked away from churches because of the pain or rejection they have felt in them. So we temper our “good news” by honoring the place where others stand, or where they sit; we temper our “good news” where depression keeps others under the covers of their beds. We cannot bowl people over with gospel “Good News” when they have no food; gospel “Good News” then takes the form of bringing them food. We cannot bowl people over with gospel “Good News” when they believe they are unheard and have become a victim of injustice or racism or sexism; in those times the gospel “Good news” is walking with or sitting next to others, being willing to hear and share their pain, then working on a plan for change. Jesus at the time of his Transfiguration, did not decide to stay on the mountain, away from others, and talk with those struggling in villages and valleys from on high. He came down to be with them, and with him came his good news. Even in times of great turbulence and unrest as described in Mark 13, Jesus’s disciples were commenting about how proud they were of their buildings. Jesus warned them that buildings would be torn down, and false leaders (would we call them anarchists today?) would come, and there will be wars and rumors of wars, but the end is not yet, even as nations rise against nations. Rather haunting words, right? But verse 10 almost always goes by unnoticed. Here it is: “Jesus said: “The gospel must be preached to all nations.” In the midst of that chaos, Jesus said, in effect, people still need to hear the good news!
Many fairy tales include the ending words: “and they lived happily ever after.” People in America might see our country as a beaming city on a hill in our patriotic songs, but clearly there is another way to see our country when they watch television reports or read headlines and blogs. The same was true with Christianity. There were the stories of wonder and faith around Jesus, but after he left the earth, reality set in. Here’s an example: twenty years after Jesus ascended into heaven, his “Good News” was still being spread by evangelists like the Apostle Paul. And one place he brought the good news of Jesus was to Corinth, a very multi-cultural town where people worshipped many gods. In spite of that, Paul bravely brought the message of the Three-in-one God into that arena. He made a powerful case, and he established a church in Corinth. After departing to start new house churches in other locations, things began to unravel. So he wrote them letters of guidance that we call 1st Corinthians and 2nd Corinthians. In Second Corinthians, the church and society really fell off the rails. As it did, I think it is helpful today to see what Paul said then, and hear a new word for what we can do as Christians with our own societies coming off the rails too with pandemic, division, and upheaval.
I know people equate Corinthians with the 1 Corinthians 13, the “love” passage, but this passage in 2nd Corinthians 13 is as far away from love as it can be. One commentator, Professor J. Paul Sampley, writes: “A ground-shift of considerable proportions must be supposed as a context for 2 Corinthians 10-13. Paul and the Corinthians have never been in more contentious relations ….
[The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume XI, 2000, p. 10.]
First, Paul says “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith.” [2 Cor. 13:5] What good advice for Christians anywhere in our country today: in cities, in offices, in homes. Paul might ask us to examine ourselves to see whether we are living in the faith. Where change is needed, ask trusted friends in Christ if you are on target, or if you are missing the mark. Listen carefully to their observations. Then decide if changes are needed. Such a message could help change the tone and the temperament of Christians around you as well. Second, Paul says “We pray to God that you may not do anything wrong.” [13:7] God, who gave human beings free will, must also hope that members of the Christian community—let alone the human race—will not do anything wrong. But of course, we do. Human and Godly insights can lead to understanding, confession, and repentance from thoughts or actions that separate us from one another. How our nation needs those insights now! Paul, if he were here, might call you and me and other Christians to seek to understand one another’s pain, to acknowledge any sin of omission or commission that has contributed to the problem, and to repent, seeking new pathways for reconciliation. That word was key in the fifth chapter of Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: that Christ has put on us, the ones called Christians, the ministry of reconciliation.
Are we being called to take the lead in restoring frayed nerves and frayed relationships? Some people are answering the call. On television, I saw one man—a man of color—bring his children into downtown Atlanta in the light of morning. His children appeared to be Elementary School aged. They brought brooms, small shovels, plastic bags, and a dustpan. He told a news crew: “We didn’t do this destruction. But this is our city and I want my kids to see one thing we can do to try to right a wrong.” And together, they kept cleaning up broken glass and picking up broken objects. That. That is what telling the “Good News” might look like today.
And one more example: in Louisville, Kentucky, the Louisville Courier-Journal showed a group of white women, in a time when heated words were being shouted from protestors toward police, form a human chain, stepping between the protestors and facing the police. The newspaper captioned the photo with three words: “This is love.” Their action brought the exchange down from the boiling point. That. That is what telling the Good News might look like in our day. It doesn’t always have to be a grandiose gesture. It doesn’t have to look like it could change the world. But it could. What word or action might you offer to others? If Jesus sees it, he’ll know that you are getting, and are implementing, his bottom-line message for the world.
Here is my prayer for today: Come by here, Lord. Come by here. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner June 7, 2020`