ANOTHER GREAT COMMISSION
“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”
And with that Christ blesses the disciples and leaves them. I imagine some joyful and tearful partings then. I can see them waving to Christ as he leaves. Then, after the glory fades and Christ is gone, I can see the disciples looking around at each other, each with the same question on his lips.
What happens now? They were called to be witnesses for Christ. Called to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations. How on earth should they begin?
We have the same question today a lot of the time. What does it mean to be a witness? Where do we begin?
The mission of the church here is nothing less than to go into the world as God’s people, and proclaim a subversive, transforming message about a suffering God who calls anyone without discrimination to respond. It will not be a popular message. In fact, it will be scandalous for some. And people will not be so eager to accept just anyone into their fellowship, as we learn all too quickly in Acts. The task will be far more enormous than anyone imagined, confirmed by the fact that the church still faces the same issues today.
The words of Jesus were to his followers and they were to be delivered to their followers and on through the ages to our own time. To truly, fully understand the resurrection of Jesus Christ is to understand that we are witnesses to these things.
The message is one of hope and liberation for all who will receive it. It is a message that is to be proclaimed throughout the world.
And you are a part of that!
Let’s start by trying to understand what we are asked to proclaim. The word we translate as Repentance is Metanoia, which literally means to change one’s mind, in the sense of embracing thoughts beyond its present limitations. I think that repentance is a good word to use here, but this definition lacks some of the negative connotations we tend to think of when we say Repent.
Forgiveness or aphesis is a release from bondage. A pardon of sins without paying the penalty for them. What an amazing message! What a wonderful thing to have to tell. If you see that what you are doing is not the way to live, and open your mind to a new way, you will be released from the burdens of what you have done. Released from the emptiness that has over taken you. This is something that is worth proclaiming!
And to proclaim, Kerusso, is to preach, but it also means to go forward (pro) and own (claim). This means that preaching is not just speaking at people; it is sharing in their lives. We preach loudest when we step down from a podium and into the everyday life of those around us.
So how are we to proclaim this good news? Notice how it is given to all in the room—and it is not just the “guys” who are there. Jesus doesn’t say, “Oh, except for you women here.” Nor, does he say except for the elderly (surely Mary was there) or except for you kids. There are no exceptions. Everyone is called to proclaim.
And in order to proclaim, we have to go out into the world, just like Christ did. According to one count, the gospels record 132 contacts that Jesus had with people. Six were in the Temple, four in the synagogues and 122 were out with the people in the mainstream of life. He didn’t only go to people who had already made that first step and come to the Temple. He met people where they were instead of assuming they would come to him.
According to the book Life of Francis d’Assisi, Francis once invited a young monk to join him on a trip to town to preach. Honored to be given the invitation, the monk readily accepted. All day long he and Francis walked through the streets, byways, and alleys, and even into the suburbs. They rubbed shoulders with hundreds of people. At day’s end, the two headed back home. Not even once had Francis addressed a crowd, nor had he talked to anyone about the gospel. Greatly disappointed, his young companion said, “I thought we were going into town to preach.”
Francis responded, “My son, we have preached. We were preaching while we were walking. We were seen by many and our behavior was closely watched. It is of no use to walk anywhere to preach unless we preach everywhere as we walk!
This isn’t an easy task or a light burden. Yes we have joyful news, but the world doesn’t want to hear it. Yes, it is an amazing message, but it calls us to move outside what we are comfortable with. We have to do more. We are called to share meals with those hungry and lonely. We are called to be a proclamation of God’s forgiveness and inclusion. We can blame no one else if the world is a hostile place towards children or the elderly. We can point fingers at no other entity if there is genocide, war, and poverty in our world. We are the ones sent to be the great news. We have to do something about it.
This is story told by Ralph Neighbour, pastor of Houston’s West Memorial Baptist Church. Jack had been president of a large corporation, and when he got cancer, they ruthlessly dumped him. He went through his insurance, used his life savings, and had practically nothing left.
Ralph visited him with one of his deacons, who said, “Jack, you speak so openly about the brief life you have left. I wonder if you’ve prepared for your life after death?”
Jack stood up, livid with rage. “You Blankety Blank Christians. All you ever think about is what’s going to happen to me after I die. If your God is so great, why doesn’t He do something about the real problems of life?” He went on to tell us he was leaving his wife penniless and his daughter without money for college. The he ordered us out.
Later the deacon insisted they go back. They did. “Jack, I know I offended you,” he said. “I humbly apologize. But I want you to know I’ve been working since then. Your first problem is where your family will live after you die. A realtor in our church has agreed to sell your house and give your wife his commission. I guarantee you that, if you’ll permit us, some other men and I will make the house payments until it’s sold. Then, I’ve contacted the owner of an apartment house down the street. He’s offered your wife a three-bedroom apartment plus free utilities and an $850-a-month salary in return for her collecting rents and supervising plumbing and electrical repairs. The income from your house should pay for your daughter’s college. I just want you to know your family will be cared for.”
Jack cried like a baby. He died shortly thereafter, so wrapped in pain he never accepted Christ. But he experienced God’s love even while rejecting Him. And his widow, touched by the caring Christians, responded to the gospel message.
That is witnessing. That is proclaiming. We must not keep silent. We don’t have to shout or bully people into believing, but somehow the world must see that we believe in the Risen Christ, that the power of the resurrection to forgive and to heal is real. Jesus commissions us to take the message of unconditional love and forgiveness to all peoples and to witness to this message, to share it, speak it, spread it, teach it and most importantly, to the best of our abilities, to live it.
Jesus ends his commission with a clear call of who forgiveness has come to. The word for nations, ethnos, actually means “all ethnic groups except your own.” To the Hebrew quite literally it would mean the “other” people; those heathens.
To us I think it means ‘them.’ Anyone we would not include in the word us – all the thems of the world. That is to whom we are to proclaim this great and wonderful news. In the disciples day that meant the Romans who oppressed them, the heathen gentiles throughout their land. In our day it is the poor, the marginalized and the criminals.
Some of these people aren’t very pleasant to be around. Some we may think don’t deserve forgiveness. Some may never accept it. None of that matters. We are called to proclaim forgiveness and repentance to all nations. Not just the people we like.
We are witnesses. That is a large part of what being a Christian means – witnesses to the resurrection of Christ, and proclaimers of the forgiveness of sins. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is more than a spectacular event that gives us hope for eternal life. It is a mission given to every believing person. It is a partnership with Christ.
This partnership will ask us to do hard things, things we really won’t want to do. It will ask us to do wonderful things, like sharing this joyful news with people who see what a gift it really is. But hard or easy, this partnership is what it means to be Christian. So I ask you to go out today and witness the joyous message of Christ to someone who is a them. Go to where they are and live out your witness of Christ. In so doing may you join with a tradition of Christians throughout the ages, back to Christ, proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Amen.