Hear again these words from our Gospel reading, Matthew 20:18-20, what has been called “The Great Commission”: 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." Thus far our text.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

As some of you know, there is a section of the Hymnal that I tend to stay away from. In this Lutheran Service Book, it is the section labeled “The Church Militant.” It starts with a couple of excellent hymns straight from the pen of Martin Luther, including the great Reformation hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Other well-known hymns in this section include “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.”

There is a valid reason I’m reluctant to draw from “The Church Militant” section too often, and that is the potential that they can produce- or at least reflect- the kind of ‘Turn or Burn’ mentality that fueled the darkest era in the history of the Church-- the Crusades. The Church’s mission has never been to expand the Kingdom of God by force or coercion. Rather, we are to follow the lead of the Head of the Church, Jesus, whose Gospel was based on gentle grace and service. That does not mean that “The Church Militant” section should be ripped out of the hymnal, or even ignored. It does mean we must be careful as to how we go about our mission. We are involved in a war, but as Paul wrote to the congregation in Ephesus, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

That being said, I do want to use a kind of military term in order to reflect on the words of the “Great Commission.” These words give the followers of Jesus our “marching orders.” To say that this text is critically important is an understatement. Congregations often form their own “mission statements,” such as the one that has been printed in our Notes for a few weeks, which is taken from Zion’s Constitution. But for a congregation’s Mission Statement to have any validity and value, it must reflect what we hear in THE Mission Statement of the Church, straight from the head of the Church, Jesus, the Christ. This is part of Matthew’s account of the ascension of Jesus. We heard Luke’s account a couple of weeks ago, where Jesus said, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Taken together, we have the marching orders of the Church.

Empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, His followers are to serve as witnesses to the redeeming work of Jesus, going forth to “make disciples of all nations,” which is done by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything” Jesus has commanded us. This morning I would like to underscore a couple of very important points regarding “The Great Commission.”

First of all, we do not “go” on our own, but with the very authority of Christ Himself. And secondly, this is not “The Great Suggestion,” something the followers of Jesus are to take under consideration. These are our marching orders. How we march is up for debate, but whether we march is not. But before we go, it is absolutely essential for us to recognize where the “authority” for our mission lies. Jesus sets up our marching orders with these words: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Not partial authority. Not a lot of authority. "All authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to Jesus. That is vitally important for us to understand and trust. This has been a key theme throughout Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus fulfilled Messianic prophecies through acts of great power, not only in the form of miraculous healings, but also in the casting out of many demons, His power to calm stormy seas, to raise the dead back to life, and even to forgive sins. Only God can do such things. Therefore, Jesus is not only the Christ, the Messiah, he is the very Son of God. He is the personification of the Divine. Jesus has been given ALL authority. We must understand and believe that before we are ready to move on to what follows, before we are ready to therefore… go.

If we are to succeed in our mission to make disciples, we must rely not on our own wisdom or strength, our strategic plans or carefully crafted mission statements, upon big buildings with state-of-the-art technology, or even upon dynamic preaching and leadership. We must rely on the power and authority of Jesus. "All authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to Jesus. Therefore, we are to go. Again, how we go about pursuing our mission is up for debate, but whether we go is not. To be part of the Church, the Body of Christ, with Jesus as our head, means we accept His marching orders. Yes, a key component of our mission, as stated in Zion’s Mission Statement, is that we are to strengthen the Kingdom of God. Our task is not simply to put as many rear ends in our seats as we possibly can. Our mission includes teaching, it includes the nurturing of the faith of those who are already part of our church family, serving as the means through which the Holy Spirit of God inspires and empowers God’s children to grow in their relationship with Him and with one another, to go deeper not only in understanding, but in love, in grace, and in service. When that happens, when God’s Spirit inspires and empowers the members of His Church to grow in Him, then the Church is ready to grow through Him and for Him. This is the second side of the coin, expressed in the words of Zion’s Mission Statement pointing us to serve as the means through which God extends His Kingdom. Again, this is not a suggestion, it is an order, directly from our Leader. One of the greatest and most important challenges facing those of us who serve as pastors of congregations is to foster an understanding and commitment to the Great Commission.

I have tried very hard to do this here at Zion, but I have proven to be quite fallible. Some have gotten the impression that my urging for us to see that we have been called to do more than merely maintain the very good things we have been blessed with reflects disappointment in our church. I am sincerely sorry if I have given you that impression. As I have said many times, I could not be more grateful than I am for this wonderful family in Christ. God has done, is doing, and will continue to do, many significant things through this congregation and its members. But we can be both very grateful and yet not ever fully satisfied. The Scriptures are clear: as long as there are people who are not yet connected with God, from right here in our community to the very ends of the earth, we have work to do. We are to go and make disciples. And throughout the Gospels we hear Jesus urging His followers to have a sense of urgency in their work. He could be returning any day, and when Jesus comes, it is vitally important that we are about His work. His work of strengthening and extending His Kingdom. My hope and prayer is that we will hear God’s call, be more and more fully inspired and empowered to do His work, prayerfully and carefully relying on His power and authority as we figure out together the best strategies for fulfilling His marching orders: The Great Commission

   April 2019   
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