Commissioned

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go 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 I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 28:16-20 (NIV)

Today is called Ascension Day in the church calendar. This day has been set aside in the Church to recall Jesus ascending into heaven. The day is always the fortieth day of Easter, or forty days after Easter Sunday. On this day, we reflect upon the account from Gospels (except John’s) and the recording of the ascension in the Book of Acts.

Matthew’s account is what we focus upon here. This passage at the very end of this Gospel is often referred to as the Great Commission. The eleven remaining apostles have gathered at the mountain where Jesus has told them to meet him. Most scholars believe the location is the Mount of Olives but Matthew does not name it specifically. Once gathered, Jesus commissions the apostles to go into all nations. He instructs them to make disciples of all people, baptizing in the name of the Trinity and teaching them his commands to follow. Matthew does not say if Jesus then ascends or not. The first chapter in the Book of Acts indicates his ascension was during a meal he was sharing with the apostles. The writer of Matthew emphasizes the commissioning and the promise of Jesus’s eternal presence.

For the Church, and all followers of Christ, these words in Matthew are the marching orders. Jesus commissions all of us and tells us what we are to be about. He calls us into action with the action word “go.” We are not to be idle but in motion. Then he tells us where to go, “all nations.” Our activity is not to be within the walls of the church but in the world. We are to teach, welcome people into God’s family and show what the life of a follower should reflect. Each of us are given the promise that while we are engaged in living out our commission, Jesus is present in our lives and forevermore.

On the day we acknowledge our belief that Jesus ascended into heaven, we are mindful that we have been commissioned. Each of us has been commissioned to continue Jesus’s ministry in the world. We are to actively go into this world and share Christ wherever we have been sent. We are to teach, welcome, forgive, demonstrate, listen, respond, and love as Jesus continues to do in our lives.

The Announcement

Comfort, comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
    that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out.”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.”

You who bring good news to Zion,
    go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
    lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
    say to the towns of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
    and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense accompanies him.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young.

Isaiah 40:1-11 (NIV)

Whenever someone of great importance arrives for an appearance or a speech, someone usually makes an announcement over the public address system as an introduction of the individual. When the Queen of England is arriving, there is either a trumpet fanfare or verbal announcement or both. Prior to the entrance of the President of the United States to a joint session of Congress, the Sergeant of Arms of the House says, “Ms. (Mr.) Speaker, the president of the United States.” Similar customs are followed in many nations throughout the world. If you have ever had the privilege of witnessing such an event, you know how everything seems to come to a halt when such an announcement is made.

The words we find in Isaiah this day has a similar, life-halting impact. We read here of God choosing to comfort the people and making an important announcement. God has chosen a heralder to prepare the people for the arrival of the Lord. While people and their works fade away, the promise of God endures forever. The announcement tells the people that the coming Lord will rule with power and gently lead the people. We understand this in light of the arrival of John, the baptizer, who introduces Jesus at the start of Jesus’s ministry.

For us who live on the other side of the fulfillment of what we see in Isaiah’s words, we know of the power and gentleness of the Lord. We see these things in the Gospel story of Jesus’s life and ministry. Yet this announcement still has purpose today. Upon hearing of the Lord’s arrival, we make the decision whether to welcome him into our lives or not. Do we allow the Lord to gently lead us? Are we welcoming the power of the Lord to enter our lives? If we have welcomed the Lord after hearing the announcement, then we become the heralders of the Lord for others.

The announcement has been made. God’s promise has been fulfilled. The Lord has arrived. Have you welcomed the Lord into your life? Are you now the one sharing the announcement of the Lord’s arrival with others?

Who Is In My Pew?

Certain words which can be located on church websites, brochures, and documents elicit a cautious response from me. These words include: welcoming, friendly, and accepting. I am convinced that churches who use these words truly do think they appropriately describe their congregations. However, I have come to experience that these words usually have some sort of string attached. Let me be fair in saying that this is not always the case but tends to be true in my experience. I translate these words to include the string…

“Welcoming to everyone who is just like we are.”

“Friendly if you dress like us, act like us, and understand God like us.”

“Accepting if you are willing to be transformed into who we are as believers.”

Even those congregations where they strive to be what they claim can find it difficult to always live these words out and not have if’s attached.

Humans have some natural tendencies which play out in congregations. The first tendency is to gather with people who are like them. Often this occurs without much thought. When you walk into a room filled with people, do you tend to look for individuals who are around your age, seem to dress like you, and have other traits which are like your own? If you are honest, I think you would answer yes to this question. We seem to be drawn to others who exhibit traits with which we can relate.

The other tendency is that we get into routines. If we are in a place where we gather often, we tend to sit in the same place, talk to the same people, and behave the same way. We are comfortable in these aspects, so we return to them over and over. Like the first tendency, this all usually happens without much, if any, thought. This causes a reaction from us if anything upsets the routine.

If your congregation is one which desires to be welcoming, friendly, and accepting without strings. Here are some steps which you can take to move in that direction:

  • Always enter your building with the eyes of a visitor.
    • Is it easy to find your way around the building?
    • Where can someone go to get questions answered? (If you have greeters, make sure that it is obvious who they are and that they can answer questions.)
    • How do I know what to do and when to do it?
    • Am I bombarded by people or are there one or two who make me feel welcome? (One or two is the best answer. Inviting the visitor(s) to sit with them is a plus as well.)
  • Make sure your leaders demonstrate the building of an atmosphere which exhibits the words used.
  • Have regular conversations with those who often attend about how to interact with visitors.
  • Find ways to encourage the breaking of routines.
  • Bring diverse speakers to specific gatherings to help people learn about individuals who may not have similar traits as those who are present.
  • Encourage people to change “Who is in my pew?” from a question of frustration into a question that leads to getting to know a visitor better and gratitude.

I intend these to be some possible suggestions you might wish to try. They do not represent a special panacea to solve all the challenges of creating a place where all will find a place. However, it is much better to try to live into what we claim to be than to only say the words but never make an effort to make them reality.