Thursday, June 16, 2011

Living Out the Great Commission

This week's Gospel lesson is Matthew 28: 16-20--very familiar territory to most active church-goers.  Jesus gathers his disciples on the mountain in Galilee and gives them his last words before he disappears.  Matthew does not describe Jesus' exit from the scene as Luke does in Acts 1 where Jesus gives similar but not exact language but both texts give a command from Jesus for Jesus' followers to get busy and spread the word.  Jesus tells those gathered on the mountain as Matthew tells it that they are to Go into All the World, Baptize all using the formula that most Christian denominations use, Teach all that Jesus has commanded, and to Remember that God's presence will always be with us.  So, the Great Commission is given and Jesus leaves so that his followers can get busy. 

When I went to seminary, I went as most of my fellows seminarians did, as a "second career" student.  It was common in the 1990s, and continues to be, that most people in seminary were people who had begun their working years practicing a certain skill or career and then somewhere along the way they felt the call to the ministry and left behind that trade and began retraining to be used in church service.  I had been a school teacher and counselor for sixteen years when I heard the call and went to seminary.  I was 37 years old, married with two children.  At first I thought going to seminary was too expensive and something that could not be done.  Thankfully, there were people who believed in persons like me and assisted to pay for our education so that we could learn and begin to minister.  I even got on the job training because I was a student pastor during my seminary years at the same time that I was a seminarian. 

For some of us, the word GO in the Great Commission meant leaving behind what we were doing already and making a big change in our lives.  Similar to what the first disciples did, most second career seminarians dropped their fishing nets or left the tax collection table and followed, not knowing where it would take them.  Going in response to the words of Jesus may mean that some follow with their bodies and make huge changes in their lives but it also may mean that if we cannot go physically then we give of our resources so that others can go in our places.  I think that is why some of those who gave money toward my seminary education felt called to give....they could not leave behind what they had in their lives so they would send someone to take their place. 

Being a student pastor gave me practical experience to go along with what I learned in seminary each week.  I was a seminarian Tuesday through Friday each week and a pastor Friday evening through Monday.  I would wrestle with theological issues with other seminarians and then come home to learn that a parishioner was ill or that someone had died or that a big church event was happening and suddenly I would shift gears and become the one they depended on as their pastor.  I was licensed by my denomination to perform weddings, baptize, serve communion, and do what was required for the congregation I served.  Ordination would come two years into seminary at the point where the church felt I had learned enough to qualify.  My student pastorate was a graying set of two congregations in rural Texas so I got a lot of practice in officiating at funerals but I also got to do several baptisms, both of which were gratifying experiences. 

Go, baptize, teach....teaching was what I had done for 16 years in Texas public schools so it seemed natural that teaching and counseling that a pastor would do would be something that I could do too and I have done plenty of both over the years too.  Teach all that Jesus has commanded is part of the Great Commission that we all do all the time in life.  Some of us use words to teach but all of us teach others daily what it means to be a Christian by the way we live our lives around others.  Those who are aware that we claim Christian as part of our identity notice the way we live and make judgments concerning our lives.  We demonstrate what we think it means to be Christians simply by being one each day we live. 

The Great Commission speaks to persons who are called to be pastors or in ministry in many ways.  It is to us the "sending forth" that we received giving us purpose and direction in life.  We charge into the task daily based upon our understanding of what we think needs doing in response to Jesus' words.  The Great Commission was not written only for clergy persons, however.  It was written to all persons who would be Christians.  It directs us all to be actively involved in sharing the love of Christ with others in our world.  It does not say to preach to everyone we see every day but it encourages us to live our lives as witnesses to God's great love that we have experienced.  The way we live around others will preach a sermon much more clearly than any words that we could say with our lips. 

Go into your world, teach all that you know that Jesus said about love and forgiveness and life, and remember that the presence of God is with you always, even to the end of the age.    

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