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Therefore go ...

Icon of the Great Commission

Therefore go and disciple all nations …

It seems hard to believe that this will be the last time I preach in this chapel as a member of staff. It is therefore serendipitous that the text for the week is the Great Commission.

I have just returned from visiting my 40th country which sounds a lot until you realise it isn’t even a quarter of the total number of countries and territorities in the world. So I am still some way from going to ‘all nations’ or, in Methodist terms, to counting ‘the whole world as my parish’ … But I’m working on it!

Without doubt, these few verses of the Great Commission have energised countless generations of Christians to leave the relative comfort of their own lives and countries to endure extraordinary suffering in order to fulfil Jesus’ last words. How many of you have noticed the plaques opposite the entrance to the Handsworth Room, taking from the old Handsworth Methodist College? On it are the names of those who trained for the mission field and died, often within a few weeks or months of arriving. It is reckoned that over a third of those who trained at Handsworth went overseas to serve, many never returning. Hence the Cassowary on the coat of arms.

But I’m not here to glorify the missionary era – far from it. The more we find out about the colonial practices that missionaries, at best, turned a blind eye to, the more repentant we must be about that period in our history. But that history should not mean we reject the challenge of the Great Commission:

Therefore go and disciple all nations …

Surely Jesus wasn’t serious about ‘all nations’ or ‘to the ends of the earth’ stuff? Wasn’t it a bit of rhetorical hyperbole, like the stuff you hear in an election campaign – ‘strong and stable’ or whatever?

Well, the early Church did take it seriously and, as a result of their labours and those like St Patrick, St Augustine of Canterbury, St Aidan and St Columba, we sit here as Christians today. We sometimes forget that European Christianity is a result of missionary activity too.

This is certainly a call to go beyond our own and seek out those who are different. Here is the decisive change from the First Covenant, where the emphasis became the creation and maintenance of a people distinct from, yet connected to, the rest of the world. In this New Covenant, the distinctions between ethnicities, genders, class, become void and, through Christ, all become part of the Elect.

In ministry, there is always a danger that the parish becomes our world rather than the other way around. The urgent crowds out the important. But to paraphrase Jesus: ‘The wearisome and disgruntled you will always have with you!’ – and the local church can create a black hole of pastoral need that no amount of ministry can satisfy.

Why is difference important? Because it is in the other than we meet the truly Other. It stops us from creating the Church as our spiritualized comfort zone where we stop learning because we forget we have needs. A church that only gives out, that only hosts, that only gathers, is only half a Church. A country that seeks only its own interests and wellbeing and shuns its neighbours, that believes it can go it alone in an increasingly interdependent world, is living in the 19th and not the 21st century.

Therefore go and disciple all nations …

I don’t need to tell you about the model of discipleship in the NT. You know it was a lot more than a six-week Alpha course or an annual door-knocking session in the parish to invite people to the Xmas services.

Is it fair to translate the Great Commission as:

‘go and be in deep transformative relationships with all’?

Those who first read the words of Matthew knew about the intensity of the discipleship relationship. There was no hit-and-run preaching here, but a committed process that may have taken some years.

Neither was it a one-way process. This was not a case of the worthy dispensing to the needy, God’s spiritual travel agents taking him to places and people he hadn’t been to before. This is not fulfilling the Great Commission.

John Wesley saw among the early Methodists a reluctance to truly engage with those who were sick in body and mind and excluded from society. In his Sermon on Visiting the Sick he said:

One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorances an excuse for their hardness of heart. "Indeed, Sir," said person of large substance, "I am a very compassionate man. But, to tell you the truth, I do not know anybody in the world that is in want." How did this come to pass Why, he took good care to keep out of their way; and if he fell upon any of them unawares "he passed over on the other side”.

This is what makes genuine discipling a post-colonial process, because it affirms the need of the previously strong for what the weak and powerless have to offer. Spend time with those who live on a dollar a day and you will discover that you are indeed powerful. Spend more time in genuine relationship with the powerless, and you will discover you own needs and vulnerabilities. Genuine discipleship places us in transformative relationships that teach us that the emptiness of solitary religion. In this context, engaging with the different, and that includes the rest of the World Church, is not a luxury or the icing on the cake. It becomes an essential source of our own Christian discipleship without which we are diminished.

Therefore go and disciple all nations …

Therefore go! Going becomes as natural as it is essential. Like nomadic farmers, we need to seek new pastures when the old ones are in need of rest. A saying attributed to St Augustine of Hippo goes:

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.

I felt a call to go overseas almost as soon as I came to faith as a teenager. It was hardly a surprise – there is a very long and honourable tradition of Irish Christians leaving the island and becoming ‘exiles for Christ’. Not long ago, it was reckoned that 1 in 6 mission or relief workers in the world were Irish. I still haven’t managed to stay overseas for more than a few months at a time, but I have been transformed by the privilege of sharing in the lives and faith of so many across the world. The extraordinary generosity of others who barely knew me but welcomed me as a guest in their home has, I hope, made me a better guest as well as host. And you truly have not worshipped until you have worshipped in Africa.

So Jesus continues to say:

Go therefore and disciple all nations …

And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

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