A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Commissioned by the Risen Lord
May 4, 2017
Only one of Jesus’ post-resurrection sayings in the Gospels is so well-known as to merit its own popular title. It joins a short list of other such epigrammatic Jesus sayings – the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, the Golden Rule, the Great Commandment. It is widely known as the “Great Commission,” given by the risen Lord to his disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. “Go into all the world and preach the Good News….” (Matthew 28:18-20) When the church becomes more focused on getting people to come into its precincts than in sending its people out into the world, it begins to die.
Matthew’s is but one of three final commissions to his disciples that the Gospels report on the lips of the risen Lord. And there is a fourth very personal commission well worth noting also.
Luke reports, both at the end of his Gospel and in his introduction to the book of Acts, that Jesus leaves his disciples with the commission to go to Jerusalem and wait there for the empowering Spirit of God to come upon them. Hurry up and wait! He gives no indication of how long they must wait; God will visit them in God’s own good time. Their job is to wait on God as long as it takes. This echoes one of the great themes of the Psalms, the counsel to wait on the Lord. (Psalm 27, etc.) Isaiah promises that those who wait on the Lord will find their strength renewed. (Isaiah 40:31) To wait is to acknowledge that God is the primary actor in our life and work. It is a call to prayer, for sure. Prayer is the active form of waiting on God. It is a call to serve, as in “waiting” on tables. But it is also a call to a form of passivity – don’t run ahead of God. When it’s time to move, God will give us the necessary strength and direction without our having to scheme it out ourselves. It is the antithesis of the old adage, “God helps those who help themselves.” (Some people think it comes from the Bible, but it is actually from an obscure English political theorist, later popularized by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanack.)
John also has a story of the disciples being commissioned by the risen Lord. In John’s account, this commissioning happens the night of his resurrection, where he tells them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This parallels Matthew’s commission, but John adds to it a reference to the Holy Spirit, echoing Luke’s commission story – John says that Jesus breathed on the disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:21-23) While the manner by which the Holy Spirit comes upon them in John is different from the Pentecost story in Acts 2, both underscore that we cannot fulfill Christ’s mission on our own. We need the help of God’s Spirit if we are to accomplish God’s mission.
Matthew provides some content to the risen Lord’s commission: preach good news, baptize people, teach them to follow my commands. John’s additional content is quite different: Jesus gives the power to bind and to loose, to forgive and heal and judge, just as he did during his earthly ministry. This is sobering stuff – he really does mean it when he says that we are commissioned to do everything he did, and even “greater things.” (John 14:12) Followers of Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, have been granted amazing opportunity to change the world. No wonder the authorities accused the first generation of Jesus-followers of turning the world upside down! (Acts 17:6)
Finally, Jesus offers a new personal commission to Peter. Rather than focusing on changing the world, this commission charges Peter to care well for the Lord’s sheep. Tend them closely, feed them well. They are not Peter’s sheep, but Jesus’ sheep. The members of our community are not ours to command and control. They belong to the Great Shepherd, and our job is to assure their ongoing health and vitality. Simple commission, isn’t it? Well, hardly so. Sheep are notoriously risk-averse. They need to be prodded, pulled, and cajoled into any movement whatsoever. They prefer the security of staying put to the possibility of new vitality that new pastures could provide. Stick with them, Peter, through thick and thin. Make sure their needs are fully met, no matter their resistance. The same commission is given to every pastor who is charged with tending the flock of our Lord.
The risen Lord’s commission to his followers has many facets. We who continue his mission in the power of the Spirit have a wide horizon on which to labor. May the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead also quicken our mortal bodies to continue his work for the healing of the world! (Romans 8:11)
Yours in the Spirit,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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