Your Commission, Should You Choose to Accept It

Watch the video of this sermon.

Sunday June 7th 2020 Trinity/Peace with Justice Sunday

Psalm 8; Matthew 28:16-20

Pastor Galen Zook

“Can’t We all Just Get Along?”

This past Wednesday I had the opportunity to travel down to Washington DC to participate in a prayer vigil coordinated by the Episcopal archdiocese of Washington DC. The event was slated to take place at St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square. This was the location where a few days prior, according to video evidence and eyewitness accounts, law enforcement officers used chemical agents and flash bangs to clear the square of protesters so that President Trump could come through the park to inspect the church (which had previously been set on fire by demonstrators) and to have his picture taken with a Bible in front of the church.

Myself and the other clergy members were prevented from getting anywhere near the church by the national guard and heavily armed police officers wearing riot gear. 

Although I arrived a few minutes late and missed the actual prayer time, it was helpful to see firsthand the state of affairs in our nation’s capital. The normally busy streets were essentially empty, with the exception of heavily armed police officers and protesters.  High end businesses were boarded up to prevent vandalism. I could see the charred remains of several cars that been set on fire, and stores that had been broken into and looted. The whole scene reminded me of our own city of Baltimore 5 years ago, when the National Guard rolled into Baltimore to quell the violence that had erupted in response to Freddie Gray’s death. 

Now, no matter what side of the political spectrum you find yourself on, as followers of Jesus Christ, we find ourselves longing for peace and an end to conflict. We lament the death of George Floyd and the many others who have died at the hands of police officers. We also mourn those police officers and soldiers who have died serving in the line of duty. And of course we lament the destruction of property that has taken place when protests turn violent.

Very few of us like conflict, and we might be prone to wonder, “why can’t we all just get along?”

If you want Peace, Work for Justice

But true peace — Biblical peace, in the Bible, the Hebrew word is shalom, is not merely the absence of conflict. True peace, or shalom, includes wholeness and it entails making things right — making things the way they were meant to be. 

And so, to paraphrase Pope John Paul VI, if we want peace, we must work for justice.

Biblical peace — Shalom — is what we see in the first few chapters of the book of Genesis, when God created the world and declared that it was good. There we see people, made in the image of God, in true and in right relationship with God and with each other. No violence, no conflict, no abuse, no injustice. Everyone getting along with each other, with God, and with the world.

Of course, not long afterwards, sin entered the world as human beings chose what they thought was best for themselves, at the expense of others. And we see this sin creating a rift between people and each other, and between people and God.

Although the paradise that God created did not last very long before humans chose to go their own way, these first few chapters in Genesis shed light on certain significant and fundamental truths that are important for us to consider as we pursue peace and justice in our day.

All Life is Sacred

First of all, we see that all people were created in the image of God (see Gen. 1:27). This means that each and every person, no matter their race, gender, ethnicity, orientation, age, or stage of life, has value and purpose to God. 

This is a truth that Christians fundamentally know and hold dear, and it leads many well-meaning White Christians to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement by saying “All Lives Matter!”

Now, while it is an absolute fundamental truth that All Lives Matter to God, that is not really the question that is at stake in the minds of those who proclaim Black Lives Matter. Yes, absolutely, each and every one of us has been created in the image of God, and each and every one of us has inherent worth to God.

The question in the minds of protesters is, do Black Lives Matter in our country and to our society? This is the question for which the response seems to be unclear, and that is why there is a felt need to clearly and unequivocally state that Black Lives Matter. 

In light of the police brutality that is disproportionately targeted towards black and brown people in our country, in the face of structured and systematic racial discrimination and hatred that is most often directed towards African-Americans, Latinos, and Native peoples, and in light of the economic and educational disparities in our society that negatively impact people of color, and those in impoverished urban and rural areas of our country, there is a felt need to specifically highlight that Black Lives matter to God, and should indeed matter to us as well!

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

The second fundamental truth that we see in the first 2 chapters of Genesis is that, as human beings, we have been granted real power by God, to work for the flourishing of the earth and its resources.  As the psalmist declares in Psalm 8, “You have made [human beings] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet” (Psalm 8:5-6).

But of course, as we know, “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility!”

As humans, we were not destined to walk through this life subject solely to the whims of nature or the impulses of fate. We have been given hearts to feel the pain of others.  We have been given minds to think and to invent and create, to solve problems and to address issues. We have been given bodies to work, and to labor, to harness the elements of the universe to advance our society and to work for good in the world. 

This means that when we see a problem or concern, we shouldn’t sit back and wait for someone else to address it. If we have the skills and the opportunity to fix something, we should do it! But we need the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit to know that we are on the right path, to convict us when we go astray, and to point us in the direction we ought to go. 

God is the Ultimate Judge and Ruler

Third, and finally, see here in the first few chapters of Genesis that God is the ultimate judge and ruler, and that as humans, even as we work for good in the world, we are desperately in need God’s divine intervention. When the first human beings rebelled against God and went their own way, they were ashamed and tried to cover up their wrongdoing. But they were not able to hide from God, who sees all and knows all. And they did indeed receive punishment. God did not strike them dead right then and there as they deserved, but because of their rebellion, sin and death entered the world. People began hurting and harming one another and creation. Adam’s firstborn son Cain killed his younger brother Abel, and God stepped in as the judge.

And all throughout human history, in various times and in various ways, God has stepped in to intervene — sometimes with judgment and wrath — but time and time again, we see God extending mercy and grace, even to those who are most undeserving. 

In the ultimate display of God’s justice and mercy at work, we see God through Jesus, coming down to this earth, taking on the form of a human, living life among us, to proclaim God’s love and grace and forgiveness through word and through deed, ultimately dying on the cross in our place, taking the punishment that we were due, to free us from bondage to sin and to restore us to shalom — right relationship with God and with one another.

The Great Commission

Of course we know that Jesus did not stay in the tomb, but that three days later he rose again, conquering sin and death and the grave. He appeared to His disciples, breathed on them the power of the Holy Spirit, and then in one final act of empowerment, commissioned them (and us) with the role and responsibility to “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” (Matt. 28:19-20).

Even after all that we as people have been through, and all that we have done to rebel against God, all of the times that we’ve rejected God’s grace and mercy in our lives, still Jesus entrusted his disciples with great power and with great responsibility — to make disciples of all nations! Baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus commanded.

But let us pay careful attention to this task with which we have been entrusted. Our task is not to get more people to sign up for our political agendas or to vote the way we would have them to vote. Our task is not to get them to join our institutions or organizations, to subscribe to our particular way of thinking. 

Instead, our task is to make disciples of Jesus Christ! We are to teach people exactly what Jesus commanded — to love God and our neighbors (Mark 12:31), and to love even our enemies (Matt. 5:44). To do to others what we would want them to do to us (Matt. 7:12). To forgive those who have wronged us (Matt. 18:21-22), and not to judge others (Matt. 7:1-3), but to pray for those who have persecuted us. And to pick up our crosses, and to follow him wherever he may lead.

Becoming a disciple of Jesus also entails following in the footsteps of Jesus. Weeping with those who weep, mourning with those who mourn, standing up for those who are oppressed, and loving even those who are on the margins of society.

Our Commission — Should We Choose To Accept It

To paraphrase from the TV series Mission: Impossible — this is our mission (or Commission) — should we choose to accept it! Will we go into all the world? Will we make disciples of all nations? Will we go to all people, and welcome all into our midst, no matter their background? Will we teach all people to follow in the footsteps of Jesus? Will we stand up for all who are oppressed, and provide comfort to all who are hurting? 

In the name of Jesus our Lord, may it be so!