Text: Matthew 28:16-23
As some of you know, I’ve been away from parish ministry this past year, serving as a Navy Chaplain. And it’s always interesting who frequents my office. About a month after I started, a Navy doctor, young guy, Lieutenant, stopped by. He asked, “do you have a second Chaplain?”
As we sat down to talk he shared with me that he had volunteered to do this individual deployment to Afghanistan because “I knew it would be good for my career. To serve in a combat zone, practice good medicine, maybe even save a couple lives, would be more than what I was doing in my current assignment at the Naval Clinic. I could do all this good stuff over the course of the year, get a good fitness report and likely a couple medals for serving in a combat area and for personal commendation, and I’d be set.”
“But that’s not what happened. I got along well with the Head Surgeon, and my Commanding Officer. I did good work and they told me I did good work. But I didn’t get a great fitness report at the end of the tour. It was pretty average. I didn’t even get a single award either. The goal was that this tour would help me promote faster, and now I head back to my home command and probably have fallen behind there too. So what am I supposed to do now Chaplain?”
You have probably heard today’s text before…..known as the Great Commission. Jesus tells his followers to “go and make disciples, baptize, and teach them.” And for most Christians and churches, the Great Commission gets treated like a set of marching orders…..making disciples, baptizing, and Christian education become the “mission” of the church.
I wonder if we don’t all do the same thing ourselves – individually and as a community of faith. We treat the Great Commission like a set of marching orders with distinct goals in mind. And if we achieve the goal, then we’ve achieved mission success. Grow and increase membership. Baptize more babies for the report to the Synod. Group the youth group, Sunday School, adult education, and get more kids confirmed. But, what does it mean when we fall short; what happens when we fail?
Falling short and failing to achieve goals never feels good, and it’s certainly not good news. It’s not gospel.
So what then to make of the Great Commission?
Recently, because of the wear and tear I’ve put on my body as an athlete, I’ve taken up swimming. One of the sober things I’ve learned about swimming is you just can’t “power through” it; it takes patience and relaxing in the pool. I’ll just be honest: I’m not very patient by nature, and I’m definitely not very good at swimming. I am slow. I am inefficient. I’m sure that the high school lifeguards at the Rec Center pool get a kick out of me thrashing around in the water, plodding along in my sad attempt to propel myself from one end of the pool to the other. Even when I think I’m getting better, along comes a person well into their 60s and 70s who jumps into my lane and literally swims circles around me…..and I am reminded once again just how bad at swimming I am and that no matter how hard I try, I’m probably not going to be winning any Olympic medals any time soon.
But here’s the thing: I’m finding I love it. I love the challenge, the sense of trying something new, and of course that my joints don’t hurt when I’m done. I’m finding that as bad as I am now, and the while I may never be good at swimming, I simply find joy in getting into pool, feeling my muscles work, losing myself in the rhythm of my own pace and breathing. I just find joy in the task of swimming itself.
And perhaps that is what the Great Commission is for us: not a set of marching orders, not a list of goals to achieve. The Great Commission is a gift; it is a vision of life for the church that brings an immeasurable sense of joy. To walk alongside others together in our faith journeys, to celebrate baptism and the mystery of God’s grace bestowed on the baptized and to celebrate their joining to Christ and the church, to teach others, or perhaps more witnessing to others about the grace and love of God made known in Jesus Christ – that life is our joy. To simply live out the Great Commission is our joy.
And on this Sunday, we celebrate the Trinity – God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and not as a solution to a theological equation. The Trinity, three in one and one in three, is a divine mystery. It doesn’t make sense. Yet it’s beauty and wondering comes in the idea of a sort of divine dancing where there is no defined beginning or end, but that God in the Trinty gives us a vision of a life where we are so caught up in the life of God, and we are also so deeply caught up in the life of one another. Faith is living out this divine relationship, so connected to God and so connected to each other. That is our joy.
The Great Commission and the doctrine of the Trinity are given to us so that we might have great joy in living the life of faith itself, not its outcomes.
And even then, the Great Commission and the Trinity aren’t good news.
The good news comes in Jesus’ last words: “And remember, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
No matter if we live or die, rise or fall; if we succeed or fail as a church. We belong to God, we belong to Christ, and we belong to each other. God is with us, and that is truly good news! Amen.