Sermon by The Revd Michael LLoyd
Matthew 28:16-20 | 23rd Mar 2017
A sermon given at the commissioning service for ordinands going out on missions.
Matthew 28:16-29 contains:
A statement – ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’
A command – ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations’
A promise – ‘surely I am with you always, to the end of the age’
‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.’
There are two words in that statement that make it offensive to the modern world – ‘All’ and ‘authority’.
Not some authority has been given to me, and some to Mohammed, and some to Moses, and some to Heile Selasse. And that is offensive, because our society has bought into a relativistic world-view, in which every view-point is as valid as any other.
A woman once dreamed that all the world’s great philosophers were brought before her, one by one, and that, with one brilliant phrase, she disposed of their entire philosophical positions, one after the other. Plato was punctured. Aristotle was annihilated. Occam was obliterated. Hume was humiliated. Locke was lacerated. Berkeley was bulldozed. Descartes was demolished. Hegel was hammered (not in the Monty Python philosophers’ sketch sense, you understand), Sartre was slaughtered, Unamuno was undermined, she wiped the floor with Wittgenstein (or viped the floor, I suppose) – anyway, you get the picture. And as the dream came to an end, she said to herself, ‘I must wake myself up and write down this phrase that has demolished the positions of all these great philosophers.’ So she woke up, scribbled down the phrase, and went back to sleep. The next morning, when she came to, she remembered her dream, and recalled that she had written the killer phrase down, so she looked for the scrap of paper she’d written on, and found that it read, ‘That’s what you say!’
Now, in many ways, it’s helpful to remind ourselves that any position we hear, any argument we read, any line that someone tries to flog us is only one position. It is only one side of the argument. It is only one line. There are others. There are other things to be said here. Intelligent people come to a range of different answers on this. ‘That’s what you say, but other people say different things.’ And that should alert us to the complexity of the issue so that we don’t come to a simplistic answer. And it should encourage us to build a critical faith – one that has listened to the different points of view, faced the difficult questions, attended to the awkward pieces of evidence, wrestled with the powerful arguments – and come out stronger for it the other side.
But what relativism does is actually to obviate the need for careful thinking, for careful weighing of the evidence, for reasoned argument. Because if every view is as valid as any other, then there is no need for such things. And that undermines science, because science doesn’t believe that every hypothesis is as valid as any other. It undermines the judiciary, because the whole point of the legal process is to establish the truth behind the different competing accounts. It undermines journalism, because journalism is there to sift what is actually true from what is only hearsay. Relativism has never been a friend to science or to the academic world or to the law courts or to any attempt to establish what is true – it is in fact an attempt to avoid issues of truth altogether.
What we are seeing now with the whole Post-Truth/ alternative facts furore is that people are finally looking relativism in the face, and not liking what they see. They are finally realising where it leads, and are shrinking from that.
Hopefully, they will realise that they dumped objective truth precipitously. Hopefully, people will turn back to the idea that there is such a thing as truth, and that we need reason and evidence and argument to work out what it is.
And hopefully, people may then be prepared to consider on its merits the claim of Jesus that all authority has been given to Him and not rule the claim out of court before it has even been considered.
The second word in Jesus’ statement that is offensive to the modern hearer is the word ‘authority’.
I saw a cartoon recently of someone looking at a giant poster, which read: ‘Question all Authority!’ And the person is saying, ‘Why should I?’
Authority is a dirty word and understandably so. So many people’s experience of it is that it is often warping of who we are. So many people find that it cramps us and restricts us from being all that we have it in us to be.
But Jesus’ exercise of authority is different. Jesus is said, for instance, to have authority over the evil spirits: in other words, He uses His authority to restore deeply troubled people to their right minds. Jesus is said to have authority over the winds and the waves – in other words, He uses His authority to defuse a disordered cosmos of its threat to human life and wellbeing.
What we see in the ministry of Jesus is authority used exclusively to restore, to protect, to heal, to reconcile.
So rare is that, that this seems to be part of the good news. There is an authority that is never self-serving, but is always and only used for the good of those who are called to be under it.
This is so counter-cultural, so counter-intuitive. Far from being something to fear, it is in fact part of the gospel.
‘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 I have commanded you.’
I saw a cartoon recently in which one person said to another: ‘Have a nice day!’ – to which the latter replied, ‘Don’t you tell me what to do!’
We have a problem with commands. We have a problem with being called to obey.
But again, everything depends on the nature of the command.
With Jesus’ commands, we are just being commanded to love and be loved. We are just being commanded to do that for which we were created, that for which our hearts cry out, that without which we wither.
‘Everything I have commanded them’ means everything that makes us truly human. Again, this is part of the gospel.
In Season 5 of the Big Bang Theory, there is one episode in which the oppressively workaholic Sheldon is required by his University Department to take a vacation. He objects to this: ‘We’re living in a dictatorship’, he says. ‘“You must take a vacation. You must have fun. You must enjoy life.”’ To which Howard replies, ‘I don’t think you have a good handle on dictatorships.’
Jesus’ call for obedience does not play well in a society that is afraid of totalitarian organisations and totalitarian systems of thought. It feels to them like dictatorship. But actually to be told to love and be loved is hardly oppressive. It is simply telling us to be and to do what will most deeply fulfil and satisfy us, and enable others to thrive. It is simply trying to avoid the unnecessary hurt and emptiness of the Samaritan woman. It enjoins commitment upon us because it knows that commitment is the only way to intimacy, and it does not want us so to prize our own autonomy that we miss the intimacy for which we were made. It does not want us so to insist on being our own boss that we miss the liberating leadership of the Lord.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations ...
‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’
Some years back, there was a politician who said that people on benefits were being paid far too much and should have their allowance cut. He was challenged to live off what someone on benefits gets for a week. He took up the challenge, but found that he couldn’t do it – before the end of the week, he was cadging money off the film crew. But he didn’t back down from his claim: ‘Well, of course I couldn’t live off it – I’m used to a much higher standard of living, but they should be able to ...’
One of the problems we have with authority is that it is, in our experience, so often distant. It doesn’t know about our contexts, our hopes and struggles and difficulties – the obstacles we face, the things we need. The EU countries feel remote from Brussels, the regions feel remote from Westminster, the highlands and the islands feel remote from Holyrood.
Again, the authority of Jesus is different. The authority of Jesus is an authority that is never absent, that knows our pains and sufferings from the inside, that never fails us nor forsakes us. Again, that is part of the good news.
The ubiquity of the promise (‘I am with you always’) and the all-embracing scope of the command (‘Go and make disciples of all nations, ... teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’) depend on the universality of the statement (‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me’).
We don’t do mission just because we feel we should, or because the church will shrink and diminish if we don’t. We do mission because the authority of Jesus is uniquely liberating, and people fully thrive only under its wholly beneficent and other-regarding goodness.
* * * * * *
Last Saturday, I went to Llantwit Major, a beautiful village just west of Cardiff and site of the oldest Christian theological college in the country – and probably the world. (Sadly, it isn’t still operational – it was destroyed by the Vikings in 987.) It was founded in the late 4th Century. And some of its alumni include St Patrick (who evangelised Ireland), St David (who evangelised Wales, St Samson (who evangelised Brittany), and Taliesin (the famous Welsh poet).
These were some of the people who first won these islands for Christ. We now have the same task to do again. I would love Wycliffe’s alumni to have a similar impact in our generation that they had in theirs. I would love historians to look back in fifteen hundred years’ time, and say, ‘Wycliffe was the Llantwit Major of its time. It was the Iona of the twenty-first century.’
Let’s start with the missions that many of you are going on next week.