Text: Matthew 28:16-20
Date: The Holy Trinity + Pentecost I + 6/19/11
Back in “the day” when I began my studies at the seminary it was the tradition for each incoming class to adopt a motto or quote from the Bible as their class theme. I don’t remember who made the choice but ours, the class of 1975-1979, was what was called The Great Commission, part of today’s Gospel, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Those words, I suppose, were intended to emphasize our enthusiasm to prepare ourselves for this, what we assumed was THE main task of the ministry and of the Church, to get going and make disciples for Jesus.
Before entering the seminary I had been trained in what was called the popular “Kennedy” evangelism program, named after the Presbyterian minister D. James Kennedy who invented it, a program adopted and used at the time by a wide range of Christian denominations. In addition, through the years of serving as a pastor I recall numerous resolutions adopted at district and synodical conventions often including a “whereas” reinforcing the belief that the church’s main concern is always to be that of The Great Commission, making more and more disciples. It is to be regularly found in the “mission” or “purpose” statements of many congregations. And this, of course, fits well also with the so-called Church Growth Movement’s main concern of adding or multiplying of numbers on the church’s membership roles. So important and commonly accepted is this definition of “growth” that one is even made to feel guilty if your church (your congregation, circuit or church body) is not “growing” in number of members. “You are not faithfully ‘doing’ The Great Commission, the very last commandment of Jesus.” These days there is plenty of guilt going around especially since we live in an era when it seems the Church is getting smaller, less popular, irrelevant or of an even worse reputation in general society.
But is growth in numbers the main concern? If we take a longer look at how the Church has traditionally viewed these parting words of the departing, post-resurrection, pre-ascension Jesus, we discover that we may have been putting the emphasis on the wrong words to the point of missing the blessing of what Jesus was actually saying here.
We have the “words of institution” for the Lord’s Supper, the Sacrament of the Altar at the Passover Supper that Thursday night of Holy Week in which our Lord was betrayed recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. But where would you say are the “words of institution” for the Sacrament of Holy Baptism? We know that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. But where do we see Jesus baptizing? The answer is, nowhere. This parting blessing of the risen Jesus is the only place where He commands His ministers to baptize people. Holy Baptism is the definition of what it means to “make disciples,” something Dr. D. James Kennedy’s “Evangelism Explosion” never fully considered. For, it is, finally, not we who make disciples. This is the Bible passage quoted in our Lutheran Confessions as the foundation of the sacrament of Holy Baptism.
This is Holy Trinity Sunday, the day dedicated to naming the mystery of the one and only true God. To the world we confess there is only one true God. Other so-called gods are but the invention of human imagination. They are either created to help answer the deepest philosophical questions or they are merely mythical, even comical super-human figures. On the other hand the only, one true God is a mystery, beyond human discovery or understanding. As such, if God wants to be known by humans, He must reveal Himself. This He has done through Moses and the prophets of the Old Testament and most perfectly through His own incarnation in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth. So it is to this day the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who draws people by the Gospel and enlightens with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps people in the true faith in the one, true God. The only true God is the only God who has come to us to save us by His own, active grace, mercy and love.
Whether a person is drawn to the awareness of faith before or after baptism the promise is sure, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).
“To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by human beings but by God himself. Although it is performed by human hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own act.” So said Martin Luther in his Large Catechism (IV:10). Your baptism is the foundation of your daily life as a Christian, as the way we deal with our daily struggle against sin. For it is God’s work and God’s promise we must return to and not our own works, to receive and live in the wonderful forgiveness of sins purchased by Christ on His cross and given to us as a living water of eternal life.
So the promise to His ministers and Church: as you are going disciples, fellow learners, believers, Christians are made of all nations, Jews and Gentiles, all people everywhere. They are made by God Himself as we apply water with the Word of God and prayer, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching the baptized life of faith. In fact, every time we say or hear “the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is a moment of remembrance of our Holy Baptism. For those are the words of our identity as God’s people.
Maybe we weren’t aware of our lack of understanding or even misunderstanding these words when we adopted them as the motto of the class of ’79. But as we grew to understand ourselves as “pastors,” fellow servants and ministers of God’s means of grace, God works His works according to His promise. May He open our eyes the wider to see and to appreciate the miracle of faith.
Miracle each time it happens
As the door to heaven opens
And the Father beams, “Beloved,
Heir of gifts a king would covet!” [LSB 593:2]