Matthew 28:16–20: We Have One Job . . .

1. Making Disciples—Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations . . .

“You had one job”, has become a popular Internet meme over the last couple of years. It is a way of celebrating those tasks that seem like they should be simple, but an individual has managed to get them disastrously wrong. To this end, the Internet is awash with examples of benches facing walls, tee-shirts with upside down logos and ineffectual security barriers. The one job that the Church has differs in just about every way to this meme. The one job of the Church is stated in the famous Great Commission:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations . . .

A job, or task, it might be. But let’s be honest this is not an easy one. It is rather more challenging than getting benches the right way around and logos up the right way. And a lot trickier than building a barrier. We can all remember times when this one job might have looked rather less than straightforward. There are times when being a disciple feels embarrassing. There are times when it brings fear. Perhaps the fear of losing our job or of discrimination. For some it might bring the fear of violence. Even when we overcome fear and embarrassment the right words seem difficult to find in the heat of the moment. On some occasions the right words do come but the person we share with, smiles happily that our faith is good for us, but they have their own alternative. Sometimes our efforts elicit hostility; when we listen in turn we find out about someone’s pain from how a Christian ill-treated them. There are also times when we encounter someone who cannot entertain the idea that God is a God of love due to some personal tragic experience.

All of these obstacles, and more, can be roadblocks where our effort at discipling grinds to a halt. Sometimes these obstacles are merely hard ground which we can overcome. But let’s be clear it’s a difficult job. There are two things that help with this job. The first is to remember that the calling is a corporate one. The second is to remember the remarkable resources that God give his people to carry out this commission or mandate or job. I’ll look at three such resources each of which reminds us that we are called as churches, in fact the Church, to this task.

2. Resource 1: The Authority of Jesus—All authority in heaven and on earth . . .

The task of making disciples is not a hobby or a marketing exercise. It is not something based on the authority of politicians, business people, economists, experts or any frail human. This is something that is God’s plan for creation. He doesn’t just permit it, it’s the actual point of the Church. William Temple, a Twentieth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, put it this way:

“The Church is the only organisation
that does not exist for itself,
but for those who live outside of it.”

It is important to note that the world is also ready for this role of the Church. This is all part of God’s post-Eden plan. The way back to God is the one-by-one discipling of those who hear the gospel. We can do much to serve people outside of the Church, and so we should, but our greatest hope is for them to become disciples of Jesus and to join God’s plan.

Sometimes we worry about such single-minded mission. What about the Church? By which we mean us—what about all our issues, concerns and needs? There is no tension if we understand mission and discipleship correctly.

God’s mission—being made a disciple—is not a one-time event. It is a lifetime pilgrimage. It is a lifestyle. Mission and discipling are on-going way of being and doing. As Church we are an organic living body—the body of Christ. As an organic entity we grow, firstly, by each of us becoming healthier, holier, more virtuous, more like Jesus (or whatever term we prefer), second, as new disciples join us. Paul famously said, that the gospel was “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). This might not only reflect the obvious racial and religious distinctions at the origin of the Church. Perhaps today he would say: “the gospel is first for The Church and then for the Nations”. Perhaps. In any case, the gospel of Jesus Christ is an organic reality—if the gospel is not alive and well in our lives and collective life—if we are not growing as disciples—we cannot disciple.

All authority has been given to Jesus and he freely delegates it to us—that is we his body. Like most biblical images its more than a picture, it’s an expression of an incredible reality. The plan was, and is, audacious. The Three-in-One-God sent the Son to become the man Jesus. Then Jesus who was both God and man made for himself a group of disciples. These disciples are no less than a revived Israel. This is the significance of the twelve – although at the Great Commission there are only eleven of course. The final stage is that Jesus delegates authority and empowers his disciples by the Spirit.

God’s authority had already been given to God’s people, of course. They were to reach and teach the nations—the ups and downs of that commission is the narrative core to the First Testament. Sadly, the story of Jonah sums up the overall impact made by the people of God. Jonah famously didn’t want to go and disciple the nations but went in another direction.

At the Great Commission the disciples were still reeling from recent events. They were still eleven not twelve. They had seen Jesus die the death of an insurrectionist. They had seen him resurrected. Some still doubted. They were, like us frail. The Great Commission started, and continues, from such a point of frailty. That is the right place to start because we have resources from God himself. For a plan such as this has the authority of God. An authority worked out in death and resurrection. An authority given first to Jesus and then to us. Surely such a mandate must stir our hearts to overcome fear? Doesn’t such authority put embarrassment in perspective? Surely such an important call must impact our life choices?

In this Great Commission we are the first to know the freedom we have in Christ. The gospel reveals God as a God of freedom. The gospel reveals that we are free in Christ. If we know what it means to live in such freedom we can’t help but contribute to the core work of the Church—in being free we become active for God.

3. Resource 2: The Baptism of Jesus—Baptising them in . . .

Have you ever thought about baptism as a resource? It is, but like all expressions of the gospel in our Information Age we can lose confidence in it. Despite first appearances, baptism is a powerful act—but it is not just something we do. It is not an arbitrary rite of passage. It is not a test, although maybe we experienced one afterword like Jesus did. It is nothing less than being incorporated into the body of Jesus. For as we go down into the water we die with Christ. As we rise from the water we are resurrected with Christ. It is the visible start of the life in the body, the Church. This is something to be remembered. It is something to call to mind as we continue the long walk as followers of Jesus.

But baptism is not about an individual. This sounds especially odd to those of us who see so-called believers’ baptism as the right approach (as do I). But it is only in our ridiculously individualistic modern world we could see it as an individual affair. It is about joining a body of people. Sometimes the individual guilt and feeling of failure we have around speaking the gospel is because we see it as an individualistic enterprise. It is not. We all have parts to play to be sure—but as corny as it sounds we are a team. But the Jesus team takes teamwork to a whole new level—we are one body. We need to know our part in the bigger work of the Church. Because together we have been baptised into one body. None less than the body of Jesus Christ.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins captures this idea in his short but remarkably rich poem, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, where he says:

. . . — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Christ plays in the churches, as we gather in worship and fellowship. What a beautiful truth.

Many religions have acts of cleansing with water. But no other has an act of union with the living God. As we carry out Jesus’ task, we baptise in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Baptism is a great encouragement—when we see others baptised we are reminded of our baptism. This rather odd act is a life-giving one. It is an organic act. We visibly see the Church grow, one disciple at a time. As we see others baptised we see the gospel at work in the present and remember it at work in our past.

4. Resource 3: The Presence of Jesus—I am with you . . .

What a remarkable promise. What an encouragement. But what does it mean? Firstly, we can note that God has always been with his people. As Israel set out to inherit the Promised Land, we hear, God speak to Joshua:

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1:9

On the return from exile and during the building of the Second Temple we read:

Then Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, gave this message of the Lord to the people: ‘I am with you,’ declares the Lord.

Haggai 1:13

How do we experience the presence of Jesus? Let’s be real and let’s be honest—it does not always feel like Jesus is right here in our midst. But our feelings are no measure of spiritual reality. There’s also some serious theology behind the promise of Jesus being with us. Because God as holy creator is distant, or transcendent. Yet in His grace He is close, or immanent. It has always been so. The first two chapters of the Bible show God as transcendent in the first creation account (Genesis 1:1–2:3) and God as immanent in the second creation account (Genesis 2:4–25). After the events of Genesis Chapter 3 it is in Jesus Christ that God’s resolution of the problem of our frailty and his holiness is made. God the Father is wholly other—neither our flesh, nor spirit, can survive his presence. But in Jesus, the God-Man, we have God with us, by the Spirit. This is mystical and not magical. We can’t conjure Him, we can only seek to experience him because God has promised to be gracious to us. And Jesus has promised to be with us to the end of the age. He’s bridged the gulf between us and God. Unlike the human response to fixing a broken relationship, Jesus didn’t meet us halfway—he came the whole way. Jesus came the whole way to make us disciples. He came the whole way to make disciples of all nations.

Sometimes we joke that God must have a made a mistake in delegating the discipling of the nations to the Church. But this is no joke. We are not inadequate for the task, because despite our weakness we have been given resources from God:

  1. We have the authority of Jesus himself.
  2. We have the gospel on show here in our midst in numerous ways including baptism.
  3. More than these two, we have Jesus with us.

We have not been set-up to fail. We have been equipped by the living God so that together we can make disciples of all nations.

 

Regurgitating Jonah

Prologue

The Book of Jonah is for children. We might not say so, but our actions and thoughts often say otherwise. It is most likely met in church and home as a story for children. As adults we are perhaps embarrassed by its improbabilities.

We are however missing something if we dismiss this oddest member of the Twelve Minor Prophets. It is so different to the other Eleven. This oddness does not make it suitable for children nor relegate it to irrelevance. Rather, the opposite is true. This book has the capacity to challenge us in a way that adults need to be challenged and children do not.

It is only adults that know about cynicism, disappointment, running away, apathy and selfishness to a great enough depth to be the target of such a sharp and barbed prod from God.

To follow this meditation you will need to have a copy of Jonah available.

 

Running Away

Make yourself comfortable. Loosen your shoulders. Breathe deeply and slowly. Imagine you are Jonah. Keep asking what do you feel, taste, hear, smell and see.

Read Jonah 1:1–3

Why are you running away from God? You know so much about his ways. But sometimes you choose to go in the wrong, in fact the opposite, direction. Why is it sometimes so hard to do the things of God?

Why is it that there are some people that you do not want to be with? Is it their poverty that makes you run away from them? Is it their sin you can’t abide? Do you flee from them because of their ‘pagan’ religion?

How is it that running away from people can be the same as running away from God himself? Surely you know there is no running away from God? Where can you hide from him?

 

Where Can You Flee?

Read Jonah 1:4–12

You find it easy to judge others. Especially those who don’t share your faith. You are, after all, born of a chosen nation. You are born of a famous father, Amittai, who was a prophet of great renown. You too have been chosen for the same privileged role—to utter judgement on the nations.

Waking up you remember that you’ve ignored Yahweh’s call. Worse than that you have fled his presence, or at least you have tried to leave him behind.

Bleary-eyed you find that the pagan sailors have eyes wide-open to God. They see him at the heart of this storm. They perceive he is angry with someone on the ship. A fraction of a second after you judge them for their silly superstition you realise it is true, that it is you that God is angry with.

You have to do the right thing—your life for theirs is not the end you had expected. But you can’t bear to be responsible for their deaths too. You surrender to being thrown overboard; as you are going to die either way. You hear yourself say “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.”

 

Going  Overboard

Read Jonah 1:13–16

Your horror grows as the sailors can’t bring themselves to throw you overboard. You’ve rarely heard such earnest prayer. Prayer born out of desperate fear and anguish. Calling on God’s name for salvation.

You are paralysed with fear. You can’t find the courage to throw yourself overboard nor can your lips find words, try as you might.

As your rather dull life flashes before you, you realise that you were at the crossroads of something important which your life had been moving to. But now it is too late, you’ve missed the boat—or rather you’ve got on the wrong one. It’s almost a relief when rugged calloused hands grab you roughly and throw you into the roaring waves.

 

Composing a Psalm

Read Jonah 1:17–2:9

Your lungs have barely started burning as you hold on to what you think is your last breath, when you realise that you are not drowning. Damp squidgy glutinous material is all around. The smell is like the fish market you passed through yesterday, yet one hundred times worse.

You attempt to calm yourself after your breakfast has made a reappearance. Your mind tries to find the words for this new experience. All you can do is patch together snippets of the psalms you have sung so often before. You patch verses together and they sort of work.

You are trying to believe that being in the stomach of a fish is God’s salvation rather than just the start of a slower death.

You realise that despite your daily commitment to the psalms, “songs of trust”, you’ve never really been tested before. This really doesn’t seem the best way to learn such a lesson—you ask yourself, “Why did I flee from God?”

Unlikely though the prospect seems you promise yourself, and God if he can hear you, that next time you will do what he asks. Even if it is pronouncing judgement on the smelly undeserving people of Nineveh.

In that moment you have to admit that you smell far worse, however, than any Ninevite.

 

Vomited Up

Read Jonah 2:10–4:3

Since being regurgitated you have done all that God asked. You walked 400 miles from where the fish vomited you up. You’d begged for help to get fresh clothes and food. You have pointed out to the people of Nineveh that these ‘pagans’ do things that are an abomination to God.

The people believed you! At first you enjoyed being a celebrity. The king believed you! If the kings commands were taken at face value, why even the cows and goats had repented.

But then God does a U-turn because of his mercy. Where is the justice in all this? What use is Law if it can be overturned with repentance? Are these pagans God’s chosen? Are these Assyrians God’s holy nation? Why can’t God stand up for his ways, punish those that do wrong? Wouldn’t punishing these people vindicate his own people?

 

An Angry Prophet

Read Jonah 4:4–11

Pray:

Father, we confess that too often we reject you ways. We want to know your mercy and grace, and yet we are slow to help bring news of your mercy and grace to others.

Father, we pray that we might learn to see this world with your eyes. Grant us wisdom to walk with you and to honour you with our choices.

Help us see temptation for what it is—a journey away from you.

Father, we pray that we would see others as you see them. Help us know with our hearts that you love all men, women and young people. Help us to love irrespective of wealth, status, ethnicity, gender and peoples’ mistakes.

Help us see the plank in our own eyes that we can love more truly.

Lord we are your servants. Help us learn from Jonah’s weakness that we can begin to echo better Jesus’ meekness.

Father, help us to be people of prayer. May we may pray more with our own words. May we pray liturgy together more passionately. May we desire your Spirit’s words more voraciously. And may we read, and be read, by your Word more frequently.

Amen.

 

Afterword: The Two Brothers

Read Luke 15:11–32. Whilst you do so imagine you are the first son (or you can be a daughter) and that the second son is called Jonah.

 

 

 

N is for Novellas

The term novella is clearly a modern genre of literature, and yet this term is used by some scholars to refer to the books of Ruth, Jonah and Esther. The Joseph narrative (Genesis 37‒50), the narrative elements of the Book of Job (Job 1‒2 and 42:7‒17) and Daniel 1‒6 are also seen as being part of the same genre. Other writings which belong to the Apocrypha, such as Judith, Tobit and Susanna are also similar, see [1]. Lawrence Mills [1] helpfully points out that these stories are united to some extent by ‘the theme of innocents abroad’. In this sense whether the term novella is appropriate or not, there is evidence in terms of content to suggest that they belong to the same category.

There is, however, more that unites these stories than just the lone ‘Jewish’ protagonist facing the problem of how to cope with diverse challenges posed by Gentiles. There is often a sense of parody to these stories. This is sometimes seen in the use of these stories, for example, the book of Esther is used during the Jewish feast of Purim in a manner that is closer to a pantomime performance than a period drama. More often than not, religious readings of these books tend to suppress what is very likely deliberate humour and exaggeration. In this post we don’t have time to explore this fully. Instead we will briefly consider the book of Jonah as an example. Various oddities in the story will be highlighted and in conclusion the significance of these strange narrative elements will be outlined.

If possible pause here and read the four short chapters of the Book of Jonah and jot down all the things that stand out as odd.

Here is a list of some of the strange things mentioned in Jonah:

  • Jonah’s response at the start of the story seems nothing less than theatrical (Jonah 1:3).
  • All the Gentiles seem very godly compared to Jonah. This includes the god-fearing sailors (Jonah 1:14) and the entire 120,000 population of Nineveh (Jonah 3:5).
  • There is no getting away from the fact that someone being swallowed by a fish and surviving for three days and three nights is highly implausible (Jonah 1:17).
  • The story indirectly implies that the fish coughs Jonah up near Nineveh, but this city is several hundred miles from the sea (Jonah 2:10‒3:2).
  • Nineveh is said to be so large that it takes three days to walk across it (Jonah 3:3).
  • Even the livestock wear sackcloth in the story (Jonah 3:5).
  • The plant that shades Jonah grows with fairy-tale speed (Jonah 4:6) only to be matched by its rapid demise because of a very hungry caterpillar (Jonah 4:7).

There is every reason to think that this story is a literary fiction, based on these exaggerations and oddities. Rather than its fictional nature being a problem there is a clear intent at instruction and a challenge for self-reflection. For example, there seems to be a deliberate contrast between God-fearing Gentiles and a prophet who knows his Scriptures—Jonah’s prayer is a complex restatement of many verses from The Psalms—but he has no care for the Gentiles. There is also a theological tension between the mercy dealt out by God and the punishment desired by the Prophet. A final puzzle is that the audience of the book of Jonah would have known that Nineveh was destroyed utterly by the Babylonians centuries earlier.

The fact that this book might be a fiction or a satire of a real prophet (see 2 Kings 14:25) does not prevent it having religious value. On the contrary, it means that it functions much like a parable. The reader is challenged to think about the character of God and about their own character. Interestingly the broad teaching of the book of Jonah is broadly the same whether we see at a parable or as a serious historical account.

 

Reference / Further Reading

  1. Lawrence M. Wills, ‘The biblical short story’, pp.314-330, in The Cambridge Companion to the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament (eds: Stephen B. Chapman and Marvin A. Sweeney), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.