An 18-year-old was saying, “Goodbye home; hello college!” She was stuffing her car with as many of her belongings as she could squeeze into it: clothing, cosmetics, shoes, laptop, pillow, shoes, headphones, backpack, more shoes! Thank goodness no one was set to ride with her. She crammed her car so completely that the only empty space remaining was behind the wheel.
Ready to takeoff, she hugged mom and dad in the driveway, said, “I love you” and pulled away. As she drove down the street, she glanced in the rearview mirror. She could barely see out, but she spotted her parents standing in the driveway waving and hugging each other. Were they crying?
She was excited about this new stage of life, but she was also anxious about leaving the security of home and all that was familiar. Once on the interstate, she rolled down the windows and cranked up the music!
Three hours later, she pulled into campus, parked near her dorm and began lugging in her treasured belongings. She was a bit of a neat freak, so she organized everything just so. She had packed all of her athletic wear in one suitcase, but as she emptied it, she discovered something she had not put there. Her mother had tucked away something special. Two long, narrow pieces of cloth that had been neatly ironed and folded. At first, she was puzzled, but as she studied the design on the cloth, she recognized the pattern. These were the strings from her mother’s apron. Her mother had cut them off for her.1
In today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew, we encounter a similar scene as Jesus snips the apron strings. This is Matthew’s farewell story in which Jesus tells the disciples that it’s up to them now. He will no longer be physically present to teach, to heal, to challenge, to comfort, to inspire. Now it’s up to them to carry on his ministry.
That is not to suggest that they are completely cut off from Jesus. Like the student who has gone off to college, her mother will always be a part of her. What her mom has shown her will serve as a powerful influence on her life. However, more of life’s decisions are now her own. She will decide when to get up and when to go to bed. Which risks are worth taking and which ones are not. The choices she makes are in her hands.
And that’s how it was for the disciples when Jesus departed. He had shown them the way to live and to love, but after he was gone, it was up to them.
When you think about that, it is rather stunning. Jesus left the fate of the world in the hands of eleven guys who had difficulty getting it right much of the time. According to the gospels, on some occasions when Jesus told a parable to a crowd, the disciples pulled him aside later and said, “Jesus, we didn’t get the point. Could you explain it?” When Jesus was in his final hours and he engaged in a time of intense prayer, they fell asleep. When Jesus was arrested, they ran off and hid. When the women told them the tomb was empty, they said, “Silly women, telling their idle tales.”
And yet, when Jesus departed, he gathered his disciples for one final reunion and spelled out his expectations. Since Judas, burdened with guilt, had taken his own life, the twelve were now down to eleven. The author of Matthew includes the curious detail that even when the final eleven showed up for their last good-bye, some of them doubted. Yet, despite the skepticism, Jesus laid on them this daunting challenge: “Go 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.”
Jesus handed them the heavy responsibility of continuing and broadening his ministry. It’s a frightening thought, but it is even more unsettling when we realize that Jesus has the same expectation of us. Through the pages of Scripture, Jesus reveals his mission to us and then says, “Carry on.”
A colleague writes, “I’m not sure how it fell to me to teach our 15-year-old son Isaac to drive – my husband Dan is the less anxious parent. But here I sit in the passenger seat – white-knuckling the door handle, imaginary braking with my foot – coaching Isaac how to park, to check his mirror before moving into the left turn lane, and to avoid the mailboxes on the right side of the road. [She says,] I try to be calm and confident for Isaac’s sake as we drive, but I am praying for Jesus to take the wheel!”2
The disciples of Jesus must have felt the same way. “Jesus, we are not up to the job. Your expectations are too high. Please, retake the wheel!”
The anxiety level of the disciples was surely astronomical. I imagine them saying to one another, “Let’s see, there are eleven of us. We are expected to spread his message throughout the world and to train everyone in his way of life? You have to be kidding!”
I suspect it was tempting for them to scale back some of the teachings of Jesus. Can you picture them saying to one another, “Don’t you think we should modify some of his words to make them more palatable? What do you say we strike his saying about giving away your money and his challenge to love your enemy. That would make our job a good deal easier.”
However, that is not what happened. They realized his message would shrivel and his memory would vanish if they did not swing into action. They took full responsibility for his command, because they understood that Jesus was saying, “I have shown you the way. It’s now up to you to spread the message. It’s up to you to heal those who are hurting. It’s up to you to comfort the afflicted. It’s up to you to set the oppressed free. It’s up to you to build up the church. It’s up to you!”
Of course, his command was not simply directed at the handful of his initial followers. It is God’s expectation of every follower of Jesus – including everyone here. It’s up to us.
Sadly, through the ages, this great commission has not always been handled in the spirit of Christ. The Crusaders sought to make Christians by means of the sword. Some missionaries inflicted great harm rather than demonstrating sacrificial love. Many Christians condoned slavery.
When Jesus called upon his followers to obey his commandments, he was not expecting us to all act and think alike. Each of us is unique, and the way we express love and respect and kindness, and the way we strive for justice and mercy and peace will also be singular.
Priest and poet, John O’Donohue, says that “From time immemorial it has been one of the deepest longings of the human heart to learn a way of living and being…from which something lasting can be harvested from our disappearance.”3. Deep in our soul, we want to know that we have matched our personal gifts with the needs of the world in such a way as to make a positive difference. We want to know that our lives count for something meaningful, something vital. We want to know that when we were challenged, we stood firm against evil and injustice, and we marched on the side of what is right and true and good.
Each of us must grapple with what it means to obey the commandments when the world is ugly and the challenges are fierce. How can we live a virtuous life in a world that often scoffs at religious virtues?
Do you remember the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh? The trial of Robert Bowers is underway now. He shouted anti-Semitic slurs as he murdered 11 people and wounded six, before he was wounded by police. The gunman was taken to a hospital where at least three of the people who saved his life were Jewish.
Ari Mahler, his primary nurse, was not only Jewish, but his father is a rabbi. He said, “I did my job, a job which requires compassion and empathy over everything…I didn’t see evil when I looked into Robert Bowers’ eyes. All I saw was a clear lack of depth, intelligence, and palpable amounts of confusion…He’s the kind of person that is easily manipulated by people with a microphone who use fear for motivation.”
Mahler went on to say that the gunman “thanked him for saving his life, for showing him kindness, and for treating him the same way he treats every other patient.” Mahler concluded his Facebook post with these words: “If my actions mean anything, love means everything.”4
The chief way we teach others to obey the commandments is to embrace them ourselves and to model them in the way we live. Day in and day out we are constantly sharing our faith with others whether we are aware of it or not. People are watching you. What are they seeing?
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