Summer Outreach Chaplain
"I Am With You Always"
Recently I had the privilege of delivering a mini-sermon to the Diocese of Toronto College of Bishops, and heads of the Toronto Anglican Theological Colleges. My text was the Commissioning of the Disciples, which is found at the very end of Matthew's Gospel, and its one of my favourite passages in Matthew. The very last words of Matthew's Gospel remind us that Jesus has promised us he will be with us always, to the end of the age. That's a pretty big promise, and it's one that I'd like to share with you. Below is a modified and extended version of my mini-sermon.
Our last words often say something important about who we are, and what it is that we value. Matthew ends his Gospel with Jesus commissioning his disciples, and the last words that Jesus speaks are: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This promise that Jesus makes to his Disciples during their Commissioning is nothing new, it is one that we hear throughout Matthew's Gospel. In fact, at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus’ birth is first announced, he is given the name Emmanuel—which means God with us. The first words and the last words in Matthew’s Gospel affirm that God is with us always through the presence of his Son, Jesus Christ. Emphasizing this relational aspect of Jesus was important for Matthew, and by placing those words "I am with you always," as the final words of Jesus, Matthew wants us to know that those were important words to Jesus too. They were not a passing whim, or a last minute assurance for the Disciples (who were no doubt a little panicked!)
When Jesus Commissions the Disciples he tells the eleven to "go and make disciples of all nations, to baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and to teach them to obey everything that he has commanded them." We can imagine the questions, and fears, and doubts that they must have had when Jesus told them to “go.” What a daunting task! They were being asked to go to the ends of the earth to share the love of God with everyone they met, a message they didn't really fully understand themselves. Some of the people they met might be eager to hear the Good News they had to share, but they would certainly meet many people who were not interested in hearing about this "Jesus" and what he had to teach, and that could be dangerous. They would have to put all their trust in the Lord if they were to succeed.
If we think back to the story in Exodus of when the Israelites wandered in the desert, the mana that God provided for them had to be collected daily. They were instructed to only gather what their household needed for one day, and when they disobeyed God and tried to store and keep it, it became rotten. They had to show their continued faith every day that God would provide for them. When the Disciples were sent out, they faced a situation similar to those wandering Israelites. When the Disciples were commissioned they were not magically given some kind of lump-sum deposit of faith to share with those they met along the way. Jesus sent them out just as they were, with all their doubts, fears, imperfections, and questions. But he also sent them out knowing that during their time together they had been taught to collect their daily mana. They had learned that faith cannot be gathered and stored, that we need to seek God every day, and that our faith must be lived and shared in relationship and community or it too will go bad. His final words to his Disciples help to remind them of that--I am with you always!
We too are commissioned by Jesus to make disciples of all the nations, despite our faults, fears, imperfections, and questions; Jesus sends us out just as we are too. When we hear that I think many of us have similar feelings to those 11 disciples. And I think we should admit the truth: this is not a mission we can carry out with our own strength and wisdom. We can't do it alone. The power and presence of the risen Christ is our confidence in the work he has called us to do. “I am with you always." What a comfort that is! And this continuing, abiding presence of Jesus is an incredibly profound promise. It is a reminder that our God is a relational God. A God of love; a God of mercy; and one who demands justice for everyone.
This ending in Matthew also reminds us of Jesus in his earthly life--the Jesus who shared space with people, lived, and was present with them, broke bread with them, and who embodied the word of God, which we are called to share. Jesus told the Disciples "I am with you always," not "I will be with you always." Jesus has always been, and will always be, with us. He is Emmanuel. We are sent out to share the word of God, but we are not sent out alone. The trouble is that we are drowning in words about God, and all of the words that are spoken in God’s name. But a word about God is not the word of God. Like the 11, we too are called to baptize new disciples in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and to carry Jesus’ teachings to the ends of the earth. Not words about God, but the word of God
When a word is of God, it originates in the mysterious beauty of the Divine Being. When a word is of God, it relates God to us, and us to God, in ways that renew and transform the heavens and the earth. And the word of God, spoken by Jesus to his disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, is that he will be with us to the end of the age. Our God is a relational God.
This commissioning by Jesus is a complicated job, and one that should not be taken lightly. Once we have shared the Good News of Jesus' teachings with people, our job is not done, that isn't enough-- and it's not really what we are called to do. We can't simply shout the Gospel message in the town square and then move on. Just like Jesus taught his Disciples to collect their daily mana and to trust in God daily as the Israelites in the desert did, we too need to teach those we meet about the continuing, abiding love of Christ, and the need to seek him daily. "I am with you always." Faith cannot be stored up and hoarded, it must be shared and lived in relationship and community and we are called to baptize all the nations into that community, into the Body of Christ. We are called into a personal relationship with God, and Jesus' promise, his last words, affirm that.
Indeed, we need to seek the Risen Lord every day, in the confidence that Jesus will be faithful to his promise. He is with us today and tomorrow. And all of the tomorrows after that.