THE END OF THE BEGINNING – A SERMON FOR TRINITY SUNDAY
Those of us who grew up in the shadow of World War 2 will remember how for Britain – and Australia - the first 3 years of the land war produced one disaster after another.
The turning of the tide came in October 1942 at a little-known railway halt in the Egyptian desert named El Alamein. Winston Churchill said of that victory – in which the Australian 9th Division played a key part - ‘This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end.But it is the end of the beginning’
Those words could well be used to describe Jesus’ last recorded words on earth, as were read to us today from Matthew’s gospel:
‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, 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 I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’
We call this The Great Commission. Even though they are the final words in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry they are not the end of that ministry, nor even the beginning of the end. They are the end of the beginning, because in these words Jesus was passing the baton to us - telling us that our task is to complete the ministry he began by taking the good news to every tribe, nation and generation.
And for 2000 years, starting with that small group of disciples, his faithful followers have taken the good news to every corner of the world, so that in our generation, for the first time in history, we can actually say that the gospel has gone to every tribe and nation.
However, the great sadness is that despite the evidence of increasing receptivity to the gospel in many parts of the world, our society, which for centuries has been shaped by the gospel, now seems to be largely unresponsive, even to the point of many openly rejecting it.
There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the enormous shift to a materialistic rather than spiritual world view that has taken place in our society over the past two centuries.
But added to this is the sad fact that the message that the Church has presented has not always been seen as good news. Often the Church has been seen as an oppressive power structure. Frequently it has presented itself as the moral policeman, trying to enforce its own view of morality, with the result that most people know what it’s against, but have little understanding of the good news that it is for.
But even this would be tolerable were it not for the scandals revealed in recent times of appalling abuse inflicted upon the most vulnerable people by those claiming to be servants of God. It is no wonder that the church is now rated as one of the least trusted institutions.
Yet despite all this the Great Commission still stands. Our call is still to go into all the world and proclaim the good news. All the other things that occupy so much of our time and energy in the Church, no matter how important they seem, are secondary to this one great task.
There are three things to note of as we ponder Jesus’ Great Commission. The first is that we are acting under his authority – ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me,’ he said.
The immensity of this task must have seemed overwhelming to that little group of very ordinary people; but, empowered by the Holy Spirit, they started something that has defined the history of the world. And the authority that empowered them is the same authority that empowers us, who also feel overwhelmed by the task.
But this raises the question of why the church in Australia, with all its wealth and expertise, seems to be seeing so little response? No previous generation of Christians has had the vast range of resources and technology that we take for granted.
No previous generation has had so many church growth seminars and consultants. No previous generation of ministers has been so highly educated. Yet for the most part we struggle at best to merely hold on to what we’ve got, if that.
Perhaps the answer is that we, unlike Christians in places like China, have come to trust in the sophistication of our technology, techniques and programs, and have forgotten that the only authority that counts in this spiritual conflict is the spiritual authority given to us by Christ.
There’s a wonderful story about Thomas Aquinas, probably the greatest theologian of Medieval times. He once visited Pope Innocent 111 in Rome, who showed him the Vatican treasuries. The Pope, alluding to that story from the book of Acts, where Peter and John heal the lame man begging at the gate of the Temple, said to Thomas:
‘Ýou see, Thomas. No longer can the Church say: “silver and gold have I none.’’’ To which Thomas replied: ‘True, Holy Father. And no longer can she say: “rise up and walk.’’’
Material resources do not necessarily guarantee spiritual power.
The second thing is that Jesus’ words were a commission to go out with the good news, not to wait for people to come in and find it. I’ve no doubt that occasionally people still do drop into churches seeking spiritual meaning in life, but for most, the church is an unfamiliar culture they’re unlikely to visit unless someone invites them.
The third thing is that we are not on our own; ‘I am with you always,’ Jesus said. We become part of a chain of people and events, most of which we have no knowledge of, but which, under the Lord’s guiding hand, is drawing those who will respond. Jesus explained it this way:
‘The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you can’t tell where it comes from or where it’s going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ He also said: ‘The Kingdom of God is like a man who scatters seed. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.’
These texts remind us that our part in God’s great harvest is that of sowing the seed. The institutional church goes its way with its programs, its budgets and its committees. Sometimes it does so faithfully, and sometimes it fails miserably.
But the real work of the gospel is in that multitude of believers who, by word and example, live the gospel out in the real world. They do it in a thousand ways, but the important thing is that they do it.
Most of them are unaware of what effect their witness has; but the Lord, who promised to be with those who faithfully witness for him, will be working through them in ways they never even dream of. This is how the Kingdom of Heaven has always grown.
I’ve now spent half a century in the ministry and have served in a number of roles including church planter, pastor/teacher, broadcaster, denominational executive, military and emergency services chaplain.
Achieving some measure of church growth has always been a driving force for me, but, looking back, despite the modest successes, I often feel like those military planners of World War 1 whose meticulously planned offensives cost so much but produced so little that remained.
And now, in my retirement years, with a new generation having assumed leadership, and no longer feeling I have to prove myself, I’m able to reflect on it all and ask what is it that really counts.
And I find myself constantly thinking of that old Sunday School hymn that says: ‘Jesus bids me shine with a pure clear light/ Like a little candle burning in the night/ In this world of darkness we must shine/ You in your small corner, and I in mine.’
The remarkable spread of Christianity through the Mediterranean world in that one generation following Jesus death was said to have ‘turned the world upside down.’ It was largely the result of thousands of little candles lighting up the darkness wherever they went.
Roland Allen called it: The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church. The cumulative effect of hundreds, thousands and even millions of believers who, in their own way, shine like candles in the darkness and go on to light other candles.
It is this, more than anything else, that accounts for the amazing growth of Christianity in China over the past half century in the face of a brutal, authoritarian and atheistic regime committed to the annihilation of all forms of religious expression.
In 1949 when Mao Zedong came to power, all Christian missionaries were deported from China. After four centuries of missionary activity there were around 4 million Christians in China – 3 million Catholics and 1 million Protestants.
Over the next 3 decades, particularly during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, it was believed that Christianity had ceased to exist in China. But then, when the country opened up again in the 1980s it was discovered that the church had largely gone underground and with no official organisation had grown to around 100 million - the result of myriads of tiny candles burning in the night.
It reminds me of something I once read about the glory days of the American automotive industry. Packard was the last company to get into advertising. It didn’t happen until after the death of the founder, of the company, James Ward Packard.
Whenever he was asked to buy advertising for his cars, he would always say: ‘I don’t need to advertise Packards; just ask the man who owns one.’ And after his death, ‘Ask the man who owns one’ became the Packard slogan; and it worked.
In the same way, faith in Jesus has also been spread primarily by word-of-mouth. The Shepherds at the first Christmas may have heard the good news from angels, and the Wise Men were led by a star, but most people who come to faith do so because of the influence of someone whose life has been changed by it. People just like you.