Meditations from Bishop Murray
My sisters and brothers, we send greetings from your sisters and brothers in the Diocese of Panama: between 8 and 9,000 Episcopalians in 33 congregations, many of them are missions still, where people of African descent, campacinos, indigenous groups, come together and make the body of Christ look so diverse and so interesting. But we work together to make sure that the Kingdom of God is a reality in our time and in that part of the vineyard, Panama, that is not only a canal, but the place where God has called us to be his people, and where we recognize Him as our God.
May I also say words of gratitude to my brother and friend, Bishop Shannon Johnston, for this invitation to be your chaplain at this, your 215th Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. I pray that our time together will be a blessing to the lives of many, and that the Holy Spirit will empower all of us to give a positive response and also a renewed response to the call to do mission. May God give us, then, that the wisdom and the courage to minister in humility and share a message from God.
When you take time and you look at the biblical story, there are many, many passages of “go.” God has been saying “go” from the very beginning. He said “go” to Abraham – I’m not going to talk about Adam and Eve – but he said “go” to Abraham, and I can say that when he said “go” to Abraham, he became the first immigrant that moved from Ur into Cana. So you know migrations are part of the biblical story for a long time. He said, “Moses, go to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go.” You know Jonah: “Go to Nineveh.” Reluctantly, he did. But then in the New Testament, he also, in a dream, said, “Joseph, go. Take the baby and the mother into Egypt as far as you can from Herrod.” And then he said “go” to his disciples and he sent them, curiously, in teams, 35 teams of two, and he told them, “Go tell the people that the kingdom of God is in their midst.” Again, he said “go” to the disciples and “go make more disciples.”
Now, if I should put that on one end, the other end would be that there are many persons given exciting commissions in their lifetime. There was Michelangelo, commissioned to painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; Sir Christopher Wren, commissioned to build St. Paul’s Cathedral in London; Dr. Gorgas, assigned to stop the Yellow Fever through construction of the Panama Canal. But I tell you, in my lifetime and yours, there is an ever greater commission that is found in Matthew 28:18-20, where Jesus Christ turns to his disciples and says, “Go. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”
Think of it: Jesus himself turns and looks at his disciples in the face and commissions them. Think of it: Jesus looking at you and me in our faces and commissioning us to work with him on his latest creative project. It’s interesting because this part of the project will need your talent and mine, your time and mine, your resources and mine. But God has personally called us in Jesus Christ and he has promised to be alongside of us till the end of time.
It is interesting to know that the way the Great Commission is written originally, in Greek, actually says, “As you go into all the world, make disciples.” It has an almost casual or spontaneous air about it. Sure enough, search the Scriptures as you might, and you will not find nowhere else stating how to witness schools or how to plan mission conferences. You will not find that. You will not find them even talking about strategic planning, or telling them about the mission committee that will meet in the ballroom on Wednesday night, or something like that.
Mostly, the disciples went about their Great Commission with spontaneous, reckless excitement. And considering the dimensions of the Great Commission, and considering the excitement, I need to tell you that there was also great expectation.
But I’d like to pause for a while and ask you, if you and I have been sent to go make disciples, aren’t you afraid? Aren’t you scared? Aren’t you ready to take control? Because it’s comfortable when we are in control. Come back to the biblica, and let us trust God with his word, and let us trust God with the commission that he has given his disciples, the commission that he has given his Church; and let us look and consider some things before we go any further.
First, consider along with me the height of that commission. In the text, Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples.” All authority is centered in one person, Jesus Christ. What does this authority say? “Go and make disciples.” He says it to a group of fishermen, a group of merchants, tax collectors, whatever. He says his commission is so vast, it will take more than just a bunch of individuals to get it done. It will take a world-wide body of encouraging, working, loving, committed, cooperative people, accomplished to do the task. Never forget, the Great Commission was given to a group, to a body, to a community, not to one individual. It was given to the Church.
When Jesus set about his ministry to teach and heal, there were those who asked, “By what authority do you do this? It is your own ego? Or Satan? Or someone who compels you to do these things?” And Jesus consistently pointed to God as the basis of his authority. It is the same today. You just get busy going and discipling and teaching and preaching and baptizing, and really soon somebody is going to want to ask you, “Why are you doing this?” Jesus says, “Go.” And his orders still stand today. Go, disciple, teach, preach, baptize. No human being has the authority to counter-command this order from Jesus.
Now consider with me the width of the Great Commission. The text describes a portion that says and includes all nations. I often time make fun with my friends in the ecumenical group – as you know, I am the president of the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI) – and I share with them jokingly how interesting and important it will be when we all decide to make disciples, not for our denominations but for Christ. I hope you never have to hear someone saying, “Oh, we are here to minister to our group, the upper middle class,” or the educated ones, or “We’re here to minister only to the youth,” “Oh, we’re here only to minister to the elderly.” I hope you never have to hear, “Oh, we’re here only to minister to the black,” or to the white or to the indigenous. I hope that you will never hear anyone have to say that, for the width of the Great Commission is to all nations.
Remember how reluctant Jonah was? I am happy that he finally got it straight, and God said to him go to Nineveh anyway. But Jonah’s mind was set, because he hated gentiles. But God dealt with him. It took a storm, a fish, a hot sun and God’s rebuking to straighten him out.
I remember Peter – he too wanted only to work with the Jews, and it took a dream and a vision that changed his understanding. And I think of Paul, once called Saul, and it took knocking him off his horse on the way to Damascus. But then he understood that his call was to all gentiles and all people who would accept Jesus Christ as their Lord.
Think with me for a while. We have talked about the height, the width. What about the depth? The text of Matthew 28:18-20 says, “We are to baptize people and make them disciples, and teach them to observe all that Christ commanded us.” Notice that it didn’t call us to make converts or to make members, but to baptize and make disciples. As I said before, as the president of CLAI, I have the opportunity of visiting many, many churches within Latin America and also, at times, in Europe. And once I visited one of our Baptist churches in Argentina. They had a tremendous babtistry. They told me a story. The water flows through the babtistry reminding us that Jesus says, he is the living water. The person, in order to be baptized in this big babtistry, has to walk down three stairs, each one marked with a word: the Word, the Flesh and the Devil. Descending the steps, the convert is plunged into the water, to die to sin and then raise from the depths of that water, transformed, born again, newness, new life in Christ. To get out of the babtistry, he must clime three more stairs, each one marked with a word: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So it is a new creation. Born again, come alive to God and sent forth to grow and to love and to be a reflection of Christ to the world. But this person has to remember that he doesn’t do it alone. He does it in the community called the church, where people and in their way do things together so that the kingdom of God will be recognized as a reality among us, a reality that has been installed but that has yet to be completed.
Politicians can’t do that to people. Neither education nor medicine nor finance. The only one that can transform that life and make it a life that has meaning is Jesus. Because he can work with us, and as a matter of fact, he is continually working with us from the depth of his love for us.
Finally, it talks about length. If we can identify the height, the width, the depth, that Great Commission also has length and time. The final dimension of our challenge says, “Until the end of times.” Go, make disciples, baptizing, teaching, until the end of times. Each one of our commissions last until the job gets done, until life is over, and for some, this is frightening, because it seems like a long time, but if we follow, if we are obedient, if we trust God with it, you will be able, by your faith, to see the manifestation of the glory of God, even in your time, as you and I come together and do the Great Commission.
I wondered for a while, why would Bishop Johnston ask me to talk about the Great Commission? This Diocese, as I have read, has been doing so many wonderful things within the United States and out of the United States. But may I call your attention to the fact that sometimes, one needs to be reminded of the reason why we do what we do, and especially after you have been through so much, sometimes your attention gets fixed on the problems rather than being fixed on the opportunities. You have been called in a time of opportunities and sent to do God’s mission. It has a time, it has width, it has a length, it has body. Your body. You and I as the community, the community of believers, the new prophets. You and I are called into God’s mission.
Let us pray.
Once more, we thank you, O gracious God and we praise you for the trust you have placed in our hands. Now we ask for the strength of your holy spirit so that we will hold that trust. Father, you that have called us and nourished us and can send us, you that have had the initiative of love like a mother and a father, as you care for us, we pray that you will make us obedient. Obedient to that commission, obedient to that trust. Help us to remember the height, the width, the length and the depth of your Great Commission. Make this a great invitation and for us a great decision in Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you. And remember, I will be with you always, through the close of the ages.
Times without number, I have been asked, and maybe you have also been asked, “Have you ever been baptized in the Holy Spirit?” If I say “yes,” the subject is closed, and the person who asked the question is happy and satisfied. But if I say that I have been baptized in water, immediately I begin to receive many more questions, some of them judging. Questions like, “But have you ever spoken in tongues?” or, “Have you had a special experience?” or “Do you have true baptism and in feeling of the Spirit?” And the person will continue asking and asking, and they will even come to say, “You know that there are two baptisms, don’t you: water baptism and Spirit baptism.” Now this is misinformation of a lot of people who have not had proper instruction in this matter.
Our charge to go and make disciples has to do not only with baptizing, not only with preaching, but with teaching. And at times, a lot of the teaching cannot happen only at what comes from sermons on Sunday morning. It has to be intentional. The time has to be made so that the teaching part happens. But, I will refer only to baptism in the Holy Spirit at this time. The Holy Spirit comes to us at baptism. Without the Holy Spirit coming to us at baptism, we could not know Christ as savior. Jesus told us that everyone who enters the Kingdom must be warned of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes to us at our baptism. The words of the baptismal formula cause us to be born anew.
In this work, the Holy Spirit creates faith in Christ. Now this is a witness of apostle Paul who said no person—no woman, no man—can say, “Jesus is Lord, except Father Spirit.” Now this is sometimes difficult to believe. It is too good to be true. After all, how can one man, by his debt on an ugly cross, do away with my sins? That man died hundreds of years ago. Others have died on crosses before and since, and how is his debt any different? We simply cannot handle it with rationale only unless faith was given to us by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit plants the faith in our hearts, helps us to see Jesus Christ as Son of God, the savior of the world.
And here I pause to tell you that we are in the time, the liturgical season of the Epiphany. It’s a time of revelations, a time of many manifestations. It is a time when the people become aware that Jesus is the son of God.
We cannot earn the Spirit. We cannot work ourselves into a high emotional pitch to receive him or her. We can’t buy the Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes naturally, through the channel of the Word of God. The Spirit comes to us in the Word and in the sacraments. Paul has said, over and over, take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, with you. Word and spirit are inseparable.
Imagine your life to be a baptismal font, for that is where your life with God began. You were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Your Christian life began when the Holy Spirit took residence in you. That day in your life, the Spirit descended, and you were marked as Christ’s property forever. You have someone who owns you. We have been owned by Christ, in his death and in his resurrection.
But again, there are those who want to be re-baptized. Has anybody ever come and asked you that? “Can I be re-baptized? You see when I was a kid, I didn’t feel, I didn’t understand. Can I do it again?” In some places, where I come from—be careful now, where I come from—some of my brothers and sisters would say, “This child needs to be re-baptized because that baptism in that particular church doesn’t work.” It happens where I come from. People come to you and say, “I understand it better now!” My friend, we do not believe in re-baptism. That is to negate the work of God that was done for you and your first baptism, no matter how you felt about it. God did his part. And you were received into the body, into the family. You were received into His mercy and His love and His grace, and you became His own, dear child forever.
There is not a second baptism. Some believe they have been at alter time baptized in the Holy Spirit, like if they had a second experience, rolling down the aisles, spinning around. Some believe that because they have spoken in tongues, they have been baptized for a second time. The Holy Spirit is God, and God cannot be segmented. Water baptism and Spirit baptism do not form two separate stages in the Christian development. They are inter-related. The Great Commission, the great invitation and the great decision: Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and of the Holy Spirit was to further substantiate this truth, that the Holy Spirit comes when we are baptized in water.
We cannot afford to disown the Spirit work when we are baptized in water. Paul, again, reminds us that we believe in one Lord, one faith, one baptism. But again, the argument persists by those who say, “But when we receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, it was a special time, it was dramatic, spectacular. It was a life-changing event.” I don’t doubt none of that. It may well have been a renewal of the Spirit in the life of the believer. The renewal of the Spirit. And sometimes, we need renewal. We need reminders. We need to be re-annointed. We have come with gifts, many, many gifts. Some evangelists, some apostles, some teachers, some speaking words of wisdom, some interpreting, others ushering, others at altar guilds, others as Sunday school teachers, others as youth coordinators, others as janitors. And all serve the one God, and all, gifted of the spirit, are there to make sure that there is a service to the Body of Christ in the Church.
I don’t know how many of you have had an opportunity to ask a confirmation class just before confirmation what brings them to the Episcopal Church: “Why do you want to be confirmed in the Episcopal Church?” You here all sorts of interesting answers. One that I can’t forget is the fact that I want to be confirmed in the Episcopal Church because after service, we all have a chance to eat. Sometimes I have been in situations where there are those who would look at the children and outcasts come and want to form a line right after the church service and they say, “No, no, no. Go away, this is not for you.” And especially if they’re children, “No, no, no. There is a place at the table for you.” And those are them moments when I wonder: Weren’t we all baptized into the same body? Weren’t we given gifts by the Holy Spirit to serve the one Body? Aren’t we supposed to be the community that serves all? Why, then, some signs of exclusion?
It is because we need to be renewed in the Spirit. We need to ask for the act of renewal to be part and parcel of our lives, sometimes over and over and over again. We may be certain that the spirit comes always in the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. In the reading of the Word, in private devotion, as when the Word is read, thought and preached and worshipped, and in special ways often soft or unexpected, the Spirit surprises us with his presence and overwhelms us with his blessing and his power.
So then, I invite you to don’t be afraid of those refreshing experiences of the Spirit. Sometimes, that’s all we need. And perhaps some of us need to ask God to be for us like a booster shot of the Holy Spirit at times. And I would like to invite you to begin praying with me, or singing with me, words of a hymn that can be used as a booster shot. There are two hymns, I know you know both of them. One we will recite and the other we will sing.
Breath on me, breath of God. Fill me with life anew, that I may love what thou dost love and do what thou wouldst do.
And where I come from they say that if you sing, you pray twice.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, shape me, fill me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
And as the Spirit of the living God falls afresh on us, pray that the Spirit send us into the world to do mission. Amen.