William B. McClain
Mary Elizabeth Joyce Professor of Preaching and Worship, Emeritus
Wesley Theological Seminary
Texts: “…and as you go, preach the gospel…” [ Matt. 10:7].
“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… and lo, I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matt. 28:19-20].
I am honored and humbled always to preach at commissioning and Ordination services. I find that it is an opportunity for me to renew my vows made at my ordination in the Central Alabama Conference in the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction on a hot June day in my home church: Sweet Home Methodist Church in Etowah County in Gadsden, Alabama. I am the last person living from the class of ordinands in that Annual Conference. I invite all of those who have been commissioned and/or ordained to do the same: to renew the vows you made before the Lord in whatever place you made them.
Martin Luther, the 16th century Protestant Reformer-theologian, used to offer some advice to his preachers that is probably especially applicable to Sermons at Annual Conference. Luther told his preachers:
“#1. Stand up! #2. Speak up! And, # 3. Shut up!”
Well, over the years I have offered my students some advice which I hope I can practice today myself. I have said to them:
Start low; go slow;
Rise high, strike fire;
There are at least two recordings in the Gospel of Matthew of where Jesus commissions his disciples “to go.” One in Chapter 10 and the other in the closing words of the Book of Matthew in Chapter 28, which we just heard read today. In verse 7 of the tenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, [PAUSE], and as you go, [PAUSE], preach the gospel…” [PAUSE] And in the 28th chapter we hear the words of the Great Commission: “Go into all the world 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 observe all I have commanded …;” and then he adds a promise of his continuing presence in these words: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We will not tackle the hermenuetical problem of whether the first commission was an exclusive “missionary command” to preach to the House of Israel and the second, a universal “Great Commission, ” and whether the former was rescinded and consumed and replaced in the latter… I am satisfied that both commands and commissions came from the same Jesus, [PAUSE], “SO, NOW, WE GO…”
We do not go because we know the world is desperately and anxiously seeking to know what happened to the Jebusites and where Pamphyllia and Phrygria are located, and whether 100 angels can stand on the head of a pin, but rather we go because we are called, commanded, and commissioned to go by Jesus and we know that the people come asking: “What word is there from the Lord today that speaks to my conditions, my hurts, my problems, my conflicted soul and spirit? We go because the people still ask “is there a word that speaks to our world and all of its desperate needs, the ethical decisions with which I and those around me are struggling to make?” We go because people still ask “Can the Gospel that you preach, teach, and live bring peace, love, and justice to a troubled soul and a world filled with ambiguities? and a world in which the currents of history are churning into rapids, sometimes sweeping away the long familiar places where the anchored floats used to mark the safe and navigable channels for our lives. “In times like these,” “ they ask can you speak to the deep yearning and wonder of my soul for an anchor that grips a solid rock?
Well, that is what I have been about in theological education all these years I have spent at Wesley Theological Seminary: to open our eyes, our minds and our hearts through an academic, spiritual and social search to discover more of the ways of God, and the way God is in the world. And to discover and interpret what we have found in a world that is more complex, more intercultural, more interreligious and more interconnected than ever before. It is also a world besieged by war, xenophobia, violence, race-baiting, bigotry, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, and so many other attitudes and actions that divide and violate God’s beautiful rainbow creation whom God called “the children of God!” God blessed all of creation and said it was good.
The goal in my ministry in theological quest has been to enable my students to go from the Seminary being able to say as the blind man said after encountering Jesus and getting a new perspective: “I was blind, but now I see. “ And, SO, NOW, WE GO…AS ORDINANDS and we go to help others to see WHO and WHAT we have seen. In the words of Jesus in the Matthew text: “…teaching them to observe all the things I have taught you…” [Matthew 28:20].
There is the temptation in such questioning and disorderly and frightening times, and especially when fear-mongering seems more important than facts and saber rattling seems easier than an effort at just peace, for theologians and persons in roles of religious leadership to simply accommodate the people who want their answers clear, clean and easy. But it is not the task of those whose eyes have been opened to offer easy answers and quick, unexamined, slick and glib slogans, and easily-remembered “sound bites.” Not just to offer simplistic answers that represent a rearrangement of the facts of life which will inevitably lead to disenchantment and despair. As my late friend, William Sloan Coffin, used to say to his students at Yale: “Answers that begin by explaining all too much end up always by explaining all too little.”
My teacher and mentor at Boston University, Howard Thurman, used to always remind us that we must speak to the heart and to the mind. In other words, don’t ask congregations to check their minds at the door because we are in church! Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to warn us about ‘softmindedness” in religion. He used to say such leaders in the church have re-translated the Beatitudes to read: “Blessed are the pure in IGNORANCE; for they shall see God.”
The people whom we are called to go and serve and with whom we minister need priests to stand with them as well as prophets to stand over against them. Prophets to speak truth to power as well as priests to nourish their souls and to help to heal their hurts and pain. [PAUSE] . Our generation and our church need priests who preach like prophets and prophets who serve like priests. The challenge before the church and this Annual Conference is to raise our voice as a trumpet in the discordant sounds of the public square, and to be the voice of conscience that speaks truth to the power of the state, the market, and the body politics, even as it speaks peace to the troubled soul, and preaches good news to the poor [paraphrased from Allen Dwight Callahan, an unpublished paper on ordination presented at Harvard University Divinity School, 1997].
The Great Commission is to GO! “And so now, you go, feed my sheep, tend to my lambs, hold together my flock. Preach the gospel. Teach. Baptize. Make disciples.”
And, now, we go, not because we have reached perfection, but we are trying; so, we go, and you go, not because you will have a degree behind your signature and you will have a title in front of your name as “Rev. or Doctor,” but because you have been called to be a servant leader for the people; so, you go, not to be pampered and served, but you go because you have been called, commissioned, prepared and sent from this place as “workers who do not have to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
And Jesus had no rose-colored, overly romanticized notion about the world to which we go. He was very realistic about the world to which you go. He knew that there are serpents who will threaten to poison your blood stream and wolves out there who will try to tear you apart limb from limb and devour your flesh, and he warned that some will be close to you as brothers and sisters, and thus he warns that when we go we must be “wise as the serpents, and harmless as doves.” I learned from Martin Luther King, Jr. long ago when I was in Alabama with him that that means that we must have the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, —– having “a tough mind and a tender heart” [MLK, Strength to Love, “Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” p 13].
There is a commission to go, but there is also a promise in this Great Commission. And I know a little bit about making a promise.
I made one more than 60 years ago in Alabama, that I would give my life and my gifts and such talent that I had to the church and the Christian ministry and to preach the Gospel. [PAUSE].
When I went to teach at Wesley 36 years ago I made a promise to Wesley Theological Seminary that I would give the best of my service to teach preaching and worship and be a scholar and leader in theological education. That institution believed me and granted me full professorship and tenure many years ago and installed me as their first endowed professor [and by the way, that endowment came from a woman from Reidville, North Carolina: named Mary Elizabeth McGehee Joyce. Just about 13 years ago when there was talk of retirement, I promised the President of the seminary that I would teach and serve Wesley Theological Seminary until I was 75 years old – that occurred 3 years ago. I’ve tried to faithfully keep those promises as best I could, but I know It was not always as unfailing and as sure as it ought to have been about these promises. The Lord knows I tried.
But the One who makes the promise in this text has never faltered or failed: “… and lo, I will be with you ALWAYS, even until the end of the age.” The PROMISE OF THE NEVER-FAILING PRESENCE OF CHRIST. “I WILL BE WITH YOU ALWAYS!” Which means there is the promise of always being there!
Always means “All the days…” The days when the sun is shining and the days when it’s cloudy; the days when there is a large crowd and the days when they are few; the days when the people are on your side and the days when all seemed arrayed against you. The days when there is plenty and the days when the budget is hard to meet.
The ministry can be a lonely profession. There are times when, in the words of the old Black preacher, we seem to have to “tread the wine press alone,” but we are not alone, he promises never to leave us alone! No never alone!
I’ve seen the lightning flashing,
I’ve heard the thunder roll,
I’ve felt sin’s breakers dashing,
Trying to conquer my soul;
I’ve heard the voice of Jesus
Telling me still to fight on:
He promised never to leave me,
Never to leave me alone.
No, never alone, no, never alone –
He promised never to leave me,
Never to leave me alone.
I am willing to stand on his promise, not on a partisan platform, but on his promise; not on a fleeing and fleeting philosophy, but on his promise; not on an ideology, but on his promise; not on an unwavering and changing theological position, but on his promise. When the howling storms of doubt come, I’ll stand on his promise. When the assailing fears come, I’ll stand on his promise! When the world crushes me down and my enemies assail, I’ll stand on his promise! I’m standing, standing, standing on the promises.
A promise is as good as the one who makes it. I’m standing on the promise because I know the One who made the promise. He’s never failed me yet! as I told you yesterday morning:
I’ve come too far from where I started from.
Nobody told me that the road would be easy.
But I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.
And he will not leave you, either!
The One who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. Morning by morning new mercies I see. Great is God’s faithfulness! But my hope is built on nothing less…
So, Now, GO! Go into all the world, and as you go, PREACH THE GOSPEL! Not simply a FULL Gospel, but preach “the whole counsel of God” BUT PREACH TO ALL THE WORLD AS YOU GO! In season and out of season, in fair weather and in foul; in the cities and in the country; in large steeple churches and in clapboard way stations. In the words of the old Isaac Watts hymn the AME Church still loves to sing:
“Go preach my gospel” saith the Lord,
Bid the whole earth my grace receive.
Explain to them my sacred word;
Bid them believe, obey and live.
[Isaac Watts, 1674-1748]