Awkward Endings & New Beginnings

by susan on April 26, 2017

This message was shared on Sunday, April 23rd and was based on Matthew 28:11-20.

This is how it ends – the gospel according to Matthew that is.

It ends with an interesting image lingering in our minds. However you imagine Jesus’s appearance (& dare I say there’s no way his skin was this white!), the artwork to your right (“Resurrection” by Szymon Czechowicz) depicts well the mixture of joy & worship, doubt & confusion present in those who first encountered the risen Christ.

These were Jesus’ closest friends & his most learned students & yet, even they did not expect him to come back to life.

What do we do with this rather awkward ending to the story of Jesus’ life, death & resurrection?

It IS awkward, isn’t it? And, not only because of the mixed responses.  It’s also awkward because it’s messy.

The first 5 verses of this passage never show up in the Lectionary or three-year cycle of pre-planned scripture readings, and it’s no wonder. They reveal the dirt of the religious institution, the stuff we’d rather keep well hidden. The Chief Priests, who were the overseers of the temple & the intermediaries between God and the people, are involved in a cover upa schemea scandal. They quickly come to a consensus that bribing the officers who were eyewitnesses to the resurrection is a necessary evil.

They knew that Governor Pilate would not appreciate being upstaged & so they did what was necessary to cover up the truth & to keep the peace. That’s how they respond to resurrection. Sadly, this is not the first or the last religious dirt that would need covering up.

So here in this awkward ending, there are mixed responses, there is mess, but there is also someone missing. Matthew is sure to tell us there are 11 disciples there to meet their risen Lord, not 12. It’s like a family reunion – only uncle Judas is not there and everybody knows why, but no one’s about to say it. What a strange detail to toss in – a stinging reminder of betrayal & brokenness that only adds to the awkwardness.

And, there’s one more thing. It’s awkward because it’s unresolved. We are not told whether the disciples follow Jesus’s one final set of instructions, his post-resurrection Manifesto we might call it. There is no number of baptisms or membership rolls. There is simply the miracle that this story made its way to us.

Are you familiar with this kind of awkward ending?
Do you know the feeling of never quite having everything settled?
Have you experienced the uneasiness of feeling elated on the one hand, but lingering resentment or guilt or worry on the other?

Times of change and transition and uncertainty can be hard. They can make us feel like we have nothing to offer, like we are just waiting for the next big wave to ride.

This may be an awkward ending, but it’s not an empty one.

Tucked into this awkward end to Matthew’s gospel is the mission that will define the future for these followers. We may not find out here whether they follow though, we discover in the Acts of the Apostles that they do.

The mission that Jesus entrusted to them is this:

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 teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ – Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV

If Mary Magdalene (who was our focus last Sunday) was the first preacher of the good news, this motley crew of doubting yet hopeful disciples were the first missionaries.

They were sent to make disciples. Disciples are learners of Jesus. Learners of Jesus were being sent to make more learners. They were sent to listen, to learn alongside, to live out the way of Jesus with their neighbors.

They were also sent to baptize. They were sent to initiate all kinds of people, people from every tribe and nation into living Jesus-centered lives. They were sent to be agents of re-orientation & reconciliation.

And, they were sent to be teachers. They were sent to teach the counter-cultural, alternative, kingdom-of-God way of life all while they were still learning it themselves.

Seriously, think about what a powerful moment this was for those disciples. Here they had abandoned Jesus, fallen asleep, denied & doubted him at the moment of his greatest need and yet, he was telling them to continue what he had begun.

He was telling them that they still had a purpose. He was giving them a new vision. He was inviting them to imagine…

to imagine what the world would look like if all nations practiced peace not retaliation, if everyone learned to love each other, to forgive, to include, to be honest, to share … it’s a vision for a world healed & renewed & through God’s power, these disciples would not only see it happen, they would be the vehicles for making it happen.

When we hear this text (aka the “Great Commission”), this is seldom the vision that comes to mind. Instead of a world being renewed, we see people being convinced, coerced or even scared into believing the gospel by fire & brimstone preachers & sleazy tv evangelists.

The Great Commission has been twisted into the Great Conquest. It’s been used to lord power over people, to create us vs. them relationships & to divide rather than unite –  even though we never saw this in the life of Jesus.

And because of that, we’ve gotten so turned off from sharing & being sent that we’ve shied away from it altogether. We’re more cautious with what we say and how we say it (& rightly so!). We’re more in touch with the harm we’ve done with our tactics & techniques, our too-simplistic 5-fold plans, Roman’s roads & patterns for a successful Christian life. And, as that narrow way of sharing comes to an end, we find ourselves uncertain, insecure & struggling with what it means to live out this mission & vision.

I imagine these were the same thoughts running through the minds of Jesus’ friends. Things were changing. They would no longer be doing exactly what they had done. They would no longer have Jesus physically with them and they would now have to learn a new way of being sent.

Is it possible that what feels like a terribly awkward ending is actually a new beginning?
That what seems like the end of a story is actually the start of a new chapter?
That what seems like the tale of Jesus’ remaining followers is really an open-ended invitation to all of us?

We are still being sent.

We are sent even with all of our unanswered questions, our skepticism, our failures and our disappointments to continue what Jesus began. We are sent to take the awkward ending to one era of Christianity and to experience a new chapter of God’s ever expanding story. We are sent to learn alongside, to listen & to share not to conquer or capture.

Are we willing  – even with all of our awkwardness – to still be sent?

As we look to the future, we may feel ill equipped and like we have nothing to offer. We may feel embarrassed of our past and wondering how we can possibly do anything new, but there is a promise in here for those who dare to be sent.

The promise is this: We are not alone. The power & presence of Jesus is with us as wherever we go.

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