It’s been wedding season in our extended family, with two of our sons and two nephews marrying in the last nine months! I had the privilege of officiating all four. At the last wedding, Sam and Meghan’s, I gave them this verse: “…as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). The outline of my little wedding homily was simple: 1) You NEED Jesus’ clothing. 2) (As believers in Christ) you HAVE Jesus’ clothing.
I believe this is about Jesus, not primarily as our model, but fundamentally as the source. I told them Christ’s clothing is not a work to be grasped, but the gift of his own Self to receive. And then I made a comment to Sam and Meghan, in the flow of an uncle cheering them on, on their wedding day. And afterward, I spent a considerable part of the reception time unpacking that comment with several people who found it jarring. In light of Jesus’ clothing not being our work, but the work and gift of the person of Christ, I told Sam and Meghan, “So don’t spend all your life trying to be like Jesus. Just give yourself to being with him!”
Jesus’ concluding words of his Great Commission are not some warm afterthought, but arguably its climactic pinnacle: I am with you.
To the Church of the Lutheran Brethren, a people shaped by grace and summoned by mission, Jesus calls and sends us, saying: I am with you. To the failing and failed, to the frustrated and depleted: I am with you. To those in our congregations and among our pastors living with the ache of being pent up during this pandemic, weary of polarization, exhausted by another new technology or issue or opinion or “pivot” required of them, Jesus says: I am with you.
This is the summation of all of Scripture. It is God’s promise and answer to humanity—from creation to incarnation to crucifixion to resurrection to Pentecost, from Word and sacrament to the great maranatha: I am WITH you.
You know, we haven’t always known what to do with that Word from God, have we? We haven’t always liked it, nor wanted it—God to be with us.
I like quiet. I like a lot of “alone time” with my thoughts. This last summer, my wife Bee and I were doing time, “hard labor,” in a dense area of foliage on our rustic lake lot. I could hear her working her way down the hillside. I couldn’t see her behind the trees and brush, but I knew she was there, coming closer and closer… because I could hear her phone. (You see, as much as I prefer quiet, her default mode is to have the sound on, listening to something.) So I called up the hill: “I heard your podcast in the garden. I was afraid (and annoyed), so I hid—because though I am not naked, I am weary of podcasts…”
Beyond personal preferences of quietude, sin always involves a certain hiding, right? In the first Garden and ever since: facing temptation on the brink of succumbing to sin, we don’t like to think about being in the view of God nor in his presence.
There may be a corollary in what commonly happens in the Church’s pursuit of her mission. It is a great temptation to pursue the work of Christ without the presence of Christ. Can you imagine hearing and pursuing Jesus’ commission to make disciples apart from Jesus being with us? Yes, sadly. Yes, we can—when we hear the Great Commission as sheer assignment, task, responsibility, commitment. When we hear the Great Commission and disciple-making as fundamentally a matter of doing, rather than first and foremost, at core, as a matter of being, in and with Christ!
If, while we seek to make others his followers, we follow not him ourselves, where do we land? Inevitably—at idolatry, envy, comparison, competition, jealousy, deceit, anger, exhaustion, dissension, pride, depression, burnout, capitulation, etc. There is a great impasse when our mission grows detached from the presence of Christ. And, great opportunity for renewal and vitality when we repent and believe again in Christ present and inseparable from his mission.
In The Evangelizing Church: A Lutheran Contribution, we hear this underscored:
It is about the real presence of Jesus in the gospel we proclaim…
Every time we distance ourselves from the living Lord, we are actually retreating from our own evangelical heritage. Why? The heart of evangelical theology and preaching is that Christ is alive and present among us concretely and unmistakably. Jesus’ word and presence are real, direct, graspable, and available for us—today! …Jesus does come today as he came to the disciples in Galilee…
Luther’s view of the means of grace grew out of his understanding of the incarnation itself as God’s order of salvation. Salvation, in fact, depends on Jesus coming in concrete ways… the proclamation of his word, the celebration of the sacraments, and the life and witness of the Christian community.1
So, my CLB friends and partners in disciple-making mission, because Jesus knew this was the only way it could be done, he gave us this Great Commission: “Go make disciples, and surely I am with you!” It is only Jesus’ commission; it is only the Great Commission—if he goes with us!
Does anyone need to know this again today, in this time of isolation, division, confusion? I am with you. This is the sum of all of Scripture; the simplest gospel; God’s answer and promise to the plight of sin-fallen and self-exiled humanity. From creation to incarnation to crucifixion to resurrection to Pentecost; by Word and sacrament, to the Church joined to God’s mission, and to the great maranatha: I. am. with. you.
I was visiting with a friend in his 90s, Harold “Diz” Kronenberg—a much decorated veteran and locally famed athlete, whose house was a veritable trophy showcase of accomplishment. Diz had lost his wife a few years earlier. On this visit, facing a move, Diz expressed no concern for his multitude of trophies, but much for what would happen to a small chest that stood in the middle of his family room floor. He said, “The Wisconsin Historical Society wants what’s in this chest—all the love letters Marj and I wrote during World War II.” While Diz had served hazardous duty as a ball-turret gunner on a B-17 bomber, he and his fiancée sent off letters to one another nearly every day, and they had saved one another’s letters. Diz’s eyes glistened, his voice faltered, at the prospect of parting with the letters. “I’m not sure I can give them up….” He paused. “I just want to read them one more time.”
Toward the end of my friend’s life, what mattered most to him is the same thing that will matter for all time for all of us: it is not productivity, but proximity; it is not exertion, but affection; it is not mission accomplished, but mission accompanied; it is not that which makes you stand apart, but that which draws you near; it is not a trophy case of what you’ve won, but a treasure chest of Who has won you.
Jesus gives you a Great Commission, and at the heart of it is a promise. It is absolutely essential. It is an invitation to stop so much trying to be like Jesus, or be liked by Jesus; but rather it is to rest yourself in just being with him.
Oh, hear Jesus’ Great Commission and follow it! But do not hear it apart from his living presence speaking to us, the CLB—the same as he spoke to Mary and Martha at the tomb; the same as he spoke to his disciples then; he is here now and speaks this same word to us: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Rev. Paul Larson is President of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren.