Blessings on the Last Sunday of the Church Year (Deuteronomy 33:1-5,26-29., 2 Timothy 4:6-8; Matthew 28:16-20)
Unlike the calendar year, the Church Year does not begin in January, but with Advent, which begins on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s Day (November 30th). That’s next Sunday, December 2nd. So, today is the last Sunday of the Church Year. We begin each new Church Year looking for One who comes to deliver us in God’s name, the one who Christians see as Jesus. Each year the Lectionary focuses the Gospel readings on Matthew, Mark, or Luke, with readings from the Gospel of John interwoven through each year. This past year has been Mark’s Year, and, next week we will begin with Luke’s.
The last Sunday of the Year is also called the “Reign of Christ Sunday,” which ends the Church Year with a focus on Jesus’ sovereignty over the values and actions of our lives. The oldest Christian confession is: Jesus is Lord. This means that “Jesus is boss,” but, in the ancient Greek world, the word “Lord” was one that the Roman emperors used. If Jesus is Lord in the sense of sovereign of our life’s values and actions, it means that no other can be Lord, in the sense of having our highest loyalty. Although the bulletin cover has a quotation from Jesus on it that might be interpreted otherwise, in the New Testament “Jesus is Lord” was intended to be a very “this world” kind of statement. At the end of the Church Year we remember that Jesus is Lord. Our scripture lessons are the supposed last words of Moses, Paul, and Jesus, and all of them are intended as blessings for us.
In the Bible, and outside it in the ancient world roundabout, there was a specific kind of literature called “a parting blessing.” We find these scattered throughout the Old Testament. These “parting blessings” were usually written well after the death of the person to whom they were attributed in order to sum up what a later writer thought was good to remember about that person’s life and work, and what blessing was left by their legacy. Our New Testament lessons share the same literary characteristics, though their forms are not exactly the same.
Moses’ parting blessing in Deuteronomy 33 both begins and ends with the majesty and blessing of God. In between these words (in the section we did not read) we find both positive and negative words for specific groups in Israel, a common feature of many of these texts. This text is difficult, ambiguous at many points, and much discussed by Old Testament scholars. What is clear is that the God of whom Moses speaks does things, the God of the exodus and Sinai is active to bring integrity, wholeness, and a right direction to people, which defines what the Bible means by “salvation.” Further, God acts to bless the world through God’s people, and expects them to do certain things in the world in response.
On this last day of the Church Year, it’s good to remind ourselves that our God is active, does things in the world, is interested and involved in the world, and expects the people who claim to worship God to be about the same things. It is easy to let these things slip into the background and become convinced that God wants us only to care about heaven, and couldn’t possibly care about things like justice and wholeness in this world. We can even fooled into thinking that God doesn’t care much how we live so long as we repeat God’s name frequently, believe certain things about God, sing certain hymns, pray, and give our offerings. Some of those things are important, but Moses and the (other) prophets of Israel (including Jesus) witness against such imbalance, and say, in the words of Micah: “What does the LORD expect of you, but to do what is just, to love what makes for community solidarity, and to walk watchfully with God in the world.” Following God is a life lived not a system affirmed.
The Second Epistle to Timothy is intended to be read as a letter from the aged Apostle Paul to a young person named Timothy whom he had mentored in faith and ministry. In it we find the supposed last words of the Apostle, not so much a parting blessing as a parting statement of what’s important to remember about him as begins to pass the torch of leadership. In this statement, Paul affirms that he’s already “on the way out,” but that, through his ministry he has done the best he could, sometimes with great struggle, to remain faithful to the vision of the risen Christ he was given. Sometimes it has been thought that the words, “I have kept the faith,” meant he had remained doctrinally orthodox and pure. Although that’s a common reading, I consider it unlikely to have been the meaning any time in the first century. An old way of looking at the early church was that it, more or less, dropped from heaven by God, or at least from Jesus, doctrinally formed and pure, and that what it contended with was those who would dilute and pollute it by heresy. We have discovered that such a version of Christianity was invented by those who had won a struggle for dominance by destroying other ways of seeing Jesus. Virtually no historian of religion now thinks that this is what happened (unless he/she is simply content to repeat the ideas of the past). Rather, in earliest times, being a disciple of Jesus meant responding to the Spirit of God in ways that made sense in your place, not affirming a single creed or a list of beliefs. In the second century (just after the New Testament period), the hot issue was not to establish a common creed, but a common hierarchy that would rule the church. Doctrinal unity did not become a big deal until after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. If we’re alert, the New Testament itself witnesses to many different styles of following Jesus, one of which derived from the vision of Paul.
What is, likely, intended by “I have kept the faith,” is that Paul had remained faithful to that vision of including both Jews and non-Jews on an equal footing among the followers of Jesus, for which he was famous. Although, sometimes we do not give Paul credit for being radical in his thinking, for his day he was in this, at least. He was convinced that the vision he had been given was broad and inclusive of those that other Christians would have left out or made second-class. In the end, much in this Pauline vision was victorious. 2 Timothy 4 says to Timothy that, although it had been a struggle, Paul had done all he could to see that vision accomplished. Paul trusted that being faithful to this vision was important to God who, as we saw in the Old Testament Lesson had expectations of those who would be the People of God. In his “parting blessing” Paul used the image of the winner in an athletic competition that, in his day, that would be given a crown. He called it a “crown of righteousness,” given by, “the Lord, the righteous judge.” We have invested these words “righteousness” and “righteous” with a deeply religious meaning, whereas, to a Hebrew in Paul’s day (and well before) they would have been simply been understood to mean “right.” The “crown of righteousness” would be the “right (appropriate) crown” for the “right (appropriate) judge” to give. Whether Paul meant “the Lord” to indicate God or the Risen Jesus (each of whom he elsewhere calls Lord) is really unimportant. Paul meant that his inclusive vision of following Jesus will be shown to be “right” (corresponding to reality), and living by such values has fitted him for spending eternity in the presence of God. On this last Sunday of the Church Year, it’s good news to remember Paul’s parting blessing that it’s important to respond to the God who does things and is involved in the world through Jesus by following a vision that involves others in inclusive ways, even when it’s a struggle to do so. Of course we do not live in the first century and so must translate Paul’s vision into contemporary terms that requires further entrepreneurial faith.
The Gospel lesson in Matthew gives us Jesus’ parting blessing which many of us learned in Sunday School to call “The Great Commission.” There is much here. I’ve preached on this passage before. I’ve even written about it in a little book and in a couple of articles. Without getting into grammatical details, the only command in Jesus’ commission is really just the noun “disciple” made into a verb. Changing nouns to verbs is something Americans are criticised for doing by English-purists across the rest of the world. For example, we have taken the noun “pastor” and made it a “verb,” as in the clause “to pastor a church.” We could multiply this many times.
Well, Greek at the time of the New Testament also changed nouns into verbs. The word here is usually translated as “make disciples.” Now, there is a sense in which only God can make disciples of Jesus. But there is another sense in which people who are disciples can encourage, build, and support others in becoming disciples. Jesus’ command has to do with such work. The word translated as “go!” is not a command, but gives the precondition for discipling others. We must have already gone where they are geographically, culturally, philosophically, economically, politically. In short, there can be no discipling where there is not a previous, genuine identification with and a “going-to,” people. We cannot expect to be players in discipleship from a safe distance off somewhere in church
The two verbs “baptizing” and “teaching” describe ways in which this encouraging, building, and supporting of disciples happens. One (baptizing) stands for the ways in which we bring people into the community of faith, and the other (teaching) stands for helping people to see how the values that Jesus taught and lived are vital to a relationship with God in the place where the people are (and where, as we’ve said, disciple-builders have already gone). All this is vitally important, and much more could be said about it, but these really only introduce Jesus’ “parting blessing. “No, these are: “and, mark this, I am with you, literally, “all the days, until and including the completion of the (present) age.” Jesus parting blessing is a promise that he is together with us until the end whenever and whatever that may be. Jesus is present with us, not just in disciple-building, but through all the days. And, I take this to mean the wonderful days when all is warm and alive and thriving. And I take it to mean the disastrous days when everything is cold and dead and hopeless. And I take it to mean the mundane, plodding days in between. Jesus is together with us all the days until the end. Remember this above all.
Jesus’ presence with disciples is crucial to both being a disciple and encouraging others in the process of discipleship. Like so much else in the Bible, these words are not intended, nor would they have been originally heard as about individuals, but as about communities. Jesus’ presence is alive with us, most commonly, within the community of faith. Jesus is present in and with those who are convinced that God does things in the world and expects the people of God to do the things it sees God doing. Jesus is present in the world to empower and encourage finishing of races and continuing in struggles. Jesus is present “in this very room” as we learn to love and encourage one another through all the days of life. On this last day of the church year we can say, “Thank God.” Thank God it’s over, perhaps, but thank God for Jesus’ presence with us in one another.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.