The disciples, fresh off the news of Jesus’ resurrection, trudged up the rocky slopes. The angels had broken to Mary and Mary the Easter news that he was not dead, but alive, and sent them back with a message: “Do not be afraid,” he said. “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; THERE they will see me.” So they strapped on their boots for a hike.
But this text begins with a note of sadness. There were only eleven of them, Matthew quickly says.1 They were haunted by that absence, by the chief priests and their deal with Judas for those thirty pieces of silver, meeting them in the Garden, betraying Jesus with a kiss. But much of that was lost in the agony of Jesus’ suffering, the gut-wrenching grief, the stunned surprise when Mary and Mary ran in and said that He was alive, that they had seen Him, and that it was time to go!2 And they were so hopeful as they climbed the mountain, nervous, wondering what it would be like when they laid eyes on Him for the first time.
It doesn’t strike me as a joyous reunion – cautious, tentative. Matthew says, “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.” I do not take this to mean that seven of them believed, and four didn’t. Most people I know, myself included, are often filled with both doubt and belief at the same time. It’s mixed up almost all of the time. Jesus breaks in, boldly: “ALL authority on heaven and earth has been given to me,” he says as they hold their breath. Now GO, get out of here, go down the mountain, and make disciples of ALL NATIONS, baptizing them…in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit….and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
Go and make disciples, baptizing and teaching. In these verbs come much of the mission of the church. We go – around town and across the world. Us Presbyterians have not been at our best trying to speaking our faith out loud, of inviting a neighbor to church. But we go in other amazing ways, to Urban Ministries and Hope Valley Elementary, to Habitat builds and to Haiti, with partner organizations all over town, through our denomination’s mission co-workers and Young Adult Volunteers – like our own Natalie Wolf serving in Miami. We make disciples through baptizing and teaching, acts deeply bound together. We all stand up here in worship and make promises, with the parents, with the children, all of us, to be a part of the nurture of the one being baptized, in the nursery and in Church School, on mission trips and youth group, as we do our best to remind them of Jesus the Christ’s CLAIM on them. We teach and are taught in mid-week bible studies and on retreats and by guest speakers and preachers. It is our prayer that by our living, by our teaching, by our collective witness we shape and are shaped as disciples of Jesus Christ, as we seek to figure out what it means to follow Jesus today.
But, I think, too often the church reduces this to a set of acts. Discipleship is: Come to church. Be on a committee. Volunteer for stuff. Attend a class. Make a pledge. Be helpful. We string together enough of this stuff, we check off enough boxes, and we can justify to ourselves that we are being sufficiently faithful. The church doesn’t help this sometimes. But if we are in the shaping and forming business of making and being disciples, then a certain level of intentionality is essential. That’s why a huge chunk of the 3rd portion of our strategic plan, walking humbly, is Heather and the Christian Education Committee doing some broad thinking. They’ve put together a Faith Formation Plan, a massive document that they’d love to share with you that works through why we do what we do and how the pieces fit together, from baptism to the nursery, from the Child and Youth Protection Policy to Godly Play, from confirmation to youth group, from options to study the bible and books and issues in ongoing ways and in shorter term classes, in the head and the in heart, as Jesus Christ, the One who calls, draws us into himself.
But making disciples and being them ourselves is even more about a posture, a particular way of being in the world. In the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic, some psychologists spent time thinking about what makes for healthy relationships. A group of social scientists in 1986 brought a bunch of married couples into a lab and measured things like heart rate and blood pressure in a variety of situations, talking about how they met, what they love, and also what caused them stress, the last time they fought. They checked in with them six years later to see how they were. They found couples fell pretty cleanly into two groups they called masters and disasters. In the study, disasters showed all the signs of being in fight-or-flight mode, higher blood pressure, etc, even when they looked calm. Even normal conversations sent their heart rates soaring – they always anticipated conflict. Masters felt calm and connected, which led to warm, affectionate behavior, even when they fought. They had a climate of intimacy and trust.
They then dug deeper in follow-up experiments to explore what created this kind of climate of intimacy and trust. It turns out it’s a simple thing. Throughout the day, every day, partners make requests for connection, what psychologist John Gottman calls “bids.” For example, say that the husband is a bird enthusiast and notices a goldfinch across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird: he’s requesting a response from his wife-a sign of interest or support-hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird. The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, as Gottman puts it. Though the bird-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The husband thought the bird was important enough to bring it up in conversation and the question is whether his spouse recognizes and respects that.
People who turned toward their partners in the study responded by engaging the bidder, showing interest and support in the bid. Those who didn’t-those who turned away-would ignore or keep doing what they were doing, watching TV, reading the paper. Sometimes they would respond with hostility: “Stop interrupting, I’m reading.” These bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Do you turn towards someone, or away? But here’s the bottom line, from the end of the article: “There are many reasons why relationships fail, but if you look at what drives the deterioration of many, it’s often a breakdown of kindness. As the normal stresses…pile up-with children, career, friends, in-laws, and other distractions crowding [things out]-couples put less effort in…and let petty grievances…tear them apart….But among couples who not only endure, but live happily for years…the spirit of kindness and generosity guides them forward.3 They turn toward each other, instead of turning away.
I completely think this works in the life of faith. As we seek to make disciples and be one ourselves, we have countless opportunities each day – with our spouse or children, with friends and coworkers, with people we meet in the store or, God forbid, at church. We have opportunities to turn towards life and love and ministry with generosity and kindness. Or we could turn away, turn back into ourselves and our own busyness and needs that are surely important on some level but are also filled with anxiety. The world prefers it if we are anxious and afraid. But we are called to be church, to turn towards God. As we find our place in the long line of saints who have done their best, no matter what it cost them, to be faithful – the leaders of the Reformation from 500 years ago, back to the saints from the earliest days. And in our own day we have our part to play. To turn towards God, no matter what, towards life and love and hope, to loving our neighbor and listening together, as we serve the poor, as we speak for justice for those left out and left behind, as we bring as much commitment as we can muster. As we give, today, of the gifts God has given each and every one of us – and those gifts are many – as we seek to follow the task given to those disciples upon on a mountain.
One last thing, Jesus says. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” As we live and love, with as much of kindness and generosity as we can muster, we can remember that we don’t travel alone. That we are joined by the One who in himself turned toward the world, who came and lived and died and rose again, and who calls us to be and make disciples.
May it be so. May it be so. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. This insight, as well as a good bit of the angle I take here at the beginning, comes from “Living By the Word” by Tom McGrath, in the May 6, 2008 edition of The Christian Century, page 21.
2. Matthew 28:1-10.
3. “Masters of Love,” Emily Esfahani Smith, The Atlantic. June 14, 2014.