In the movies when someone is dying, there is that scene where the person says their last words. Of course, the director of the movie wants it to be something profound, something that will make an impression on those gathered in the room and an impression of those watching the movie. For all the things we may say or do in this life, the last thing we ever say might just be the thing that people remember most. But most of us can’t plan for that moment and many of us may not even be awake at that moment so the thought of what we would like to say before we die is probably not something to which we have given much thought.
In our Scripture passages today, both Jesus and Paul give their followers and readers some parting words. In the case of Jesus, he was able to return from the dead to give his parting words. In the case of Paul, he knew that his time was coming close when he would be put to death for the crime of treason against the state because of his public profession of faith in God in Jesus Christ. And for everything that both Jesus and Paul had said to their followers and readers over the years, they knew that the last things they would say would be the most critical and, hopefully, the best remembered.
Our passage from Matthew comes right at the end of the Gospel. It is often called the Great Commission as it is recognized as the manifesto for the new movement which will come to be known as Christianity. Just as a side note, I find it interesting that when the eleven disciples gathered with Jesus, Matthew says that they all knelt in worship but that some were doubtful. Doubtful of what is not said but I am sure that they may have had their doubts about their ability to carry on the mission that Jesus had begun. Something else I want us to keenly note from the text is that Jesus does not say to the disciples that he will carry on the mission – it is to be up to them. Except for one time when Jesus sent them out on a training mission, the disciples have only had to follow Jesus; now they will be asked to take the lead. The mission will be in their hands.
But Jesus gives the disciples assurances that are designed to help allay their doubts and fears about the future. He reminds them that full authority in heaven and on earth has been committed to him. In other words, whatever he will give them as tasks; they need not worry about fulfilling them because there is no one in all creation who has authority outside of himself. The disciples are assured that they can go into the world with the confidence of knowing that Jesus stands with them and will ever support them. To that end, he reminds them that he will be with them to the end of time.
And his parting words to them are direct and concise: make disciples by baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Spirit and teaching them to observe everything that Jesus had commanded them. Above all else, Jesus sees these two tasks, which are key elements in the formation of disciples, as what will be required of those first disciples to continue the mission of reconciliation and the bringing of peace to the hearts and minds of humanity.
The act of baptism is an outward sign of an inward change in the heart and mind of those of us who choose to acknowledge our need of God’s grace and healing. The act of baptism signals a new beginning to our life – a life that we dedicate to God here and now and one that pray will never end as we pass from this reality to the new reality prepared by God for all who will trust and follow.
But then notice that the disciples are to teach the new converts the lessons Jesus had shared with them. They are to instruct the new converts in the vision for life that Jesus shared with them. In this way and this way alone will the disciples pass on to the next generation the message of God in Christ and ensure that generations to come will seek to live their lives according to the ways of the One who created life and will ultimately redeem all life. And in spite of everything else that we have made of church and of our life as communities of faith, it is these parting words of Jesus that are to be our central focus.
Paul also left some parting words for his readers at the church in Corinth. Paul had hoped to visit the people in Corinth a second time but it is unclear as to whether he ever got the opportunity. But Paul makes it clear that the intention behind his letter to them was to help them address issues in their community that were causing problems and divisions. He wrote the letter as a means of giving them instruction that would help them to recapture the truth of the message – the commandments and teachings about God and life that Paul had received from Jesus and the disciples.
Often we think that the church’s failure to follow the commands and teachings of Jesus and create that community of love and respect that Jesus sought to show us is a recent thing but it becomes clear from the letters of Paul that every generation from the beginning has struggled to not only learn the teachings of Jesus but also struggled to maintain a spirit within their community which reveals that the teachings are actually being lived in daily life.
Throughout his letters, Paul addressed many issues that plagued the community leading to divisions and jealousies amongst its members. And so in finishing his letter, he gives them the following exhortation:
Mend your ways; take our appeal to heart; agree with one another; live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Jesus’ words were about teaching which is critical to understanding; Paul’s words were about practice which is critical to building community. Jesus knew that people could not be expected to follow what they did not know but Paul knew that the community would not survive if it did not practice what it had learned.
The old adage, “do as I say, not as I do,” really had no place in Jesus’ teaching to the disciples and it was to have no place in the practice of that teaching and its fulfilment in the life being lived by those who had been baptized and had committed themselves to following the way of God in Jesus Christ.
And so both Jesus and Paul leave their followers and readers with parting words – words designed to guide them to an understanding of what God desires for their lives and words designed to encourage them to put that understanding into practice. For it is only as we study and learn the teachings of Jesus and make every effort to live them with each other and the world around us that we can truly say that we are the people of God and welcome others to come and experience the life we have with God.