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The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston

The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston was the president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA, 1999-2008.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA


Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Matthew 28:16-20

Trinity Sunday

May 21, 2005

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…." There are probably fewer words in the Scriptures that have had a more profound effect on our common history as the men and women of the Christian faith in that simple phrase: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations."

Those few words set in motion the entire missionary movement of Christianity through the centuries. It was on that basis, that understanding, that we had been commanded by Christ to go into the world and share our witness with other men and women of different cultures, different traditions and faiths, and in doing so, win them over, convert them to the Christian faith. This created the historic missionary movement that has touched every continent and every culture on earth.

As a disciple of Christ, as a Christian, I am an heir to that tradition, just as you are. And if I look over my shoulder historically at all that the missionary movement of Christianity has meant, I have a very mixed reaction. There are moments when I can see truly noble and wonderful acts of selfless dedication to the Gospel, which missionaries had lived out in their lives throughout history, doing wonderful things in the name of Christ, winning souls for the Lord. But I also have to be honest in saying that when I look over my shoulder, I see a littered memory of hurt, of pain, of loss and suffering, all in the name of Jesus, all because we are a missionary church.

Now why would I say that? I say it because I'm not only a disciple of Christ Jesus; I'm also a Native American. I have within my memory a different story, the story of a people who found the Christian faith brought to them, not just as good news but also as a source of enormous suffering and dislocation. The Gospel of Christ was not just a question of being given something hopeful and wonderful and bright, but something that at its very core seemed to subvert and destroy the cultures that had been their genius and their pride for centuries.

As a Native American Christian, I cannot escape the legacy of the missionary movement in North America, nor would I say can any other indigenous person from Africa or Latin America or Asia escape the fact, the truth, that the missionary expansion of Christianity was often not just a question of the message but of the medium. That old idea that somehow the medium is the message, the message is the medium, is something we need as Christians to take very seriously.

Let me explain what I mean. Stop and think. The message was good news. The message was hope and light and love. But the medium that brought that message around the world through the missionary activity of our churches was often the medium of colonization. Christianity was a part, not just of trying to convert people into a different faith, but of an effort to convert them into a different culture, the western European culture, a culture that told them not just how to pray and how to worship but also how to dress, how to act, and how to think.

The memory that I have within my own historical tradition is one that is fraught with all of the terrible stories of what missionary activity has done to my people, meaning that at the end of the day, after the great colonization and expansion in North America, those who were left to be baptized in the name of Jesus were simply the survivors of a terrible act of extermination and oppression.

So what does that mean to us today as Christians? How do I deal with that as a Native Christian? Do I join those who say, "Well, because there was this terrible history, this tragic legacy from missionary activity in the Christian faith, we need to just stop doing that? We need to realize that we are oppressors and imperialists if we try to share the Gospel with other people. Therefore, we should respect all other cultures and religious traditions to such a degree that we do not impose any of our message on them."

That's a very popular idea these days, you know; there are those who would back away from any hint of a missionary activity because they are embarrassed and ashamed of what it has done in the past.

And, of course, on the other side, there are many Christians for whom that would be anathema, who actually move forward in an aggressive way to bring what they think is good news to the world-even if it means bringing it to other Christian communities. Have you noticed what's happening in the former Communist-bloc countries in eastern Europe, for example? Or even in the former Soviet Union and Russia, where Christian denominations are entering communities that have been Christian for 2,000 years but are now competing with one another, fighting with one another, all in the name of missionary truth.

The question on this Trinity Sunday, when we stand at the moment of understanding the great mystery of our faith in the triune God, I think we have to once again confront the question of our attitude about whether or not we believe Christianity should continue to be a missionary church. Do we have to go to one extreme or the other? Do we have to deny any missionary activity on our part, or do we have to just simply bow our necks and go forward, forgetting, forgetting, all that has happened before?

Now, my message today is very simple: No, we don't have to be extremists when it comes to being missionaries. All we have to do is remember those words that set all of that in motion. And remember all of those words -- not just "Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations" -- but what comes immediately before it in that 18th verse, where Jesus says, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."

Before Jesus sent us out, he reminded us of that, that singular, critical fact-"All authority has been given to me," he said. Not to you. The great mistake of our missionary activity is forgetting that the authority lies with Jesus and that our role in being proclaimers of his good news is exactly what he said to us about baptizing others into his name.

This simply means welcoming them to make the same discovery that you and I have made in our faith journey, the discovery of the God of light and of goodness, of mercy and of compassion, of justice and of reconciliation -- and not imposing our own cultural values or our own cultural traditions in the process. It is allowing others to make that discovery freely and joyfully. Authority has been given to Christ.

The mission to go forth and share good news has been given to us. And as long as we never confuse the two, being a missionary church will mean being a church of grace and of peace and of hope. Let us pray together that it shall always be so.

O God of all history, as we look back and see what we have done in our zeal and in our desire to share your witness with others, we regret wholeheartedly the many times that we have failed to carry out your Gospel of love by imposing our will on others, by assuming the authority that is truly yours alone. But we ask you so to inspire us with your Holy Spirit that we never lose the desire to share faithfully and fully the witness all you have meant to us as you have changed our lives through your love and your compassion. Let us be the ambassadors of your good news in all that we do, in every way that we live our lives to the glory of your name and to the comfort of your people. For it is in that name, the name of authority Jesus of Nazareth, that we pray. Amen.


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