Matthew 28:16-20 // Today is the Sunday closest to Ascension Day and also National Reconciliation Sunday. An interesting juxtaposition maybe, but one I would suggest, poses some interesting questions for us individually, as a church and as a society.
Colonisation of Australia, as it did through out the world, brought with it the evangelical fervour to convert those who lived in the colonised countries to the state religion. In the case of Australia this was, initially at least, Christianity as promoted by the Church of England. And this was essentially predicated on the verses we read in today’s Gospel.
The impact of such fervour continues to reverberate down through the ages in the experience of indigenous people. In conversation indigenous people often ask me why they should trust the church? Desmond Tutu writes, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” This was the experience indigenous peoples on all continents shared.
Matthew’s Gospel is a powerful passage, a passage that brings power, and promises power through the giving of the Holy Spirit. Like all power, it is a double-edged sword. It all depends on how it is used. Way too often it has been used to damage people, places and creatures in the urge for control. Having everyone believe what you do ensures that you bring him or her in under your control. Belief systems are powerful moderators of peoples behaviour and the inappropriate or literal interpretation of these words from Matthew’s Gospel have been responsible for the justification of poor behaviour by the church.
Not only by the church, but by those whose sensibilities have been influenced and informed by the church. Present policies of paternalistic politics in this country continue the conversion of indigenous people, not to a specific faith, but to a specific religion – that of secular capitalism and consumerism. Much of the policies governments and others follow are designed to assimilate indigenous people into the world of individual work, consumption and home ownership. Policies such as the Northern Territory Intervention, the subsequent Closing the Gap policy and individual items such as the indue debit card quarantining income and limiting individual responsibility and the drive to include indigenous people in the constitution have continued the idea of conversion. This time the conversion is to consumerism and making disciples for the corporations to continue to rack up profits.
Now these are harsh words for a passage of scripture empowering the disciples to go into the world and engage with those whose worldview is different to theirs. They are harsh words as we consider the significance of the Ascension of Jesus as the releasing of the power of the Holy Spirit into the world. And we must remember that the damage done by literal and colonial interpretations of these words have nothing to do with the Holy Spirit.
These words challenge us to receive the Holy Spirit and to listen to her activity in the world. It is about walking abroad in the world and listening to creation in all its various forms and responding out of compassion and respect to bring about wholeness in our lives, the lives of others and in creation.
The baptism we read about is not a branding as in the branding of cattle, of ownership and control, but a baptism into the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the wholeness of the Godhead. It is a baptism of unity with all that exists for all that exists finds it beginning and end in the Source of all being – God. This baptism we are asked to conduct is the shared inclusion in the forward whole-ing of all that is, was and ever will be.
Baptism is a partnership with the Spirit of the Christ set loose in the world, whole-d up in places, peoples and events we do not expect or cannot imagine as her dwelling place. In the lives and practices of indigenous people whose understanding of the spirit have been honed and experienced over many centuries before we in the western world encountered the incarnated Christ.
Too often we have demanded that people who have been baptised turn their backs on their own traditions and spiritual experiences without consideration of the impact of such an action. Other times we have attempted to appropriate ideas from ancient spiritualities and redefine them within our own faith traditions and understanding. Neither is appropriate and neither is the call of Mathew’s Jesus. He is calling for a deep and respectful dialogue which brings about people who are disciples committed to the core tenets of his teachings – unconditional love and respect for all that is, was, and ever will be – the love which respects others and joins in the process of whole-ing for all.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
This passage is one of the most difficult statements Jesus is given to say. It is all open to interpretation and is often reduced to a legal and theoretical framework designed to ensure people remain faithful to a particular world view depending upon which tradition of faith you belong. It is why we struggle with equality of gender and marriage, of poverty and riches, of race and culture, of faith and religion. Our interpretations of Jesus teachings defines what we believe this should all look like and results in a simple tick sheet of who is in and who is out.
Yet this is one of the most inclusive statements in the Gospels. Go into the world, listen to the Spirit and join with others in the journey into wholeness for all through mutual love and respect. This is the sense of the aboriginal concept of deep listening to country which Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr calls dadirri (and other mobs have different names for) – the deep mutuality of dialogue with all that exists.
This passage challenges us to stop our incessant urge to convert people to our world view and begin the difficult but necessary task of listening deeply to others, people, places and creatures, so that all as the off spring of the Godhead can live in harmonious wholeness.
How do we do that here, in this place? Is it our expectation that all who enter into this place must share our own particular view of faith, liturgy, music and worship? Is it our view that all who enter here must fit the model that we have been comfortable with? Are we indeed listening to hear what the spirit is saying to the church or have already decided what is being said and we do not need to listen anymore? Do we actually go out into the world surrounding our beloved church and actually engage with those who are in such a way that we begin the journey wholeness with them or are we just happy to meet here once a week for our own personal benefit?
I suspect there was some of this in Jesus’s statement to the disciples. I also suggest that the coming of the spirit is not just for our sake, but for the whole world. You know, God so loved the world, and all that stuff. Amen
Image credit: A Portrait of Australia – With Important Bits Missing – Glenn Loughrey, 2017