Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ,
If you were to imagine a holy place, what would you see? What does sacred space look like to you?
I remember being in Italy, people filling a plaza buzzing with conversations of all subjects and the sharp click of stilettos on cobblestone. Then I’d walk into an old church, and I had passed through a portal into holy space. A reverent hush fell over tourists and worshippers alike. It was as if the very walls were steeped in prayer, after overhearing them for so many years. Even if it had been a long time since you had talked to God in prayer, it seemed a natural thing to do in such a holy place.
I think also of early mornings on the river, when the power of the current and the interaction between the warm water and cool morning air create a mist of swirling shapes. It was as if dreams could walk among the awake and visions of holy messengers were possible. The illusion of power over your own life was swept away as you became aware of the power greater than yourself.
There’s something in us that knows the power of sacred space. Otherwise normal places become set apart because of what happens there. Sometimes a space is special only to a few people, like the location of your first date or your first kiss, or where you answered that call and found out you got the job. Because of its sacredness, the space lends some sense of possibility to what might otherwise be difficult to believe. You might go back there to remember that moment, to try to recapture the magic, and revive a failing romance or flagging confidence. One of my cousins walked his soon to be fiancee around Holy Hill for over an hour so that he could bring her in to a special place and ask to marry her.
Holy, sacred spaces might be obviously set aside, or there may be something about what happens there that has made it special to you. On the whole, these are places that make us more open to the divine. They are spaces that open us to possibilities and give us the courage to take a leap into a new way of living, being, or seeing ourselves.
For the Gospel of Matthew, a mountaintop is this type of space. Important things and teachings take place on a mountain throughout this Gospel. The mountain is the place where the distance between God and people has been lessened.
Today we hear that the disciples go to a certain mountain as Jesus had instructed them. There they meet the resurrected Jesus and receive his final words to them. Jesus has a call and a promise to give them. The call is to disciple others and continue Jesus’ work. The promise is that Jesus will be with them.
Jesus calls the disciples to become disciple-makers, saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:19-20a). Jesus is preparing to leave his disciples to do the work he has prepared them to do. They’ve followed him throughout his ministry, and he’s been able to teach and correct them as they’ve tried to do what he is doing.
Discipleship is really an apprenticeship model. There are not many trades today that allow for this type of teaching, so often we go off to school and then are set up to compete with others to try to rise to the top, without stopping to learn by working alongside those who are more experienced. The disciple, like an apprentice, attaches herself to a teacher, doing everything just like the teacher. It might start with gaining some basic knowledge, but progresses into hands-on training. A good teacher allows the disciple to try out his knowledge, not leaving him to fend for himself, but correcting and encouraging, offering insight along the way. The goal is for the disciple to become just like the teacher, doing the same work, continuing in the teacher’s thought or philosophy.
The disciples to whom Jesus speaks are getting ready to be the teachers to new groups of disciples. They are to initiate new disciples and bring them into the community through baptism. Then they are to share Jesus’ teachings and train up these new disciples to live in the way Jesus taught.
As Jesus sets before them this task for which they have been prepared, Jesus promises, “…remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20b). Jesus is about to ascend to be with the Father, but he will continue to remain with the disciples through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will be the continuing presence of the teacher-master, who will guide and continue to develop the skills and work of the disciple-apprentice. Today we also read from Genesis, and hear how God existed before time and created time itself. So we hear Jesus’ promise to be with disciples until the end of the age as a promise given by the time-keeper, a promise that extends into a holy, God-filled future.
We inherit this call and promise as our birthright. We are baptized into this identity as disciples and called through the water and spirit to be discipling disciples, following those early disciples in following Jesus and inviting other to join us.
Each of you is called. You are called to invite and train others into the community and practice of faith. I know it can sound like a daunting task. You might ask, “who am I to be a discipler?” Protesting, “I’m nothing like Jesus, nothing like those disciples, nothing like the better religious people I know.”
Notice in the Matthew text that those who gathered on the mountain are described as both worshipping and doubting when they meet the risen Jesus. Even these elite eleven disciples are of mixed mind when Jesus hands them the baton of ministry. They’re not 100% sure they can do this, but history shows that they pushed on anyway. And God was indeed faithful to them. They were able to disciple many others, just as Jesus had called them. The church truly grew to include disciples of all nations, and Jesus’ presence has continued among us through these generations.
A phrase one of my colleagues gave me to describe this mix of worshipping and doubting as it hits us today is, “fake it until you make it.” You might not always feel the most sure in your faith, the most persistent in your prayer, or the most holy in your works. But you are called to keep worshipping, keep praying, and keep doing as Jesus has done. You are called to disciple others, even as you continually need direction and support from the master.
This space is sacred space. The possibility brought closer to you is that Jesus’ call and promise are meant to fall on your ears and your heart. As a church, we can help amplify this call and promise to each other. We need to learn to recognize each other’s gifts and encourage each other to use them. This means trying to hear the needs of our congregation and identify people among us who could best meet those needs. It means not being afraid to say to a pew neighbor, “I see these gifts in you, and I know our congregation and the world would be a better place if you would use your gifts in this way.” — maybe that would sound like,
“I love that you are always so animated when we talk and you make me feel comfortable enough to share my own story. I know we are about to start a new season of Sunday school and could use good people to share the story of God’s love with the young people. Would you be willing to prayerfully consider using your gift of storytelling as a Sunday School leader?”
We need to step away from asking just anyone to fill a certain slot of need, and move towards setting each other up to be successful by asking people to step into roles for which God has especially gifted them. I just started watching first episodes of the TV show “Parenthood.” Max’s parents are told that he has asperger’s, a form of autism. As they try to take in this diagnosis, the psychologist tells them that their job is to find his gifts, to enter his world, and help him bring to the world what he has been especially gifted to offer. This is the same role we are called to have for each other, helping each other recognize our called and giftedness, so that we can serve the world as Jesus’ disciples.
Stepping up to discipleship requires trust in the master, trust that you have been gifted in a way that will enable you to share how God is active in your life and welcome others into experiencing God’s presence. No matter where you find yourself on the continuums of worship and doubt, Jesus has promised to be with you. You’ll never be cut or kicked out of Jesus’ school of disciples. It was a hard call even for those first eleven disciples. Maybe only on that sacred space on the mountainside, with Jesus in front of them, would those half-worshipping, half-doubting disciples agreed to follow this call and returned off the mountain with purpose rather than fleeing back into normal life. It can be a difficult call for us, too.
I pray that you would experience this place as a sacred space that opens you to the possiblity of following Jesus’ call. In the word and sacrament that carry Jesus to you, may you be strengthened in your own faith and prepared for discipleship. Be blessed with Jesus promise: Jesus is with you always. Amen.
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