Revisiting Muhammad Ali A Year Later

St. Matthew 28:16-20

Nearly a year ago to the day, the world witnessed the memorial service of Muhammad Ali streaming on the internet. It was another one of those interesting and lengthy services where clergy from many religions took part. Born as Cassius Clay he took on the new name Muhammad Ali to highlight the fact that he was a Muslim.

His memorial service, if you could watch the entire three hour affair, was interesting. There was a Muslim cleric and scholar, Zaid Shakir, who presided over the service. There was an assortment of clergy representing Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Latter-Day Saints, Buddhism, along with Jewish Rabbis, to name a few.

What was striking to many was the difference between the prayers and messages. When the Muslim cleric stood up, he did the traditional Muslim prayers. No funny busy; no attempt to water down what it was to be Muslim in order to be more appealing. He spoke of his god…he was teaching. One Imam explained the history and meaning of the prayer he was about to pray. But when the Christian representatives and the Jewish Rabbis stood up they spoke of political issues or racial issues, exclusively. Nothing was said about Jesus or salvation through his cross or a description of Yahweh’s love for creation. These sorts of displays are a litmus test on how American Christianity has languished with regards to faith and life.

St. Matthew reminds us of our Christian existence with beautiful words, ending his gospel with Jesus’ words which are known to us as The Great Commission. The words of Jesus are an exhortation to make disciples by baptizing and catechizing. It is done in the name of and in glorification of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus adds an important statement, “…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” We can conclude by Matthew’s use of these words to end his gospel that he is talking about all the teachings in his gospel.

One of the beauties of our Christian faith is that Matthew writes for us a memoir of the earthly life and ministry of Jesus which describes His redemptive work. Jesus comes to redeem life from death. He comes to take our sins and our darkness, placing us into his life of eternity. We have such a clear understanding of what we call the gospel that we often become content to reduce ourselves to the lowest level of what it means to be Christian.

Our tendency in America with all of our freedoms, options, and emphasis on fun is to become complacent in our faith. We gently set aside other things said by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, such as “You are the light of the world”(St. Matthew 5:14), and “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”(St. Matthew 9:13). We like mercy when we are thinking of our sins, but when it comes to the sins of others we are slow to be merciful. In the world, we have been shamed into being embarrassed about our faith.

The strength of the church lies within the content of that teaching which Jesus wants spread. It is a teaching of forgiveness which opens the way for fractured lives and souls to be made whole again. It is a teaching which brings people into the confines of Jesus’ presence. Heaven is opened. Even when this world is failing us, hope is renewed with the eternal promise of heaven. The temptation which follows from this teaching is for us to become complacent.

We are slow to serve. We are weak in tithing. We want the church to pander to our interests. We want to dictate to the Holy Spirit. We have the message of the cross which is life to the church, but we are slow and testy when it comes to the life of the church. It is our slothfulness and wariness to the church’s life which we need to repent of. The gospel of Jesus Christ is given to give new life to the recipients.

It is the Holy Spirit which is present in and among us through baptism and through the scriptures. Without the Holy Trinity among us in the Word and Sacraments, we lose our distinction and we become like the world. St. Paul writes to the Ephesians: “…speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love”(Ephesians 4:15). Paul is giving you insight into the Great Commission.

The teachings of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel are beautiful and sublime. The gospel of Jesus among us is life-giving and life-changing. Paul writes to the Romans: “…God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us”(Romans 5:5). You have been given an eternal inheritance in heaven. As a deposit and guarantee of this inheritance, you have been given the Holy Spirit. The Father and the Son abide with you. You no longer belong to the world. Jesus defines you.

The characteristics of heaven—the fruit of the Spirit—are given as Paul describes them to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22). The Great Commission is a rich text but difficult for us to hear because it often functions as the law, like a sharp piercing that reminds us that we haven’t been very good at making disciples. It often reminds us of our complacency.

But, if we take to heart the fruit that the apostles’ teaching has borne in our lives through our baptisms and our own learning of the scriptures (through the Great Commission), then our hearts are turned to give thanks for the faithfulness of the Holy Trinity in bringing us into this faith. Further, Matthew’s gospel closes with these words: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Jesus is present with his church scattered throughout the world. He does not leave us as orphans in the world. Heaven’s distinctiveness and Jesus’ unique forgiveness and love establishes the beautiful lives we have been given through the cross. Jesus is with you. Jesus loves you. The apostolic task goes forth through the apostles teaching and the Holy Spirit is present within that kerygma. So, when the gospel rings among us, when the teachings of Jesus swim into our lives, we are the glad recipients of what it means to be distinct in this world.

Wherever we are, the gospel and the apostolic teaching defines us and the sweet redemption of Jesus enters the lives of others particularly through the saving proclamation that Jesus was crucified, dead and buried…risen on the third day and ascended into heaven for you. It is this catholic faith which defines the church and produces the church which Jesus says is the light of the world. Amen.

Rev. Chad D. Kendall
The Feast of the Holy Trinity, 2017

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