The Ending Is Just the Beginning
By Bishop Robert O’Neill
Have you ever noticed that none of the four gospels end neatly and conclusively?
The earliest texts of Mark’s gospel end with a haunting and challenging image. Having stared into the empty tomb and learning that Jesus had been raised, the disciples flee in alarm. As Mark puts it, with no embellishment, “they were afraid.”
At the conclusion of Luke’s gospel, the risen Jesus tells a similarly puzzled and frightened group of followers simply to wait right where they are. “Stay here in the city,” he says without any specificity or clarification, “until you have been clothed with power from on high.” No road map. Nothing more.
After describing a variety of resurrection encounters with Jesus and his disciples, the Gospel of John ends with Peter walking along the Sea of Tiberius engaged in intimate conversation with the risen Jesus. Ever curious, and perhaps even still angling for position, Peter is filled with questions to which he wants answers. Jesus responds only with a very open-ended, “Follow me.”
Matthew does indeed end his gospel with a climactic scene — the risen Jesus appearing in glory to the entire community of the faithful gathered on a mountaintop. There Jesus gives his followers what has come to be known as “the great commission.” “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he tells them. “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.” As definitive as it may sound, however, Jesus’ great commission still contains one deeply unsettling word, a clear and unresolved directive: “Go….”
Neither Matthew, Mark, Luke, nor John provides neat endings to their stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The disciples both worship Jesus and doubt what they are experiencing. They are filled with joy and they are afraid. They are given direction by Jesus but they remain wondering. It is all very open-ended, all very unresolved, not making for a tidy ending, and certainly not marking a particularly auspicious beginning to the next chapter in the life of Jesus’ followers.
That, I think, is just the point.
Even for those who are closest to Jesus, there is still more to learn, still more to discover, still more to be and to do in the name of love, still another chapter, another book, yes even another gospel, to be written in and through their lives in their day in their time.
While theologians can write volumes on the subject, this is what it means to “be missional” and to “live missionally.”
From Jesus’ first invitation to “Come” to his “Go” of the great commission, the disciples are those who allow themselves to be drawn into a stunningly dynamic and transformational relationship with the divine life of Jesus who opens their eyes to the divine life in themselves and in every human being. They find all their treasured assumptions challenged, their hearts cracked open, their minds blown, their consciousness transformed, their lives turned inside out and upside down, and themselves sent out into the world by a relentlessly untamable Holy Spirit for one purpose and one purpose alone: to love.
That’s it: to love — to love divinely, courageously, and unconditionally — and in so loving, to be changed themselves and to bring healing, reconciliation, renewal, and lasting peace to life in this world.
As we gather in October for our Annual Convention of The Episcopal Church in Colorado, I am mindful of the importance of being re-minded, all of us, of the missional identity and life that is ours. The primary work of the Church is not about managing an organization, joining an institution, or marketing a product. Instead, we who desire to follow Jesus are, first and foremost, those who are invited, even challenged, by the graceful nudgings of the Holy Spirit to immerse our lives in the divine life of the risen Jesus — each of us in our day, each of us in our time, all of us in our communities and in our world being willing to move and to go in whatever way the Spirit leads.
It really is as Augustine of Hippo put it when teaching about the sacrament of the Eucharist, “The Body and Blood of Christ. Behold who you are. Become what you receive.”
This “missional life” — this being and becoming the Body of Christ — is no abstract exercise either. There is an importance and urgency to our one common life and ministry. Our current political season — so polarized, so fear based, and so marked by such brittle and superficial public discourse; all of it taking place in the context of a world in real need for healing and reconciliation — is but one visible reminder of our collective need for the deep and abiding transformation of human hearts and minds for which our world is crying out.
To say that there is still work to do in the name of the “pure unbounded love” that is Jesus is an understatement.
Like the disciples at the end of the gospels — even in their fear, joy, wonderment, belief, doubt, and disagreement — we all simply have more to learn, more to discover, more to be and to do in the name of love. There is still, for all of us, another chapter, another book, yes, even another gospel of hope, to be written in and through our lives in our day in our time.
What new beginning will you choose to make to be and to become an instrument of God’s peace?