Last Lines That Linger
Texts: Matthew 28:16-20; II Corinthians 13:11-14
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of time.” So, begins Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities. “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary.” So, begins Poe’s The Raven. “These are the times that try men’s souls” opens a series of essays by Thomas Paine.
Shakespeare’s opening lines are among the most memorable. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is the opening verse of Sonnet 18. “If music be the food of love, play on,” opens Twelfth Night. “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York,” opens Richard III. And, who can forget the opening voices of the witches brewing trouble in Macbeth as they ask, “When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
These are just a smattering of famous opening lines etched into our memories. But what about closing lines, last lines? Do any of them linger? How many remember the last lines of A Tale of Two Cities or The Raven or Twelfth Night? Not many. The conclusion seems inevitable: last lines are simply not all that important, certainly not as memorable as opening lines.
Well, the Apostle Paul and the author of Matthew’s Gospel would disagree. Both authors were masters of closing lines, lines that linger in the imagination long after the book, in this case, the Bible, was closed.
The final scene in Matthew’s Gospel happens atop a high mountain. The crucified and risen Jesus has returned to visit his disciples. To this collection of flawed and sometimes failing disciples, Jesus announces that God has given him and through him, given them all authority to be the church. He sends them out as agents of God’s promise and change. Then curtain falls. The screen credits play. The book ends.
Sadly, that is how some people hear the last line of Matthew’s Gospel. Wouldn’t it be tragic if this Gospel of grace ended on the note of law? “Go out and do this, disciples!” “Get a move on, disciples; there is no time to waste!” “The future of the church depends on what you say and what you do, disciples, so get it right!”
In our feeble hands and bumbling theology, the Great Commission becomes the Great Burden. What pastor, what elder, what deacon, what church member has not asked this question: “Am I doing enough?!” Since my childhood, I have been taught that to be the church, we must be busy, busy saving the world, the planet, the cosmos, busy raising enough money to show the world that we are a successful church, busy going on mission trips to help those less fortunate than we, busy signing up more members so we can show other churches that we are something special. “Lord God, are we doing enough?!”
God forgive me when I have forgotten to read the last line of Matthew’s Gospel, when I have promoted such pious nonsense. For when you and I buy into the Gospel of doing more and more and more lest the church collapse beneath us, we forget a closing line in Scripture at our own peril, when in Matthew’s Gospel the Risen Jesus tells the crowd gathered around, “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” That is a last line that lingers, must linger.
We are the church not because of our strategic plans, our holy busyness, our mission trips, our bulging budget or expanding membership roll. We are the church because the Risen Jesus and the living Spirit of God make it possible for us to be the church and to be the kind of church that actually matters in this world.
Tom Boyd tells the story of a professor who lost his wife to an early death soon after his retirement. In a not-too-fine moment in his young career, the pastor told the professor, “The church is not a lonely hearts’ club.” The professor, who otherwise would have been much less confrontational, responded, “No, pastor, that’s all the church is, a lonely hearts’ club. I come here because I am lonely for God and I need to know that God has not abandoned me.”
“Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Without that last line, the Great Commission, borne in grace, becomes the Great Burden, borne in guilt. The only sustaining way that you and I can risk being the church of Jesus Christ today is to know that we are not on this journey alone, because, otherwise, the journey is just too hard.
The slain priest, Archbishop Oscar Romero compared the church to a river that “will meet a thousand obstacles, just as the river encounters boulders, rocks, chasms. But just as the river flows on and prevails, so will the church, because Christ is with us.”
Along with Matthew, the Apostle Paul was a master of last lines that linger. Be honest now. Have you ever been watching your watch at noon or had your mind wander to that delicious afternoon meal ahead or to that long winter’s nap awaiting, when the pastor raised her hands and said, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all”?
That last line was not simply a lovely way for Paul to end a lovely letter. Second Corinthians, like First Corinthians, is anything but a lovely letter. And, if ever a church needed to hear that last line, it was First Church Corinth. Just prior to these words, Paul sums up his advice to this cantankerous crowd of Christians with a series of imperatives, a series of “go do!” Sounding more like the Great Burden than the Great Commission, Paul insists: “Mend your ways!” “Listen to my appeals!” “Agree with one another,” and “Live in peace.” Then he raises his hands to utter these last lines: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
I am often amazed at the image people have of the church. To those on the outside, often, the church is a bunch of hopeless hypocrites or naïve fools who will believe anything or stuffed shirts who do not know how to have a good time.
To the those on the inside the church is not nearly so easy to describe. Some come to church to mend wounds. Some come to find meaning for a life that is out of control. Some come because the church feels like the closest thing to a place called home. Some come to church like the retired professor, to know that they are not alone. And, some come to church because they need to be in a community where Micah’s words are never drowned out by other words: “Do justice, love mercy, walk in humility with God.”
Not only do people come to church for a wide variety of reasons, a wide variety of people sit in church pews. Some are well-traveled and some have never traveled outside the state. Some are of vast financial means and some struggle to sublet an apartment by the month over a garage. Some are educated at the finest universities and some are taught in the graduate school of hard living. “It takes all sorts to make a . . . church,” writes C.S. Lewis, “’One fold’ doesn’t mean ‘one pool’. Cultivated roses and daffodils are no more alike than wild roses and daffodils.”
How could Paul have ever expected such an unlikely alliance of people in Corinth, with a vast variety of wants and needs to ever mend differences, to ever rise above differences to be the church? How can such odd assortments of human beings in every church since Corinth, including Cove, ever come together to do the work of the church? How can churches of every size and shape and composition look beyond what they need in order to be the church that the world so desperately needs?
Those questions are answered best by the last two lines than have lingered from the birth of the church to this moment: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age” and “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
If you do not remember the opening lines of Matthew’s Gospel or Paul’s letter to Corinth, for God’s sake, for the world’s sake, for your sake, remember these closing lines, reminding us that we are the church not because of anything we do but because of what the Risen Jesus does in us.
Because of God’s comforting and agitating Spirit, we can speak out for just mercy when others would have us hold our tongue, we can stand right beside those denied just mercy when it would be safer to sit at home, and we can vote for those committed to just mercy when it would be easy to conclude that our vote doesn’t matter.
Every Sunday, this is the last line that I speak: “Go into this world that God so loves and be makers of peace.” I believe those words, but after this past week, sitting in my undeniable position of white privilege and watching a nation afire with racial rage, that last line I speak is simply not enough. Maybe the last line I need to speak is: “Go into this world that God so loves and be makers of peace who demand just mercy for all sisters and brothers, who work for just mercy for all sisters and brothers, who are not duped that just mercy can never happen for all sisters and brothers.”
The only way I can speak those words with one ounce of integrity, with one bit of conviction is because I am counting on you to live into those words with me and because I trust in this last line from Jesus: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age” and I hold dear to this last line from Paul: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
Of all the words we read, of all the words we hear in church and out, may those be the last lines that linger.