In Pixar’s 1995 movie Toy Story, When a boy named Andy receives a Buzz Lightyear action figure as a birthday present, Andy’s other toys have mixed feelings, especially Woody, a floppy toy cowboy, who finds himself displaced from his position as Andy’s favorite by the newcomer. But Woody soon realizes that Buzz does not know he is a toy. Buzz truly believes himself to be a space explorer, sent by star command to discover new planets. Trying to poke holes in Buzz’s delusions of grandeur, when Buzz shows off his spacesuit’s wings, Woody says, “Those are plastic. He can’t fly.”
Buzz responds, “They are a trillium-carbonic alloy, and I can fly.”
“No, you can’t.”
“Yes, I can.”
“Can’t, can’t, ca-an’t!”
“I tell you, I could fly around this room with my eyes closed!”
“Okay, Mr. Lightbeer,” taunts Woody, who now thinks Buzz is a little crazy, “prove it.”
“All right then, I will.”[i]
Spreading his arms, eyes closed, Buzz launches himself from Andy’s bed, intrepidly declaring, “To Infinity and Beyond!” As the other toys watch, Buzz nosedives into a beach ball, which bounces him up to the ceiling, serendipitously hooking him up to a plane on a mobile, which spins him around at ever-increasing speed until he is finally propelled through the air back toward the bed, on which he lands feet first, right next to Woody. Buzz opens his eyes and says, triumphantly, “Can!”
“To Infinity and Beyond!” is Buzz Lightyear’s mission statement. When we first meet him, he believes himself fully able to carry it out. I wonder if the disciples, receiving their mission from the risen Jesus at the conclusion of our reading from Matthew’s gospel, feel the same.
This scene has become known in Christian tradition as “The Great Commission.” Doesn’t that title have a majestic sound to it? Doesn’t it seem like Jesus should be standing there, looking like the “Pantocrator, ”[ii] the all-powerful ruler of cathedral iconography, haloed in golden glory, hand extended in blessing, saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” his voice booming out and echoing across the vastness of eternity, a vast multitude receiving his words in solemn splendor?
But stepping back from the grandeur of tradition, the text gives us a different picture. There is no multitude waiting on Jesus, gravely accepting a commission of greatness. There is only a rag-tag band of disciples. As Thomas G. Long points out, “The scene is one of near-comic irony… Jesus is on an unnamed mountain in the backwater Galilee with a congregation of eleven, down from twelve the week before, and even some of them are doubtful and not so sure why they have come to worship this day.”[iii] They are a fragmented group of people, with mixed motives and uncertain convictions. Any delusions of grandeur they might have previously have been pulled out from under them when their leader was arrested and executed. Few of them have forgotten their own shame in abandoning Jesus to death on the cross.
Nevertheless, it is to these people that the Risen Christ appears. It is to these people that he gives the Great Commission: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” Keep in mind that the word “nations” in the Bible doesn’t mean “nation-states” as we might imagine, but rather “foreigners,” or more pointedly, “Gentiles.”[iv] The disciples were Jews who knew the scriptures, how God has promised Abraham that one day even the alien Gentiles would come to worship Israel’s God. But as Tom Long notes, “like a lot of things in the Bible, this was a truth easier to swallow when it was a nice thought in the prayer book, rather than something you were expected to strap on your boots and get done.”[v]
The gospel of Matthew ends before we get to hear the disciples’ exact response. I imagine some were inspired and caught up in the moment, ready to take action. But that inspiration was surely mixed up with their misgivings. The Great Commission must have sounded “great,”as in bigger than anything they’d imagined and well-nigh impossible to carry out. Jesus may as well have told them, “You must go to infinity and beyond!”
And how do we react to the Great Commission we’ve been given? The challenges we face in making disciples are quite different than the first disciples experienced. For one thing, we have the blessing and curse of 2000 years of Western Christianity to contend with. We must be aware of the ways these words have been used and abused. The Great Commission has been the missionary slogan of the past century, fueling North American and European efforts at converting, and not so incidentally, colonizing the two-thirds world in the ways of “Christian” civilization, sometimes by violent means. Closer to home, these words have also fueled efforts of well-meaning Christians in evangelizing unbelievers. Many of us know folks alienated from the church by overly coercive attempts at conversion. It’s not surprising that we lack confidence in our ability to make disciples with integrity.
Now, forgive me for returning again to Toy Story, especially if you’ve never seen the movie, though in that case I highly recommend you check it out. But I just couldn’t stop thinking about Buzz Lightyear. In the scene I recounted, he certainly proves he has courage, but, as Woody observes, it wasn’t so much flying as it was “falling with style.” Buzz simply gave himself with a blind sort of faith, into the arms of serendipitous grace. And the blindness of overconfidence becomes a liability. Later on in the story, Buzz loses his sense of mission and descends into a depression when he comes to a full awareness of the limitations of his true identity. He almost resigns himself to being destroyed when he encounters real danger.
And I think that we, the church, have sometimes found ourselves in a similar funk. Some scholars are calling the era we live in “The Great Unraveling”—Gotta love all these “Greats!”—for the way all our commonly-held stories and ideas about authority have been coming apart in a storm of technological, economic, and cultural changes. Many “mainline” churches, so-called because they were usually founded on the main streets of America, used to experience themselves as established powers in society.
But in these times, we often feel sidelined. We thought we knew how to make disciples, and we work harder and harder at things which used to work to draw people into our congregations. Still, our denomination faces “decline”. Just like Buzz Lightyear, we had thought of ourselves as having superior action capabilities. Maybe we thought that we have attained “trillium-carbonic alloy” worship services and quick-action teaching, or maybe we assumed our beautiful buildings and decent and orderly governance were enough to make us an attractive congregation.
But maybe we had actually lost sight of our true limitations and our true mission. For while the continued pursuit of excellence is certainly important, the church has sometimes forgotten that we are not really called to “fly” so much as we are invited to fall with style into the forgiving embrace of God in Jesus Christ, and glide on the uplifting wind of the Spirit. We have forgotten to rely completely on the purpose, presence and power of God.
Now, bear with me as I put a few more “greats” out there, but I like how preacher John Jewell observes that Jesus doesn’t just give a “Great Commission,” without also giving us a “Great Claim” and a “Great Comfort.” [vi] The Great Claim, is that Jesus, the one who gave himself up to death on a cross and was raised three days later, has, in fact, been given all authority on heaven and on earth. This is the One who commissions us to carry out his commands. Our native abilities will inevitably fail us, but the power he gives will never fail.
We know this because of the Great Comfort: this One who contains all the power of the universe in human form, this Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, tells us, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” John Jewell notes that “The English here is anemic compared to the Greek text. The force is more like ‘And GET THIS…I am with you day in and day out until My purpose is fulfilled and earthly history comes to an end.” Jesus is telling us: I will go with you to infinity and beyond.
At the end of Toy Story, Woody helps Buzz come to a clearer picture, that his mission is to be a toy, not a solo space ranger, a toy who is a gift of joy to a growing child. Holding to that purpose, with a clearer sense of his true gifts, his true limitations, Buzz finds new courage, giving and receiving grace amidst the community of fellow toys. At the conclusion of Toy Story, we find Buzz Lightyear rescuing Woody, using his wings to glide to a safe landing back with the other toys. “Buzz, you’re flying!” Woody says, astonished, but Buzz replies, “That isn’t flying—it’s falling with style.”
My friends, when we put our sole confidence in the Great Claim and the Great Comfort of God in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit, we are able to pursue the Great Commission. And in that context, is truly great. It is the invitation to embark on the “greatest possible adventure life can offer.”[vii]
But let’s be clear: our mission is not to “make converts” or “save people for Jesus” ideas which I think put a little too much confidence in human abilities. Jesus is the one who transforms others’ lives. Our mission as Christ’s disciples is simply to “make disciples,” to invite others to come and meet this One who has transformed us, to invite others to join the life-long pilgrimage of learning we ourselves are taking. Each of us in the church are but students ourselves, learning by trial and error, by bold action, confession, and repentance, to walk in Jesus’ ways. In our time, most of us won’t have to travel too far to meet someone we’re called to invite on this journey!
Yet in other ways, the challenges are indeed great, for as we grow in our discipleship of Jesus Christ, as we ourselves learn to obey Jesus and teach what we have learned, we will find ourselves exploring the deepest, most hidden terrain of the human heart—our own, and others’—surmounting all the barriers of irreconcilable differences, forgiving and receiving forgiveness, giving of ourselves more and more fully in Christ’s love, traveling to the infinite depths and heights of resurrection life.
“To infinity and beyond!” Let us fall with style and follow with confidence in the Love of God the Father, the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[iii] Thomas G. Long, “Homiletical Perspective” on Matt.28:16-20 in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 47.
[iv] Thomas G. Long, 47.
[v] Thomas G. Long, 47.