I Will Be With You Always
Matthew 28:16–20 (NRSV)
“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In 1928, in the greater Queen Anne neighborhood where our church sits, a development consisting of hundreds of lots and homes was being created. Like many similar ones across the city, this development was hoping to draw in workers, young families, and many other people to help create a new and vibrant neighborhood in a growing city.
However, there was one catch. If you look at the neighborhood covenant that governed all of the properties in this new development, there was a list of restrictions. Restriction number four reads as follows: “No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage, or extraction shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property, or any building thereon.”
In other words, non-white people need not apply. And this was entirely legal. The neighborhood in which our church sits was legally allowed to exclude non-white people less than 100 years ago. This practice occurred in millions of neighborhoods across America. Even though this practice was outlawed by the Supreme Court in the 1940s, the ripples of this specific form of systemic racism were very real and are one reason for the segregation seen in cities like Seattle today.
I discovered this little bit of history while I was on a break from studying our Matthew text for today. This short section of the ending of the Gospel of Matthew has always brought me hope. After everything that has happened in the life of Jesus, he leaves us with a promise to be with us always. He called us to an extraordinary path of love and sacrifice, a task we are not sure we are up for, but he will be with us!
However, in light of what I had found out about our neighborhood, I was continually drawn to the word “with.” What does it mean that Jesus is with us? It is easy, especially when reading such a small text, to forget that we are not just reading five verses, but a small part of a larger story. A story that is contained in multiple books and even across multiple chapters in the book we are studying today. We must always read any text in the bible in light of the larger narrative.
If we hear only Jesus’ words here — “I am with you always” — it can become easy to hear Jesus saying “I am always on your side.” To hear the assurance of God’s presence as an endorsement of our beliefs and actions. While I believe that in the person of Jesus God showed us that God loves the whole world, the narrative of the bible shows us the danger of believing that God is always on our side.
We just finished reading through Lamentations, a book of grief written by people who assumed God was on their side, only to find out that they were not acting as though they were on God’s side. We are prone to this same assumption today. We want Jesus to be on our side, without doing the hard work of making sure we are on his side and are taking seriously his teachings and his call to live out the good news.
As Matt Skinner says in his amazing reflection on this text: “Instead of reading “with” as an endorsement of our self-serving ideologies or an assurance of personal comfort, let us take it as a simple claim that Christ is always present around us, calling to me from among “the other.” In that call I experience judgment but also invitation. Christ beckons us out of our own fortified assurances. You have heard his voice again, probably more loudly than usual, during the past one or two weeks. Christ continues to cry out in agony, cast out to die in abandonment. That cry, that presence of a suffering God, must pull and not repel us. Christ continues to show up among the outsider and the oppressed. Christ continues to surrender his own advantages and privileges, urging us to join him. Will we be with him?”
Less than 100 years ago, Jesus was denied residency in the very neighborhood in which our church dwells. And even though these laws no longer exist, systemic racism still oppresses and harms black people in our city today. To claim that Jesus is with us today is to see God’s unique presence amongst those who are experiencing oppression. To be formed into disciples who take seriously the call to follow Jesus out of our places of comfort and security and go to the ends of the earth in order to stand in solidarity and love with neighbors who are hurting.
This is a daunting call, especially in the midst of a pandemic. But the church is in a unique place to be the source of life and love and liberation during this time. Jesus is calling us to be with him. Will we listen?
Jesus said he would be with us always. Let us also be with Him.