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.”
These are the very LAST words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. This is Jesus’ farewell charge and benediction to his disciples, his closest friends.
Jesus’ final words-commonly called the Great Commission– have sparked serious fire in believers’ hearts throughout the ages. Innumerable sermons have been preached using them. Countless proclamations have been made to inspire Christians to go out into the world to bring others to Jesus. Gazillions of revivalists have used them to exhort zealous believers to convert souls. Whole missionary movements have been built upon these five verses.
Just last week, I found my journal from my senior year in college. I read my entry recounting my return from the Urbana Student Missions Conference. The para-church organization, Intervarsity, has been sponsoring the triennial conference for 60 years. The evangelical gathering brings 20,000 young adults together for five days at the University of Illinois-Champagne-Urbana. The stated purpose is “to transform the lives of students and young adults and to call them into active involvement in His (God’s) purposes in the world.” The conference speakers inspire kids to go out and do mission work.
I was startled at the strength of my conviction in my writing that at 21 years old I was being called to serve Christ as a missionary. I heard loud and clear their message that the gospel of Jesus needed to reach all hearers-all nations-before the Second Coming would happen. I was supposed to do my part by going. Well…, I did NOT go forth to all nations, because soon after that conference, I met Tim, and I heard a new call to a new direction. We married. We got as far as Ohio.
Last week John challenged us to learn to speak about our relationship with God in authentic ways. Telling someone else about our own faith deepens our relationship with God. And deepening our relationship with God fosters our ability to speak about God. Evangelism and discipleship go hand in hand.
A disciple is a student of a particular teacher or mentor. A disciple is formed by learning and practicing the ways of that teacher. Jesus sent his friends with his authority to teach what he had taught them: the law of Love. They were commissioned to both evangelism and discipleship. Church growth is not just about numbers.
In the previous chapter in Matthew, the women followers had seen Jesus alive in the garden after his resurrection; he instructed the women to tell the men that he would meet them in Galilee. The eleven disciples – remember, they were down by one without Judas – trekked north to meet Jesus on the mountain.
This was same mountain where Jesus was transfigured in front of the Peter, James and John; the same mountain where he taught eloquently to the crowds; the same mountain where he escaped to be alone to pray, especially when everyone was driving him crazy.
When the eleven saw Jesus, some prostrated themselves at his feet and worshiped, but some among them doubted. What an intriguing detail Matthew includes.
Weren’t these 11 disciples with Jesus for three years, his closest students and friends?! The ones to whom he entrusted his deepest struggles and thoughts about the kingdom of God?
Jesus ate and drank with these guys, he laughed and cried with them. They were there when Jesus healed lepers, children and Peter’s mother in law; they saw him heal a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. These guys were there when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead; they witnessed him outsmart the authorities; they were there when 5,000 were fed with one boy’s meager lunch on that hillside. They were there when Jesus was tortured and killed.
But some of them still doubted? What did they doubt? That Jesus was there in flesh and blood? Or that he really didn’t have all authority in heaven and on earth – but if so, why then did he die? Or did they doubt his charge to them-that their confused band of fearful disciples could actually go out to all nations and change the world? It turned out that it didn’t matter that some fell on their faces and worshiped and some remained standing. They were ALL commissioned to GO; perhaps that made them more than doubtful.
Imagine a small Presbyterian congregation in our city; say, one with under 50 members. The faithful few are working to keep their church doors open in the face of a changing neighborhood, a shrinking budget, and a building falling down around them. This is sadly not an uncommon story. Imagine though that this group of disciples believes that they have been given the commission to go out into the world with all the authority of Jesus and to make disciples in his name. It happened once with only 11 disciples; it could it happen again. To paraphrase Margaret Mead, God only knows what a powerful impact on the world a small group of passionate disciples can have.
Discipleship – the intentional spiritual formation of a follower of Jesus – is the ministry to which the church is called. We baptize those who enter into our community, marking them as children of God in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Peyton’s baptism this morning was an outward sign of an inward grace – God’s love that already surrounds her. There is nothing she needs to believe or do to earn God’s love.
Her discipleship, however, is now the work at hand – for her parents and for us. We’ve all committed ourselves to shaping and forming Peyton into a disciple. So we will teach her the way of Jesus. We will model faith for her as we do for all our children, and for each other.
I don’t know about some of you, but I was asked more than once when and where, the time and date, that I was saved. Some people do have conversion “moments” they can recount. But for most Christians, I don’t think conversion is that dramatic. I certainly hope that our children at FHC never know a time when they weren’t Christians. I hope the Christian faith is in their cellular make-up. So, I don’t worry about one’s conversion, I want to foster growth in God’s children toward greater commitment to follow the ways of Jesus.
But that doesn’t preclude my hope that there are moments when they will “own” this faith we are passing on to them. Confirmation a few weeks ago was a conversion moment I suppose. God willing, those 14 year-olds will grow into daring disciples who will keep experiencing micro-conversions along their journeys.
That’s how discipleship works: we learn and keep on learning. We turn toward God, and keep on turning. We accept forgiveness, and keep on accepting. We follow, and keep on following.
Learning and imitation brings transformation.
Daniel Coyle’s book, The Talent Code, tells about his research on extraordinarily accomplished musicians and athletes. Ones that we assume have genius and therefore destines them to greatness. Coyle’s work shows however that being born with an innate gift or talent is only the starting point of a person’s achievement. What separates the one who has mere talent from the one who is remarkable literally is the number of hours of training they put in. It’s really not about genius.
Even Mozart, Coyle says, practiced the piano far more than any other child around him. Mozart’s father demanded that his son practice hours upon hours – Coyle speculates about 10,000 hours as a child – to lay the foundation for his gift. Last week, we saw a special interview with Maverick’s star, Dirk Nowitzki, which highlighted his relentless hours of practice with the man who has mentored Dirk since he was 16 years old.
When we do something often and regularly it becomes imprinted in us. We don’t even have to think about what we’re doing because the habit takes over. That works extremely well for our good habits. The other day I was heading to church, but clearly was on autopilot because before I was even aware of it, I was pulling into the parking space in front of Stone Oven Bakery! Habits have their payoff.
Whether it’s Christian, Jewish, Muslim or others – a religious community should reflect a disciplined body of people enacting their faith through study, rituals, and acts of mercy. Children should be in that community regularly to soak in its practices. And the environment should be kind. Jesus demonstrated gentleness, grace, forgiveness when his disciples didn’t “get it,” or doubted, or messed up – or even betrayed him. I presume Peter stood up after being on his face worshiping and said something dumb again like, “How about we stay here on the mountain, and you, Jesus, can come back and visit us?” Nope. You gotta go down and tell others.
Making mistakes is where true learning happens.
We are taught. We practice. We make mistakes. We do it again. Eventually, we start to become the teachings we have observed.
Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian and ethics professor at Duke Divinity School, and a Jesus-radical as he calls himself, challenges the Christian community to start taking ourselves more seriously. He says we need to be genuinely believe that becoming and living as a disciplined community of Jesus’ disciples is powerful enough to change the world.
Hauerwas uses the example of a bricklayer to illustrate how one learns to become what one practices. One doesn’t become a bricklayer by being told what bricklayers believe or by reading the manual. One becomes a bricklayer by learning to mix the mortar to the right consistency, to get the feel for the trowel in one’s hand, to know how deep the grooves must be in the mortar to cause the right tension between the bricks, to make mistakes that will mean taking down the whole wall you’ve built. Starting over after a mistake is what is required of a true bricklayer.
And so it goes for Jesus’ daring disciples. We go forth as learners and students; we speak about our relationship with God with others in authentic ways; we teach and practice the Law of Love that Jesus taught. Sometimes we get it right and other times we fail miserably. But nevertheless we keep at it, trusting that we are not called to perfection but to relationship. And we are given a promise: the presence of Jesus is with all of us, for always, for all time.