Scripture: Matthew 28:16-20
Church, we are nearly 3 months into our pandemic shutdown. It’s been an unusual time, to say the least. But there have been silver-linings, to be sure. There have been some blessings. Actually, I wonder if you might post a comment and share one thing that you’ve been thankful for in these past three months– something that wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the present health crisis. I recognize some have had it harder than others, but I think we can all find one thing to share that we’re thankful for.
I can think of several things. But one thing that I’m thankful for is that church has felt simpler. That’s not to say it’s been easy. It hasn’t been. But it has been simple. We’ve been focused on strengthening our relationship with God, connecting with one another, and serving our community. Simple.
After Jesus rose from the dead, he met with his disciples in Galilee, where they had spent most of their time together. And there, Jesus gets to say, in simple terms, what they are to be about.
Jesus said “all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit [[slight nod to Trinity Sunday]], and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
We call this “the great commission.” It’s like the church’s constitution or charter. It says, “Church, this is what we’re about. Here’s your mission, vision, and purpose: go and make disciples.”
We can make things so complicated sometimes. But when it comes down to it, the church’s purpose is to make disciples. Our goal isn’t to make someone who comes to church. Our goal isn’t to make nice people. Our goal isn’t to make bible scholars. Our goal isn’t even to make believers. Along the way, those things will probably come about. But they’re not our goal.
Our goal is to make… disciples. A disciple is someone who follows Jesus, like an apprentice to a master craftsman, receiving training from him in a way of living. Jesus doesn’t just want us to be believers. He wants us to be disciples. In each of the Gospels, one of the first things Jesus does is to choose people and say, “follow me.” He’s calling disciples. He’s saying, trust me with everything. Trust me with your well-being.
The Great Commission is such a famous saying of Jesus. It’s definitely one that you hear if you hang around the church for long enough. But like most of what Jesus says, there’s more to it than meets the eyes.
I wonder if you’ve ever really thought about the last line of the Great Commission: “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
But I found myself wondering, “what exactly did Jesus command his disciples?” If he says that we’re to go and make disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything he commanded his disciples, then it seems pretty important that we know what Jesus commanded his disciples.
I want to make a few observations about the things that Jesus commanded his disciples. Then I’ll share how we go about obeying Jesus’ commands.
Here’s an observation. Jesus’ disciples are commanded to make disciples, and to teach obedience to Jesus’ commands, which includes the command to make disciples. This is a perpetual command. Do you see it?
Jesus isn’t just saying, “Go and make disciples.” He’s saying, “Go and make disciple makers.” Or even “Go and make disciple maker makers.” And so on.
Jesus wants his disciples to be disciple makers. The church isn’t supposed to grow by addition– a convert here and a convert there. It’s supposed to grow by multiplication.
And yet we know that in so many places, that isn’t the reality of the church at all. I wonder if, somewhere along the way, we got a little bored with the simple vision of Jesus. Making disciple makers is hard. It took Jesus himself 3 years to make a dozen disciple makers. This isn’t work for those who demand instant gratification.
Jesus’ process for disciple making is very simple. Step 1: you baptize them. In other words, when someone decides that they want to make a clean break with their old life apart from Jesus, you immerse them in water to represent and bring the death of the old self and the birth of the new. You wash them to represent being cleansed from sin. There is supposed to be a point in every Christian’s life where they can say, “that’s when I became a disciple of Jesus”
Step 2: we are teach the baptized to obey everything that Jesus commanded his first disciples to do.
I said it was simple. I didn’t say it was easy.
Have you ever asked yourself the question, “What exactly is it that Jesus commanded his disciples to do?” Having a sense of an answer to that question seems like a pretty important first step to being obedient disciples ourselves, let alone teaching others to be obedient.
It was a few years ago now that I first began to wonder what exactly Jesus commanded his disciples. I’d read the bible several times, and at that time, I was reading the Gospels about 4 times a year. But I’d never really paid attention to the commands of Jesus.
I thought it would be interesting to read through the Gospel of Matthew and to underline every command that Jesus gives to his disciples. You probably won’t be surprised to know that there are a lot. And some of them are not easy.
Now, obviously not every command of Jesus to his disciples will make sense in our context. At the same time, we can’t just dismiss a command because it’s hard or we don’t like it.
Commands that are hard, but clear
I don’t know that you’ll ever be more tempted to be disobedient than when you read the Sermon on the Mount: Matthew chapters 5-7. And yet this is rather universally regarded as the heart of Jesus’ teaching. It’s not that Jesus is setting up a new, harsher law for us to follow. Rather, he’s sketching a way of life for those who would follow him.
“Do not resist an evildoer”
“Turn the other cheek”
“Give to everyone who begs from you”
“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you”
Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth (but story up for yourselves treasures in heaven)
Do not worry
Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness
Do not judge
“Do to others as you would have them do to you”
Do you see what I mean? You can be a believer and not be a disciple. These were the commands that Jesus gave to his disciples.
I’m reminded of the words of the 19th century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard:
The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly.
So some of Jesus’ commands are clear, but hard.
Other of Jesus’ commands are clear, but not generalizable in their literal form.
They can’t be obeyed literally. The simple out with these commands is to say, “They’re not for me, so there’s nothing to obey.” Ok, fine. But we also believe that the Holy Spirit continues to speak through scripture. So such commands can still be used devotionally. That is, if they’re to be obeyed at all, they must be obeyed spiritually, or allegorically.
For example, Jesus told Simon in Luke 5, verse 4, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
I don’t have a net. I don’t have water to go fishing in. Obviously I can’t obey that command literally. What I can do, though, is ask Jesus if there is some way he is speaking that word to me right now. Perhaps throwing out the net for me refers to the act of making disciples. Have I given up on throwing out my disciple-making net, because I, like Peter, have had little success recently? Maybe I need to simply be obedient to Jesus’ command; I need to get back out on the water and let down my net for a catch.
Do you see what I mean? It’s not a literal interpretation. It’s a spiritual, allegorical one.
Again, some commands are clear, but not generalizable in their literal form.
Finally, some commands are obviously impossible to obey… apart from the power of the Holy Spirit.
An example of this would be Jesus’ command in Matthew 10 to “heal the sick.” Can you heal the sick? No. Can I? No. But Jesus can. And I know him. So sometimes he uses me to heal people when I pray. And he wants to use you too.
Ok, but how?
The answer is simple: by the grace of God. You see, the commands that are obviously impossible to obey without the power of the Holy Spirit shed light on the other commands. Because, in fact, I can’t make disciple makers. But Jesus can, in me. I can’t turn the other cheek, apart from God’s grace. I can’t stop worrying, unless the Holy Spirit gives me peace.
Any true obedience to Christ is itself because of the grace of God. That’s why we can’t brag about our obedience. We’re obedient not because we’re wonderful people in our own strength, but because God picks us up and helps us to choose to do the right thing. If you trust in Jesus, you really can follow him. You really can be his disciple, and help others to do the same.
So the best way to obey the commands of Jesus is to start obeying. If you’re following Jesus, God will give you the grace to be obedient. And when we fail, we ask God for more grace so that we can do better. Remember, grace isn’t just being forgiven. Grace, according to teachers like John Wesley, is the power of the Holy Spirit.
When we really grasp the grace of God, all of God’s commands for us become covered promises. Jesus only commands us to do things that, with his help, we are able to do. And so we just start obeying.
We start with the small things. When we catch ourselves worrying, we use it as a reminder to pray. When we catch ourselves wanting to curse our enemies, we choose to pray a blessing over them instead.
And bit by bit, we’ll be following Jesus. We’ll be letting his life shape our lives.
Jesus is the Way. Jesus promises to be with you always. God loves you and desires you to walk in the way of Jesus. The Holy Spirit will empower you.
So as you go into this week, be confident in God’s grace for you.