HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
June 11, 2017
Matthew 28: 16-20 (CEB)
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
I stand up here just about every week and in one way or another implore you, us, to go out into the world and share the good news of Christ. And I don’t doubt for a minute that every one of us in this room desires to do just that. We take this Great Commission seriously, our lives have been redeemed by God in Christ Jesus, and we want others to share that same experience. We do want to share the good news of Christ, we do want to make disciples; and yet, how are we doing? Really?
I think we all know the stats are not good. While things are holding steady here in our congregation, in the wider Christian church (at least in America), the undisputed truth is that we are not reaching new people. Despite our best intentions, despite the sincerity with which we hope to fulfill the Great Commission, despite our strong desire to serve God by serving one another, Christianity is on the decline in our country. I believe this is one of the greatest challenges facing the Church today. It seems we have a church on every corner (around here at least), and yet the number of “nones and dones” (as we now call them) continues to climb. And the churches that are growing are not growing because they are reaching new Christians or making new disciples, they’re growing because a person or a family has decided to switch from one church to another.
Now, there are a lot of reasons, known and unknown, that we are dealing with the decline of Christianity in America. We don’t need to get into all those reasons today, but I do want to address a particular reality I think we all face that in some way makes our task of fulfilling the Great Commission significantly more difficult. That is, we simply don’t know any non-Christians. Or if we do know some folks who aren’t Christian, we may feel as if we don’t know them well-enough to share our Christian faith with them.
My own life is a perfect example. I grew up in the church, so as a child and youth, my friends were the people who attended church with me. I never bothered to invite others to church with me because the people I wanted to hang out with were already there. Now, that’s a selfish mindset, but typical of a teenager, I guess. So then I went to college. I attended a college that only four years prior to my enrollment had broken from the Southern Baptist Convention. I was a part of the Wesley Fellowship there, and had many friends in that group. My other friends were part of the much larger Baptist Campus ministry group. Now, I am a pastor married to a pastor. When Ken and I have friends over to our house for fellowship, its other pastors. As I sit in my church office working throughout the week, the people coming in and out of the building are you all, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I go to the Y three times a week for a spin class, and little by little I’m getting to know the people in that class, but it’s hard to carry on a conversation when the music’s blaring, the instructor is directing, and your heart is beating at 95% of its max capacity. Despite the fact that most of the folks in the class know that I am a pastor, it will take me many months to get to know anyone there well enough to feel comfortable talking to them about my faith. Can you all relate? Our social circles simply don’t include people who aren’t Christian. So, despite our earnest desire to serve God and fulfill Christ’s Great Commission, we simply aren’t positioned in life to do that well.
But look at what is happening as Jesus instructs his disciples for one last time, sending them out into the world to make disciples of all nations. Jesus calls the disciples to a mountain in Galilee. Friends, Galilee is in the heart of Gentile territory! Jesus didn’t stand before his followers imploring them to spread the good news while they sat in the pews of a beautiful sanctuary surrounded by like-minded believers. Christ stood on some unnamed mountain in backwater Galilee preaching to a congregation of 11, down from 12 the week before, and even some of them are doubtful and not really sure why they have come to worship on this day. And he tells this band of confused and disoriented disciples that, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they were, in essence, to gather all the people of earth at Mount Zion. But the key is, he said these words among those people! Jesus took his disciples right to the folks who most needed to hear the message. He commissioned the disciples in the heart of the mission field! Just think about this for a minute.
To give you an idea of just how radical this would’ve been, let’s bring this commissioning into our modern world. If Jesus were to give the Great Commission today, here’s how it might happen: He might call us to the pitcher’s mound of the softball fields on Sunday mornings. He might gather us on the steps of a mosque on Friday evening. He might call us to the bar in the early hours of Saturday morning. And as we stood there, among people who never grew up in church, people who know nothing of the redeeming love of Christ, people who have been hurt by the church and thus turned away; Christ would say to us, “Share with them the good news. Make disciples of these people. Baptize them.”
Does that sound like an impossible task? Does this feel like something we could never accomplish? The truth is, this is not something we can accomplish, at least not on our own. That’s why Jesus makes clear to his disciples in the midst of the commissioning that all authority on heaven AND earth has been given to him and that as they go to make disciples of all nations, he—Jesus Christ himself—will be with them always. This nearly impossible task puts us fully at the mercy of God and God’s power, and it is precisely our relationship with Christ that empowers us for such work. The work that Christ commissions us for, the work to make disciples of all nations, is only possible by God’s authority. And it’s only possible when we follow Christ into the heart of the mission field.
In this day and age, we live with this immense temptation to produce good numbers. I suppose it’s something that grows out of the corporate model that so dominates our society. So what that means when it comes to the church is that we are always hoping people will come in and save the church, so that our numbers improve. We are looking for a few good people to be tithers, members, and volunteers. And most of the time, we find ourselves scratching our heads in disappointment. Why isn’t this (fill-in-the-blank) ministry working?
I once read about a certain Mr. Wahlstrom who purchased an old bombsight and took it apart to see what made it work. These are the things that were used in the days before missiles to help pilots drop bombs and accurately hit the target. Anyway, as Mr. Wahlstrom began to put the bombsight back together, he decided to add to it some spare parts he had from other projects. Over time, friends and neighbors took an interest in the matter and started bringing him more random parts and pieces, which he incorporated into his contraption. Over a period of about ten years, he added to his machine hundreds of wheels and cogs, belts and whistles and gears, and who knows what all, until the thing became “a marvel to behold.” He would throw the switch, and the machine’s thousand parts would begin to move. Wheels turned, lights flashed, bells rang, and belts whirred. The device came to be known as “Wahlstrom’s Wonder.” It was incredible. The only thing is: It didn’t accomplish anything! It just went through the motions.
Friends, Christ didn’t tell his disciples to build great churches. Christ’s instructions were to go and make disciples. “Go” is an action word, an energy word, a “get up and move” word. “Go” is what the instructor of my spin class says when she’s just told us to put heavy resistance on the bikes and pedal “all-out” for three minutes. “Go! Go! Go!” is what we yell at the players on the field when we want our team to score another goal. “Go” is a motivational word. “Go” encourages us to a higher level, it calls us to do something, to accomplish something; in this case, to “make disciples.” And, we need not misunderstand that when Christ says to the disciples, “Go,” he means “get moving!”
I’m certain that if we fulfill Christ’s commission, we will build great churches, but we can’t put the cart before the horse. Our first task is to make disciples, and that happens out in the world. We can only make disciples when we build relationships with new people, relationships with people in “Gentile territory,” outside the circle of the Christian church. I read of a church this week that has started a “good neighbor” initiative. The simple goal of this initiative is for church members to get to know the people who live in the houses they can see from the church. Another church has a huge grill that they make available to their members. The one condition of the members using this grill is that they host a patio party in their own neighborhood, get to know their neighbors better. The United Methodist Church recently launched a new initiative called “See All the People;” the tag line is, “Let’s stop trying to fix the church and instead let’s see all the people.” This is all about us, Christ’s disciples, getting out into the world, building new relationships with new people, and sharing good news. That can only happen “out there,” that can only happen when we “go”!
On Saturday, July 29, folks from this congregation will have an opportunity to gather with people from Brainerd United Methodist and Eastdale Village United Methodist at the Eastdale Village Church. We will spend time that day working together on some building projects around that church. The hope is that as we work together, we will get to know one another, build relationships with each other. From there, the intent is that we will form teams which will then go out to serve in the Brainerd community and neighborhoods. We will meet new people, build new relationships, serve in Christ’s name, share good news, and ultimately—with God’s help—we’ll make disciples.
It should be pretty obvious by now that the institutional goals are not God’s goals; that “the way it’s always been,” it not the way it always will be. If we are to be faithful disciples of Christ, then we have to take his commission seriously and we have to go. And if we are faithful, and if we go, then God in Christ Jesus will go with us.
Chances are, you are here today because some disciple somewhere along the way, took their commission from Christ seriously. What about you? Are you ready to go?