Hi! Welcome back to our Lent series on the Mission of the Church. You all keep coming back, and so we must be doing okay.
So, the last few weeks, starting with Ash Wednesday, we’ve been working a lot with the gospel of Matthew. ‘Cause, I don’t know, that’s where this stuff seems to be…but so far, everything that we’ve read has been from the time while Jesus was doing ministry here on earth, before he was crucified. So we always have the Cross sort of looming in the background…we know what’s coming…
But this, what we read tonight, comes after Easter. It is the final verses of Matthew’s gospel. Now each of the four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote their own versions of the Jesus story, and for the most part, they pretty well match up. I mean, you can tell that they are all writing about the same things, even if some of the details differ a little. But each of these writers is writing…basically independently of each other – they’re not thinking that their version of the story is going to get stuck in a giant book with three other versions of the story, and then you’ll really be able to put all the pieces together. No, the gospel writers were writing what they thought their audiences needed to know…and so what was just read tonight is what Matthew thinks we need to know, as the final, last authoritative word from Christ.
Now, even though we’re in Lent, I think it’s okay to read and learn from the post-Easter stories. Because us Christians, we’re Easter people. We understand that the world is fundamentally different because of the Cross and the Resurrection. We don’t use seasons like Advent and Lent, which are times of preparation, to pretend like we don’t know Christmas or Easter are coming. We are not pre-Jesus, and we shouldn’t pretend like we are. We use these seasons of the Church Year to allow God to deepen our faith, to open ourselves up to the gifts he is giving us, but we don’t just…pretend like we don’t know the ending.
We do know the ending.
At the end of Lent, is Easter.
And the disciples in these few verses from the end of Matthew also know the ending. Christ is risen from the dead, praise the Lord, now what? Well, we follow him, I guess. And so they go to the mountain where Jesus told them to go, and he comes up to meet them, and they worshipped him and even though they know the end of the story, some of them still doubted. Hmmm.
Do you think Jesus knew that some of them were still a little doubtful? I do. But he doesn’t appear to have kicked them off the mountain.
See, I think as Christians, we tend to think that if we don’t believe “enough”, whatever “enough” is, or if it’s hard for us to believe, or if we have moments of doubt, or maybe even giant sweeping waves of doubt sometimes, that we’re bad Christians, that we’re spiritually immature, that we’re not really good enough, that we’re not really “church people”, whatever.
But I think this story here tells us otherwise. You can have doubts. Heck, the disciples did. Like, the day after Easter – the first Easter. I mean, if you’d think there’d be anybody who didn’t have doubts, it would be the people who were right there, who watched the whole thing play out.
But some of them were doubtful…and they still worshipped. It’s possible to worship, and to be a little doubtful. It’s also possible to have some doubt, some questions, some wonderings if it’s all true, and still be part of the Church. Church isn’t just for the super-believers. Obviously, Sunday morning worship isn’t just for the super-believers, that much we know, be welcoming and all, right?
But neither is the rest of what the Church is and does. Look at this story. They were worshipping, even though some of them doubted, and then Jesus gives them instructions. Apparently, he doesn’t consider having doubts an impediment to ministry.
And neither should we. As Christians, we should not think that having doubts, having questions, not always “getting it”, having days where it’s blissfully wonderful followed by days where you think maybe not a lick of it is true, we should not think that these experiences – whether they are our own, or somebody else’s, disqualify us from participating in the Church – all of the things we’ve been talking about this Lent, and all of the things you already know about what the Church is called to do and be.
And what is it, then, that we are called to do and be? What does Jesus tell us in these final words from Matthew’s Gospel? He tells the people who are already disciples…to go make more disciples. Baptize them, and teach them everything I taught you.
Disciple, or discipleship, is kind of a big word that is mostly only used in church. Occasionally you see it elsewhere, usually used in a negative sense, but since it’s mostly a church word, we should probably explain it. So, when we hear about “disciples” in the Bible, mostly we think about the 12 disciples. They were like, the super-secret-special Jesus friends , a cut above the rest, the good ones, right?
Um, not actually. A disciple is, well, it’s a student, of someone, but it’s more than just “sit in the classroom and take notes for the test later” kind of student. It’s a much more “full” sense of student – it’s like, follower…or…apprentice…or, like the person that you are a disciple of is kind of your mentor. Parents, or people who work in human resources, you understand this: the word discipline comes from the word disciple…and when you discipline someone, you are trying to teach them – about what is and is not acceptable behavior, about how we live in this world.
Do you have people like this in your life? Sometimes it’s a teacher – maybe in high school or college, there was that one professor who just…captivated you. You know, you enjoyed her classes, you appreciated his perspective on things, she taught you to think about the subject matter…and life…in a way that’s really helpful, he’s the one you went to for suggestions or advice or just a list of good books to read over the summer. But it could be someone who’s not a teacher, at least not in the strictest sense of the word. It could be your grandpa who taught you about how to work with wood…and how to get along with people. Or the old lady down the street who mothered you, even though you were an adult with your own children, when your mother died. Or whoever.
It’s that person, or people, in your life who share facts, sure, but also wisdom. The people that you admire and respect, and can honestly say, “I want to be like that person, I want to follow this person’s lead because they clearly know what’s going on.”
This was Jesus, for the disciples, and it can be Jesus for us. See, Jesus was a rabbi – a Jewish religious leader, in his day. And the way that religious training worked back then was that, they didn’t really have like, main central schools where you learned how to be a rabbi. You didn’t go off and go to seminary, the way we think of today. Instead, you joined up with one of the local rabbis who was taking on students, and learned from him. And what did you learn from your rabbi? What did the 12 disciples learn from Jesus? Not just the practicalities of “how to be a rabbi” whatever they might be, but…how to think, about God, and about people. How the relationship of God and his people works…now that Jesus has come, and launched a new covenant, and how to understand that, and live it, and talk about it with other people.
That’s what being a disciple of Jesus is: not just learning a whole lot of “facts about God” – like if we memorize the Apostles’ Creed then we’ve got it down. Memorizing the Apostles’ Creed – and the Lord’s Prayer and the 10 Commandments and so on are good things, and we should do them. But in addition to that, being a disciple, a follower, a student of Jesus means learning from him how to think and talk and act and live in a way that reflects the “facts” that we know. It means building a relationship with Jesus the same way you build a relationship with that favorite college professor or your grandpa or whoever. It takes time, it takes listening, it takes pondering, it takes putting it into practice.
When Jesus tells us to make disciples of all nations – everybody – he’s telling us that this is what he’s looking for: people who “know the facts,” yes, but even more than that, people who have that relationship, who are constantly learning and growing into the life of Christ.
Of course, being a good Lutheran, I should point out that God is one who is reaching out, God is the one who makes the first move, when we share the love of Christ with others, when the pastor stands up here and baptizes someone, when we teach people about Christ, it is obviously our hands, our mouths, that are doing the acting, the speaking, the pouring of the water…but it is the Holy Spirit who empowering that, it is the Holy Spirit working through each one of us to disciple us, and to disciple others.
Because the way rabbi school, discipleship, worked in those days...you didn’t get to say, I like Rabbi Joseph, he seems like a really good guy, I’m going to be his disciple. Rabbi Joseph, or whoever, had to pick you. There wasn’t really an application process, per se, certainly not the way that we think of it today. The teacher, the rabbi, the mentor, picked who he wanted as his students, as his disciples.
He picked you, you became a “member” so to speak, of the rabbi school, and you got to the task of learning. The process of becoming a disciple is that the rabbi picks you for his school, and then you start learning.
And this, good Lutherans, is why we baptize babies. If anyone ever tells you that we shouldn’t baptize babies because they don’t know enough to believe in Jesus…well, baptism isn’t about us choosing Jesus, it’s about Jesus choosing us. When Jesus went down along the lakeshore and called up Peter and Andrew – total strangers – from their fishing boat – did they “choose Jesus”? No. He brought them into his school, and started teaching them.
And so we baptize – because in the Sacrament of Baptism, God brings us into the Church, the post-Easter version of “rabbi school”, and then we start learning. And we pretty much don’t ever stop. Nobody “graduates” from this rabbi school, nobody graduates from the Church. But even though we’re all still learning how to follow Jesus, how to live in this post-Easter, resurrection world, how to love a God who loves us more than we will ever comprehend, how to love other people the way God loves them and us, even though we’ll never have that all figured out – we are still called, given the mission, to go out and start making new disciples.
Ancient Greek doesn’t really have punctuation. So, when you read it, and start trying to translate, say, the Bible, into modern languages that do have punctuation, you have to work hard to figure out where things like commas and colons and periods go. When I read this verse, “go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” I think a colon, belongs right after “nations”. Go, and make disciples of all nations: baptizing them, and teaching them.
Make disciples: by baptizing, and teaching.
This story, these 5 short verses here, are what is known as The Great Commission. Last week we had the Great Commandment, this is the Great Commission. The disciples – which is now all of us Christians, even those who sometimes have some doubts, are being commissioned – given a mission – to go to all the nations, meaning, the whole world, and make disciples. Baptize, and teach. And remember that God is with us always; he is the one actually baptizing and bringing people in, he is the one teaching us all.
A short word of advice here: as we go about this mission, we need to have a sense of urgency. There are a lot of people in this world…state…town, who don’t know about Jesus. There’s plenty of work to be done. But there are good and bad ways to go about it. We don’t, for example, run out into the streets with a firehose and start baptizing people willy nilly, right? We don’t “teach all the things Jesus commanded us” in an obnoxious way by yelling at people or being public nuisances. You can’t nag people into the Kingdom of Heaven. It just…doesn’t work that way. So we do it in a way that’s respectful, but we definitely do it.
So keep learning, keep being a disciple of Jesus, keep learning about his love and his grace and his forgiveness. And while you’re at it, go, and make more disciples, of all nations.
This is the mission of the Church.