MAKING DISCIPLES -- SHAPING LIFE
Matthew 28:16-20 (NIV)
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
We may take these to be Jesus’ last words of instruction to his church before he left this world for heaven. His last words! The words we would have cause to remember simply because they are fresher on our minds. And we call these words the Great Commission. Here in these words Jesus tells us what he expects us -- his people -- to be doing with ourselves.
I. WE ARE TO GO
Listen to how he begins. Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go...” (vv. 18, 19). Go. Not stay but go. There is an inherent restlessness among those who have received the gospel. They cannot keep it to themselves; they cannot even keep it among themselves. There is an urgency to share it.
If you haven’t heard [Name] give her presentation on the windows of our church, I hope you get the opportunity. It will inspire you to a more intentional Christianity. Short of hearing her, you can see the work that she and [Name] did on display in our Archives Room, and I hope you will go check it out.
If you do, take special note of the chapel windows. Each window uses symbols to depict the life and destiny of a different apostle. You will see the three money bags that represent Matthew the tax collector. You will see two crossed fish to remind us of Andrew the fisherman who died a martyr’s death on an X-shaped cross. You will see a carpenter’ saw and a shepherd’s staff, a chalice filled with serpents, precious stones and even flaying knives. Each of these items and others like them represent something memorable about Jesus’ first band of disciples. But my favorite -- my favorite one of them all -- is the ship whose sail is filled with the wind that carried Simon across the seas with the message of God’s love. And, in a way, that ship could easily be the symbol for all the apostles, because they all left the comfort and convenience of life as they knew it to “go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15). Jesus’ Great Commission, coupled with the example of the first apostles, tells us one thing above all other things: going is an essential thread in the fabric of the Christian movement.
That’s why we go. That’s why we, the people of this church, go. We “go” in so many different ways, but we go. Some of our youth go to foreign lands and become resident missionaries. Others of us, like those who go to Mexico or to Native America or to Russia, take a week or two and participate in what we call a short-term mission trip. That’s what some of our college students are doing this summer. One has already left for Africa, and two others will soon be on their way -- one to the heartland of America and another to Southeast Asia. And, as they go, we go. They represent us and are, in fact, an extension of the life and witness of this church.
But we not only go to far away places. We go to local missions, and we show up at Habitat sites. Or we go across the street with a fresh-baked loaf of bread or a casserole to lend our support to a grieving neighbor. Or we attend a game or a recital where one of our youth is playing or performing. The point is, we go. And we go because Jesus said to. It’s his Great Commission.
II. WE ARE TO DO
But we not only go; we do. As we go, we do the things Jesus told us to do. And he told us to do three things: we are make disciples; we are to baptize; and we are to teach. You could think of making disciples as the principle task of the church, and, under the banner of making disciples, you could place the two activities of baptizing and teaching.
Let’s try that. Let’s consider this, that, whatever we do, it should have the result of making disciples. That’s our business. Peter Drucker, as you probably know, is a management consultant without equal. He says in one of his many books that there are two questions that people in any organization -- whether it be a manufacturing plant, the sales division of a large corporation, a charitable institution, or even a church -- the two questions that we ought to ask ourselves are: What’s our business? and How’s business?
If we as a church body ask the first question, What’s our business?, there can be no doubt. We have it straight from the lips of our Founder, Jesus Christ. Our business is to make disciples.
Some of you will know the name of Dallas Willard. Dr. Willard is a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Philosophy. He is also a Christian lay person. And he writes books. Lots of books. One of his books is entitled The Great Omission. And what he does in that book is this: he shows how the church has forgotten what its business is. It has forgotten that its business is making disciples. Making disciples for Dr. Willard means spiritual formation in Christ. Every person in the world has a spirit, he says, and our spirit will be formed by something. We will be shaped in our innermost being by one force or another. We have but to look into our own hearts to see what shape they’re in, and we will know something about the character of what is shaping us. “Everyone receives spiritual formation,” Willard says, “just as everyone gets an education. The only question is whether it is a good one or a bad one” (The Great Omission, p. 69).
That’s where baptism and teaching come into play. When we baptize, Jesus says, we are to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This is obviously a reference to the Triune nature of God. The God we worship is one God, not three, but this one God is revealed to us in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Daniel Migliore, who teaches at Princeton Seminary, says in one of his books that “God is one,” but then he goes on to say that this “unity of God is not undifferentiated, dead unity. The Trinity is essentially a koinonia [a fellowship] of persons in love” (Faith Seeking Understanding, p. 68). So, for us, the essential nature of God is this, that God is understood best when understood as three Persons -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- “defined by...faithful relationships and the mutual giving and receiving of love” (Migliore, p. 68).
Now, I mention this to make this point. When we baptize someone in the name of the Trinity, we baptize them into this divine life of sharing and loving. In fact, Jesus’ words “in the name of the Father...the Son...and...the Holy Spirit” can be translated “into the name of the Father...the Son...and...the Holy Spirit.” If you have a copy of the NIV, you will see a footnote to that effect. Baptism is baptism into the life of the Triune God.
Allow me, if you will, to talk about this a bit further. The primary meanings of baptism are initiation and identification. Baptism is initiation in that it is the initial, or first, step in a life of discipleship. And it is identification in that it sets a person apart for God for life. She or he is to be identified with God and as God’s from that point forward. And when a person is presented for baptism, that person is introduced into the divine society or, better, the divine community of self-giving love as it is expressed by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And this -- this reality -- is to be what gives shape to that person’s life. This is what spiritual formation is all about.
This and a life of teaching in the ways of obedience to Christ. “Teach them,” Jesus says, “to obey everything I have commanded you” (v. 20). And we are well rehearsed, I hope, in what the commands of Jesus are. When asked on one occasion which was the greatest commandment, Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” And then he went on. He said, “...The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets,” Jesus said, “hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:37ff.).
On the night before his death, Jesus gave us what he called a new commandment. “A new command I give you,” he said: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” And then, look at this. He went on to say, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34f.).
Love is the intent of all the commandments. Whether we are told not to worship false idols or not to steal, to keep the sabbath day or to honor our father and mother, to revere the Lord’s name or not to covet, it all boils down this: Love God; love others, too.
And when we are teaching people to love and when we are baptizing them into the loving mutuality of the Triune God, we are making disciples. And that’s our business. So, how’s business?
III. WE ARE TO BE
The only measure I know of that has any value is the quality of our life together. What is forming us in its own image? What is giving shape to our common life? Is it love? Here’s what I believe. I believe that we are to be shaping our life together in such a way that it, in turn, becomes a means for shaping us into the loving image of Christ. Isn’t that, after all, the grand goal of the gospel? Paul says in Romans that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (8:29), and he says in Galatians, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ be formed in you...” (4:19).
If we are to fulfill the Great Commission, we are to go, and we are to do. But going and doing will not suffice. There is something also that we are to be. These words we have read from Matthew’s Gospel do not say this explicitly, but they imply it. Jesus begins his last instructions by saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” and he ends them by saying, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” When we go, we go by the authority of Jesus and in the company of Jesus. And what we do, we do by his authority and in his presence. Jesus goes before us and comes after us. He is with us and in us. We are bounded on all sides by his presence. And so, we do nothing in our own strength. What was it Luther said in his great hymn? “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.”
We go and we do, but all our going and all our doing will be pointless unless we take time to become what God fashions us to be. We are to be shaped always in the image and likeness of Christ. Then, whatever we help to shape in the lives of others will exhibit the contours of the inner life of the Holy Trinity. Or, to put it another way, it will look like love.