Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sermon for May 18, 2008

The Authority to Make Disciples
Matthew 28:16-20

I recently stumbled upon some remarkable correspondence in the church files. It was a letter that said . . .
Dear Christians:
This is my commission to you -- in fact, you might even call it a great commission. You are to go to all people everywhere and call them to become my disciples. You are to baptize them and teach them to obey all that I have commanded you. Don’t forget. I will be with you always to help you, even to the end of the world. I will never leave you nor forsake you, because I love you. Please don’t forsake me.
With all my love, Jesus Christ

Another letter was clipped to the back of it.
Dear Jesus Christ:
We acknowledge the receipt of your recent communication. Your proposal is both interesting and challenging; however, due to a shortage of personnel, as well as several other financial and personal considerations, we do not feel that we can give proper emphasis to your challenge at this time.

A committee has been appointed to study the feasibility of the plan. We should have a report to bring to our congregation sometime in the future. You may rest assured that we will give this our careful consideration, and our board will be praying for you and your efforts to find additional disciples.

We do appreciate your offer to serve as a resource person, and should we decide to undertake this project at some point in the future, we’ll get back to you.
The Christians

Yes, that sounds like Congregationalists to me! Don’t worry, I understand. Sometimes I get in the habit of studying proposals and then listing all the reasons why we can’t change. Congregationalists are not the only ones who do that, by the way. It’s human nature. In fact, when I was studying the texts for today’s sermon I ran across something I never read before. In Matthew’s account of the great commission, the eleven remaining disciples stand on a mountain with Jesus. They text says when they saw him some worshiped, but some of them doubted. Some versions say that some of them hesitated. This could only mean one thing – some of the disciples were Congregationalists.

I never noticed that verse before. I always skip right to the Lord’s final earthly words, but I never detected the fact that some of the disciples felt uneasy about what they were experiencing. Something was holding them back. They were not ready to go out into the world and to teach and baptize and make disciples.

It still goes on today. We are people who know that God loves us. We know that Jesus lived, died, and rose from the grave to defeat sin and death. We know God offers us new and abundant life. We know it, but many of us hesitate when it comes to putting our core beliefs into action. When we get to the part about sharing our faith, we hold back.
· Some people hesitate because they can’t believe that Jesus would actually ask his followers to act with such hubris. Who are we to make disciples of all nations? Who is Jesus that he would ask us to impose our faith on others? Who are we to go out and tell Muslims and Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Atheists that they are wrong? Isn’t that conceited? Jesus must not understand the complexity of pluralism and the principles of religious freedom.
· Some people will hesitate because they still do not understand who Jesus is. They worship God, but they don’t know how Jesus fits in to the God picture. Is Jesus God, or is he a mere human? Sure, he’s important and influential. Sure, we believe in him and respect what he taught. But, is Jesus worthy of our worship? Do we dare follow him when we don’t really know him?
· Some will hesitate because they are afraid of the consequences. What will following Jesus mean to my present level of comfort? What will I have to give up? What will others think of me?
You know what? Jesus’ closest friends had doubts. In Luke’s version of the great commission, the risen Christ finds the disciples hiding in a room. When Jesus materializes in front of them, they think he’s a ghost and they are filled with fear. They hesitated. They doubted. The Good news is that fear and doubt did not paralyze them forever. They found a way to move from fear to faith.

So, how do we move from hesitation to active love for the world? Listen again to Christ’s final words in Matthew’s Gospel: “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Jesus’ authority over all heaven and earth flows from his love. No more hesitation, because Jesus walks with us. No more doubt because the love of Christ is filling us. Jesus says, “With my authority, the authority of love, preach my message to the ends of the earth.”

The great commission is rooted in love and mercy. Christianity has not always gotten this point right. At times, Western Christianity has taken pride in their feelings of superiority over others. Our attitude has been, “If you want to be loved by God, then you must be like us.” This attitude is called triumphalism. Triumphalism refers to the tendency in all worldviews to present themselves as full and complete accounts of reality, leaving little room for debate or difference of opinion. Triumphalism expects unflinching loyalty from its subjects. Weakness and doubt are liabilities. Alternate points of view are pushed aside.

In 313 C.E., when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan, Christianity changed from an illegal minority to the established religion of the Roman Empire. The Empire came to be identified with the cause of Christianity. Convinced that Christendom owned the right answers to the world’s problems, the Church and the Empire used the Great Commission as marching orders to expand their territory. Conversion of the masses justified any necessary means of persuasion to make it happen. Charlemagne typifies the thinking at the time. Before he became the Holy Roman Emperor, he was warring with the Saxons. The goal was conversion of the pagan Saxons to the Christian faith. Because the goal was so worthwhile, Charlemagne approved of any means necessary to make them convert. In the year 755, the Saxons were defeated, and they submitted to mass baptisms over the next two years. Charlemagne wrote, “If there is anyone of the Saxon people lurking among them unbaptized, and if he scorns to come to baptism and he wishes to absent himself and stay a pagan, then let him die.”

I think this attitude of triumphalism is a sin, specifically the sin of pride. This attitude says, “You can survive and even thrive if you become like us. You can keep your life by giving up your identity. Until you do that, we will call you inferior.” Triumphalism wants to keep one group at the center and there alone, single-handedly controlling who’s in and who’s out of the circle.

When we share the gospel out of self-righteousness, our discipleship is flawed. Sometimes we think that because we apply the name Christian to ourselves, we have the right to think we are better than others. This is sin. Those who seek to follow Christ will find their authority deep-rooted in loving-kindness. Out of gratitude, we share that love with others, teaching, baptizing, and witnessing to what we have seen God doing in our lives.

One of my majors in college was English. I ended up taking many classes with the Chair of the English Department. Dr. Peters was a large, pompous man who regularly intimidated students. He impressed fear into most of his students. His authority came from his title, his position, and his ability to scare us. In a literature course on the age of classicism, Dr. Peters would bellow out, “Braddock! What, according to Alexander Pope, is the requirement for being a British magistrate?” He would scowl at me as I sat in stunned silence. “Well, Braddock, what’s your answer?” I would finally stammer out a made-up answer. “I think Pope says if a man wants to be a magistrate, he has to have a wife who sells Tupperware.” Dr. Peters would shake his head and look at me in disgust before moving on to the next victim.

I was also a teaching assistant for another English professor, Dr. Paul. One afternoon he handed me a stack of papers to grade. As I went though the pile of freshmen English journals, I was disgusted by how poor the work was. Each passing paper was worse than the one before it, and the marks I gave reflected my loathing for their pasty writing. I delivered the graded papers back to Dr. Paul, shaking my head in disdain. The next day I went to his office, and he had a stack of papers for me to look through. They were actually the journals I had corrected the day before. Dr. Paul had gone through and changed all of the grades to higher marks. When I asked him about it, he simply quoted an OT prophet: “Matt, in wrath, remember mercy.” That lesson has stayed with me. There is no doubt in my mind why Dr. Paul had a very devoted band of students on campus. Dr. Peter’s authority was fed by the fear of his students. Dr. Paul’s authority was rooted in mercy.

I think the same holds true with Jesus. His authority is not found in the way he scares followers into obedience. We don’t obey Jesus because we are afraid of what he will do to us if we don’t. No, Jesus’ authority comes from his deep, abiding love. We follow and believe because we’ve been marked by love. It’s time for the church to jettison ends-justifies-the-means evangelism. It’s time for us to embrace the kind of humility and suffering love that marked the ministry of Jesus.

About ten years ago, news outlets reported on an amendment to KY state law that allowed ministers to carry concealed weapons in church buildings. On the Today Show, Maria Shriver interviewed a pastor who played a pivotal role in the new law. The preacher reported that down-and-outers looking for money often visit churches and he suggested that having a gun might provide protection from those who might desire to steal church contributions or hurt employees. Bewildered, Maria Shriver asked the preacher if he understood that his reliance upon a handgun stood at odds with the Christian proclamation of peace and reconciliation. Imagine having the wife of Arnold Schwarzeneggar, the poster boy for violent entertainment, reminding the church that the gospel bids believers to resolve conflict with methods that are different from those that rely upon physical force.

The gun-toting preacher stands in stark contrast to another news account from the University of Southern California Medical School. In August of 1993, a young woman named Sophia White picked up a .38 handgun and went looking for a nurse named Elizabeth Staten. Staten was allegedly cheating with White’s husband. Firing six shots, White hit Staten in the stomach and wrist. When Staten ran into the emergency room, White followed her, firing again. In the ER, with blood on her clothes and a hit pistol in her hand, another nurse, Joan Black, met the attacker. Nurse Black did the unthinkable. She walked calmly to the gun-toting woman – and hugged her. Black spoke comforting words. The assailant said she didn’t have anything to live for, that Staten had stolen her family. Black said, “You’re in pain. I’m sorry, but everybody has pain in their life . . . I understand and we can work it out.” As they talked, the hospital invader kept her finder on the trigger. Once she began to lift the gun as if she would shoot herself. Nurse Black just pushed her arm down and continued to hold her. At last, White gave the gun to the nurse. She was disarmed by a hug, by understanding, by compassion. Nurse Black later told an AP reporter, “I saw a sick person and had to take care of her.” Nurse Black loved God by being courageous, friendly and gentle to a dangerous stranger.

Now let me ask, who has the greater authority, the emperor who forces baptisms on pain of death, the minister with the gun, or the nurse who hugs attackers? Before you answer, let’s remember the cross. There hangs Jesus -- unjustly abused, tried and murdered. His dying words are a prayer of forgiveness for those who kill him. Imagine what might have happened if Jesus had lived in KY, and just before they nailed him to the cross he claimed his right as a citizen and pulled out a .38. Jesus Christ gained all authority by stretching out his arms, and disarming the world with the embrace of compassion.

The authority to make disciples comes from mercy, humility, and love. Nothing else will do. There is no need to hesitate or doubt. There is no need to hold back. So go, teach everyone you meet, far and near, in the way of love. Invite everyone to share in our baptism. Instruct them in the teachings of Christ. And remember, Jesus will be with us as we do this, day after day after day, right up to the end of the age.

Douglass John Hall, The Cross in Our Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 17.
Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 75-79
Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship, 28, 34-35,

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