“Making Disciples”

~ Matthew 28:16-20 ~

This is Trinity Sunday. This is the Sunday that if I had an associate pastor or youth minister or seminary intern I’d assign them to preach and watch them squirm as they try to explain the Trinity. But we don’t have any of those so it’s left to me. However, today I’m not going to preach about the Trinity. Are you relieved? The Celtic design on the front cover is about as close as I’m going to get.

But more to the point, the gospel text that’s been assigned for this Trinity Sunday doesn’t really deal with the nature of the Trinity. I suppose it shows up on this day because it includes this famous baptismal Trinitarian formula: “Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

This passage is often referred to as “The Great Commission.” And it conjures up all kinds of images about what that is about: Evangelism, foreign missionaries, getting people to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, maybe even, evangelistic  tracts that explain the “plan of salvation” or “The Four Spiritual Laws” (a Campus Crusade for Christ tract). In other words we are prone to apply this passage from Matthew, this “Great Commission,” to all things evangelistic.

However, being one who considers context very seriously, I think it prudent to consider this commission of Jesus in the light of where it is found, the Gospel of Matthew. What did Matthew have in mind in recording this commission of Jesus?

Well, it’s all about one verb: “Make.” The verb “go” is merely a lead up to “make.” And the verbs “baptizing” and “teaching” are modifiers of “make.” So the commission is to “make disciples.” The mission is discipleship. If making disciples is the thing, it behooves us to understand what Matthew thought discipleship was. Indeed, it is interesting to see how thoroughly Matthew’s Gospel is all about discipleship. It is a gospel written for teaching and making disciples. Many scholars, noting how the gospel is organized with five significant teaching sermons by Jesus, believe it was a discipleship handbook for teachers and church leaders in the early church.

So, maybe surprisingly to us, disciples are made, not born again. And the presumption is that discipleship is a lifelong learning experience.

Discipleship in the Kingdom of God, however, is not so much about learning what to believe. It is not about knowing correct doctrine. Instead, it means the engagement of the whole life in following Jesus in the way of the Kingdom.

What is the content of the gospel we are supposed to teach to the nations? Well, Jesus makes it quite clear: “Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Strangely, most of the people who appeal to the Great Commission for their mandate very rarely look to the Gospel of Matthew itself for their content. They seem to focus on the act of conversion, accepting Jesus as your personal savior, often times looking to Paul’s letters for salvation messages. Rarely do they seriously consider the implications of living out the Sermon on the Mount or really explore the implications of the Great Commandment: To love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. Or to love your enemies.

Matthew’s Gospel focuses on Jesus’ teachings of action and deeds. In other words, the over-riding theme of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew’s gospel is justice. Justice is the name of the game in this gospel. Justice is the foundation and the fruit of the Kingdom of God: “Seek you first the Kingdom of God and its justice (or righteousness) and all these things will be given to you as well” says Matthew 6:33.

When asked about my ministry philosophy I usually focus on two main things: Grace and Justice. If you will, “grace” is the thing that prompts us to respond to God’s work in our lives. “Justice” is the discipleship thing; learning to follow Jesus in concrete actions in the world. That is what Jesus’ commission to his disciples is all about – learning to do the justice of the Kingdom of God. That is what Matthew is all about and that is what the Great Commission is all about.

Now, discipleship, following Jesus, has at its core “change” or “transformation.” Discipleship is not just about learning certain beliefs. Again, that is the focus of many churches in this culture. But, in reality, following Jesus is about behavior, changed behavior. It is, indeed, a call to learning a discipline that results in changed behavior. So when we hear the words “making disciples of all nations” we should be thinking “teaching people how to discipline their lives so they can do the commands of Jesus, to do the justice of the Kingdom.” Again, that is Matthew’s intent.

But what does that mean for the church? Well, first it does not mean that Christianity is merely beliefs about God with some good behavior thrown in.  Duke Divinity theologian Dr. Stanley Haurwas puts it this way: “We are Christians not because of what we believe, but because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus.” We do that, not only as a matter of a personal faith, but as a part of a community that practices the justice of God. It is in community that we learn how to be disciples.

One of the ways the community helps us learn to be disciples is in worship. In worship we learn the discipline of following Jesus. Now this might not be obvious. What does being in worship have to do with learning a discipline? This morning I’d like to survey two aspects of worship that teach us the discipline of discipleship. Yes, we do this worship thing every week but sometimes it’s good to take a look at what actually happens in worship, so that we won’t just take it for granted or just go through the motions.

Today I want to focus on two elements of our worship – not all of it because we would be here into the afternoon. I’ll visit some of the other elements of worship on a later date.

If you haven’t noticed before the order of worship in our bulletin has titles inserted at certain points to help us know what is going on. The first is “We Gather Together.” After Kelly helps to get us into the mood, if you will, with her prelude, the choral introit is meant to get our attention, an entreaty to sit up and take notice. In a sense, the introit is the moment we all cease to be just individuals and become a community.

What we are to take notice of is that God is calling us together for worship. It is God who calls us! The Call to Worship is an acknowledgement that we are here to worship God; we are here to praise God. The opening hymn and the prayer of praise are expressions of that praise. God calls us and we respond with hymns and words of praise. Praise God – it is what we do!

Now, in some churches this is all there is. They would say that our whole purpose in worship is to praise God, to ascribe worth to God. So it is that in some churches, the whole first 1/2 hour is the worship service, singing praise songs – lots of praise songs. The rest of the service – the sermon – is the teaching time, not the worship time. They actually describe it that way – worship time and teaching time.

For us, however, the opening section of worship – “We Gather Together” – is just one aspect of worship, because worship is more than just saying nice things about God. If worship is to be about discipleship-making there needs to be more.

Before we get to the next thing in worship however, a note about one other element in our “We Gather Together” section of our worship service – passing the peace. It is because God calls us to community that we greet each other with peace. True, we are friends and friends greet each other. But in this context we greet one another with words of peace because we have been called into the community of Christ.

The next element of worship is entitled “We Pray Together.” However, this is not just prayer. It is confession. It is in worship that we learn the discipline of confession; indeed, we learn to acknowledge our sin. Some churches have done away with confession because sin just isn’t a very popular subject. Too negative, they’d say. In some other churches there’s an overbearing emphasis on sin, particularly personal sin , or more precisely, “sins” in the plural. We are all depraved sinners and we mustn’t forget it. So it is pounded on, relentlessly. However, we practice a corporate confession of sin. We are all complicit, to some degree or other, in the moral failings of our world. We all, together, diminish God’s grace and neglect God’s justice. This is why, for the most part, our prayers of confession do not focus on us as individuals but as a community.

For the disciple of Jesus sin is an unavoidable aspect of our human condition. So the disciple of Jesus pays attention to – learns how to – name those aspects of our lives that stand in the way of our being Jesus’ disciples. We learn how it is we are misunderstanding or misapplying or missing all together the work of God’s justice in this world. In confession the disciple is reminded of what we need to pay attention to in order to do the work of justice in God’s Kingdom.

Being a disciple of Jesus means learning the skill – the craft – of being a disciple. It is a discipline. Note that the words ‘discipline’ and ‘disciple’ are from the same root. Doing this corporate confession is one of the ways in worship we practice the discipline of following Jesus.

Of course, tied to this act of confession is the practice of accepting forgiveness. Forgiveness is not something the world accepts too readily. It, too, is a skill we learn in the process of discipleship. The message of the gospel is that we will find our lives only to the extent we are capable of accepting forgiveness. Hence, our Assurance of Pardon is a crucial element of how “We Pray Together.”

This process of discipleship – of learning the skill of following Jesus – is not something we do alone. Indeed, if anything, we can only do it together. That is what worship is all about – learning together to be disciples.

So it is, we gather together in response to God’s call to community and we pray together in confession, accepting God’s forgiveness so we may learn how to be disciples of Jesus. These are just two of the ways we practice making disciples in our worship. As I said before, we’ll explore other aspects of our worship on a later day.

How do we live out the Great Commission? We worship – come together, praise God, give thanks, pray and confess. And we invite others to join us in the journey of discipleship. True, we may all be at different places in that journey, but we do it together. We do it together so we may work out God’s justice in the world. That’s what being a disciple of Jesus is all about. May we continue to hone the craft of discipleship as the community of Christ.  Amen.

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