By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
“Go, and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19-20) We call it the Great Commission. It’s stood for ages, and it still stands today, as the church’s call to arms. So, why is this so hard for us Presbyterians? Why do we give evangelism such a bum rap? I can think of three reasons:
• One, we’re temperamentally reserved. We’re not overly demonstrative in showing our emotions or verbose in expressing our feelings about sensitive matters. We don’t like to talk openly about money or sex; why should we be different in talking about our relationship to God? This is personal stuff, and to air it publicly seems a little uncouth.
• Two, we’re socially restrained. We don’t like to impose ourselves on others, and we don’t like others imposing themselves on us. We try to be gracious about inviting others into our fellowship, but we don’t want to be pushy about it. We think it’s incongruous for the church to market its wares or openly solicit new members.
• Three, we’re theologically grounded in the doctrine of election. We believe the church is made up of those whom God has called to bear his name and sing his praise. It’s not we who decide who belongs to the people of God, but God alone. If the Spirit of God stirs your heart and quickens your spirit, so be it; if not, who are to interfere?
So, as Presbyterians, we’re temperamentally reserved, socially restrained and theologically grounded in the doctrine of election. No wonder they call us, “the frozen chosen”! And while we might be content to live with that, there’s no escaping the fact that Jesus said, “Go, and make disciples of all nations…”
These were his parting words, his final commandment, and it’s up to us to carry it out to the best of our ability. And so, this morning I’d like for us to take another look at the Great Commission and see how we might take it more seriously in a way that’s consistent with our Presbyterian heritage. The passage begins, “But the eleven disciples went into Galilee…”
The number eleven should stand out like a sore thumb. It’s an ominous reminder of Judas’ betrayal, and it symbolizes the imperfect state of the church.
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It used to bother me when we’d gather for worship, that not everyone would be present. My first three years out of college I was a high school band director, and if there was even one empty chair in the rehearsal hall I wanted to know why. The music was not complete unless every part was played. Well, I’ve been a minister for thirty-four years now, and I’ve never once seen a congregation assembled in its entirety. We do the best with what we can muster on any given Sunday morning.
The eleven went to Galilee, back to their old stomping grounds. And, according to Matthew, they assembled on “the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.”
We’re not told which mountain the disciples went to, but we do know that, in the Bible, mountains symbolize the abiding place of God. Moses went up on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments; the Jews went up to Mount Zion to worship; Jesus went up to Mount Calvary to be crucified for the sins of the world. Where else would you expect the disciples to go to meet their risen Lord except on a mountain?
Matthew says they went up to the mountain which Jesus had directed them, “When they saw him, they bowed down to him, but some doubted.” You can translate this two ways, that there were some slackers in the group or that even the most faithful have their misgivings.
This is something we ought to be able to identify with: There are varying degrees of faith represented in every congregation. There are those of you whose faith is seasoned and mature, and there are those of you who are still unsure of God’s faithfulness and his love. To be honest, there’s a mixture of faith and doubt within each of us.
One of my favorite prayers is from the Gospel of Mark, where a father brought his child to Jesus to be healed. Before Jesus healed the boy, he said to the father, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” And the father cried, “I believe. Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
Doubt and faith go hand in hand. The fact that you can’t prove the existence of God makes trusting in God all the more remarkable. They believed, and they doubted. And to both their faith and their lack of faith, Jesus said:
“All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.
Go, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you.”
So, how can we take this Great Commission more seriously? It’s as simple as 1-2-3.
One: Go. That’s the first word of the Great Commission, and it’s an imperative. God commands us to be proactive. It’s not enough to sit back and enjoy your relationship with God and each other, accepting those who may, from time to time, wander into the sanctuary. You’re to take the initiative and make the first move. This may not come naturally, and it may not be easy, but it’s the first step to taking the Great Commission seriously.
And so, when you see someone sitting near you on Sunday morning that you don’t know, introduce yourself. Offer a word of welcome. Is that too much to ask? If it happens to be a long-time member who hasn’t been here in years, well, so be it. They’ll get over it. More than likely it’ll be a newcomer, and your willingness to reach out, in itself, will convey a message of hospitality and an invitation for others to be a part of our family of faith.
And, in between Sunday mornings, take it upon yourself to introduce yourself to those moving into your neighborhood or joining your civic club or hiring on where you work. Be the first to welcome and invite those you meet to visit your church.
We’re told that 80 percent of folks visiting a church for the first time do so because someone they respected invited them to come, and then met them at the door.
Step one is: Go. And step two is: Make disciples. Note that Jesus did not say, “Go and recruit church members.” What the church needs least is to have its rolls filled with members who are not committed to the Lord Jesus Christ.
No, Jesus commands us to go and make disciples. The implication is that disciples are made, not born. God may call us from birth to be his children, but someone has to give us the training to be disciples.
A disciple is one who is disciplined, who conforms to the standards and expectations of his teacher. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are disciplined by his teachings and example.
The best way to make disciples – perhaps the only lasting way – is to be disciplined yourself, then share those disciplines with others, saying things like: “Well, this is what works best for me … this is what I believe … this is how I try to respond in situations like that.” You can only teach what you know and what you believe and what you practice.
In 2001, my son, John, wrote an article for his church newsletter comparing Aggie traditions and the Aggie spirit with how we pass on the Christian faith from one generation to the next. He said if we did half the job teaching our children and sharing with others the joy of a life in Christ as Aggies do passing on Aggie traditions and the Aggie spirit to their children and to incoming students, our churches would be overflowing. We’d have a waiting list of people wanting to get in. Maybe instead of new member orientation, we ought to start having Fish Camp!
Seriously. When I was being interviewed for this job, Kathy Sustaire and Michael Brundeen took me on a walking tour of the A&M campus. They pointed out landmarks along the way and taught me such things as not to walk on the grass around the MSC or wear my cap indoors.
Before we got to the other side, I was almost ready for my first “whoop”! Go and make disciples. Start by strengthening your own spiritual disciplines. Then share them with others. Take time to sit down and explain to others what we believe, what we do and why. Tell them such things as:
• We go to church on Sunday morning to praise God and listen for God’s Word, not to be entertained.
• We study the scriptures to find meaning and direction for our lives.
• We seek to be a blessing to others not because we have to, but because we’re grateful for the many ways God has blessed us.
• We pray morning, noon and night to thank God for his mercies and ask God to be with those in need.
• When trouble comes, we look to God for comfort and strength.
• In times of uncertainty, we’re not afraid because we know that God is with us, we are not alone, his grace is sufficient for every need.
• We believe all things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purposes.
• And we believe that nothing shall ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
So, step two is: Make disciples. And step three is: Share the Good News with everyone you meet: “Go, and make disciples of all nations.” The gospel of Jesus Christ is inclusive. It’s not just for us, but for everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord.
Our tendency is to be attracted to those like us: “Birds of a feather flock together.” And it’s true: If it were only up to us, the church would be a pretty homogeneous group. But Jesus commands us to reach out to those who are different, to people of other races, other nationalities and other religious backgrounds and work together for the common good.
And you don’t have to look far. Just look across the street. I venture to say there are more people at home in this very neighborhood on any given Sunday morning than there are at church.
The question is: Are you willing to go and make disciples of your neighbors across the street and across town, different though they may be?
Well, here’s the gist of it all: Jesus left us with a Great Commission: Go and make disciples of all the nations. To take it seriously,
• we have to be proactive, take the initiative, make the first move;
• we have to be disciplined by his teaching and example and share those disciplines with others;
• and we have to be willing to embrace those who are different, letting the love of Christ alone be the tie that binds us together as one.
Well, don’t just sit there. Go and make disciples … in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Copyright 2005, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.