16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[a]
I guess you know by now that tomorrow is Bonnie’s last official day at the Kirk as Office Administrator. For months I lived well in denial. I was able to compartmentalize – the tasks of preparing for the transition… welcoming Cyndi on board a couple of weeks ago… and pretending that Bonnie would still be around. I can pretend no more.
It won’t be the same without Bonnie in the office every day… but she has done a good job to prepare us. And especially prepare Cyndi. For a couple of weeks now, she has been working with Cyndi—who has taken notes upon notes as Bonnie teaches her what to expect… what to do… and how to begin her role as the Office Administrator.
I get the sense that something like that is going on at the end of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is about to leave the disciples behind as he ascends to heaven. He is preparing them… ready to pass on his work to them… I hope they took notes. Perhaps the Gospels are their notes.
There are only 11 left now. They lost Judas… and in some of his final words… he gives them their instructions. Simply put:
Go… make…baptize.. teach…
Go make disciples…
Teach them to obey everything “I’ve commanded you… and don’t worry… remember (sort of like Bonnie reminded us in the office)… I’ll be with you always—you can call on me anytime…
Those are our instructions… that is our mission, should we decide to accept it.
Go, make, baptize, teach. I’m thinking those words are familiar to you. They should be. We quote that passage every time a parent presents a child for baptism… and every time an adult is baptized. They remind us of the “why” behind the baptism. It is not just to welcome them into the church family… it is not just an expression of our love and support for them… It is one way we are fulfilling the mission Jesus gave us:
Go, make disciples, baptize, teach…
I wanted to remind us of those basic instructions as we begin another educational year at the Kirk. The Kirk is involved in all sorts of mission that I am so proud of: mission to Guatemala, WIHN, Habitat, our reaching out into our neighborhood this summer…I’m so very proud of those ministries.
But there is another mission waiting for us every Sunday right here starting at 9:45am. It is a mission that takes place other times during the week as well. It is a mission to our children, our youth, and even the adults who come week in and week out. It is a mission Jesus also gave us just as surely as he gave us a mission to care for the poor… To invite people… nurture our children, youth and adults in becoming not just nice people… not just good citizens… or good family members… but faithful disciples… students… followers – call it what you will—of Jesus Christ.
Go, Make Disciples, Baptize, Teach. That’s the heart of mission.
F0r most of Christian history, the church placed great emphasis on this. We called it the great commission. When people were illiterate, the church put up stained glass windows to teach the story of faith. I don’t know how many Cathedrals Sharon and I saw in France whose stained glass windows basically rehearsed the story of faith… and especially Jesus. After the reformation, education was key to the reform… Opening the Bible for the layperson to read… not just the clergy. Catechisms came out in order to teach people the faithful. A few of you in the older generations may have even memorized one. Presbyterians were key in starting the Sunday School movement that has trained generations of Christians.
But the signs have been coming for some time that we are becoming more and more illiterate when it comes to matters of faith. Sunday School attendance is declining, even among the Baptists. Faith is seen more and more not as essential to living but more of an extracurricular activity that is nice if one can make the time for it.
My theology professor, John Leith was concerned about this way back in 1990 as he talked about what he considered to be the crisis in the church. He said, that crisis in the church is theological, including church practices that develop out of theology.
“On a more basic level, the crisis in the church is a crisis of faith….The renewal of the church depends on the integrity of the faith and on the practices by which the worshipping, believing community lives…the foundation is Jesus Christ…”
25 years later I would say the situation has not improved very much. It seems harder and harder to find people—even people raised in the church who know “what they believe and why they believe it”.
That does not seem to be true for people of other faith. Ask a Mormon, “what they believe and why they believe it” and most laypeople can tell you. Especially around the Temple in Salt Lake City. They know the Book of Mormon. On my two trips to Turkey as we got to know Muslims, we would ask them “what they believe and why they believe it” and most of those laypeople can tell you. They know the Koran. And may I point out that those are two religions that are growing.
Hard truth: Many Christians simply do not know the basics— in a recent State of the Bible report by the Barna group and the American Bible Society, less than half of the adults who said they were somewhat knowledgeable about the bible were able to name the first five books of the Bible… less than half knew that John the Baptist was NOT one of the apostles. I’ve heard that there are some who have grown up int he church who cannot tell you that the Gospels are part of the NT… Need I say more?
The time may have come for us to refocus on the mission of making disciples starting right at the baptism font… With families who are as committed to nurturing faith as they are learning math or English or science… Knowing that long after college graduation and after athletics are a memory— it is faith that will guide the life journey of children as they become adults.
This morning I read a story told by Alyssa Philips in an Upper Room devotion that illustrates this. She shared:
“MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with Jesus’ amazing love came over two decades ago, when my first marriage was crumbling. Though I was an agnostic at the time, one afternoon I knelt down beside our bed, weeping, and heard myself cry out almost involuntarily, “Jesus, please help me.” In the wake of that prayer a peace flooded over me that did pass all understanding. In the months that followed that awesome experience, the fabric of my life continued its relentless unraveling. My heart broke as my husband decided to leave our home and our marriage. Yet spiritually I experienced this time as one of great blessing. Immersing myself in the Bible day after day and late into the night, several translations of scripture and dozens of theological commentaries piled all over the desk, I had one goal in mind: to learn to listen to Jesus.
One night a frightening thought hit me: Aren’t you afraid of going crazy, shutting yourself up all alone like this with all these books, night after night after night? In response, I heard a reassuring voice with the ears of my heart: Keep focusing on me in those Gospel stories. Pay attention to my effect on people, the way I healed them and brought them to new wholeness. You have nothing to fear if you’re centered in me. Just keep listening. Gradually, as I listened to the many different “voices” I heard, I learned to distinguish between the whispered words of the Holy Spirit and the thoughts that reflected my anxious fears. I came to understand that the Holy Spirit would always point me to the Bible and make Jesus’ voice alive to me.”
I hope you noticed how learning the Scriptures were key to her faith story.
On this Kick off Sunday, may I make two suggestions of how we might go about making disciples in and around the church?
One has to do with simply learning the Christian story. Again, John Leith said in a book for confirmation, “the life of the church today is impoverished by a loss of Christian memory… It is difficult to see how the church can pass on the faith from generation to generation without becoming familiar or committing to memory some of the basic texts and stories.”(By the way, he wrote this in 1965 when I was 9 years old when memorizing texts were not in style… and I grew up not knowing the basic stories of Scripture… even though I was in the church every week)
Leith suggested we need to learn some basic texts if we are going to basically go, make disciples, baptize and teach… Here are some of his suggestions with a couple of my own:
(See them all in the bulletin… and if you don’t know them, how about committing yourself to learning them)
The books of the Bible in Order
The 10 commandments
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)
The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13 or Luke 11:2-4)
The Great Commandment (Matthew 22: 36-40 or Luke 10:25-28)
Matthew 6:25-34 (do not worry about your life… today’s trouble, sufficient for the day)
John 14:1-7 (Do not let your hearts be troubled)
1 Corinthians 13
I would add Luke 15- especially story of the prodigal son
And Micah 6:6-8 (What does the Lord Require of you)
Creeds: The Apostles and Nicene Creed
Hymns: All People that on Earth Do Dwell
A Mighty Fortress is our God
Prayers: of Confession, Table prayers, Thanksgiving
I would add to his list the learning of one of the gospels that teach you about the life and character of Jesus… who we say is God in the flesh… who we are called to follow as disciples—students.
It seems that if we are to make mature disciples, there is some basic data to learn. Which makes sense. You can’t be an English student or teacher without reading certain stories… You cannot be a scientist or mathematician without learning certain proofs or theories… You cannot be a successful athlete without learning some drills and basics.
You cannot expect someone to become a great or even average musician without learning the scales and some basics. So how can we expect to be faithful followers of Jesus if we have not learned the basics?
This should be natural for Presbyterians… we have always been big on loving God with our minds.
But there is one other essential thing that goes into making a disciple… that you can’t find in a book… otherwise we could make disciples online… or hand them books… like studying for the SAT or AP exams.
The faith is always nurtured and passed on through relationships. People who live the faith by example are the best curriculum. Though I did not grow up becoming Biblically literate in the church, I was blessed to have wonderful teachers, pastors and leaders who nurtured my faith by example and through love. Oh, I don’t mean to say that I didn’t learn anything…
Choir was key… I learned so much about faith through singing. Before youth group many of us would go to choir rehearsal. I learned scripture in the music. We sang Godspell and other music that contained content of the faith. I learned the Nicene Creed in Youth Choir as we sang a folk mass to the guitar.
Youth group was key to my development. My parents made sure we went. It was not an option. Retreats were key. I’ll never forget the weekend our youth group spent with Art Ross studying “JB” – a modern play based on the story of Job. We explored the problem of evil and suffering. That’s something a teen can get their teeth into. So many experiences – no one by itself… but an accumulation of them… with leaders who cared for us and taught us by example… and who, in their own modeling said to us, “This is very important…”
Each experience communicated through loving, caring relationships.
It was that way for Will Willimon as well. I love what he says as he shares his memories of growing up Christian in South Carolina… it was people who were key in shaping his faith.
“There was Mr. Sanders, who in his primary division class would give us fifty cents for memorizing the names of the books of the Old Testament in order. Those who could recite both Old and New Testament got a dollar… What I liked most about his class were the times he led us marching, with tambourine and flags, around the Sunday School assembly room, to the accompaniment of the hymn, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations”. And when the woman from the Older Women’s class came up to complain about the noise, as she always did when we wer ein the mood for marching, Mr. Sanders would shout above the din, “Aren’t these children wonderful!”
The main thing Mr. Sanders gave us was himself. His time. His faith.
Mr. Sanders could make you believe you were wonderful because, as he said one day when reflected on the significance of a flower he had brought from his garden, “God loves everything he has made. And God made you.”
During my teenage Sunday School years, John Terry would take the Bible in one hand and, in a voice loud enough to transcend whatever one was still in a stupor from because of the Saturday night before, he would tell us, ‘what old Paul is up to in Romans.’ The day he leveled with us on how tough it was to be a Christian and still run a construction business convinced me that trying to live what ‘old Paul’ taught would be challenge enough for any person’s life…..”
Thanks to Mr. Sanders… Mr. Terry… and faithful members like I see every week here at the Kirk… and faithful families who participate… the church is still fulfilling the mission Jesus gave us: “Go… make disciples… baptize… teach…”
Today, I want to close by simply saying thank you… to every teacher, leader and member of the Kirk who said yes to the call to love and nurture our children, youth and fellow adults… Know, that every time you show up… and lead and teach… Every time… you are doing exactly what Jesus hoped we would do:
“Go… make disciples… baptize… teach…”
Thank you and remember, especially when it is hard, remember… you are not alone… Jesus is with you always… always…always… How do I know? I learned it in Sunday School! Amen.