Disciples Who Make Disciples – sermon on Matthew 28:16-20

June 11, 2017
Trinity A
View video of this sermon here.

Do you like a good mystery? Summer reading lists always include a section on mystery novels, and some authors, like Agatha Christie, have made a career of writing them. We usually associate “mystery” with fiction, but we aren’t so comfortable when it comes to talking about true mysteries. In fact, the Protestant church through the centuries has played down any interest in the mysteries of faith, beyond reciting “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

And yet, every time we receive Communion as Methodists, we give thanks for “this holy mystery” of Christ’s body and blood being shared with us, so that we might be for the world the body of Christ redeemed by his blood. Like it or not, following Jesus means engaging in things we can’t explain. Faith means buying into what you can’t prove, because if you could prove it, you wouldn’t need faith, would you! Sometimes, what moves us into deeper, more profound trust is our willingness to believe in the mystery.

We celebrate one of the holiest of mysteries today, on Trinity Sunday. It would be easy to get stuck in a bunch of poor analogies, trying to explain the unexplainable aspect of God’s identity as Three Persons in One God, trying to “de-mystify” the mystery. To understand the Trinity, we’d want to go first to scripture, and we’d run into a problem right away. You see, the Bible doesn’t use the word “trinity” or any kind of explanation for the Triune God – at all.

Trinity Sunday does give us two texts that come as close to offering a Trinitarian formula as you will find anywhere in the Bible. Genesis 1 – the story of creation – describes how the Creator and the Word and the Spirit worked together to make all that is, and to give it life. And at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus – the Word made Flesh – tells his disciples to make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It’s the only place in the gospels where we see all three persons of the Godhead identified together, and it’s given to us in Jesus’ own words.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Eleven disciples went to Galilee. Judas had not yet been replaced, and his absence was a reminder to all of them of their own betrayal, their own failure to stand by Jesus during his trial and crucifixion. Yet here they were, in Galilee, where Jesus showed up to meet them. They worshiped him, but some doubted.

The Greek grammar here is not very clear. It could mean, “all worshiped, but some of them also doubted,” or “some worshiped while others doubted” or “they all worshiped, and they all doubted, too.”

‘Doubt’ is probably too strong a word. The word used here is not an expression of disbelieving, so much as being undecided, or uncertain. The disciples were sure that Jesus was God, worthy of worship, but they weren’t sure what this was supposed to mean, or what to do with this new awareness.

Doesn’t that sound like us sometimes? Don’t we come to church so we can reinforce our faith by worshiping, because uncertainty seems to creep into our minds so often? We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, sure, but we get stuck wondering what to do or how, exactly, to live out our faith. We come to church to worship the God who created us, who saves us, who stays with us, and at the same time, we flounder in uncertainty about how to actually follow Jesus. Like the disciples, we worship and we doubt.

But notice what Jesus does. He comes to the disciples, where they are, in their worship and their uncertainty. And he offers them something completely unexpected. He doesn’t say, “Oh ye of little faith.” He doesn’t reprimand them or tell them to go get their doubts figured out and come back later.

Instead, he makes four statements that we have come to call “The Great Commission.” Each of these statements is an “all” statement.[1]

  • First, he reminds them that he holds all authority in heaven and earth.
  • He sends them out with a reminder of the promise made to Abraham, that all nations would be blessed by Abraham’s offspring. “Go make disciples of all nations,” Jesus says.
  • Then he adds to this command, “baptize them and teach them to obey
    all the things I’ve taught you.”
  • Finally, Jesus adds a promise: “I will be with you al

Christ answers our uncertainty with these certainties: All authority, among all people, with all Christ’s teaching, for all time.

We like to focus on the part about baptizing disciples in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because it affirms our belief in the Triune God. But if we consider how that phrase fits into the grammar of the Great Commission, we find that it isn’t the primary idea here. It’s a subordinate clause. “Make disciples” is the central command.[2]

In other words, being a disciple means making disciples. Going, baptizing, and teaching are the steps in that process, and each of those steps is bathed in this comprehensive assurance that Christ has all authority to send us among all people to teach them all the things he taught, and he will always be with us as we do this good work.

David Lose[3] writes that we often think of the Trinity “in terms of what it is,” when it might be more helpful to focus on what it does. Not just creating, redeeming, and sustaining as individual members of the Godhead, but more in the light of this promise to be with us always. That promise flows out of the common identity claimed by Father Son and Holy Spirit, that whatever else God is, God is most certainly Love. St. Augustine liked to describe the Trinity as “God the Lover, the Beloved, and Love itself.”

See, you don’t have to really understand the Trinity as a concept or a doctrine, and I’d be skeptical of anyone who says they get it completely. But I think all of us can grasp this much: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit share so much love that it spills out into the world, and invites each of us, all of us, into its sacrificial, self-giving, all-encompassing promise to be with us for all time.

Lose writes, “And I think that, ultimately, we are called to be church in a similar way. Loving, respecting, and caring for each other in a way that spills out into our neighborhoods and communities in tangible, beneficial, and attractive ways.

“And that’s part of what promises do – they bind us together, they provide hope, and they create courage to live with each other, support each other, forgive each other, and encourage each other. At the heart of every authentic and nurturing relationship, when you think about it, is a promise. A promise that is a whole lot like Jesus’ promise: I will be with you. I am for you. You can count on me. I’ve got your back. Let’s see what we can do together.”[4]

What Christ calls us to do together, in his full authority, is to be disciples who make disciples.

So here it is again:

All authority. Christ not only claims the authority given to him by the Father, he vests us with that same authority. That’s what it means to go out in Jesus’ name, to pray in Jesus’ name, to serve in Jesus’ name. We do it all under his authority, representing Christ.

Go to all people. While I am certain that Jesus calls people to go to far away places – places like Moldova and the Dominican Republic, for example – bringing good news to people who have never heard it, I also am convinced that we have a mission field right here at our own doorstep. There are people living within two blocks of this building who have never heard the good news that Jesus loves them.

As we were preparing our Healthy Church Initiative community profile last year, we learned that 85% of the people living within a five-mile radius of our church do not consider it important to attend worship services. More than half of the people who live here in New Ulm do not consider themselves spiritual persons, and only about 18% think that faith is an important part of their lives. We don’t have to travel very far to make new disciples. We only need to step outside the door.

And, as we learned when we read Unbinding Your Heart together, we don’t have to act like pushy door-to-door salespeople, either. The most effective way we can spread the Good News is to invite someone to come to church with us. That’s it. Invitation is the number one effective strategy for connecting people who don’t know Jesus to the community of faith. So what are we supposed to do when people accept the invitation?

Go baptize them, Jesus says. Now, he isn’t encouraging us to see how many people we can arbitrarily get wet. When Jesus says, “baptize them in the power of this three-fold Name,” he is offering baptism as a sign of that enfolding love we experience as members of the Body of Christ. Baptism is a symbol of being included, of being made a part of the whole.

Jesus is asking us to include, to embrace, to accept all people and welcome them into the family of God. He’s talking about the people whose habits and education and lifestyles are different from ours. He’s talking about the poor and powerless, the sick and the hungry, the immigrant, the mentally challenged, those suffering from addiction, people who’ve been abused and neglected their entire lives. Go baptize them, Jesus says. Bring them into yourselves, into this Body of Christ, and be one with them as I and the Father and the Spirit are one.

And teach them all the things I commanded you, Jesus says. Commands like:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Be a servant if you would be great. Suffer the little children to come unto me. Take care of the widows and fatherless. Spread my love around to people you don’t think deserve it, just as I have lavished my love on you, who do not deserve it. Follow me. Be my disciple.

The true meaning of the word ‘disciple’ is student, or intern. Just as those early disciples learned to do the things Jesus did by walking with him day after day, so we are invited into that life-changing, day-by-day walk with Jesus, doing the things Jesus did.

Theologian Dallas Willard writes, “I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life. Note, please, I am not learning from him how to lead his life. … I need to be able to lead my life as he would lead it if he were I.”[5]

Jesus claims all authority, then gives it to us, his interns, to go to all people, enfold all of them, teach all of them, making all people Jesus Interns. It seems like a Mission Impossible, but this mission, should you choose to accept it, carries with it a huge promise.

“Look,” Jesus says, “I am with you through all time, even until eternity has reached its completion.” We do not have to do this on our own. In fact, we’d better not try to. The Holy Spirit continues Christ’s work in us and through us, until eternity is complete. Christ is with us. Christ invites us into that loving fellowship we call the Trinity, so that we can invite each other into the same love, the same fellowship, with the Father and the Spirit. It is only from there, from inside the loving embrace of our God, that we can do what he sent us to do: be disciples who make disciples of Jesus Christ, for the transformation of the world. Amen.

[1] Richard Beaton, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=86

[2] Michael J Wilkins, NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, 951:

“The Great Commission contains one primary, central command, the imperative “make disciples,” with three subordinate participles, ‘go,’ ‘baptizing,’ and ‘teaching.’ The imperative explains the central thrust of the commission while the participles describe aspects of the process. These subordinate participles take on imperatival force because of the imperative main verb and so characterize the ongoing mandatory process of discipleship to Jesus.47

“47. For the way in which participles attendant to an imperative accrue imperatival force, see Wallace, Greek Grammar, 640–45; also Carson, “Matthew,” 597; Hagner, Matthew, 2:886–87.”

[3] David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/06/trinity-sunday-a-the-great-promise/

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dallas Willard, “How To Be a Disciple” http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=336

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