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May 17, 2020 Sermon “From 11 Frightened Disciples: Jesus Gave Some Marching Orders”

May 17, 2020 Sermon
“From 11 Frightened Disciples:
Jesus Gave Some Marching Orders”

Scripture Readings

Our first reading will be the guiding passage of this sermon series, a reminder of how the disciples began the evening of the first Easter locked away in a room out of fear.  NOTE: Today, our first reading is expanded to include the next few verses.

John 20:19-23

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Matthew 28:16-20

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.”

“From 11 Frightened Disciples: Jesus Gave Some Marching Orders”

What does it mean to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus? What does it look like, what kinds of things do followers of Jesus DO?

These related questions, they get to the heart of our faith, don’t they?

Sometimes I like to imagine what would happen if some aliens, beings from another planet, were to discover earth and study this planet’s inhabitants for a while.  I’m not saying I think this will happen; I like to think about it as an intellectual exercise for the following reason: my main focus is to imagine IF these aliens would notice that there’s a group of people that behaves differently from everyone else, differently in very noticeable and identifiable ways, even to aliens who have no experience with our history and culture.  (Aliens, being objective with regard to humans, would notice such a difference if it existed, wouldn’t they?)  Would they be able to see an amazing movement of people who are so different from everyone else because they are followers of Jesus of Nazareth?  And if these aliens did notice such a distinct group of people, WHAT is it that they would observe about us Christians that would set us apart from everyone else?

Seems like an odd exercise, doesn’t it?  And yet, it seems to me that this is EXACTLY the kind of thing God envisioned when God FIRST called a people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Israelites.  Those Israelites were supposed to follow a bunch of rules that would identify them so clearly as DIFFERENT from everyone else that they would very clearly and observably be identified as “holy”, as set apart for God, by any objective observer.

When Jesus came along, I don’t think God’s idea with respect to this had changed.  Jesus even told his disciples at one point how everyone would know them as different, saying “ By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35.)  Isn’t it amazing to think that love could be so different as to set an entire group of people apart from all others?  So, we know God intended for this “set apart” thing to continue on with Jesus’ followers.

Which brings me to our sermon series and our scripture readings for today.  Our sermon series is exploring what happened after Jesus’ resurrection that propelled Jesus’ disciples to transform from being a group of people who were afraid and locked away from the world to becoming a movement that spread to the ends of the earth.  Every Sunday during this series, we’ve looked at how John described that gathering of disciples on the night of the first Easter Sunday.  Today, for the first time, I’ve expanded our reading of that interaction to see what happened NEXT.  And it’s incredibly relevant, incredibly important.

Because what happened next is that Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Can you imagine?  Can you imagine all the things these words would stir up in the hearts and minds of the disciples?

  • Remember, just a few moments ago, the disciples thought Jesus had been defeated by the world, defeated by death.
  • But now, Jesus was standing before them, resurrected, victorious, proving that Jesus had NOT been defeated.
  • And now, while they were trying to process the miraculous nature of this victory, Jesus compared THEM to HIMSELF.  God sent Jesus, and in the same way Jesus would send them, meaning, they were gonna have some power.
  • And sure enough, Jesus’ very next act was to breathe upon them the Holy Spirit, the very same Holy Spirit Jesus said would give them power.  And Jesus even told them they would have the power to forgive sins (which to us might not sound like much, but, back then, in that culture, that was the of GOD.)
  • Of course, this great power of God that they were receiving, it was also the very thing that had gotten Jesus into trouble.  Remember, saying he had the power to forgive sins is what turned the authorities against him…because forgiving sins was reserved ONLY for God.  So, even amidst these thoughts of having Jesus’ power, there must have been at least a small added dose of fear, somewhere in the back of their minds.  Might Jesus’ words mean they would be next to be crucified?

I hope you see what a big deal these words were: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  I believe THIS was the true turning point for the disciples, the moment in which they realized that they no longer needed to be afraid because they…had…power, and they were being sent by God to accomplish an amazing mission of transformation in the world.

By the way, is there ANYTHING else in all the world that you could get more pumped up about than the knowing realization that God is sending YOU and that God is equipping YOU for your ministry?

Really, try to imagine it.  I’m trying to think of how the other big things in life stack up against this one:

  • You just got a promotion at work vs. the almighty God of all creation choosing you and equipping and sending you to accomplish God’s desires for the world.  Which is more important?  Which should get you more pumped up?
  • You just got whatever new thing it is you’ve been desiring for months or years (a new television, a new computer, a new car, a new house) vs. the almighty God of all creation choosing you and equipping and sending you to accomplish God’s desires for the world.  Which is more important?  Which should get you more pumped up?

Now, I get it that there really are some things that we, as people, might struggle to place behind this amazing news from God that we have been called and equipped and sent to do God’s will in the world: marriage, the birth of children and grandchildren, these kinds of things.  But the point is true: there are very few things, VERY…FEW…THINGS, in this lifetime that should be able to get us pumped up the way this news should get us pumped up.

And so I look around at all the Christians I see and I wonder: where is the pumped up?

  • Is the pumped up in sanctuaries on Sunday mornings, where so many Jesus followers clamour to get into worship that there’s standing room only until we can build bigger sanctuaries, and Christians enthusiastically worship for hours upon end until being told they must go home? 
  • Is the pumped up in Christian education classrooms on Sunday mornings or during the week, where Christians are so hungry and thirsty to understand God’s word that they read ahead and show up with probing questions and even engage in deep dialog…until they are told they must go home to get some rest?
  • Is the pumped up in Christian outreach opportunities, with dozens upon dozens of Christians vying for the chance to make a difference in the lives of others everytime a need is brought to the Church’s attention?
  • Is the pumped up in stewardship, with Christians seeking to give so much back to God and for the continued ministry of Jesus that congregations struggle to find enough needs on which to spend all the offered money?
  • Is the pumped up even in fellowship, with so many groups clamouring to use the space in church buildings that two, three, or even four fellowship halls are needed to keep up with the demand?

There are so many ways the pumped up could manifest itself, maybe DOES manifest itself. I’ve got some thoughts on where the pumped up is or isn’t, but I’ll leave it to each of you to prayerfully decide what you think.

The point is that Jesus provided this amazing news that motivated the disciples, the news that they were being sent by Jesus the same way God had sent Jesus. Jesus provided the amazing news that Jesus’ followers have been called and equipped to do amazing, earth-changing, powerful things.

And we should be wondering: if we lived out of that knowledge – if WE, First Christian Church, Grand Junction, lived out of the knowledge that we have been called, equipped, and sent to do amazing things – would our individual and communal faith-lives look different than they currently do? Would the whole of our lives look different than they do? If we viewed every…single…moment of our lives as a continuation of Jesus’ ministry, would daily life for us look different than it does? And if the answer is “yes”, what are we doing? What are we waiting for? Because we HAVE been called, equipped, and sent to continue Jesus’ ministry. That is WHO…WE…ARE! (Or, at least, it’s who we’re supposed to be.)

(PAUSE)

So…maybe, maybe we’re wondering what it is that we’re supposed to do. Maybe “continue Jesus’ ministry” is too big a thing for us to wrap our minds around. Maybe. I get it, continuing Jesus’ ministry is a seemingly incomprehensibly large task. We could get lost, paralyzed even, just in trying to figure out the details of what that means. Fortunately, Jesus took care of this for us. I think that’s what our reading from Matthew’s gospel – some words from Jesus known as “The Great Commission” – are about. These words that are Jesus’ last words in Matthew’s gospel clearly communicate to the original disciples and to us what it means to continue Jesus’ ministry; these words explain our call.

So let’s take a few moments to consider what it would mean, what it would look like, for us to respond to these specific elements of being sent out by Jesus.  God sent Jesus, and Jesus sent us…to do THESE things:

  • “Make disciples of all nations” – This might have meant something different for the original disciples than for us.  After all, Christianity at that time was confined to a small group of people locked away in a room.  “Make disciples of all nations” meant take Jesus’ message outside of that room and keep on going until there’s no place left to go.  It also meant “go to the Gentiles”, something the disciples may not have done without a specific command.  It’s more challenging for us – maybe. We live in a world in which we expect everyone already KNOWS Jesus…or at least ABOUT Jesus.  Who are we going to tell?  My friends, while most people throughout the world might be familiar with Jesus, I would submit a relatively small percentage have actually become DISCIPLES.  Jesus didn’t just tell us to tell people; he told us to “make disciples”.  There is work to be done…STILL! 

    Oh, and also, these words got the disciples out of that room.  There were no disciples to be made in that room described by John; everyone in that room was ALREADY a disciple.  Certainly, we modern Christians could learn something from this aspect of these words, we who like to gather in our church buildings and have even come to call the buildings “church”.  If “church” is only what happens in our buildings, we are much more like the disciples locked away in a room BEFORE Jesus showed up than we are like the disciples after Jesus commanded them to “GO”.  So, here’s what I think it would look like for us to continue making disciples of all nations: every single Christian, not just the hired staff, getting in touch with WHY they are followers of Jesus, refining their WHY into a message to share with everyone they encounter, and then actually SHARING the message with everyone they encounter (especially everyone outside the church building)…everywhere they go.  Either this gospel is worth having or it’s not.  And if it’s worth having, it’s worth sharing.  And if it’s not worth sharing, if it’s not even life-changing enough for you to want others to have it, why are you here?
  • “Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  We in the church love baptisms, don’t we?  They give us energy; they help us remember our own baptismal transformation; they give us hope for the future, a future with MORE disciples. But, for us, FCCGJ, when was the last time we had a baptism?  And it’s not just because we’re older and don’t have many children.  Baptisms are a measure of our reaching OUTSIDE the room and MAKING DISCIPLES.  If we’re not baptizing, we haven’t achieved “making disciples.”  So, what would it look like for us to baptize people more?  This one is not difficult to envision.  If we do more of the sharing described a moment ago, the baptisms will follow.  HOWEVER, it’s worth considering what it would look like for us to emphasize baptism… MORE.  For half a century (at least), main-line protestants have emphasized membership, seemingly at the expense of baptism.  “Let’s get more members (with an implied ‘from other congregations.’)”  In order to baptize more frequently, we’ve also got to talk about the importance of baptism, talk about why it matters and what it does.  Maybe even have regular celebrations to remember our own baptisms regularly while we’re working up to actual baptisms!
  • “Teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”   I remember when I first started out in ministry.  Seminary professors, mentors in ministry, even peers all told me that my sermons were “teaching sermons”, rather than whatever else these folks thought a sermon should be.  And I remember asking what was wrong with teaching sermons, especially since the people I encountered in the pews didn’t seem to know nearly enough about what’s in the Bible to be able to apply it to their lives without more teaching.  Y’all, I don’t know when it started – I only know it’s been happening since I entered seminary 21 years ago – but I do know that Christian education in the mainline congregations with which I have familiarity has been on the decline.  There aren’t as many teachers…and there aren’t as many students.  So…what would it look like to “teach them to obey everything [Jesus] has commanded us?”  Well, it starts with all of us (and I do mean ALL of us) making Bible study, learning the scriptures from someone who KNOWS more than you do, a priority.  I’m guessing that if every single person in FCCGJ attended Bible study regularly, every single member would feel more comfortable talking about (and therefore teaching) the Bible more regularly.  You might not always be teaching with your words; you can teach ALSO with your actions.  You’ve got to KNOW the Bible to live it well enough to teach it by your living.  Oh, and there would be another effect of this.  If we all attended Bible study regularly, other people we know would take notice.  They’d wonder why you’re never available to go to a movie (or do something else) on whatever night you attend Bible study.  If even a SMALL percentage of our friends took notice and decided to come along, we would add to those being taught.

OK, those are the specifics.  But there is one big picture thing I haven’t mentioned that I want to mention.  When Jesus gave these instructions, called The Great Commission, Jesus gave goals that were so big, so audacious, so unachievable by human power, that the accomplishment of those goals could ONLY be attributed to God, to divine power.  Fast forward to today.  When I hear church leaders – even ministers I’ve known – talk about goals for congregations and even goals for the general Church, in my estimation they tend to want to make the goals manageable, relatively easily achievable…by human standards.  Y’all, let’s remember that Jesus did NOT give that kind of goal.  Jesus gave seemingly impossible goals as part of the commissioning of the disciples – make disciples of all nations.  Perhaps one of the failings of the modern mainline Church is that we’ve set our goals too low to be the kinds of things for which we must trust in God to achieve?

(PAUSE)

I wonder, to others on this earth, even to aliens (if they were to visit), do we Christians stand out as SENT by the almighty God, Creator of all things?  Or do we just look like a slightly different version of everyone else?

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time we get back to living as different, as SENT…by Jesus, by God.

Amen.