This is my sermon from last week at Redemption Church. If you are a pastor feel free to copy and steal anything that might help you as you prepare to lead your own congregation in worship. I have to acknowledge up front that I got the knowing/doing v. being/relating rubric from my friend Tim Keel.
2014.06.15 – Trinity Sunday
Matthew 28:19-20 – Make Disciples
VIDEO: Steve martin Evangelism
How many of you at some point went to a service, conference, camp, or concert & you had to contend w/his kind of a shtick? I got this a lot when I was growing up. I was Southern Baptist – so it came w/the territory. I accepted Jesus about twice a year there for awhile. I think I just I figured, on the “turn or burn” scale, I want to be way over on the turn side, you know?
There was one time, in particular, it was the last night of church camp, they had this huge emotional invitation. The evangelist guy had me tied in knots. I was always a pretty serious kid anyway, so when he started in w/the hard sell, I was easy pickings. I was just sure I was headed straight for hell. They hit the first note of the invitation song & I’m up the aisle… me & like 150 Junior High girls. It was like trying to swim thru a cloud of Chanel #5 (church camp always involved a lot of perfume, no doubt smuggled from their mothers).
There was this one counselor who was a bit older… a professor at a Baptist college who spent her summers helping run these camps for the denomination. I was taking her class each morning, on discipleship. She was teaching nuts & bolts stuff: how to pray, how to read your bible devotionally, that kind of stuff. She had a natural connection with kids, and I was loving her class. I saw her up front I went straight for her. She took me to this back room & it was like somebody just killed Donny Osmand or something… a serious Jr. High cry-festival. I’m wasn’t crying. I was wigged out. This guy scared me. I think she could tell, so she said, “Let’s go for a walk.” We went outside and sat on this rock wall & she said, “What’s going on.”
I told her I was really scared. This guy made me afraid of God, & afraid God would send me to hell when I died. Now, I’m a total square at this point in my life. I follow the rules. I go to church three times week. But I have an extremely overactive conscience. She said, “Well, is there some secret sin you’re hiding? Something you are mixed up in that you shouldn’t be? Is that why it scared you?”
I said, “Well, I cuss a lot. I feel guilty about that.” (It’s good to know some things never change, right?)
She said, “Tim, I cuss a lot… God’s not going to send you to hell for cussing. Is there something else going on?” She was really trying to be compassionate and kept trying to discover the source of my angst. Finally she figured out the source of my angst was this evangelist guy who totally scared the daylights out of me. At this point she kind of laughed and said, “Tim, you’re fine. You’re a good kid. You take your faith seriously. God’s not going to send you to hell.”
Then she said this (and I remember this part because I wrote it down in this prayer journal she gave us in that class & I kept it all thru high school & college. She said, “You need to stop worrying about what’s going to happen when you die, & start thinking about how you want to live. Who you want to be in this world, Tim? What does God wants you to do w/your life?”
Pretty good, huh? …and brave for a S. Baptist gal in mid 80s. I wish I remembered her name. I’d go thank her or offer her a job or something.
I think that the difference between those two questions is striking. “What’s going to happen when you die?” v. “how do you want to live?” I think that the 2nd question is infinitely more interesting & helpful to us in our lives… keep that in mind as we read our text for today.
Matthew 28: Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped 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.’
I am convinced that the evangelist who scared the daylights out of me at camp really believed he was obeying this passage—I really do. I don’t’ think he was a bad guy. I think he thought he was doing what Jesus said to do. But, I think the counselor that helped me was making disciples. And this is the problem w/this short passage of scripture. In fact, I think you’d be hard pressed to find another passage in the New Testament that’s been more used & abused than this one. How do we read this well, and obey it?
It’s interesting that the passage is packed with verbs: go, make disciples, baptize, teach. And in Greek these things are complicated… I won’t even try to get into the details except to say that the scholars don’t all agree… good scholars I really like don’t agree.
The first verb is go (poreuthentes). It is passive. Literally it means “having gone,” but you can interpret it several ways. It could be “as you go” or “after you go,” but when you pair it w/the next verb it could be an imperative, “go!”
Next verb is disciple (mathateusate), which is a cognate of the Greek word for disciple. This is a command, they are to: “disciple.” We still use the word this way when we say something like “Sam disciples John.” Of the first two, this verb is dominant. So whether it is: go disciple; or as you go about your life – disciple; or when you leave… The emphasis is on discipling as an action.
Now, discipleship had a rich meaning in Jewish culture. Disciples followed their rabbi around 24/7. There was a lot of formal teaching & study. But mostly it was about learning his customs, imitating his actions, absorbing his character, & letting it be formed in their own lives. The disciples are there to learn to be like their rabbi. Not just to imitate/parrot him, but to allow the character of their rabbi to be so formed in them, they will approach life & faith just like he does. That rich history is at work behind this passage & the first hearers would have known this.
Baptizing is another verb: a symbolic death & resurrection. All other allegiances except allegiance to Christ, go down under the water & don’t come back up. The last verb is teaching: and not just teaching information, but teaching them to obey my commands—the stuff I taught you to do. It’s not a teaching just of information, but of a specific obedience.
So a kind of transliterated expanded version would read something like, “After you leave, disciple” or it could be “As you go through life, disciple” or just a straight imperative, “Go, disciple (make full bodied learners) & do this all around the world. Baptize them into the name of the Father, Son, & Holy Spirit; & teach them to observe everything I commanded you.”
If you follow the lectionary you know we are in the part of the story where Jesus is about to ascend to be with God. Jesus is saying, “OK…been w/you guys for 3 years now, starting with my baptism & yours. I called you guys & kept you with me constantly, learning to be like me, learning to obey the father like I do. And now my character is largely fully formed in you. So, now, go find your own guys: baptize them, teach them to obey the way of life I taught you.
And the whole purpose of this is to extend Jesus’s life & teaching to all the world for generations to come even though he’s not physically present living on the earth walking around w/disciples…
Now, the tension I feel when I read this as an evangelical is that usually instead of “Go & make disciples,” it was read, “Go & make converts,” and there’s a world of difference between those two. Go and make converts quickly becomes about counting conversions, and will so become coercive, & manipulative, & frankly a little bit scary. But that’s not what Jesus says here & it’s not what he did in his life. It’s not “go make converts,” but “go – disciple. “As you go about your life: instill in others the character I instilled in you. Help people to leave their old allegiances, & teach them to obey all of the stuff I taught you about what it means to be a truly human being. And I will always be with you in this.”
So, being a disciple is really about having our character formed in the way of Jesus so pervasively, that our lives take on the look of his life – our lives begin to do what his life did (at least in part).
And the million-dollar question is how? How do we do this? And the church has had lots of answers (which is not necessarily a bad thing); I’m going to try and sketch a few of these to see if it’ll help us learn what we are supposed to be about.
Most of the time when the church attempts some sort of discipleship, they end up working in the categories of knowing and doing. By knowing, we mean beliefs: information, ideas, doctrines, and concepts about God. By doing, we usually mean behaviors: morals; actions, ethics… don’t drink or smoke or chew or go with girls who do. Most of the time when Christians attempt discipleship, we focus on knowing and doing: knowing, which is about beliefs; doing, which is about behaviors. These are very important in a way, but they are also very limited.
Personally, you know I have a lot riding on beliefs. I’ve spent a ton of my life trying to understand better what we believe as Christians. So I don’t want to downplay the importance of beliefs. But in terms of discipleship, beliefs can only get us so far. In fact, this is the most overused & abused category of the four. Discipleship isn’t just the transfer of information & ideas about Jesus. It involves those things, but it’s more than that.
Knowing (beliefs) can only take us so far in discipleship… in part, because we have a weird relationship with our own beliefs as human beings. We have an amazing capacity to selectively ignore our own beliefs. I can say I believe that fruits & vegetables are better for me than rocky road ice cream & Boulevard Pale Ale, right? However my actions do not always line up w/that belief (can I get an Amen?). We can selectively ignore almost anything we say we believe.
We also have a tendency to believe all kinds of goofy stuff. Watch the TV preachers, you’ll hear some bizarre stuff. All of us have some strange beliefs of some sort.
And again, I think beliefs are really important, but we have an incredible capacity to selectively ignore our beliefs, and to fall for all kinds of goofy things… this is just part of the human condition.
And in the end, we know that Christianity isn’t just a system of beliefs. It is a new way to be human that is patterned on the life of Christ and empowered by the Spirit of God. So, our goal is not to get our beliefs perfectly in place, but to allow our lives to conform to the pattern of life we see in Jesus. “Knowing”… it can only get us so far.
The same thing goes for “doing” as well. Some people would really prefer just to have a list of do’s & don’ts. Just set up some rules & we’ll follow them. And we know this is also a very limited approach.
Anybody watching the World Cup right now? (2014) Anybody really into it? Anybody thinking, “soccer-shmoccer, I’m ready for football to start”? Our youth pastor, Cole, was explaining to me that every team is sort of built to take on the personality of their country. So the French: if they start losing they just give up. The English: they always lose in gut wrenching fashion & the hate themselves for it. The Brazilians: if you ask “did you win” they might simply say “we played beautifully.” They coined phrase the beautiful game, and if you watch them play, it is beautiful.
When the new US coach was hired the first thing he said his first task was to find an identity. US soccer has never fared well in World Cup. The rest of the world has simply been better at soccer. So he went and recruited every foreign player around the world who was eligible to play for US. The coach said their identity was going to be: “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” Not bad.
Germany is known for being technically efficient. They play soccer by the book – like a bunch of German engineers. And it works, too. Cole told me that there is this saying in World Cup: “Soccer is a sport of 22 men chasing a ball & in the end the Germans win.” I was listening to a commentator talk about Germany last week, & he said that they play by the book. They’re prepared for every situation. They drill and drill and practice and prepare until they are technically perfect and ready for anything. The problem, he explained, is that you can’t prepare for every situation in world cup. Every team takes on a different identity. They play the game a different way. What are the Germans going to do when they hit a brand new situation for which they haven’t trained, and they have to improvise? He said that’s when Germany always loses.
This is where a list of dos and don’ts breaks down right? There’s no way the Bible could have envisioned ethical guidelines for the internet, or the birth control, or quantum physics. There is no list of do’s and don’ts comprehensive enough to handle our complex & ever changing world. Jesus, in fact seemed very dubious about this approach. He was quite rough on the Pharisees for all their focus on external “doing,” and always called attention back to the heart.
I was reading a book last week & it was talking about the 2008 financial collapse, and this guy was saying that when it was all said and done, very few people broke any laws. They were all doing the right things if you go by the book. So the author asked is better regulations would fix the problem. The expert said no, because they’ll find away around the rules. So the author asked what would fix the problem. You know what the financial guy said? “Character.” This is a Wall Street Banker type saying character is what we need…This is a quote: “The system is only really healthy when the people who are running it are people you can trust to do the right thing, not because there are rules but because that’s the sort of people they are.”
Doing is only significant when it flows from an inner character… it’s about the transformation of our character. Maybe this is why Jesus didn’t give us a list of rules. What he did instead was to gather a few people together to be in relationship w/him & he formed their character over time. Knowing and doing can only go so far. And yet so much of our discipleship focuses on making sure people have all the right beliefs, & the right behaviors.
What Jesus was after was not so much a specific set of beliefs & behaviors, but a specifically formed character. So when we think of how to “go & make disciples” this is what we need to think about. How can we allow our characters to be fully formed in the way of Christ so that we react to the ever-changing world the same way that Jesus would if he were in our shoes. And more than anything else, this is about being, and relating.
Being is a huge category at Redemption Church. We talk about this all the time: being the hands and feet of Christ; being salt & light; bing the image bearers; being faithful followers. And this kind of being is largely about presence. A huge part of our discipleship is about presence. We are the way Christ is now physically present in the world. That’s about being, that’s about a kind of presence.
Just think about salt & light, they are not super active. But you know when they are present (or when they’re not present). They transform any environment in which they are found, just through presence.
Now, what’s so tough about being as a discipleship category is that you can’t fake it.
Being is about who you really are at your core, which is probably why being is overlooked in contemporary discipleship. Being requires an authentic change. You can’t fake it. The most important thing you bring to discipleship is you ((whether you are being discipled, or doing the discipling), the process is about being, & about being present with other people; not as the “you” you pretend to be, or want to be, or plan to be, but as the real you.
People in our culture talk & talk & talk. We can all put on a good act for the cameras, but eventually the character that lives at the heart of our lives will reach up and write its name across our foreheads, and it will come spilling forth from our mouths & our lives & out into the world.
Richard Rohr says it’s a universal truth: Hateful people hate people; loving people love people; Critical people critique people… your character will always spill out into the world.
Ever been around somebody who is kind of brash & conceited, But you can see thru it? The whole time you’re thinking, “Man you are so insecure!” Have you been with someone who is angry & bitter & you realize: “You’re in so much pain. It’s just reaching up & writing it’s name across your forehead, and everyone can see it but you”?
What lives at the core of your life? What writes its name on your forehead? Is it a deep sense of worthiness? A sense of beloved-ness? Or a deep sense of unworthiness, shame, fear, pain, regret… whatever it is, it will spill out into the world around you, because it flows through your very being. This idea of being lives at the heart of our discipleship. And there’s no way to fake it, at least not for very long.
Discipleship is hard because it requires a real transformation. It’s not just about learning some data & some external behaviors.
The last one is the idea of relating. Discipleship is always about a relationship—one person passing on what was given to them. Relating is all about taking certain postures that open us to growth. We could talk about this stuff all day, but we’ll just do a few.
Think about contrasting postures of Openness, or Defensiveness. Openness is about saying: “You know what? I’ve been wrong before. So I might be wrong right now. I’m going to hold everything loosely & try to remain open to you & to God.” In this posture, God always has access to your heart. Other people do as well… no hiding… no defending… no need for that.
The alternative to openness is defensiveness. Defensive people essentially say: “I’m right. I know I’m right. So I don’t really need to think about changing.” In defended postures: God does not have access to your heart, nor do other people. Highly defended people will keep defending even after they know they are wrong. (I’m embarrassed to think how much I still do this). And the one thing you know is that defensive people are miserable. What does Dr. Phil say: “What to be right? Want to be happy?” Most people want to be right, so they are not happy.
How different are those two experiences? Relating to someone who is open v. someone who is highly defended? There are no defensive disciples, only open ones. It’s a posture that is essential in order for us to be open to change & grow on the character level.
Richard Rohr says that to embrace this kind of openness involves giving up a little bit of our own truth for the sake of relationship. I think he’s right. I would only add that I think the relationship will then teaching us something deeper and more essentially true—about our lives, or about our world—than that truth we had to let go. To love is to give up a piece of our own personal truth for the sake of relationship, and then that relationship will teach us a deeper truth.
Let’s do one more important posture; let’s do vulnerability (my favorite). Just now as we talked about being, I said “who you are at your core will end up writing its name on your forehead.” Vulnerability, is learning to say it yourself, to name what’s on your forehead… to confess our realities. Vulnerability is about emotional exposure & risk; telling the truth about your life without too much editing; telling your story with your whole heart.
This works both ways. We have to be vulnerable w/others, and we have to let them be vulnerable w/us… which is so much harder than you think. You’ll hear stories about wives who say when they see husband in a vulnerable state, they feel sick. I’ve heard stories of wives who literally have to leave the room and throw up. They need their husbands to be strong, to be invulnerable… when their husbands show vulnerability they are repulsed.
It takes a lot of love to let our people be vulnerable; to love them as they are now, no matter how vulnerable that makes us feel. It’s the only thing that beckons us to really change our hearts.
Last winter I read No Man is an Island, by Thomas Merton. In it he writes, “The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them”
It’s a vulnerable thing to let the people we love be who they really are. But this is an essential posture for discipleship. There are tons of other postures. For instance, fruits of Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Jesus boiled it down to faith, hope, love. These are all good ways of thinking about the postures that are essential to discipleship.
But, if discipleship is the transformation of our character to be more & more like the character of Christ—most of that happens on the level of being and relating So we’ve got to stop acting like it’s all about knowing the right things & doing or performing the right behaviors. It’s about presence: being with people, imaging God, being salt & light, being the hands & feet of Christ. It’s about postures: like openness, vulnerability, faith, hope, love.
Knowing and doing are important, but they don’t require transformation. You can read books & acquire knowledge & never really change. Or change some outward behaviors & leave your heart the same. Knowing and Doing are important, but they are not enough. Discipleship has to go all the way down to our character.
And, if we put being & relating at the forefront here, then knowing & doing can take on a whole new meaning and importance for us.
Knowing becomes much more like perceiving… allowing the Holy Spirit to help us perceive reality, mostly about ourselves, but sometimes about others, or the world around us. Knowing as perceiving is just as important as book learning. Perceiving is about mindfulness, awareness, seeing our lives, and owning up to what we know about ourselves & the world.
Doing becomes more about practices… holy habits & disciplines that shape our inner character. In this sense doing involves things like: prayer, solitude, meditation, and Sabbath rest… things that can transform our character, and shape our lives.
All four of these are really important: being, relating, knowing, and doing. But for years now—centuries really—we have fixated on knowing and doing, which really meant doctrines and morality. But I think we are living in a time when the church is waking up to the reality; the reality that most authentic transformation happens on level of being and relating.
Being is about presence… being present to each other, to the world, to the moment at hand.
Relating is about postures… finding those postures that help open us up to a change in character: openness, vulnerability, faith, hope, love.
Knowing is about perceiving… about mindfulness, awareness, seeing, being sensitive to the Holy Spirit, and owning what we know about reality.
Doing is about practices… holy habits & disciplines that will shape our inner character; things like prayer, solitude, meditation, and Sabbath.
Discipleship involves all four of these things in their proper place. When we engage them we are engaging God. And God will begin to transform our character. I know it can be a bit daunting.
Dallas Willard used to say that a disciple is someone who is with Jesus, learning to be like Jesus, so that when we encounter our lives we will react exactly the same way Jesus would react if he were in our shoes. This is no small task, to be sure. It involves nothing short of being born again. It involves the patient year in, year out pursuit of Christ. It takes a lifetime. But this is our vocation as disciples. This is what it means to follow Jesus.