World Missions Sunday 2018
Matthew 28:16-20 (Gen 12:1-3, Ps 86:8-13, Rev 7:9-17)
Rev. Doug Floyd
Now the Lord says to Abram, Go. And he goes. He doesn’t have any idea where he is going. He wandered around the far side of nowhere with a blessing. The Lord said that he would bless all families of the earth through Abram. But mostly what we see is Abram wandering around. Building altars. Digging wells. Along the way, he meets the Pharaoh and the Abimelech, He rescues his nephew along with a few other kings. But mostly, he just wonders about when the Lord is going to give him a child who will inherit his name and commission.
If we look at Abram and ask what does mission look like, we’d be hard pressed for a clear answer. It mostly looks like Abram going and trying to figure where to go next and when the promise will come. Can you imagine what it would have been like with a caravan full of children? How much longer?
I don’t know. At this rate, it is going to take years.
Jesus meets the disciples on a mountain and tells them to go. Go and make disciples. Disciples making disciples: all around the world and specifically for all family groups or tribes of the world. The commission given to Abraham to bless all families of the earth is taking shape in the disciples.
This commission to make disciples involves baptizing and teaching. The word discipleship can take many different shapes. Even in the time of Jesus, there are various groups of disciples. In many ways, these varied groups were resistance groups to the power structure: both in Israel and in Rome. These groups were looking for the coming Kingdom and the coming Messiah.
We are most familiar with the group known as the Pharisees. According to NT Wright, this group had no official authority, but they sought to exert influence through teaching the masses, seeking to influence those in power, and maintaining personal purity. They believed the nation had been polluted through Greco-Roman influence and ungodly rulers. While they couldn’t purify the nation, they could purify themselves and their followers by following purity codes based on Torah. Wright says, “Their goals were the honour of Israel’s god, the following of his covenant charter, and the pursuit of the full promised redemption of Israel.”[i]
In this context, a disciple would be someone devoted to the study of Torah and prayer, obedience to laws of purity, and a longing for the redemption of Israel. These elements sound like a good model for discipleship: prayer, study of Scripture, commitment to holiness, and a longing for God’s Kingdom. In many ways, the Pharisees and worship in the synagogue provide a picture of early Christian communities. There is one major difference: they failed to recognize Jesus and actively resisted his mission.
Now let’s consider another group of disciples in this age: the Essenes. This group saw the history of Israel as having coming to a standstill or a bottleneck. They responded by withdrawing from the normal cultural life and formed separate communities. Again from NT Wright, “The scriptures were searched, read, prayed over, studied, copied out—all with the focus on the present and immediately future moment.”[ii] The Essenes saw themselves as the fulfillment of Scripture and even of The Temple. They were the Sons of Light, awaiting the Day of the Lord when God would redeem and restore His people, defeat the Sons of Darkness would be defeated, and renew the Land.
Discipleship for them would consist of living within the holy community, remaining pure and untainted by the surrounding impure world, and following the rituals and calendar in the prescribed way of Torah. From what we know, it appears there may have been several Essene communities and they may not have recognized one another as faithful. These groups were seeking purity in such a way that caused them to cut off most of Israel, the rest of the world, and even similar communities.
In addition to the Pharisees and Essenes, there were groups that advocated violent resistance to Rome, there were the priestly class who retained power and sought to keep that power, and other Jews who adopted a customs of the surrounding Greco-Roman culture. As we think about these various groups, we can see some similarities with various Christian movements or discipleship groups.
Some forms of “Christian discipleship” take the shape of intensive Scripture study and other groups have focused primarily on purity and separation from the culture. Some groups have considered themselves as New Testament churches and others have immersed themselves into our popular culture.
From reading the rest of this passage and the New Testament, it is clear that baptism, prayer, and worship, moral behavior, and Scripture study would all play a role in the emerging groups Christian disciples.
But there is distinction. If we consider the Abram text and the Gospel reading, we see a call and an expectation of response. Abram is called to go and become a blessing to the peoples of the earth. The disciples are also told to go and make disciples of the peoples of the earth. Then Jesus adds “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (vs 20).
Their first and primary role as disciples is to follow Jesus. The Pharisees, Essenes, Priests, and Zealots all required some external code of behavior. Discipleship was defined by a set of common behaviors. You could commit to those behaviors without following Jesus. In fact, you could commit to those behaviors and actively resist and even kill Jesus.
The heart of discipleship is the call of Jesus and our response to that call, to that person. The heart of mission is the call of Jesus and the response to His call. This means being open to follow Jesus, leaving behind one life and entering a new life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “The point was to really walk with Jesus. It was made clear to those he called that they only had one possibility of believing in Jesus, that of leaving everything and going with the incarnate Son of God.”[iii] Again Bonhoeffer writes, “[iv]As long as Levi sits in the tax collector’s booth and Peter at his nets, they would do their work honestly and loyally, they would have old or new knowledge about God. But if they want to learn to believe in God, they have to follow the Son of God incarnate and walk with him.”
To become a disciples and to make disciples of all families of the earth will mean following Jesus. It has meant following Jesus across the centuries. Along the way, Scripture plays a role in the life of discipleship because Jesus reveals himself to us on the reading and reflecting upon Scripture. Prayer will play a role because we respond to Jesus in worship and asking for help and guidance. Service will play a role because Jesus will calls us to serve one another and to serve those in need. But the heart of these disciplines is heeding the call the of Jesus.
When we read the story of the early disciples, we see them facing a variety of questions and challenges and threat. At some points, they are fearing for their lives and at other points, they are unsure of how to proceed. When Paul appears before the disciples, they are not sure at first how to respond to him. In the various challenges, they often regroup, pray, ask for help and guidance. Jesus is leading them personally.
Discipleship is a path of personal obedience to Jesus the Christ. Along the way, it will cost us everything. This cost or this obedience or this discipline is simply a way of turning and returning to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. As we pray for world mission, we are praying for the call of Jesus to go forth and for peoples, families around the earth and even in our community to respond.
I went to lunch with an agnostic co-worked once and he asked me about my faith. I explained the Trinity and why this doctrine was so central for my life. After leaving the meal, I realized that most of what I said was focused on ideas and thinking and not upon person. In other words, while I was talking about the idea of Jesus, I did not bear witness to the person of Jesus who was present at our meal.
When Jesus calls his disciples, he says, “Follow me.” When the disciples are called to make disciples, the message is the same, “Follow Jesus.” If we believe in the resurrection, we believe in the Resurrected One who leads his disciples even now into all righteousness. In fact, he promises to guide and lead them and us through his Spirit. Rowan Williams reminds us, “Being with the Master is recognizing that who you are is finally going to be determined by your relationship with him.”[v]
All the disciplines of the church are gifts that aid me as I watch, wait, listen and follow Jesus. Just as he led the disciples in unexpected ways and often challenged their preconceptions, he leads us and his church on mission in ways that provoke us, challenge us and often cause us to let one life behind as we begin another.
The Bishop Thomas French served the Anglican church in a variety of missions throughout the 1800s. While at Oxford, French heard Samuel Wilberforce challenge the young men to go forth in mission. French and a close friend felt a quickening and began to pray about this call. Shortly thereafter the friend was killed in an accident. French believed that he now took his vows and the vows of his friend upon himself to serve in mission. Like Abram, French followed the call of Jesus across India, Pakistan and eventually to Persia. At the end of his life, he started a new mission in Muscat in Oman. His reason for going? Jesus told me to. He went there to follow Jesus. He served the people and listened to them and loved them.Before his death he wrote one of the first authoritative books on mission to the Muslims. Eventually the heat was too much for his aging body and his died there, but he died with a prayer for Arab people on his heart.
French reminds us that discipleship and mission continue to be about following Jesus.
We continue to follow in the steps of Peter, James, John and even Thomas French. We continue to follow in the steps of Jesus. As Stanley Hauerwas writes,
The disciples are to remember that the mission on which Jesus sends them is not one on which they must go alone. He is the resurrected Lord who will always be with those entrusted to witness to him and his work. He was in the beginning, which means that he can promise to be at the end of the age. But the age that he will be present at the end of is the age inaugurated by his birth, ministry, death, and resurrection. On that basis and that basis alone Christians are sent to the world with the message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is present.”[vi]
[i] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1992), 189.
[ii] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1992), 206.
[iii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Martin Kuske et al., trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, vol. 4, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 62.
[iv] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Martin Kuske et al., trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, vol. 4, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 62.
[v] Williams, Rowan. Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian life (Kindle Location 197). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
[vi] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 249.