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What’s So Great About the Great Commission?

Matthew 28:16-20

Jesus draw me ever nearer, as I labor through the storm.
You have called me to this passage, and I'll follow, though I'm worn.

May this journey bring a blessing; may I rise on wings of faith;
And at the end of my heart’s testing, with Your likeness let me wake.

Let the treasures of the trial form within me as I go,
Then at the end of this long passage, let me leave them at Your throne.

May this journey bring a blessing; may I rise on wings of faith;
And at the end of life’s long testing, with Your likeness let me wake.

     I want us to begin today by looking very carefully at the last phrase of that song, i.e., “Jesus, at the end of life’s long testing, with your likeness let me wake.”  For all who may be new to Christian teaching, that phrase may be unclear to you.  So, let me tell you that it captures a wonderful part of the good news of the Bible.  Behind the phrase is the message that all human beings have been created in God’s image but, as we now are, we are all far from what God wants us to be.  But, Jesus came into this world and lived life the way we all should live but that none of us has.  When we see Jesus, we see how we are to live.  Moreover, when we follow him by faith, we are promised that 1) the sins and failures of our past will be cleansed and 2) our lives will someday again reflect the image of God in the ways Jesus’ did.  That’s why the prayer of this song is, “Jesus, this is my deepest longing: When my life is at its end, let me awake with your likeness complete in me.”

     I want you to think about that.  More than that, I want you to take out a sheet of paper now and put down your first thoughts about this question?  Ask -- What should be different about me when I bear Jesus’s likeness?

  • Your mind: Purer thoughts and motivations? Less anxiety and depression?
  • Your body: Fewer aches and pains? Fewer disabilities? Holier cravings?
  • Your relationships: Broken relationships restored?
  • Your character: No more moral failures? No more deception and lying? No more giving in to temptation?  Godlier desires?  “At the end of my life Jesus, with your likeness let me wake.”

     Write your first thoughts about what that likeness of Jesus needs to include and we’ll come back to it later.

     All this brings us to the question of the day in our new sermon series entitled Got QuestionsWe will  soon be launching a new Alpha initiative that will give opportunity to you and any people you invite to ask the big questions people have about Christian faith and life.  Today, I get to begin this series by asking what happens to us when we follow Jesus – and why those of us who are Christians should take opportunities to  tell others why the best and most important thing they could ever do is to join us in following Jesus. 

     That brings us to our text today, Mt 28:16-20.  Let me read that to you now…

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go 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 I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

     For the 200+ years, churchgoers have called this passage, “The Great Commission”.  That phrase, “Great Commission”, refers to Jesus’ charge to about 500 of his followers who had gathered after he had died and before he departed to be with His Father. They are among Jesus’ last words – so they are very important. 

     So, our question of today in our “Got Questions” series is this: What’s So Great about the Great Commission?  In the few moments we have today, I want you to show you that Jesus’ commission to us is REALLY great – both for you personally and, potentially, for any person you meet.

     One word that will help you understand what is great about Jesus’ Great Commission is the word disciple.  When you place your faith in Jesus, Jesus said you become a disciple.  And, Jesus said that one thing a genuine disciple of his is supposed to do is to make disciples of others. So, let’s start with asking what a disciple is.

What is a Disciple?  …Make disciples

     “Disciple” is a term that isn’t used much outside the church so I think I’d better explain it.  Disciples are those who make a commitment to learn from and be guided by a particular teacher or mentor. More than that, a disciple wants to become like the one they learn from.  So, being a disciple is more than being a person who simply believes something. Disciples are those whose entire lives are changed and directed by the one they follow.  I appreciate how Dr. Joe Kapolyo from Zambia put it in the Africa Bible Commentary:  “Jesus commands us to make disciples, not just people who mentally believe something.  To be a disciple of Jesus involves committing to a process that demands the total surrender of a person’s identity, security and being to the Lordship of Jesus until that person is completely remade to be like Jesus.” This little phrase might help you remember what a disciple is:  A disciple learns from in order to become like.

     So, being a disciple of Jesus begins when you turn from the sins and self-direction of your past and you place your faith in Jesus as your Savior and Lord.  That step of faith is the beginning of a whole new direction for your life.  When you place your faith in Jesus, you make a commitment to live the life he calls you to live.  Did you note that phrase in v. 20, Disciples are taught to obey all that Jesus commanded. But, not one of us is living that life of obedience to Christ perfectly yet. Discipleship is the journey that takes place between our being made alive to God through faith in Jesus and being made complete in Christ.

     There are three components of being disciples of Jesus that I call 1) proclamation, 2) process and 3) promise.  Let’s look at those words.  Discipleship begins with proclamation of the gospel leading to faith in Jesus:

  • ProclamationBaptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19)

     The “baptizing” Jesus spoke of here happens once a person has heard the message about Jesus, believed in him, turned from an old way of life (repentance) and has begun to live a new life with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. When people place their faith and are baptized, that is what they are declaring.  According to Rom 6, the one who has heard the good news of Jesus and believes, then identifies with Jesus by being baptized.  When that happens, we believers are, according to Rom 6, “buried with Christ in his death”, i.e., we turn from the sins and self-centeredness of our old lives and find cleansing from whatever we’ve done.  Then, we come up out of the water of baptism and by doing so, we say we “are risen to live a new life”, i.e., one of following Jesus as Lord.  In our new lives as Jesus’ disciples, we receive God’s Spirit, we find ourselves alive to God and begin a life of growing in our faith.  It all begins by someone telling us about Jesus – then we must believe in him – and that faith leads to a new life of following Jesus as a disciple.

  • Process -- Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Mt 28:20a).

     This process of spiritual growth includes many things.  According to Jesus, disciple-making starts with teaching.  Those who are disciples teach new disciples what we have learned about Jesus and how Jesus taught us to live from Scripture.  That teaching happens in a number of venues.  Here at LAC, we speak of three that are essential: 1) worshipping in unity with your local church family; 2) community – in small groups and classes where we should be learning from and supporting one another; and 3) service both within the church and as well as in outside mission.  We will say much more about those three in the coming weeks.  However, today, I only want to say that finding liberation from old patterns and becoming more like Jesus does not happen in a moment. No, it is a life-long process growth and spiritual formation that we call discipleship.

  • Promise -- All authority has been given to me…. Surely, I am with you always (Mt 28:18,20).

     Jesus has the power and authority to finish what he starts in you.  We have a role to play in what I just called “process” but we do not have the power to remake ourselves to be like Jesus.  We become alive to God through faith in Jesus.  When we do, we are, according to Jesus, born again.  Then, one evidence that we have come alive to God is that we begin to hunger and thirst to grow to be more like Jesus.  That’s what my song to you was all about. In it I prayed, “Jesus, draw me nearer until I reflect your likeness.”

     I was texting with Dr. Vince Bacote: friend, theology professor and man of color at Wheaton College about how this plays out in our lives.  Vince suggested that the traditional white church has largely focused on the process of becoming a disciple – including practices and spiritual disciplines like small group participation, journaling, personal devotions, spiritual directors, church attendance, etc.  Those things are important.  However, focusing only on them often leads people to feel that becoming like Jesus is all about me doing things and making myself whole.  That approach is very much works-oriented” and ends up simply making us tired.    

     Vince went on to say that he traditional black church has mostly focused on the promise of Jesus that he will be with us and use his authority to complete his work in us  without much emphasis on the kind of spiritual disciplines that lead to growth like teaching and learning in community that Jesus alludes to in his Great Commission.  He said that leads to a lot of celebration but it often ignores the practical gifts and practices God provides for us like learning from and being guided by the Word, prayer, encouragement and exhortation in your faith community, etc.

     Let me simply say this: All three of these components – proclamation, process and promise -- are a part of us singing, “at the end of life’s long journey, in your likeness Jesus, let me wake.” That is to say: You must hear the message of Jesus before you can believe in Him.  You must believe in Him before you can become spiritually alive.  You must be spiritually alive before you can grow.  And, to grow you need to be nurtured – nurture that includes all sorts of spiritual practices.

     Disciples are those who become like the one we follow.  Jesus, the one who declares that he has been given “all authority in heaven and earth” promises that he will never leave you or forsake you until his work is complete.  Therefore, all disciples will, when Jesus has finished his work, reflect the ways and life of Jesus.

     It’s almost communion time, so let me ask something else quickly:

Who Can Be a Discipleof all people… (Mt 28:19a)

     To answer this question, let me tell you about those first 12 people who were called disciples, i.e., the ones Jesus personally called to follow him by faith.  These were people who, after seeing Jesus do miracle after miracle early in his ministry, still had no idea who Jesus was.  These were the people who denied him and abandoned him in his most difficult hour.  And, after his death, these were the people who were cowering in a secluded room hoping the authorities would not seize them too.

     All to say:  If Jesus saw that there was hope for them to be re-made in his likeness, there is hope for us too.  You see, Jesus does not see you as hopeless because of your failures in the past.  He sees you for what you can be if you will bring him into your life and allow him to re-create you.  Jesus never gives up on you but keeps calling you with open arms to repent, believe and follow him as a disciple.  There is no one alive who is beyond hope in the eyes of Jesus. God’s grace is greater than your sin.  All who come to Jesus in faith will find a new beginning. So, who can be a disciple?  “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation… (2 Cor 5:17).

     And, add to that the fact that Jesus specifically says, “Go and make disciples of all peoples.  So let me ask you, who is in that all?  Central Americans, Afghani, Iranian?  Those now Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or atheist?  People in prison?  People who claim different sexual orientation? Republicans? Democrats? 

     Are you in that all?  Are you following Jesus longing to be more like him?  What about your family members – you colleagues at work?  We are to make disciples of all peoples because the gospel of Jesus Christ offers the hope of a new life for all peoples?  No human being is excluded.  All people can be disciples.

What Does a Disciple Do? Make disciples: Go to them… baptize them… teach them

     In Mt 28:16-20, we see the beginnings of how the resurrected Jesus changed the lives of those first believers.  Jesus stepped out and said, “Now that you know who I am, you go and make disciples of all nations.”  Lo and behold – these once dense and cowardly people began to be more like Jesus and they go out and enter into the lives of all kinds of people. They make disciples.  You can read about some of them in the Book of Acts. 

     The point is that we who are now living lives still in the process of being changed by Jesus are the same ones who go and offer the good news of a new life in Christ to other people.  Jesus’ command in the Great Commission is to make disciples of all people. 

     The three activities that are always a part of making disciples are very clear, aren’t they?  1) Go to them –Wherever you go each day, look for opportunities to share the message and love of Jesus.  God sends his people into every occupation, into every school, and into countless neighborhoods.  2) Baptize them -- When you go, go to “make disciples” who believe in Jesus follow him.  And, 3) Teach them – Walk with them and teach them so that they might begin to live lives of obedience to Christ.

     We’ll talk much more in coming weeks about crossing the many boundaries that separate us from people and about fulfilling this Great Commission to make disciples of the people in our world.  But, we start with this question: What’s so great about the Great Commission?  Look at what Jesus promises here: He, the one with all authority over every enemy you may face, over every disease you may have to come to grips with, and over every failure in your past says,   "Listen to me: I will be with you always. I will be with you and, when you come to the end of life’s long testing, you will wake in my likeness.”

     And, this promise is not just for you – but for all who become disciples of Jesus.

     Here’s what I want you to do before we go to the Lord’s Table together.  Take out the sheet of paper again.  What did you write about the things you still see in your life that you know need to be changed and remade if you will truly awake at the end of your life in the likeness of Jesus?  Will you specifically commit those things to the Lord now. Ask him to renew your mind and give you strength.  Ask him to give you renewed strength in the face of temptations.  Recommit yourself fully right now to being a fully committed disciple of Jesus.

     Then, turn that sheet over.  As you leave church today, you are to “go and make disciples…”. Write the name of at least one person whom you know needs to know Jesus and to become his disciple too.  Begin praying that God will work in that person’s heart.  Pray too that God will give you an opportunity to give witness to them.

     And that brings us to our communion time together…