September 26, 2021
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Reimagining what it means to “make disciples”
Last week as a part of our Follow Me series, Todd preached on what Jesus called the two greatest commandments- Loving God and Loving neighbor and how these commandments lead us to see through the lens of love. But as Alex Rodgers often says to us- “it’s all that easy and it’s all that hard.” After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus offered his disciples some final words to help them see what it will look like to follow him. We often call this text the “Great Commission,” where Jesus sends the disciples out from the places most familiar to them and into the world to be his disciples and invite others to join them in that way of life. Jesus summarized the greatest commandments and gave us the “Great Commission” and still for centuries scholars and non-professional Christians alike continue to wrestle with and work at what it means to follow Jesus. It’s all that easy and it’s all that hard.
Since this journey of discipleship is something that we never do alone, I wanted to get us going with a little conversation. Turn to your neighbor and discuss:
Conversation question: Who is someone that has been a teacher or example of faith to you? Who is someone that you have taught about Jesus or helped along their journey of faith?
Notice the words in Jesus’ commission are specific (go, baptize, teach) yet general enough that they leave space for variation and adaptation. Sure, it might have seemed easier if he would have left us with a list of detailed instructions on how we should baptize or the precise lesson plan we should teach, but I’m not sure how engaged any of us would be in our discipleship if all we were doing was following a rote plan…there would no room for creativity, growth, or change. No space for adaptations that respond faithfully to the events going on in our community, culture or time period. Likely the people who have helped you in your faith journey or those you have helped do not all practice their faith exactly how you do, but that’s not really the point anyway. The point is that we all continually keep teaching and learning from each other as we all are formed into disciples of Jesus each and every day.
Imagine, the mindsets and the emotions that each disciple might have carried with them as they received this commission to go, teach and baptize (excitement, fear, courage, skepticism, trust). Imagine the lessons and experiences they had with Jesus that they would carry with them (people being welcomed, forgiven, fed, healed and loved). Do you think they could have predicted how they would courageously use what they had learned from Jesus to help others be welcomed in community and experience God’s love? Do you think they had a sense for how much they too would change and grow as their discipleship connected them with new people and places? God was going to do far more than they could ever accomplish on their own, after they agreed to go.
On the surface, Matthew 28 sounds like a Christian missionary huddle speech – ‘Ok, let’s go out there and make disciples! Baptize them! Teach them! God is with us on three, 1..2..3…God is with us!’ Sounds empowering right? And it is. The Great Commission speaks to each and every one of us and reminds us of our call to follow Jesus and invite others into his way of life. It’s not just the pastors or the scholars who are called to teach and form disciples, but all of us. There are so many great examples of how the church has carried this forward throughout the centuries. On the flip side, our history as Christians is also filled with evidence of the danger and harm that occurs when the great commission is interpreted through assumptions of superiority.
When we go to a new place, we inevitably take our own understandings of life with us, right? We notice what is different, from the plants and animals to the clothing and customs. It’s natural to notice similarities and differences. However, even when we appreciate these differences there is also a risk that we might carry assumptions that one way of living or thinking is better than another. And there is a risk that we may think that one of us has something to offer or teach and the other only something to receive or learn. These risks become dangerous when we try to live out this Great Commission if our assumptions of superiority cause us to disregard the knowledge, culture and leadership capabilities of others.
Back in the 1100s, the Catholic Pope in Rome issued decrees that justified the “colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians.” Then in the 1700s, Matt 28:19 became the central text of Christian mission for the English Baptist William Carey. He wrote a document about the need for Christians to convert the “heathens” based on this scripture passage. Even now you may see a group of church folks headed out on a mission trip in the airport wearing brightly colored matching t-shirts that quote Matthew 28.
It is important to feel empowered to be Christ disciples, no matter our age and stage of life. But if this is the only way we read this text, then we risk thinking about the Great Commission as a one-way street and only thinking about how this text empowers me and not those around me. And if we read this passage as one-sided discipleship and mission, we will neglect many other important aspects that are a part of following Jesus like learning, receiving and being a guest of others.
When you dig into the Greek language of this text, several details emerge that are important in our journey toward reimagining how we follow Jesus and live out his mission:
- First, is that Jesus is sending them out in a spirit of humility. In the Greek, the word “some” is not really there where the NRSV says, “and some doubted.” The disciples worshiped AND doubted. They are being commissioned by Jesus, questions and doubts and all. And the authority to do what they will do still rests with Jesus, not with them. Acknowledging that none of us have it all figured out and will never have all the answers is a crucial part of being made into a disciple.
- Second, is that the verbs that follow are in a form that implies they are continually in process.
A conversation I had with New Testament scholar Dr. Frances Taylor Gench helped me to understand that mission and discipleship according to Matthew 28 is more like lifelong Christian formation and community building, rather than “hit-and-run” evangelism as Dr. Gench called it. Mission is not one-time events or quick fixes, it’s a longer, continual process of forming disciples.
When you think about it, the disciples that were commissioned by Jesus after his resurrection surely had just as much need for formation and practice living what would become the Christian life as all of the new converts would. We are ALL on this life-long journey of being made into disciples. We are all teachers and learners as we follow Jesus together.
Before I came to DPC, I had several very formative experiences living with and learning from the others in Ghana, West Africa. I learned from professors at universities, pastors in churches, nonprofit directors and teachers at seminaries. I expected to learn from them but I was surprised to learn so much from the local trail guide who led us through the Ghanaian rainforest and across the 7 rope bridges that are suspended high up in the trees of Kakum National Park.
(PICTURES shown of trail guide and then rope bridge)
Our hiking guide at Kakum heard I was a little nervous to cross the canopy walkway. I mean after all, the rope sides to the bridge barely came above your knees and the bridges were basically old rusty ladders with a wooden plank down the middle. Not to mention there was not just one of these to cross but seven! Our guide said to me: if you are scared, just muster up a little courage and take the first step. Go across the first bridge, then stop at the first wooden platform. Take a look around and catch your breath then go across then next bridge. After that experience the words of that guide and the image of those rope bridges have been a defining metaphor for my journey of faith. Along the journey of faith, we are never alone and we have just as much to learn and receive as we have to give. The journey of faith is lifelong and so we are not expected to have all the answers or go the entire length of the journey at once. As we look ahead, we may be uncertain of how it will go and we may even be anxious of what the future will be like. So, muster up just enough courage to go across the first bridge and then take some time to pause, reflect and look around at the people and community surrounding us before continuing on.
I’ll always hold on to the images of our guide and the canopy bridges. Now as I’ve been preparing to depart from DPC and journey toward the next phase of my faith journey, I’ve realized that I have a whole new stack of images that will also guide me along the way.
I’ll carry with me the image of:
- This church laying hands on me at my ordination, in those first few months here when you barely knew me at all. Reminding me that the call of god will never lead us where the grace of god will not sustain us.
- Youth pushing tables together and squeezing in more and more chairs at the dinner tables in Sycamore House, reminding us that there’s always room for one more at God’s table.
- Middle Schoolers preaching the gospel through skits about the Trinity or the Olympic Trials of Faith, and high schoolers sharing their hearts during their senior sermons, reminding us not to let anyone discount you because of your age, we all have been equipped to share the good news.
- The image of the Christ candle getting knocked over by a shopping cart during my first Advent sermon- the ultimate image of sin/greed getting in the way of us following Jesus..and an image that was just too spot on to be planned. (Also, thanks to Chet Allen who took it upon himself to clean up the spilled oil on the carpet while I continued to preach that Sunday). The Spirit blows where it will (and apparently so do shopping carts), so always leave room for the Spirit to be at work and be willing to adapt to the Spirit’s surprises.
- Confirmands sitting on benches outside of Marta or at the Retreat center, wrestling with the questions of faith that most of us adults gloss over. Reminding us that it’s important to question and wonder along our journey of faith.
- I will carry the image of how we held each other in grief, supported one another, and prayed for one another when one of our youth, Bryson, died. Reminding us of the important truth: nothing can separate us from the love of God.
- An ice-cold glass of Presbyterian Punch, a reminder that a thoughtfully prepared reception can provide a world of comfort to grieving families and overflowing joy to special celebrations
- Youth showing up to church between Ultimate frisbee games or passing the offering plate in their soccer uniform, reminding us that being a part of a church community is about showing up and offering your gifts and not about the clothes you wear.
- Community being built with youth and adults around tables at Philips Tower or Clairemont Place and around tables at Sycamore House with our Threshold guests.
- The laughter and smiles shared on the sidewalk between here and Agnes Scott, on all those days walking to lunch with our GVP students.
- Youth and children leading liturgy at the communion table and baptismal font, reminding us of the ever-widening circle of God’s grace.
- Mission trip moments when we’ve realized together- that building relationships, receiving hospitality and learning about the faith and culture of others is much more important than how quickly we painted a house or dug a latrine hole.
- 1 more image— TAKE A PHOTO/selfie
DPC, it has been a deep joy to be your pastor and to grow in faith alongside of you all. It is truly special to have prayed with and for you and to have you all pray for me and support me and my family. You all have helped me become a better pastor and better disciple of Jesus Christ.
When we look through the lens of God’s love, no one is “less than.” No matter your social or economic status, no matter your age, gender or how much you do/don’t know about the Bible, we are all on this lifelong journey of faith together, each day being transformed into disciples of Jesus, simultaneously teaching and learning from one another. So, I encourage you:
- To see those around you and around the world as being commissioned help you be formed into Christ’s disciples…just as much as you are being commissioned to help others grow in their faith.
- Anticipate in every interaction that there is an opportunity to share the love of God and an opportunity to receive the love of God.
When we expand our perspectives of the Great Commission and who and what a disciple looks like, then the great commission starts to become as great and as expansive as the love of God which called us into this work of discipleship in the first place.
As the journey continues, may we trust that Christ- God’s love embodied in flesh and blood, will be with us and all of God’s children always. Amen.
 Upstander Project, “Doctrine of Discovery.”
 Conversation with Dr. Frances Taylor Gench