Go and make disciples Jesus told his disciples before he ascended into heaven. Go and make disciples Jesus tells the church of all time, including our own little corner of the kingdom here in McFarland, WI. Making disciples of Christ is the mission of the church. The question is: how? Some say disciples are made when people are pressed into stepping up to the altar to make their decision for Christ. Some say that disciples are made by doing what the church tells them to do – give money, volunteer their time, go on mission trips, etc. Others kind of throw up their hands and say that we have no idea how or when God comes into a person’s heart, but there’s a good chance the Holy Spirit is present if someone is speaking in tongues, having a vision, or playing soft, soothing music. If you look at the Christian church today, you would think that Jesus told the church to make disciples – and then left it to decide for itself how to do that. The truth is, Jesus told the church precisely how to make disciples: 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. (Matthew 28:19-20) Over the next few weeks we will focus on our Savior’s commission to make disciples and specifically, how he intends the church to do so. This morning we look at the most precious (and perhaps most underappreciated) gift Christ has given the Church: the Means of Grace.
The first thing we must do is define the term means of grace. Grace is God’s attitude of undeserved love for us, rebellious sinners and the means are the pipeline by which he conveys this love to us. Just as the water contained in the tower on the hill doesn’t do the residents of McFarland any good without water mains, so the gifts Christ earned by his life, death and resurrection don’t do any good unless there are sure and certain, God-ordained means to deliver these gifts to sinners. The Bible states and we confess that no one will be saved apart from these means of grace – and that’s something we need to emphasize. Why? Because there are many who claim that we are unfairly limiting God when we say that salvation comes only through the means of grace. How could we place limits on an all-powerful God, they ask. Well, we don’t; God in his Word does. Moses asked to see God in all of his glory. God said I will proclaim my name in your presence…but you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live. (Exodus 33:15-23) In Jesus’ NT parable, the rich man wanted Lazarus to appear to his brothers on earth to create faith in their hearts, Abraham replied…If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. (Luke 16:31) God could create faith in human hearts without external means – we don’t deny that – but he never has and he never promises to do so. What he does promise is to create faith in human hearts through the Gospel. In the Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther makes our confession for us: Therefore we should and must insist that God does not want to deal with us human beings, except by means of his external Word and sacrament. Everything that boasts of being from the Spirit apart from such a Word and sacrament is of the devil. (SA III, VIII, 10) God offers forgiveness, faith, and salvation to sinful humans only through his chosen means: the Gospel in Word and sacrament.
I. The Word
In Romans 10, Paul establishes the necessity of preaching the Word. He first quotes the prophet Joel to summarize the essence of salvation: Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. “Calling on the name of the Lord” is the OT way of saying repent and believe. Everyone who repents of their sins and trusts the Lord for salvation will be saved from the eternal death they deserve. He then draws a very rational connection between faith and the Word. How can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? Paul highlights several very important elements: 1) Salvation comes by faith, not by works; 2) No one can believe until they have heard the gospel of Christ crucified; 3) No one can hear unless someone tells them; 4) No one can preach unless they are sent. So why do we gather here every week to hear the Gospel preached and taught? Because God sends men to preach His Word so that sinners can hear about what Christ has done for them, believe it, and be saved. Or, as Paul puts it: faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. We read and preach the Gospel every Sunday; we insist that our liturgy and hymns are faithful to that Word; we refuse to allow anyone to add to, subtract or distract from the Word because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. (Romans 1:16)
II. Holy Baptism
The Gospel preached and proclaimed to sinners saves. But in his wisdom, God gives his grace to us in two other forms – the sacraments. The word sacrament simply means “a sacred act.” While the word does not appear in the Bible, the church uses the word “sacrament” to identify two special sacred acts in which God gives his grace to undeserving sinners. Different churches define the word sacrament in different ways – which is why some churches have seven sacraments and some have none – the definition we draw from Scripture has three parts. A sacrament is a sacred act which 1) was instituted by Christ himself; 2) which offers the forgiveness of sins; and 3) which uses an earthly element. Two sacred acts fall under this definition: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.
In his first letter, the Apostle Peter writes about the importance and the results of Baptism. He begins with the source of Baptism’s power: Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. On Calvary, Jesus accomplished salvation for the world. He, the sinless Son of God, died in the place of rebellious sinners – and his resurrection is the proof that God accepted his sacrifice. The question is, how does the salvation Christ earned for the world become our personal possession? Peter answers: through water. When water covered the earth in Noah’s day, it swept the face of the earth clean of wickedness and unbelief and saved Noah’s family at the same time. When water was splashed on your head at your baptism, God swept the sin from your heart and saved you. Remarkably, in comparing the two, Peter is saying that the miracle that takes place at the baptismal font is greater than the destruction of the Flood. How can that be? It is not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. The NIV translation makes it sound like Baptism is something we do, that by being baptized we pledge ourselves to God. That is very misleading. A better translation would be “a legal claim.” In Baptism, God credits Christ’s perfect life and atoning death to sinners one by one. Baptized believers can be sure that they stand innocent before God, not because they have committed themselves to God, but because God has committed himself to forgiving them for Jesus’ sake. Your baptism is God’s binding contract to save you. So, why do we baptize infants and adults, why do we recall our baptism regularly and why do we insist that God alone is active in the Word and water of baptism? Because baptism makes disciples and baptism saves.
III. Holy Communion
Why spend an entire service talking about what we do here and why? Because when we forget the church’s mission or the tools God has given to accomplish that mission, Satan will quickly swoop in to convince us that the church would be better off doing other things – things that are more appealing to our sinful nature and the unbelieving world. Today, those “other things the church should be doing” include offering entertainment instead of instruction, preaching how-to guides for marriage and money rather than Law and Gospel, promoting political agendas, feeding the world, and in general placing the focus on us rather than the cross. While those are things that Christians may freely do out of love for others – they are not the primary mission of the Church. Bad things happen when we forget that.
In fact, Paul was writing to Christians who had forgotten why it was that they gathered every week around the Word, bread and wine. In Corinth, coming to church became little more than an opportunity to feast and socialize with friends. They had forgotten that the church does not exist simply to fill people’s bellies but to fill souls with forgiveness and life. The situation was so bad that Paul warned: I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. (1 Corinthians 11:17) What was the solution? Remember who called you out of darkness to gather as fellow believers in the first place – and remember what he commanded you to do. I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Jesus commanded the church to gather regularly not just to eat, but to receive his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.
Many regard it as foolishness that we believe in the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in, with and under the bread and wine. But what did Jesus say? This is my body…this is my blood. Jesus didn’t leave room for interpretation. In this sacrament we receive the very body and blood that Jesus gave up and shed for us on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. So that, just like the Word and Baptism, the Lord’s Supper serves as the pipeline through which God gives us everything Christ won for us on the cross: forgiveness, new life and salvation. But there’s more: whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Maybe you can’t preach or play the organ or sing in the choir. Maybe you don’t have much in terms of money, time or energy to support the church’s mission. But when you come here to receive the body and blood of Christ you are preaching a sermon to the world (and maybe more importantly, to your friends and family): Jesus Christ died for sinners, and soon enough he will be back to take me and all believers home. That’s a message that entertainment, how-to lessons, and political speeches do not preach – and it’s the one thing we and our world need most.
Go and make disciples Jesus said. How? Preach the Word, baptize with water, eat and drink my body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. Why do we do what we do on Sunday mornings and refuse to let anything get in the way of the means of grace? Because these are the only means through which God has promised to save sinners and keep believers in the faith until they die. Is there anything more important than that? Is there anything better we could be doing? No. So let us thank God for giving us His means of grace, let us never neglect them, and let us be faithful in our use of them. Amen.