It’s Labor Day weekend. Labor Day holds different significance for different people. For children who have suffered through two whole days of school, it’s a well-deserved break. For others, it marks the unofficial end of summer, the last weekend to tackle that household project, or a sure sign that football season is here. But how many Americans know the history of Labor Day? Labor Day started as a movement among labor unions in the 1880’s in New York City as a way of protesting long work days and poor working conditions and celebrating “the dignity of the American worker.” For several years, Labor Day festivities were limited to big labor unions in major cities. Then, in 1894, Congress passed the act marking the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday. So, if you have or had a job and want to be faithful to the spirit of the day, tomorrow you should kick back, take it easy and give yourself a pat on the back – because you’ve earned it.
Over the past several weeks, we’ve been talking about labor of a different kind: making disciples. One question we haven’t asked is: What is a disciple? In recent years, and in keeping with our ‘me’-focused culture, the discussion of discipleship has been centered on what a disciple does; he gives, he volunteers, he obeys, he imitates Christ. Unfortunately, that contradicts Jesus’ own definition of a disciple: if you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (John 8:31) According to Jesus, a disciple is not a doer, a disciple is first and foremost a learner, a pupil, one who is taught. In other words, the essence of discipleship is not serving Jesus, but being served by Jesus. Being a disciple is about what you receive and the effect it has on you, not what you do and the effect it has on others. Tomorrow, you’re free to celebrate the dignity of labor however you see fit. But today, we’re going to wrap up our series on the great commission by focusing on the one at the center of all disciple-making; not the disciple, but the teacher; Jesus Christ.
I. His Authority (Ephesians 1:18-23)
Whenever we think about the mission of the church, it’s important that we don’t pass too quickly over Jesus’ claim: all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Not just anyone has the right to make disciples. In fact, there’s always something weird and creepy about those who gather a group of followers around themselves without proper authority to do so. There’s even a term for it: a cult. Maybe the most famous cult in our country is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – the Mormons. There’s something odd about that group because, despite the name, they are not disciples of Christ, but disciples of a man named Joseph Smith. Another famous American cult called Heaven’s Gate was led by Marshall Applewhite. You may remember that this cult following came to an abrupt end in 1997 when 39 members, certain that an alien spaceship hiding in the shadow of the Hale-Bopp Comet would rescue them, committed mass suicide in their trademark white Nikes by drinking poison. Creepy. Strange.
What makes the Christian church any different? Paul tells us that unlike illegitimate cult leaders, Christ did not claim the authority to make disciples for himself, rather, it was given to him. Perhaps it’s easy for us to forget, but Christ did not spend the majority of his time on earth making disciples, because [he] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28) Having accomplished his mission, [God] raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Christ has the authority to make disciples because he paid the ultimate price to redeem the world. No cult leader can make that claim. And this is a great comfort for us. As a church we are constantly confronted with threats and difficulties. It often seems like we are fighting a losing battle against an immoral and godless world. People we were sure were rock-solid believers suddenly fall from the faith. Whenever we look in the mirror we are confronted with our own sin. If the existence of the church depends on us, it’s doomed. That’s when we need to remember that Jesus is the head of the church – and he loves it like his own body. And not only that, but God has given him authority over the entire universe and the power to rule it all for the good of the church. He has promised the gates of [hell] shall not overcome it. (Matthew 16:18) As members of His church, we may be certain that nothing that happens in our lives is out of our Savior’s control. In this church, under the authority of the one who lived, died, rose and rules everything we may rest secure.
II. His Tools (Isaiah 55:8-11)
If Christ said “Go and make disciples” and stopped there, how would you propose carrying out his command? In our world, there are two ways to influence others. These two ways are so dominant that we even have sayings about them: 1) there’s the carrot and stick approach, which uses a combination of threats and rewards to change behavior; and, along the same lines 2) you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar – meaning that it’s more effective to be polite and flattering than hostile or demanding. Flattery and rewards or threats and hostility – that’s how things get done in our world. If it were up to us to decide how to make disciples, I suppose that we would either raise an army and demand conversion or death or we would flatter people by telling them they are really good and give them promises of earthly rewards. (Which, incidentally, are the very methods most religions use to gain followers.)
However, just as the authority to make disciples is Christ’s alone, so are the choice of tools to do so. Christ said make disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20) Reason believes this to be utter foolishness. Reason questions the effectiveness of the Word, spoken, and combined with water, bread and wine. To all appearances they seem so weak and ineffective – just rituals, just sounds that travel through the air to our ears or a series of letters on a page seen by our eyes. How could something as drastic as conversion from unbelief to faith, from death to life be accomplished by something as simple as the Gospel? Our reason questions it, doubts it, denies it.
That’s why it’s so important for us to take the words of Isaiah 55 to heart: my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. To be clear, it’s not just the tools that seem weak and irrational but the message itself. The Gospel invites us to live by faith, not by sight. (2 Cor 5:7) The Gospel doesn’t tell us what we must do but what Christ has done for us. Through the Gospel God settles accounts in a way that seems irrational: he punishes his perfect Son for the sins of a wicked world and offers the same wicked world his Son’s perfect righteousness through faith. If it were up to us to find a way to heaven, we would want to work for it. God offers it as a free gift – and ensures that it remains free by offering it only through channels that demonstrate that He alone coverts, creates faith and keeps us strong in faith.
Irrational? Unreasonable? Maybe, but God promises that these means are effective – just as effective as the rain and the snow that fall from heaven to water the earth. God could feed and sustain our bodies in any number of ways – but he has chosen to provide for us by causing water to fall from the sky which yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater. God could have decided to send an army of angels to force sinners to repent, he could have printed his Word in the clouds or the stars, he could speak directly to our hearts – but he hasn’t promised to. Instead, he has promised to reveal his will to the world, to convict the proud and to comfort the despairing through His Word – spoken, printed, pondered, and attached to water, bread and wine. This Word is the most powerful force on earth. The writer to the Hebrews states that the word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12) And as Christ builds his church with His tools, he gives his guarantee: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. That purpose? Making and saving disciples.
III. His Promise (John 14:23-27)
In the Great Commission, Christ authorized the church to make disciples for someone we’ve never seen using tools that seem weak and powerless. For many, the Great Commission raises more questions than answers. We want more. We want to see and feel the power of God at work. We want to understand the mind of God and see behind the curtain of his hidden will. We’re not the first ones to want that, either. Shortly before his crucifixion, some of the apostle’s came to Jesus with similar questions and concerns. Thomas said Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way? (John 14:5) Philip said Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us. (14:8) They wanted more. Jesus’ response?
If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. It may not seem like Jesus answered their questions and concerns, but he did – in a way we would never have imagined. As long as Jesus was on this earth, he was confined to one place at one time. But now that he reigns in heaven and rules the universe, he can be with us wherever we go. By his promise and through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is here at the font, calling sinners by name and cleansing their hearts with his forgiveness. He is here at the altar, offering his own body and blood for us to eat and drink for our personal forgiveness. He is in those classrooms welcoming little children into his arms. He is there when temptations come, arming you with the sword of the Spirit. He is there when you sin, urging you to repent and comforting you with his forgiveness. He is with you as you are being wheeled into surgery and he will be standing there waiting to welcome you home with open arms when you close your eyes for the last time.
So no, we don’t need anything more or anything better, because when we have the Word, we have Jesus, and Jesus gives us the one thing we need most: peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. Peace in a violent world. Peace for our sinful, fearful hearts. Peace in good times and bad, in life and in death. Peace with God is what Jesus gives us through his word and his invitation to come to him for true, lasting peace is what makes disciples. Make disciples – bring people to my feet to learn from me – he tells us. Do it with my authority and my Word. And do it with my promise: surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. Amen.