Sermon for June 15, 2014
“WORKS IN PROGRESS”
by Charles E. Hannemann, Ph.D
As a kid brought up in Chicago (a very ethnic city), the question, “What nationality are you,” was typical of almost every encounter I had with any “new kid on the block. A follow-up question was often phrased, “What religion are you?” My neighborhood was populated by many Catholics and Lutherans of European decent, Congregationalists and lots of families who rarely darkened the doors of any church. I don’t recall too many Presbyterians, Methodists, or Baptists. I cannot ever recall being asked if I was a Christian. I do recall a few arguments with other children relating to which of the various faiths was the “right” one.
I suspect that, regardless of the particular family’s faith, most would not have objected to calling themselves “Christian.” The term “Christian” would most likely have evoked typical definitions including: a Christian is a Catholic; A Christian is someone who goes to church; A Christian is someone who believes in God/Jesus; A Christian is someone who is religious, etc. The definitions today are probably not too different from those I have listed.
Surprisingly, the word “Christian” appears only a few times in the New Testament. In fact, the use of the term in the New Testament indicates that it was a term of derision, placed upon Christ’s followers by their critics. One example appears in Acts Chapter 26 verse 28, where King Agrippa, an unbeliever, said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” The label “Christian” wasn’t so much a label chosen by those so named, but a name applied to them by those in opposition to their ways. Hostile critics of their beliefs applied the name to them. Since the term was also placed on the disciples, it helps us to establish the meaning of the term: A Christian is a disciple, a person who not only follows, but also emulates. A Christian is one who reflects the path of Christ.
The heart of discipleship centers upon learning and living the commands of Christ. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” One source I came across identified 49 commands including such as: repentance, loving your enemies, allowing your light to shine before others, refusing to allow material treasures to dominate one’s life, living the Golden Rule, being aware of false prophets, forgiving, being a servant, caring for the poor, loving the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, teaching all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. And these commands are not the end all of discipleship– but a beginning.
It is somewhat comforting to many of us to believe that the twelve disciples were totally devoted to Jesus, hung on His every word and lived by every one of his commands. But this was not always the case. Absolute trust in Jesus was not always present among them. At times, they quarreled with each other. On several occasions Jesus attempted to tell them about his eminent death and resurrection (In Mark 9, we read, They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
They had their own concepts as to what the future would hold. They envisioned a future kingdom with Jesus as supreme ruler. The evils of the Roman Empire would cease to exist. They quarreled and argued about who was the most important disciple. This concern about their importance even found its way to the Last Supper. When Jesus was arrested, they ran away in fear. We are all familiar with Peter’s denials.
Jesus and his disciples, as well as anyone who demonstrated a real interest in his words and actions, were a threat to the Roman Empire. The empire was a strict ruler who did not appreciate people who caused problems. Herod was in charge, and a great deal of tension existed between the Jewish community and the power system of Rome. The Jews wished to be free of Roman domination. The Romans disliked troublemakers and simply wanted this small country called Israel to be peaceful and subdued.
As the time of his crucifixion was nearing, Jesus had not completed what he had wanted to teach his disciples. He taught them that he would return after his death and resurrection. He taught them about the final judgment. He spoke about prayer and sending the Holy Spirit. He spoke about opposition to those who trusted him. He taught them about his relationship to God, and again, told them that the most important command was to love.
The term “disciple” is not an unfamiliar term, both in in theological and secular environments. Just what is a disciple of Jesus? What are the so-called requirements? First of all, a disciple is a learner, someone with a deep desire to learn. A disciple listens to the teacher with both attention and intention. Along with learning, a disciple must love God more than anything else – an intense love of God. We must rid ourselves of our own preoccupation. Discipleship requires that we must often lay aside our personal goals and ambitions and desires and allow God to reveal his goals, desires, and ambitions for our lives. Disciples alert themselves to the danger of allowing wealth to dominate their lives. Disciples need to be good stewards, unafraid to give of their monetary wealth, time and talents. Recall Mark 10:17 where a rich young ruler encounters Jesus. As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy. ”Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. ”At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. So, discipleship has costs – but the rewards are immeasurable.
Just after Jesus had risen, his disciples witnessed The Great Commission. In Matthew 28: 16-20 we read: Then 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.” The commission outlines what Jesus desired the apostles to accomplish in his absence. The essence of The Great Commission was Jesus’ command to his then followers as well as all those to come, to make disciples, and this will be done through baptizing and teaching.
Jesus commanded us to “make disciples” and we should do this by baptizing and teaching. Some would consider Acts 1:8 a part of the Great Commission, as we read, ”But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. ”The Holy Spirit gives us power to “make disciples.”
Last Sunday in our adult Sunday school class, we poured over the passage from Matthew, where Jesus said to his disciples and a large crowd, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, out of HIS heart will flow rivers of flowing water. IT bothered me that “the rivers of flowing water,” (the Holy Spirit as such) were to flow out of those who believed in Jesus as opposed to emanating from Jesus Himself. As I though more about it, I understood that if the Holy Spirit flowed out from the believers, they were being empowered to fulfill the Great Commission.
The Great Commission is the beginning of faith in action for all Christians. In verse 18, Jesus tells us that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to Him. He instructs us to have faith in Him. This statement validates His power in the lives of Christians everywhere. This statement validates our commitment to Him, and reveals His omnipotence and His Deity.
The Great Commission is a knock on our door of discipleship – a calling to every Christian to step forward in the faith and share the Good News. But slow down a tad. This is faith in action. Oh…the word that can cause so many to be uncomfortable –evangelism. Just how can we carry out Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit? How do we go about teaching them to obey everything He commanded of us?
Here we are –collectively worshipping at Riviera Presbyterian Church. The baptismal fount stands in the center of our sanctuary. Our worship services and Sunday school classes teach. We have the vehicles for “making disciples.” God has let it be known that Jesus is “king of kings and lord of lords. ” As Christians in the 21st century, what is “attached” to Jesus’ Great Commission for each of us? We are works in progress. First, we need to pray often and listen carefully for the call of Christ in our lives. We need to study the Bible and other relevant literature. We need to seek inspiration from study. We need to attend study groups where We can bounce thoughts off others. We need to involve ourselves in the wonderful life of this church, participating in activities that foster learning and growth – activities that serve others. We need to worship often with our congregation and also seek times of quiet reflection praying and worshipping in silence. Remember that worship is fostered by our humility, our reverence, and our submission to the Lord Jesus Christ. We need to share our witness and resources with others – yes, that rather uncomfortable word evangelism. It doesn’t involve the stereotype of spouting a creed or two and badgering folks about whether or not they have been saved. Tell others what Riviera is about. Tell them the words appearing weekly in our bulletins, “that we are open to all who want to be a part of a community of faith seeking to reflect the path of Christ – that we make no distinction among people –that we welcome members into the church’s ministries and ordained offices without regard to race or ethnic background, economic or social circumstances, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or disability.“ Tell others how we at Riviera embrace diversity, gaining strength through both our differences and likenesses. Tell others that we attempt to reflect the path of Christ – and perhaps respond to their possible question, “What does that really mean?”
The Great Commission involves inviting others to share in our congregational experiences. It involves sharing our faith journeys when opportunities present themselves. We need, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to be peacemakers, seeking peace within ourselves and with others. We need to be intricately involved in seeking peace and justice in a word of upheaval.
Christ wants us to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of he Son and of the Holy Spirit.” He was speaking to his eleven disciples and to all of his disciples to come – you and me.
With all that Jesus requires of us, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, we can accept that commission, even though we are indeed WORKS IN PROGRESS.