Sermon Series: Following Jesus

February 27th, 2012

3 Week Series

Week 1: Grounded Upon Authority

Matthew 10:1-4; 28:16-20

The Great Commission of Jesus to the disciples is one of the foundational texts of the Christian faith. In it we find the claim to authority, the commission to make disciples, and the call to remember the abiding presence of Jesus. It is a passage that is complex and packed with meaning, yet it is amazingly simple. Today and for two more Sundays we will explore the Great Commission as we work together to determine its meaning for us in this time and place. During each of these three weeks, we will read the Great Commission and then another text from the Gospels that sheds more light on the subject matter in the Great Commission. Perhaps this will help us better appreciate the marvelous call that comes from Jesus to the church today!

As a teenager, I did not easily submit to authority. I disliked authority. More than being under authority, I never really wanted to be in charge of anything. I did not want to have authority myself. Even to this day, I am still not sure if I have completely resolved all of my issues with authority. As a young minister coming through the ordination process in our annual conference, we were subject to annual interviews conducted by the conference Board of Ordained Ministry. Following those interviews, many of the candidates (including me) would gather somewhere (usually a fastfood restaurant somewhere) and we would share our interview stories. Without fail, after every series of interviews, at least one of my friends would say that he or she was informed that he or she had a problem with authority. These were my friends who seemed to normally be very compliant, and I often wondered why I wasn’t challenged about the same thing. Then after working through the process for a couple of years, it finally happened to me. I was being interviewed, and because of something I said or wrote, someone in the group said, “It seems that maybe you have a problem with authority.”

I will never forget what happened next. At that point, another member of the group, who was a trusted and respected mentor of mine, said, “You know, we so often use that phrase when dealing with candidates. Of course, he has a problem with authority. I have a problem with authority. If the truth is known, most of us in this room have or have had or will have a problem with authority. It is not that he has a problem with authority that concerns me most. It is how he works through being under authority, being granted authority, and using that authority that concerns me.”

All of my life I will never forget that challenge. It never occurred to me to question the authority of Jesus. At least, it didn’t occur to me in the cognitive realm. As I have reflected upon my life, however, I am not so sure that I haven’t questioned the authority of Jesus at a deeper level. In the Great Commission, Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus shares that same authority with his disciples even as he does at the Great Commission. Here, however, the authority is not just bestowed upon random, nameless people. No, here the authority is given to specific people: “Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.”

It is that concreteness that I have had such difficulty trusting. It is one thing to say that Jesus has shared authority with the church or with his followers. But when we start naming names—Matthew, John, Peter, Susan, Bob, Melissa, and Jeff—then we are getting serious. This is not about authority given to the followers of Jesus; rather, it is now about authority that has been given to me. And yes, I have a problem with that. It is not the same problem with authority that I had as a teenager. It is not that I have a problem being under authority, but I do have a serious problem with being entrusted with such authority. If only the people knew who I really was—if only people could see my clay feet—if only they knew that I have moments of uncertainty myself—then they might think it a mockery that I have dared to assume the authority of Jesus himself. Yet this is the authority that Jesus has given to us. It is the authority to share in his ministry. It is the authority to defeat demons. It is the authority to bring healing. It is the authority to make disciples for Jesus. It is the authority to be the body of Christ. Such authority can be overwhelming, yet we who are in Christ are endowed with just such authority.

The question for us now is how we will use that authority. There are many who do not consider that they have a problem with authority, yet they use their authority to hurt others. Many lives have been damaged by ministerial misconduct in its various forms. No matter the nature of the offense, the common factor is that a member of the clergy who has authority and power has often overstepped a boundary and used that authority and power for personal gain or personal pleasure.

Then there are those who refuse to take up authority. I have encountered men and women who could have positively influenced their family— their church—their community—their world—had they only dared to take up the authority. Women, believing that they are subservient to men, have refused roles of spiritual leadership when God is clearly calling on them to be the spiritual leaders in their families or their churches. know people who, in the shadow of a very strong, charismatic pastor, have declined to take authority (especially if it meant taking a stand against something espoused by the pastor).

So our challenge is to take authority. Take it appropriately, yes, but take it. Do you have a problem with authority? If you do, remember that the disciples themselves had problems with authority, but it was theirs nonetheless.

Week 2: Making Disciples

Matthew 28:16-20; John 1:35-42

Today we continue our series on the Great Commission of Jesus to the disciples. Previously, we considered the issue of authority as related to those who have been commissioned by Jesus. Next week, we will discuss the abiding presence of Jesus, and today we will consider the commission to make disciples.

The call to make disciples is considered by many to be the primary task of the Christian church. It is certainly the dominant theme in the Great Commission, and it is the basis of much programming in most of our churches today. While it does not give specific instructions (other than to baptize the disciples in the name of the Triune God), it does not let us off thinking that the message of Jesus is one that is easily kept secret. The truth is that sharing the message of Jesus is amazingly simple.

As a young minister serving a student appointment while still in seminary, I remembered thinking that evangelism was all about a complex program of advertising, outreach, and visitation. I had assumed that it needed various structures and resources to be successful. Further, I had assumed that it was a task so complex that I probably wouldn’t be very good at it.

Then one day I was required to attend a training session for our district. The training had breakout groups that focused on various topics. The groups I had wanted to join were full, so I was more or less forced to attend the breakout group on evangelism. I reluctantly went into the room, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I learned that day.

The instructor (a man whose name I have long since forgotten) had several handouts that confirmed for me that an evangelism program must be multilayered and complex in order to be successful. He handed us the papers and then told us to put them away for another day because he had something important to share. He said, “Most of us think of evangelism as something that requires a lot of work. Many people are out there trying to identify evangelism and tell us what program will work most effectively in evangelism. I’m here to tell you that it is all wrong.”

He paused to let the words sink in. We all looked rather quizzically at this new revelation. He continued, “I’m sure some programs may work, but my experience is that we spend all of this time trying to figure out what evangelism is and how to implement some detailed program that we forget to evangelize.” That was a new concept for me. In seminary, I had learned how to think things through. I had learned how to critically evaluate things. I had thought a lot about things like evangelism; it’s just that I had never really done evangelism.

Then the instructor continued and said the one thing that I will never forget. “Evangelism is as easy as one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.” It hit me. Beggars are people who are desperate. They are starving. The only thing they can think about is where their next meal is coming from. When they find an abundant supply of food, they don’t need a complex program to tell their friends where they got the food.

We live in a world that is starving. It is a world lost in darkness. Hate, greed, war, poverty, and neglect are among the many evils that plague us. It is a world desperately in need, and there are so many people who are themselves starving. They may not be starving for food. It may be that they are starving for hope or joy. Perhaps they are starving for love or friendship. I see a world starving for a word of peace. No matter the hunger, we know people who are starving for something.

That something is the good news. We are the people who know. We know of the joy and love that comes from following Christ. We know of hope amidst a world of despair. We know of love amidst a world of hate. We know a Savior amidst a world that is lost. It is that simple message we are called to share.

Andrew was one who had encountered the man named Jesus. He had followed him to the place where Jesus was staying, and it was there that Andrew spent the day with Jesus. In that short amount of time, Andrew had his hunger filled and his thirst quenched. This was the one who himself was the bread of life. Jesus was the cup of salvation. Andrew knew that this man was someone very special. Jesus was the anointed one. He was the Messiah!

Andrew had a brother who was likewise starving. He was looking for something. Andrew had come to the conviction that he had encountered the one who was the answer to their parched souls. He then came to his brother, Simon, and brought him to Jesus. Jesus, upon meeting Simon, told him that his name was Cephas, which translates to Peter—“the rock”! Because of Andrew, Peter’s thirst was quenched, and he was empowered with a faith that became the foundation for all who followed him.

How would the story have changed had Andrew not shared the good news with Simon Peter? As important, what would our story have been had he not shared the good news? Thank God that he didn’t look for a complex program with a long list of resources. All he had to do was share with one who was hungry, and a disciple was born.

Do you know someone around you who is starving for the bread of life and the cup of salvation? Give them a taste of the bread and a drink from the cup. Yes, it’s just that easy.

Week 3: An Abiding Presence

Matthew 28:16-20; John 14:25-27

Today we conclude our series on the Great Commission of Jesus to his disciples. Two weeks ago, we considered the issue of authority. Last week, we focused on the primary emphasis of this passage—the commission to make disciples. Today we conclude by focusing on the abiding presence of Jesus as the one thing that gives evangelism it intrinsic value.

If we take our role seriously as evangelists—namely, those who have been given authority and who are called to reach out and make disciples—then we will also understand the central message of the evangelist. It is the timeless message handed down from ancestral Judaism all the way to the modern church. It is the message of the abiding presence of God through Jesus Christ.

As I considered the text from Matthew 28 and its message concerning the abiding presence of Christ, I thought of the many funerals I have officiated over the years. Two of the primary texts from those services are Psalm 23 and the passage we read from John 14. Prior to Jesus’ promise in John 14 to send the Holy Spirit (here called the Advocate), Jesus has told his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them. Jesus has told them that God’s house is a place where there is room for everyone. He has told them that he is going away, but not before he lets them in on a little secret. The Holy Spirit will come and abide with them. The primary task of this Advocate is to remind the followers of Jesus that Jesus is near. The Advocate is here to make real the presence of Jesus in and among his followers. Jesus is not the Messiah who has left us on our own; rather, Jesus is the Christ who lives in and through his disciples.

I learned early on in my ministry about the ministry of presence. I first served as a student pastor during my junior year in college. I was only twenty years old, and there in my tiny little church, I soon found just how much I didn’t know. I remember my first funeral all too well. The man had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, about which I knew little. I didn’t know what to say to the family as this man was dying, and I had no real understanding of pastoral care. I visited him anyway, all the while feeling woefully inadequate.

When he died, I had no idea how to conduct a funeral. I called another minister who mentored me through the planning. I met with the family three times during the two days following his death, each time not having the slightest idea what to say or do in those situations. The day of the funeral came, and I fumbled my way through the service. I don’t remember much about the service.

What I do recall, however, was the response of the family. They were so grateful. They said how wonderful I had been and how comforting I was to the family. As I recounted this incident to one of my favorite college professors in the religion department, he said something I have never forgotten. He said, “In times of crisis, you don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to be the most skilled counselor or the best preacher. All you have to be is present.” It was that knowledge that has most profoundly affected and shaped my ministry through the years.

The greatest evangelistic tool we have is the gift of presence. As a pastor who has experienced both growing and declining churches, I have learned that presence is the key. People who are present in their communities as Christians tend to draw people to Christ. This doesn’t mean that we must wear our Christianity on our sleeves with acts of false piety. It does mean that, if we live our lives in the shadow of the life of Christ, we will find that people who are seeking will want what we have.

Likewise, the church must be present in the community. Churches that tend to focus on inward needs—the desires and wants of its own membership as opposed to being open to ministering to the hurt and suffering of those so often excluded by organized religion—find themselves in decline. Churches that focus on outreach and refuse to place their own needs above the needs of others are churches that are growing precisely because they are present to needs outside their own walls.

The message of presence is perhaps the greatest message of the entire Bible. God is present in creation, and in Genesis 2, we find that God is as present as our very breath. God is present to the people of Israel even in their suffering, and they are told that they will not be forgotten. God is the one who leads us as a shepherd and will lead us even “through the valley of the shadow of death” as promised in Psalm 23 (NIV). The prophets remind us that God has never deserted the people of God, even during exile and judgment. God who created us and called to be a holy people will never leave us in our hour of need.

That is the eternal promise of God, and it is here confirmed in the Great Commission. Jesus’ promise to be present is not an idle promise. It is the promise that we will not be forgotten. It is a promise that we will be forever loved as the children of God.

So when you seek to share the good news of Jesus with others—when you seek to bring others into fellowship with the living Christ—it doesn’t require that we have some complex skill or know everything there is to know about evangelism. It only requires that we be present as God is present. When we are present to our hurting world, we have become evangelists and Christ is made known through our presence.

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