Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:16–20 ESV)
It is no great secret that the church in the United States is in decline. We live in a culture prone to un-belief and mis-trust, and old-school institutions are feeling the effects. It’s not hard to see why our culture has become so cynical. I mean I’m cynical, it’s kind of the air I breathe. But over the past half-century a lot of what our culture used to take for granted has been cut down. The Vietnam War and Watergate undercut trust in the government. Television, and now social media, helped reveal just how deep racism flowed in our country. Companies began shifting jobs overseas, decimating communities. 9/11 erased the notion that the Atlantic Ocean could keep us safe. Televangelists and Catholic sex scandals maimed the idea that religious pursuits are a noble endeavor.
And in response to this half-century of growing malaise I keep hearing strategy after strategy after strategy dealing with the question “How will the church survive in a culture of unbelief?” These usually center around whatever the latest “lost generation” of church-goers is 1. But there is a huge problem with this approach, the Great Commission is not a strategy for hanging on to marketshare.
The Great Commission is a mission, a mission to look at every power in this world and say, “All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to Jesus.” It is the purpose to which our faith is supposed to draw us. And when we read the Great Commission we find that our Savior gives only one reason why his followers will be able to make disciples, baptize, and teach as they go out into the world. And it’s not tied to what strategies they use. Rather, in our savior’s mind the apostles can go out into the world because Jesus is with them.
That’s it. And when we look at the context for the Great Commission this reason is about the only thing which makes sense. On one hand you have the “b-team” disciples of a crucified rabbi. On the other you have the religious establishment which handed Jesus over to death, people groups who were prone to believing in many gods, and the most powerful empire the world has ever seen 2. And yet these disciples of a rejected King were going to go out into that same empire and say, “Caesar is not the savior of the world. Our Crucified and rejected master, Jesus, who died and is risen and now rules over all things is the real savior!” Does anything about that statement make any sort of logical sense?
And yet, it worked. And we’re living proof it did. And that’s because Jesus was with them, and he’s been with all those disciples who came before us, and he’s still with us today. Everyone who has ever lived in the way of Christ reveals how the Kingdom of Heaven is not of this world, it doesn’t depend on our cleverness, power, sense of security. It comes by the work of the Holy Spirit. And yet the apostles lived in tension.
And, really, so do we.
Even though the early believers understood that the power to go and make disciples was because of Jesus’ presence, those same early believers made use of all the societal tools they had available to them. They travelled on Roman Roads, sailed on common trade routes, and Paul would even set up shop in the Agora (the Marketplace) to declare the lordship of Christ. This same Apostle also leveraged his Roman Citizenship in order to help spread the word of Jesus’ reign.
If we’re honest we understand the call of our own faith journeyed to us through the tools which brought the story of Jesus to our culture. Some of us may have come to faith at a revival meeting, or by listening to music, or reading a book, a social outreach which fed or clothed us, or by going to a church building and encountering Jesus in worship 3. Every one of us, as we’ve both shared and received the Gospel, has made use of some tool made available by our culture.
So as we go out and make disciples, which I recommend we do if we want to obey this master we call savior and lord, we’re also going to make use of the cultural tools at our disposal. Music, social media, YouTube, buildings, and live streams are some of the easier tools at our disposal. But we can also be like the Apostle Paul and leverage our own citizenship to act as a prophetic voice in our own culture. In so doing we’re following in the footsteps of all those in the faith who have come before us.
So my question today is, “Do we dare to embrace the great commission?” Not just the idea that we’re supposed to be out “winning souls.” Will he embrace the bit about challenging the powers and authorities of this world with the proclamation, “Jesus Christ is Lord?”
Are we willing to stand up and say, when entire countries and religions are denigrated in order to create new boogey-men around which a nation can coalesce in fear and loathing, “I will not sink into hatred. Jesus died on the cross for these people, same us me. And in I will bow to no lord who tells me ‘those people’ aren’t worthy of love?”
Are we willing to cry out in anguish when the powers of this nation determine it’s ok to separate parents from their children, with the only explaination being, “It’s their fault, they came here illegally?” Will we say to this callous treatment of God’s image, “This rule is wicked, and we will embrace Christ’s Kingdom over your illusion of security?”
Will we tell a culture which demonstrates over and over again that people of color are automatically suspect until proven otherwise, “The Lord of Heaven and Earth rejects anyone who believes in the supremacy of one race over another?”
Will we do all these things not because they are politically popular or are “the right side of history 4. May we do these things, and so much more, because Jesus is with us. He’s with us when we gather in worship, share a meal, and celebrate life together. He’s with us when we help a stranger or are kind to those who come across our path. He’s with us among the poor and destitute. He’s present in the midst of the immigrant, documented or otherwise, and dwells in the eyes of asylum-seekers fleeing from hatred and violence. And, I cannot stress this enough, he is Lord. If we shut our eyes to Jesus, who is always with us, we’ll never recognize his reign. We might win some privileges for ourselves, or make the country “great again 5,” but we won’t be keeping the Great Commission. And we don’t keep that then what’s the point?
There is need right now in this world, as the political extremes of both left and right become both more enraged and fearful, for disciples of the Lord of Heaven and Earth. By the Spirit’s power and by recognizing the presence of Christ within and around us we can speak to hope, challenge the darkness, proclaim love, work for Christ’s peace. And if Jesus’ disciples did these things I know we’d end up making more than converts. We’d make disciples who sound, act, and live like the Lord of Heaven and Earth. Amen.
- When I was in college it was all about Generation-X. Now it’s Millennials, which just ramps up my generation’s sense of being over-looked. Again. ↩
- Which called its emperor “the savior of the world.” ↩
- What a concept. ↩
- This may be one of the most vapid and arrogant phrases in the English language. It’s a noble-sounding way of saying, “I only consider someone who thinks like me as a ‘real person.'” ↩
- Another vapid and worthless statement. ↩