Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Book the Acts of the Apostles, or simply Acts, tells of the founding of the Christian church and the spread of its message to the Roman Empire. Over the last three weeks, we have meditated on the first stories in the book. First, the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, followed by, the election of the disciple Matthias to replace Judas the Betrayer, and then last week, the story of Pentecost and Peter’s preaching that Sunday morning. Today, I would like to continue this series on the books of Acts, with a meditation based the people’s response to Peter’s sermon.
One Sunday morning, a little girl returned home from Church with her parents, and she was very disappointed. Not with the sermon of course, or the length of the worship service, but she was disappointed with her Sunday School lesson. Staring into her concerned mother’s loving face, she sighed. “We were taught to go forth unto the ends of the earth and make disciples of all nations,” she said. “But we just sat.” The poor girl obviously hadn’t learned the great Christian art and religious discipline of sitting- sitting through prayers, sitting through service and sitting through meetings. And thank goodness for that. The little girl was longing for something more. The early Christians in ancient Jerusalem would have been just as disappointed.
Of course, not every Christian feels that tug of the Spirit- especially when they are faced with the words of the Great Commission. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Yes, there are many who think the Great Commission is simply what the real estate agent gets when their house is sold. They feel no personal responsibility of making disciples. Perhaps, you are counted in that number. Secretly, you confess that evangelism is the most uncomfortable word in common church use. Stewardship runs a strong second. Your own personal choice for improving church attendance and evangelism would be to call every Sunday Christmas or Easter. It’s not that you doubt the claims of the Christian faith- you’re simply not sure that you know the faith well enough that you can speak confidently to others.
Let me assure you, you are not alone. Perhaps that is what so surprising about the founding of the early church. The disciples were skeptical as well. Over and over again we read that even though they had just witnessed the miracle of their Master’s resurrection, they still had doubts. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t chastise them for their lack of faith, nor does he deny that his faithful disciples had questions. No, instead Jesus entrusts to them the great mission of the church- to make disciples of all nations.
Now you may be thinking. Well certainly, Jesus could have done better. Uneducated fishermen wouldn’t be the top candidates for our seminaries today. Jesus could have scouted out young theological students in Jerusalem who had walked the halls of the Ivy League Synagogues and worshiped in the pillared lanes of the Temple. He could have summoned disciples of proper pedigree and birth, young lads who were born to good families. But instead Jesus walked along the Sea of Galilee and called common fishermen to be his disciples. And now as he prepared to entrust them with establishing the church, he gave his Great Commission with the Sea of Galilee as a majestic, symbolic backdrop. It is Jesus’ visual reminder that the work of the church always begins in your own backyard.
My friends, this morning I would to share with you three words that empowered the disciples as they went forth to the ends of the earth. They are Go, Baptize and Teach.
The mission of the Church always begins with the word, Go. Unfortunately, some Christians don’t know why they have been sent. They know that sharing and teaching the faith are good, and that serving their neighbor is honorable. But they’re a bit uncomfortable about imposing their faith upon another. Perhaps, in your experience, making disciples has meant stating that your faith is better than another. Well, if that is your understanding of the Great Commission than perhaps you shouldn’t go. You may be doing more damage for the kingdom than good. I am reminded of the man who was trying to be more diligent about witnessing and saw an opportunity as he was standing in the “10 Items or Less” checkout line at the grocery store. “All have sinned,” he began sincerely looking at the clerk scanning his items. “Including you, Mac,” she replied without looking up. “I count twelve items here.”
It is easy to forget the reason and source of our calling. Disciples is a gift that flows from God’s love to share with others. In his work, Christian Doctrine, British theologian. J.S. Whale, writes, “A young curate once called on William Stubbs, Bishop of Oxford, to ask him for advice about preaching. The great man was silent for a moment and then replied, ‘Preach about God; and preach about 20 minutes.’” It’s reminiscent of the old adage, “No one was ever saved after twenty minutes into the sermon.” Too often we forget to focus on God. Instead, we pay far too much attention on our neighbors should live and act, or what pressing issues should draw their attention: the environment, world hunger, racial justice, economic disparity. Or we become too focused on personal morality. We forget that making disciples is really all about God’s love.
Second, in order to live out the Great Commission, we are to “baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It is startling how significant baptism was in the life of the early church, and how insignificant it has become in many churches today It reminds me of three pastors who were having lunch together. The first one said, “You know, since the summer started I’ve been having a lot of trouble with bats in the loft and attic at my church. I’ve tried everything — noise, spray, cats — nothing seems to scare them away.” The second pastor replied, “Me too. I’ve got hundreds of those things living in my belfry and in the narthex attic. I had the whole place fumigated, but they still won’t go away.” The third pastor then said, “I had that problem a while ago. So I baptized them and made them members of the church. Haven’t seen one back since!” That certainly wasn’t the effect in the early church. At the end of St. Peter’s Pentecost Day sermon, people were asking the apostles what they should do next. Peter answered, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you,” and that day about three thousand persons were added. It was a stunning response to Peter’s words.
Often times, people confuse baptism with a personal gift between God and the believer only. That is not why the crowd at Pentecost wanted to be baptized. They wanted to be a part of a vibrant, lively community and a vibrant, lively lifestyle known as the church. What was the church in Jerusalem like? In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that the church was not a place where you were on your own. It was a place of fellowship, where members shared the Holy Supper and meals together. It was a place where Christians held a deep sense of responsibility and commitment to each other. It was a worshipping community where people gathered in in prayer and thanksgiving. And perhaps, the most wonderful description of all, the early church was a community which enjoyed the good will of all the people.
Third, “Teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” It is unfortunate that Christ said, “Teach them to obey.” Much of his ministry was spent disobeying the law. This third command is far easier to understand if we exchange the word observe for obey. You see, when you observe everything Christ has taught it makes a difference in how people live and act and die.
First of all, when people observe everything Jesus taught their faith makes a difference in how they act. The psychiatrist Victor Franklin his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, describes the reactions of two brothers with the same heredity, the same environment, in the same concentration camp under the Nazis. One became a saint and the other a swine. Frankl tells us the reason why. He said, “Each man has within him the power to choose how he will react to any given situation.” Faith helps you define your choices and makes a difference in how you act.
Second, faith makes a difference in how you live. Not many of you will preach a sermon from this pulpit, or perhaps even quote a Bible verse this coming week to another person. But you can, if you are willing, preach a sermon every day with your life. You can become the incarnate Word of God in the way you treat other people. And when I speak of other people I am referring especially to the “little people” in your life. People without clout, people who do not have much effect on your life one way or another. People whom it would be easy to ignore. For the real test of Christian character is not how you treat big people, VIP people, the so called important people in our society, but rather, the rubber hits the road in your Christian discipleship in the way you treat the little people- the clerk in the store, the waitress in the restaurant, the faceless telephone operator, your subordinates at work. Faith makes a difference in how you live.
And finally, faith makes a difference in how you die? In the late 1800’s, a Yankee Clipper, a long narrow sailing vessel, struck rocks off the coast of Maine. It began to sink quickly with all hands aboard. Some fishermen in a tiny village saw the boat begin to flounder and immediately pushed off in their row boats to help save their comrades who were floating in the icy water. A man, who remained on shore, shouted out to them, “You fools! Don’t you know you will never get back. The waves are twenty feet high and the wind is screaming over the ocean at thirty knots.” One of them manning the oars in the fishing boat, shouted back, “We have to go out! We don’t have to go back.” Faith makes a difference in how you die.
That was the beginning of the early church. Men and women were baptized into the church where they could learn to observe and embrace all that Jesus taught, and in so doing, to become a part of a new and vibrant life and lifestyle. That is the promise of the church for you as well. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.