In this new sermon series, we consider the distinguishing marks of an authentic follower of Jesus and reflect on how we know if we are being shaped primarily by the world’s vision for life or by Jesus’ way towards life and wholeness. In other words, we are all disciples of something or someone so how do we more fully and faithfully bear the marks of Jesus and grow in our love of him? One great place to begin such a discussion is in Matthew 28, which we explore in this sermon.

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    There is an old adage that goes like this: Don't ask a fish to describe water. A fish has never lived outside of its natural environment. Therefore, it has no way to describe the only thing it has ever known. That saying is often used to illustrate the power of culture. The sociologist James Davison Hunter has said, “The power of culture is the power to define reality," and the more powerful the culture is, the more you simply take it for granted. In other words, the things that exert the greatest influence over your patterns of thought, behavior, and relating are invisible to you. 

    He offers this example: The next time you are in the long line of a crowded New York City grocery store, try cutting the line and see what happens. Undoubtedly, you're going to be met with scowls, perhaps some choice words. If your kids are standing with you, they might be a little bit embarrassed. They might want to take a step away. Even if you do not provoke the reaction of people, you may still feel a twinge of guilt. Why is that? Those moral expectations are not written down anywhere. It's not as if you watched a YouTube training video on how to conduct yourself in a grocery store. No, you simply know that's not what you're supposed to do. You just know that's the way it is. That is the power of culture. 

    You have to stop and ask yourself, what are those things that I do, that I say, that I believe without even thinking about it? You just take it for granted because that's the air you breathe. That's the water you swim in. Let me give you another example. Consider your views on any number of hot button topics this day. Think about what your views on abortion, or race, or politics, or poverty, or sex and gender might be. Regardless of what your views may be, chances are they have not been formed by deliberately thinking things through from a Christian standpoint, by prayer and a careful reading of Scripture. More likely, you've adopted those views simply because you have absorbed them from the culture around you without even realizing it. You've just picked things up from parents, and teachers, and politicians, and pundits, and movies, and TV shows, cable news, and social media. In other words, the forces that exert the greatest influence over you are the ones that you can't see and the ones that you don't even know are there. 

    If that's true, then that means that the only way you can resist that influence in your life is through conscious retraining. The only way to resist the influence of all these other cultural forces is through conscious retraining. That's what the Apostle Paul is talking about in Romans 12:2 when he says, "Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its mold, but rather be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its mold, but let God transform you through conscious retraining. I would suggest that we need to heed those words now more than ever. 

    During Lent, we engaged in a series in which we focused on those places where Jesus offers an invitation to become a disciple, meaning to become a student or an apprentice of Jesus and his way of life. Now during Eastertide, I'd like to begin a new series in which we consider the distinguishing marks of an authentic follower of Jesus. In other words, how do you know if you are undergoing that conscious retraining in order to become more like Jesus or if you're simply allowing the world around you to squeeze you into its mold? We'll start this series by looking at what you might call our marching orders, coming straight from the top. We're going to take a look at Matthew 28, a passage that is often referred to as the Great Commission. Through these few brief verses, Jesus tells us three things: he tells us what we're supposed to do, how we're supposed to do it, and why. Let me invite you to open up a Bible to Matthew 28. I'll be reading v.16-20. 

    16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

    This is God's word. It's trustworthy, and it's true, and it's given to us in love. 

    What Are We Supposed To Do?

    Here's the background. After Jesus' resurrection, 11 of the remaining 12 apostles—everyone except for Judas Iscariot—go to the mountain in Galilee that Jesus had previously specified. They go to this place where he said he would meet with them, and when they saw him, they worshiped him. But Matthew is quick to add, “but some doubted.” Don't you just love the honesty of the gospels? There's a sort of tell it like it is quality to the gospel accounts. To me, that's one of the marks of authenticity. If you're making up the story that Jesus had been raised from the dead, you would not say that some of the original 11 disciples doubted that it had ever happened. That's one of the elements that suggests that this story is not made up. It's true. But that's not to suggest that some of the 11 refused to believe and remained in a permanent state of unbelief. Rather, the word that is used here suggests that they were uncertain. It took some of them a little bit longer to accept the reality of the resurrection than others. 

    That too, is a beautiful thing, is it not? Notice that Jesus never denounces or condemns their doubt. In fact, he makes space for their questions. He gives them time to absorb what has actually happened. Likewise, that's the case here at Central. We're never going to put pressure on you. There's no pressure. There's no judgment. In fact, we welcome your questions because that's part of the process of building a stronger faith. For me, one of the things that I most enjoy doing is meeting with people to talk about the specific questions that they have. If you have questions, if you have doubts, don't be shy. Reach out to me. I'd love to meet and speak with you about that. Jesus gives space for people to process their questions and their doubts. 

    Then he proceeds to commission the 11 disciples—and all future followers by extension. Of course, Jesus had authority during his earthly ministry. We know that he had the authority to teach, to heal, to deliver, and to forgive. But as he commissions his disciples, Jesus begins by saying that all authority has now been given to him not only on earth but also in heaven. That is all the result of his resurrection from the grave. Prior to Jesus' death, he was dragged before the council in Jerusalem. When he's being interrogated, he quotes Daniel 7:14. He says, to the high priest, "from now on"—he's not talking about something in the distant future—he says, "from now on, you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power, coming on the clouds of heaven." From now on. This is not a future promise. This is now a present reality. You don't have to wait for some prophecy to be fulfilled. Jesus is saying that he is now reigning over all things. All authority on earth and in heaven has been given to him now as a result of his resurrection from the grave. And because he is now risen and reigning, because he is in charge of all things, he proceeds to give us, his followers, our marching orders. 

    Think about everything that Jesus has been through. Jesus became a human being. He lived a human life. He suffers. He dies. He is raised again from the dead. After all that, what does he want his followers to do? He makes it incredibly simple. There's just one thing. He boils it all down to this: Make disciples. What's the one thing he wants you to do? Make disciples, make students, apprentices. What exactly does that mean? How do we use that term in other contexts? How might we use that in the world of business or even within the church? Some might speak of a disciple of some titan of technology or even some megachurch pastor. We might talk about how so and so was a disciple of Steve Jobs, or Jeff Bezos, or someone is a disciple of Andy Stanley or Nicky Gumbel. But that's not what Jesus is talking about here. Jesus is not talking about becoming a disciple of someone else or making disciples of ourselves. No, he's calling us to make fellow disciples of Jesus. 

    Of course, there's a place for healthy mentoring relationships in the Christian life, but we have to maintain clarity on this issue because there are no gurus in the Christian life. Jesus is not calling us to try to gather groupies or followers around ourselves. No, he's calling us to make fellow disciples, fellow students of Jesus. There is only one master of the Christian life and that's Jesus. We're not supposed to try to make other people like us, but we're called to try to help other people become like Jesus. That is the first and the most obvious distinguishing mark of a disciple. We’re called to be Christlike. We’re called to be like Jesus and to help others become like Jesus too. That's the goal. 

    The word disciple simply means ‘learner’. If you're going to become a follower of Jesus, it means that you're committing yourself to living with Jesus and learning from Jesus—and learning never ends. It's a lifelong process. There's never a point where you could say, “I have arrived. I nailed it. I mastered the Christian life.” It doesn't matter how far along you are in the process because there's always more to learn. No one's ever going to give you a medal and say that you've graduated from the intermediate to the advanced stages of Christian living. Here's the important part. Regardless of where you are in the process, regardless of whether or not you're a novice, or if all of this is brand new, we're all called to make disciples, no matter where we are, no matter what stage. In fact, the fastest way to grow as a Christian, no matter how new the faith may be to you, is to immediately begin to share with others what you are learning. 

    How Are We Supposed To Do It?

    What are we supposed to do? We're supposed to make disciples. That is not a job that is reserved to the religious professionals like the pastors or the missionaries. No, that's something that we're all called to do. We're all called to make disciples no matter who we are, regardless of what our vocation in life may be. If that's what we're supposed to do, how are we supposed to do it? It's a little bit more clear in the Greek than in the English, but Jesus tells us how with three participles. We’re called to make disciples by going, by baptizing, and by teaching. 

    By Going

    First of all we make disciples by going. We have to get up and go. That charge to go and make disciples is what has inspired countless Christians down through the centuries to carry the message of the gospel across oceans and across every conceivable cultural barrier in order to ensure that people from every nation have the opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel for themselves. For hundreds of years, that command to go into all the world has been interpreted primarily geographically. 

    To be sure, there is still an important place for cross-cultural mission, especially in those places of the world where theological resources or training are lacking. But as we move deeper into the 21st century, I think we need a new model. We always have to keep a careful eye on any lurking ethnocentrism. In the past, people assumed that “the West” was fully Christianized; it was a fully Christian culture. And, therefore, if we want to share the gospel with someone new, we have to leave our culture. We have to cross an ocean to do it. But we all know that the church in the West right now is in a serious state of decline; whereas Christianity is growing rapidly in Latin America, Asia, and Africa—so much so that people from the majority world are sending missionaries where?—to America because America is the place where Christianity is hurting. But the point is that if you want to go into all the world with the message of the gospel, you don't have to cross an ocean. All you have to do is cross the hallway of your apartment building to meet people who find Jesus and his message to be strange and unfamiliar. 

    While we have often interpreted that command to go into all the world geographically, we should also interpret it as a command to go into all the world culturally. We should not only think of it in terms of geography, but also social structure. If you've heard me for any length of time, you've probably heard me say that the distinction between so-called “sacred work” and “secular work” is a false dichotomy because every sphere of life provides us with an opportunity to serve God and to contribute to his purposes in the world. And if we fail to engage God in whatever our field or realm of life may be as a divine calling, then it leads to a kind of absence on the part of the church, and it leads to a deleterious effect within the rest of our society. The sociologist James Hunter puts it like this, 

    “Jesus calls his followers to ‘go into all the world’ (Mark 16:15). This, of course, has long been interpreted geographically—the call of missionaries to go to faraway places to proclaim the good news and to make disciples. But the great commission can also be interpreted in terms of social structure. The church is to go into all realms of social life: in volunteer and paid labor—skilled and unskilled labor, the crafts, engineering, commerce, art, law, architecture, teaching, health care, and service. Indeed, the church should be sending people out in these realms—not only discipling those in these fields by providing the theological resources to form them well, but in fact mentoring and providing financial support for young adults who are gifted and called into these vocations. When the church does not send people out to these realms and when it does not provide the theologies that make sense of work and engagement in these realms, the church fails to fulfill the charge to ‘go into all the world.’”

    We're called to bear witness to the reality of who Jesus is and what he has done wherever we're called to serve God, wherever our sphere of influence may be. We should, of course, be mindful of the norms of the office place or the school. We don't need to come across as unnecessarily forceful or pushy about our faith, but I think for the vast majority of us, that's not the real temptation. The great temptation is not that we would be too pushy. The temptation would be that we would be silent. We need to figure out how to share our faith, our commitment to Jesus, as naturally as we would talk about the person that we're dating or our favorite fitness course. If a colleague at work were to ask us what we did over the weekend, we should list among many other things, the fact that we attended church. We should talk about that as naturally as we would say we went for a walk in Central Park. You never know what conversations might open up simply as a result of your willingness to publicly identify yourself with Jesus. 

    By Baptizing

    That in part is at least some of what baptism represents, which is the second thing that Jesus tells us. We have to make disciples by going and by baptizing. He says, “make disciples…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Now as Presbyterians, we don't get too bent out of shape about the mode of baptism, whether you're immersed under the water, or the water is sprinkled, or poured over you. The word baptism originally simply meant "dipped." But the thing that we do need to remember is that the image of being dipped under the water and coming out again was meant to signify a kind of drowning. By undergoing baptism, you’re signifying your death to your old self—your old way of life—and coming out of the water is a sign that you're rising to the new life that Jesus has accomplished for you through his resurrection over the grave. 

    I want you to think about that imagery, I want you to think about some of the parallels. At the very beginning of creation, in the book of Genesis, there was a watery chaos and the Spirit of God hovers over the waters. And then God speaks. And with his voice, he brings the world to be out of the watery chaos, and then God declares it good. It was good. So there's the water, there's the Spirit, and there's the voice. Then when you scroll forward, and you witness Jesus' baptism, in the River Jordan, what happens? He comes out of the water, the Spirit of God descends upon him, and then he hears the voice of his Heavenly Father saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Once again, there's the water there's the Spirit, and the voice. 

    This means that baptism signifies a new birth. It is a new creation. When we undergo baptism, we experience the new birth that Jesus brings about. His goal is to restore us to our true humanity. When we are baptized, we are baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which means that through baptism, God places his name on you; and, therefore, everything that the Father says about Jesus at his baptism is true of you. This is how the Father thinks of you. He loves you with the same love, and to the same degree, that he loves his one and only son. He says to you, “This is my beloved Son, this is my beloved daughter, whom I love, with whom I'm well pleased.” 

    That relationship was always intended to be core to our very identity, but somehow along the way, we've lost it. We've abandoned it. We've corrupted it. But this is the whole reason why Jesus came. This is why he lived and died and rose again—it was to restore that identity to the center of our being and to show us how to become truly human again. Through baptism, God says, “You belong to me.” Jesus, by sheer grace, chooses to be identified with you. The question is, will you choose to be publicly identified with him? 

    I know of a man who became a Christian, later in life, and afterwards, he began attending a local church, and he ran into an elder at the church who happened to be someone who he had known for a long time through business. After church one day, he asked this elder, “How long have we known each other?” And the elder said, “I think about 23 years.” Then the man asked, 'Were you a Christian that whole time?” The elder responded by saying, “Yes.” Then the man said, “Over all those years, I can't remember a single time when you ever mentioned to me the significance of your relationship to Christ.” Of course those words stung. Then the man continued by saying, “I've always thought highly of you, so highly of you, in fact, that I thought that if you didn't need Jesus in your life, then I didn't either.” You really have no idea how God might use you, or could have used you, if you were willing to simply publicly identify yourself with Jesus. 

    That's not to suggest that those who are baptized have got it all figured out. To the contrary, identifying yourself with Jesus signals that you know that you don't have it all figured out. You need to come to Jesus because you've made a mess of your own life and you need him to rescue you from the chaos. Jesus said much the same thing. He said he didn't come for those who think that they are perfect. He came for those who know that they're not. If you were to ask, where are you likely to find a baptized Christian? Where are you likely to find someone who recognizes their need for Jesus? The answer is: in the neighborhood of chaos. One author puts it like this.

    “The new humanity that is created around Jesus is not a humanity that is always going to be successful and in control of things, but a humanity that can reach out its hand from the depths of chaos, to be touched by the hand of God. And that means that if we ask the question, ‘Where might you expect to find the baptized?’ one answer is, ‘In the neighborhood of chaos.’ It means you might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy. I am inclined to add that you might also expect the baptized Christian to be somewhere near, somewhere in touch with, the chaos in his or her own life—because we all of us live not just with a chaos outside ourselves but with quite a lot of inhumanity and muddle inside us. A baptized Christian ought to be somebody who is not afraid of looking with honesty at that chaos inside, as well as being where humanity is at risk, outside.” 

    Let me just say, if you are in a position where you are ready to be rescued from the chaos, either within or without, and it's time to be baptized, then please let me know. 

    By Teaching

    We're called to make disciples. First by going, then by baptizing, and then finally Jesus says, by teaching. Jesus doesn't just give us a few ideas to think about, but rather he offers us an entirely new way of life. He's not just asking us to believe certain things to be true, but to live our lives a certain way. Much of what Jesus has to say about how to be truly human is not only counter intuitive, it's countercultural. If you're going to give your life to Jesus, then everything has got to change in terms of how you relate to other people, especially those who have wronged you, how you use your money, your time, your resources, how you conduct yourself sexually, how you use your power and influence in life, how you raise your kids, how you serve your neighbors, how you pursue your vocation, everything has to change. Your ethics will change, your politics will change. If nothing changes, then you have to question whether you heard the gospel or whether you understand it at all because the grace of Jesus Christ always leads to a transformed life. It always leads to transformation. It always leads to conscious retraining. 

    The Christian life does not come naturally to any of us, which is why we have to learn it from others. What, therefore, is the best way to do it? I would say it comes by reading the Bible together with others. You might have a friend in your life who would feel uncomfortable or out of place if they were to attend a Community Group or a Bible study. I would still encourage you to invite them, but they might not feel ready to take that on. In which case, what I would say is: Is there someone whom you could invite to simply read the Bible together with you, one on one. That takes all the pressure off. You can choose to meet together on a regular basis and then just read a section of the Bible at a time. There's simply no better way to learn—to observe—all that Jesus has commanded us by reading the Scriptures together. When we do so, we should read them with these three questions in mind: What do the words say? What do those words mean? And then most importantly, how do they actually apply to my life? It's not enough to merely affirm a particular set of truths. No, we're supposed to put those truths into action. We're supposed to embody them in our practices. Think of the difference that would make in your life, or in the life of someone very close to you, if you were to commit to reading the Scriptures together, one to one. Imagine what kind of a church we would be if that was happening all the time among all of our friendships and relationships, if we commit ourselves together to being a church where we’re not only growing as lifelong learners of Jesus, but we're seeking to make lifelong learners of Jesus together. Every authentic follower of Jesus is called to be a disciple who makes disciples. It doesn't matter where you start, but you've got to start somewhere. If you call yourself a follower of Jesus, but you're not actively seeking to make disciples of others, then you have to question whether or not you really have given your life to him, whether or not you really are an authentic follower. 


    What are we supposed to do? Make disciples. How are we supposed to do it? By going, by baptizing, and by teaching. Then the final question we have to ask is why? Why should we do this? The simple answer would be that we should go and make disciples because we must. Jesus commands us to do so after all. That's why this is referred to as the Great Commission. People often refer to it as our missionary mandate. We go, we make disciples because we must. This is one of the last things that Jesus said. These are among his famous last words to his followers. We should strive to be lifelong followers of Jesus and to encourage others to do the same in order to be faithful to that call. 

    On the one hand, we make disciples because we must, but in another sense, and perhaps a more proper sense, we should say we make disciples because we can—not because we must, but because we can. If you read through the New Testament, it becomes abundantly clear that none of the authors of the Epistles like the Apostle Paul lay it on thick. Paul never lays it on people's consciences that they have to participate in God's work in the world simply as obedience to command. No, the fact that Jesus lived and died and rose again for you is the greatest news the world has ever heard. Who can be silent about such a fact? No, the primary motivation for helping others become students and apprentices of the life of Jesus is not duty but delight. Not a sense of obligation, but rather gratitude. It's not a burden. It's a joy. The more that you become aware of the ways in which Jesus has rescued you from the chaos of your own life, whether outside or within, the more you want other people to experience the same thing that you yourself have found. 

    Perhaps, rather than referring to it as the Great Commission, we should really call it the Great Invitation. Through his resurrection, Jesus has already achieved everything that is necessary to secure our final redemption and the world's renewal. All authority on earth and in heaven has already been given to him, and he has promised that he will be with us always to the close to the age. The whole world is now open to us. There's no telling what he might do in and through us if we would only let him. Therefore, we have the opportunity, not only to become like Christ ourselves, but also to help others become Christlike too. Let's be the kind of church that together says, “We're going to take that invitation, and we're going to make disciples.” 

    Let me pray for us. 

    Father, we are so grateful to you for all that you've accomplished for us through your perfect Son. We thank you that you love us to the same degree and with the same love as you love him. Help us to hear you say to us, this is my beloved son, this is my beloved daughter, whom I love with whom I'm well pleased. As a result of that, help us to be willing to go wherever you call us to go, to publicly identify ourselves with you, to receive the sign and seal of baptism, and then to teach others to observe all that you've commanded us by reading the Scriptures together. We pray that you would bless our efforts and enable others to discover what we have found in you. We ask in Jesus' name. Amen.