Sunday, November 23, 2008

All In - Matthew 28:16-20 (Blackburn's Chapel)

This morning, our Scripture passage is very familiar territory. If you grew up in a church where you memorized Bible verses, this was no doubt one of the earliest passages you learned. We have all worshipped in buildings where these words of Jesus echo in the very design of the building itself, as we exit under banners that read, “You are now entering the mission field,” stone etchings of “Enter to worship, Depart to serve,” or pristinely preserved King James English: “Go ye therefore into all the world.”

An imperfect community

The eleven disciples went to Galilee.” Eleven. It’s a number that just sort of limps across the finish line. It’s an imperfect number. It’s a constant reminder of the betrayal that has taken place within Jesus’ inner circle. Jesus has already lost 8.3% of his close following. At this rate, he’ll be lucky if there’s anybody left by Thanksgiving. Eleven – it’s so incomplete, so imperfect, just begging to be rounded out. “Make me a 12! Even a 10!” it pleads. Anything is better than being an 11.

The weekend before I graduated from seminary, I traveled with ten friends, all seminary students, to see baseball games in New York, Boston, and Baltimore. We called ourselves St. Abner’s 11, named of course, for Abner Doubleday, the originator of modern baseball. Being a bunch of theology nerds, we joked that the purpose of our trip was to search for Matthias, who eventually became the 12th disciple to take Judas’ place. In other words, we were looking for our 12th, for the person who would complete our merry little band. 11 just doesn’t sit right – it seems to need something else added.

And yet, back in our text, that’s who God chose to use. He didn’t tell the disciples to get their affairs in order and then come back. He didn’t wait for them to achieve perfection and then tell them what they were supposed to be doing. He didn’t wait for all their charge conference forms to be turned in. They were an imperfect little community, yet the commission was given to them.

Jesus has to be kidding us here. His timing couldn’t be worse. His selection of people is questionable. And what of the location? Galilee? That little backwater territory, removed from the beaten path, where even well-placed signs couldn’t help someone find it?

That’s just what God does sometimes. His timing is inconvenient. He calls people who, quite frankly, are not the sort of folks we thing would be likely to be working for God. And he even shows up in odd places, backwater places, inconvenient places.

Eleven – it reminds us that this community is imperfect, and that it desperately needs something else to complete it. But what it needs is not something we can provide. Yes, it’s begging for completion, but that missing piece can only be provided by God’s grace. In fact, that missing piece is God’s grace.

And so, God calls imperfect people, places them in imperfect situations at inconvenient times and tells us to work with other imperfect people, and he gives us his perfect work to do. I take this as proof that God does not call the strong, but the weak. God does not call those who are equipped, but equips those whom he calls. I am reminded over and over just how faithful God is, and how committed he is to us.

God loves imperfect people. God’s love and grace are for people who don’t have their act completely together – people like us. We have been conditioned to think of love as a warm gushy feeling. Movies, television, and music all reinforce this idea. In reality, love has very little to do with a certain feeling, but it has everything to do with a commitment.

In the early-90s, when my grandparents were starting to celebrate their second half-century together in marriage, Grandma began to develop signs of Alzheimer’s. Papa, then in his mid-80s, became her primary care-giver, and took care to dress her, feed her, take her to the bathroom, fix her hair, get her medication, and tuck her into bed every night. With personality and memory changes, she was barely a shadow of her former self. Even so, Papa would gently stroke the back of her hand as they sat on the couch together, and tell her several times a day just how much he loved her. It was a love that remained faithful to a vow to cherish and keep her, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, and he kept it until they were parted by death.

If my grandfather was able to keep this kind of commitment, how much more so will God keep his commitment to us? And God shows his commitment by placing a call on us. God calls us all. He calls us all to be in ministry. This is sometimes surprising to us, and God often operates in ways which we did not expect.

How good that God does not operate according to the way we would expect. God does not operate on our terms. If God operated predictably and just how we would expect, one could make the argument that we are the ones who are sovereign over God. What God is worth worshipping who can be squeezed into a delicate little box that we have constructed according to our own needs?

All that Jesus commanded

But isn’t that sometimes what we do? We construct little God-boxes, where the religious part of our live is tucked away from everything else. But in the type of discipleship Jesus commissioned the disciples to invite people into, that’s not an acceptable option. Discipleship involves obeying everything Jesus commanded. Everything. Not just what particularly resonates with us. Not only what is politically correct. Everything. Is this really the sort of discipleship we want to invite people into?

To be a disciple of Jesus Christ means letting God out of the box. The wisdom of the world has taught us that religious activities can be included in your life in the same way that Kellogg’s Corn Pops are part of a balanced breakfast. All things in moderation, they say. You can have a little bit of fun and little bit of faith. Have a little bit of fun on Saturday night, and a little bit of faith on Sunday morning. The world calls this approach reasonable. The world calls this approach moderate. The world calls this approach balanced and healthy. The sovereign God, revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, calls this approach “lukewarm.”

Poker has enjoyed a real rise in popularity in recent years. Now, because the social principles of the United Methodist Church are STRONGLY opposed to gambling, I know that none of YOU plays or ever has played poker, but you may have seen a Texas-hold-em tournament or something on ESPN. When a player goes “All In,” they’re betting everything they have against what the other players are holding. It’s all or nothing. They’ve picked something to place their faith in, and they’re going to stick with it ‘til the end.

That’s the sort of discipleship Jesus calls us to. He wants us to be all in with him. He wants us to obey everything he has commanded, and not simply pick and choose those aspects his teaching that seem to be the most convenient to us. It’s not the sort of thing that happens overnight. Learning how to be a disciple of Jesus takes a lifetime to learn. When we invite people to a life of discipleship, we are inviting them to a lifetime of learning. Learning what Jesus commanded. Learning how to obey those commands. Learning how to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. That’s right – it takes a lifetime to truly learn how to live.

When we become a disciple of Jesus, we are not adding some new extracurricular activity to our already crowded resume. We are not inviting people to join some social club or civic organization. Church membership is not a substitute for Christian discipleship. There are plenty of people on the rolls of many Christian churches who are not disciples – and I’m not asking you to name names.

Perhaps here is where I may get myself in trouble, but I’m really not interested in how many members a congregation or denomination adds in a year. I’m much more interested in how we’re doing at building disciples. Hear me correctly; I want people to join the church. But I want them to join as a sign of their commitment to the ministry God is doing in that place and through that people, that they have found a home, and are growing as disciples. Increased church attendance and membership is a byproduct of faithful discipleship, but it is never its goal. I’m more concerned with how people are growing in their faith, and what we’re doing to bring people to wholeness and fullness in Jesus Christ.

Discipleship is always a process of growing. None of us ever gets to a point where we have arrived and where we have nothing more to learn about what it means to follow Jesus. His instruction to obey everything he has commanded is a tall order, and one that none of us can possibly live into on our own. But we shouldn’t discourage that. When I was a kid, my mom used to take me shoe-shopping. I remember she always used to press her thumb down onto the toe of the shoe. If there wasn’t room for her thumb between my toes and the end of the shoe, she asked for the next largest size. We always bought shoes that were just a little too big, but sure enough, I always grew into them.

A full life of Christian discipleship is just a little bit too big for us as well, but it’s also something we can grow into. Our ability is less important than our availability. What we ourselves bring is less important than what God can do within and through us. When God’s Spirit moves across and through his people, it is a celebration that God brings about real transformation in the lives of God’s people.

A promise to be with us

Right at the end of the passage are these words from Jesus: “Remember, I am with you always, until the very end of the age.” Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last day in the church’s calendar before we begin a new year next week with the beginning of Advent. On Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate the reign of Christ here on earth and look forward to the consummation of all things at the end of the age.

When we talk about the kingdom of God, we celebrate that it is something to which we look forward, but it is also something we celebrate here and now. Every Sunday, we pray for God’s kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done, on earth, as it in heaven. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God is at hand, that is, it is within our reach. If we follow Jesus, if we make other disciples who also follow Jesus, if we go “all-in” with Jesus, we will find the kingdom of God made present in our midst. Going “all-in” with Jesus, following so closely that I do the things did, I might actually love my neighbor as myself, pray for my enemies, forgive not just seven times but seventy times seven, be the light of the world, not be anxious about tomorrow, be merciful as my father in heaven is merciful, that I might serve rather than be served.

Do you long for a world like that? A world in which everyone was treated with the graciousness of Christ? I know I do. And I know it’s possible. This meal we are about to receive, this Communion, is sometimes described as a meal of God’s kingdom. It connects us with a Savior who emptied himself and gave up everything so that the world would have life in his name, and is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet God has invited each of us to. My hope this morning is that, as we gather at this table, we gather so close to Christ that our hearts would break for the world God loves, and that the kingdom of God would be known in our midst.

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