November 14, 2010

Mission and Message

I have a confession to make to you this morning.  Perhaps this is less of a surprise to some than to others.  I am a bit of a perfectionist.  Okay, I have another confession to make.  I just lied to you.  I am a raging, nearly out-of-control perfectionist.  I’m so bad that it bothers me when eating out and a server comes and picks my drink up to refill it and sets it back down somewhere other than precisely on top of the existing sweat ring on the table.  I have to pick it up and move it before I can go on eating my meal.  Usually I try and receive the glass from them before they have a chance to set it down and make a new sweat ring.  That’s just one of the irritating sides of my perfectionism.  Another is that when I take on a job, I will kill myself to do it absolutely perfectly according to my standards.  When I was growing up a neighbor asked if I would keep up his yard while he and his wife went out of town for a couple of weeks.  As a bonus he offered to pay me some extra if I would rake all the dead, weedy grass out of his yard.  Mowing his yard was easy.  It wasn’t all that big.  The raking, on the other hand, was a bit more of a project.  I took my garden rake down the street to his house and began attacking the dead grass in a very systematic fashion (as if I would have done it any other way).  Well when I wasn’t even halfway across the yard some two hours later I was starting to get a little discouraged.  You see, not only am I a perfectionist, I’m also pretty impatient.  God must have really been laughing when he put those two traits together in one person.  I had received this huge task with a pretty nice reward and with perfection as my goal, I went about achieving it in as systematic a way as I possibly could.

You know, thinking on what we talked about last week, Jesus gave us a pretty big task to accomplish when He left: make disciples of all nations.  There’s a pretty big reward for finishing well too.  Let’s be honest, though: that designation “all nations” includes a lot of people.  I mean, the world’s population is currently somewhere just south of seven billion people.  Self-identified Christians number just over 2 billion of that.  Christianity may be the fastest growing of the major world religions in terms of conversions, but we still have a long way to go.  And you know, such a mindset is often how we approach our task of making disciples.  We look at the number of people who aren’t Christians in the world, the number of people in the world (or more often today the number of people groups—roughly defined as a group of people with a common language and cultural heritage and of which there are about 6,500 who are currently categorized as “unreached” which seems a lot easier than four billion to reach) and get to work marking them off one at a time.  We systematize things.  We establish a plan, criteria for success, then get to work.  And what do you think some of those criteria are?  The number of baptisms?  The number of languages into which the Bible is translated?  The number of times the “Sinner’s Prayer” is prayed?  The rate percentage-wise at which the number of Christians in the world is increasing?

Do you see how any of these approaches or any others along the same lines might lead to some (many) believers getting a bit discouraged at the task before us?  Just like my trying to systematize raking my neighbor’s yard focused my attention on the scope of the task ahead of me and led to discouragement, disillusionment, and dismay, so also when we attempt to do something similar with the great task of making disciples of all nations we run the risk of the same reactions.  Okay, let’s be honest: most of us don’t stop with these three reactions; we sail right on to apathy.  We don’t know what to do.  We don’t know how to do it.  So we just throw up our hands, throw in the towel, and live like we don’t care and it doesn’t matter anyway.  Yet in flirting with such an approach we still have the things we talked about last week hanging over our heads.  If we are going to stand on our confession as followers of Christ then His authoritative command to make disciples is in force over us and if we are not doing it then we are living in disobedience.  So what on earth are we supposed to do with this?  How are we supposed to avoid all this systematization and discouragement and go about fulfilling the command of Christ?  Well, as promised last week, Jesus didn’t simply give us the why and the what and wish us well.  He didn’t simply say, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.”  He also said, “…baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observer all that I have commanded you.”  In other words, Jesus told us how.  And this how is not by clubbing them with our ten pound family Bibles and dragging them kicking and screaming across the line of faith and into the church.  It is, gloriously, much simpler than that.  Actually, it only involves two things.  Two simple things.  Let’s talk about them.

Taking the second half of the Great Commission I just read for you, the first of these simple things is to baptize these disciples we are to be making in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  This little command by Jesus is one of the reasons that we are gathered together this morning in a church called Central Baptist.  What’s behind this, though?  What does Jesus really mean here?  Well, speaking very directly, I happen to believe that Jesus is commanding His disciples to continue with the practice of baptizing new disciples which they had been doing for some time.  This revelation, though, leads me to ask a bigger question.  What’s so important about baptism in the first place?  To answer this, we need to think culturally for a bit.  In Jesus’ day there were a number of different Jewish groups who practiced the rite of baptism.  There were even a few pagan groups who did it as well.  For most of these groups, baptism was an initiatory act whereby someone symbolically declared their fidelity to the traditions and practices of whatever group they were joining.  This aspect of baptism still exists today.  There was also a cleansing aspect of baptism whereby the initiate was symbolically cleansed of whatever was in his past.  For all of these different groups baptism was done by full immersion.  In fact, the operative Greek word here, baptidzo, means to put something completely under water and keep it there until the bubbles stop coming up…I mean, pull it back out.  Now, while both of these features were operative in the baptism Jesus was commanding it seems like there has to have been more to His.

Indeed there was.  Let’s talk about baptism in general for just a minute and then we’ll get down to its full import here.  First, baptism has never been understood by orthodox believers to be an inherently salvific act.  In other words, baptism doesn’t save anyone.  Okay, so why do it?  Because Jesus did it and because He told us to do it.  Because in doing so we reenact Jesus’ death and resurrection and make a spiritual statement through physical means that we are participating in these great events with Him.  We are declaring that we have died to our sins spiritually (only since Jesus was the one to die physically for them) and are raised to new life spiritually (only for now since we still must wait for our resurrection bodies at the final resurrection).  This seems like a pretty important, if symbolic act.  Should all believers be baptized?  Well again, there’s no requirement for salvation here, but it’s at least worth noting that the New Testament church could not have imagined an unbaptized believer if there weren’t any extenuating circumstances otherwise preventing it.  So then, let’s ask the tougher question: how should this happen?  This is a sensitive issue, particularly in this church.  But don’t think we are alone in this.  As our culture continues to embrace a flavor of multiculturalism in which we are to be uncritically accepting of every other culture in the world, many are struggling with whether or not baptism is really all that important a thing on which to hang any level of membership in a church.

With this in mind, here are some thoughts.  The consistent method of baptism we see in the New Testament is full immersion.  I have trouble thinking of many reasons why full immersion would not be the baptism practice of choice.  As Baptists we came into existence when two adult believers—John Smyth and Thomas Helwys—realized the importance of adult, believer’s baptism from the New Testament and baptized themselves.  And don’t think this was an easy thing for them.  Such an act publicly declared their belief that the infant baptism of nearly everyone else in Europe wasn’t enough.  And keep in mind this was the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.  You didn’t criticize the church regarding core doctrines and get away with it.  People were put to death for far lesser crimes against humanity.  There were a lot of Baptists who were put to death simply because they were baptized as adults.  Since this time, Baptist churches have generally required adult believer’s baptism for their members.  This is not to declare baptism as necessary for salvation or somehow sufficient in itself, but rather as a spiritually important part of the discipleship journey without which a believer is spiritually impoverished though not necessarily any less committed.  Well, what about sprinkling adults (or more often young adults)?  Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but unless there is no place to baptize or not enough water available (for instance soldiers who accept Christ in the Middle East) to practice full immersion baptism, why do anything different?  By asking people to undergo baptism by full immersion in order to be a fully-functioning member of this body we believe we are giving people an opportunity to participate fully in a symbolic act with great spiritual significance according to the pattern set out in the New Testament.  In so doing we are not making any kind of a statement regarding the meaning or personal importance of any other baptism experience people might have had.  We are simply giving folks a chance to demonstrate full fidelity with what we happen to believe in order to belong in as deep and meaningful a way as possible.  After all, if you don’t really believe in the same core doctrines as the larger body of which you are a part, why would you not seek a body with whom you have more agreement?

With all that said, then, why baptize at all?  Well, let’s think about this for just a minute.  As I said a bit ago, in baptism we demonstrate solidarity with Jesus’ death and resurrection.  What place did these two events have in the life of Jesus?  They were absolutely central to everything He did.  They were the final summation of His mission.  Without His death, and more importantly, His resurrection, Jesus’ mission was a complete and total failure.  These two events represent Jesus’ transition from death to life.  They represent the opening of the door of life to all the world.  They represent a bold proclamation that life has come into the world and in following Jesus we can have access to it.  When we are baptized, then, we demonstrate that we share in Jesus’ mission of life.  We share in His mission of taking part in and expanding the kingdom of God.  I cannot think of any clearer way to make such an announcement to the world in a way that goes beyond mere words.  In baptism we declare that we have symbolically died with Christ and have been raised to new life with Him.  This is why baptism is so important in the conversion process of a follower of Christ.  This is why baptism must not be entered into lightly, but with the joyfully serious recognition of the weight of our proclamation.  So then, when we are going to make disciples of all nations, one of the ways we do this is to baptize them in the triune name of God which indicates they share in His mission.  In other words, to make disciples we invite people to share in the mission of Jesus.  We explain what His mission was and offer some ways that we can share in it today.  And what are some of these ways?  Perhaps it’s speaking a word of hope to someone why is mourning or sorrowful.  Maybe it’s offering a helping hand to someone who is struggling to make it on their own.  Perhaps it’s doing something very intentional to encourage someone of their inherent worth in God’s eyes and therefore our eyes.  Maybe it’s bringing a word of encouragement to someone who is doubting.  Perhaps it’s being generous with someone who has little.  Maybe it’s making an extra effort to love someone who is hard to love.  Now, a nonbeliever might engage sporadically (or even regularly) in all these things, but without this connection to Christ and intentional sharing in His mission, they bear no eternal weight.  More to the point, though, all of these are ways we can bring light and life to dark world thus sharing in the mission of Jesus.  When we invite someone to be a mathetes of Jesus this is the life to which we are inviting them.  This is the life that is truly life.  And baptism declares publically that we have joined in this.

Understanding then, that the first how of our quest to make disciples of all nations is not simply baptizing people, but inviting them to share in the mission of Jesus, let’s take a look at the second.  This second how is to teach “them to observe everything I have commanded you.”  This seems to be a really huge deal when you think about it.  Let’s face it: Jesus commanded a lot of stuff.  How are we supposed to teach people to obey all of this…particularly when we’re not all that good at it ourselves?  Well, let’s address the attitude behind this exclamation first.  When you think of religious instruction, what kinds of things come to mind?  I don’t know about you, but most of us, if we’re honest, think about learning a laundry list of do’s and don’ts.  We think about being given a litany of things that we should and should not do, weighted pretty heavily on the “should not do” side.  Don’t be impatient.  Don’t hate anybody.  Don’t cheat.  Don’t lie.  Don’t kill.  Don’t steal.  Don’t have fun.  Don’t smile.  Don’t really live.  Do go to church.  Do tithe.  Do tell everyone about your faith and pray them through the “Sinner’s Prayer” or you’re not really a Christian.  You get the picture.

Let’s speak honestly on this for a minute.  Jesus did command a lot of things.  When we broaden our scope to include the whole of the New Testament there are a lot of things to obey.  And if we do some extra, extra credit and expand our search even further to include the Old and the New Testament then we are pretty much hopeless in this quest to obey everything He commanded.  So really, why even bother trying?  This is why this whole series is bunk.  This is why evangelism really isn’t for us.  Now hold on just a minute.  Think about this.  Has a list of do’s and don’ts ever come across as life-giving to you before?  It certainly hasn’t for me.  I’m even a detail person.  But when I think about a long list of do’s and don’ts that I really don’t have any chance of keeping, I get discouraged and want to simply give up.  Thinking on that, I wonder if many people give up on really trying to live out their faith and tell others about it because they have reached this point.  The faith they once cherished isn’t life-giving for them anymore because they’ve bought the lie that it’s really all about trying to do good and not do bad.  The effort involved in this has worn them down and so they pretty much quit.  But, they don’t really see anything better out there so they just coast along, not really avoiding the life of Christ (indeed, these may be some of the people whom most of us would describe as “really good people” even they aren’t involved with the body of Christ anymore), but not really embracing or growing in it either.  Furthermore, we determined just a couple of minutes ago that part of calling people to be disciples of Jesus is to invite them to share in His mission of life.  This learn-the-classroom-rules-or-face-the-consequences approach to discipleship seems to run counter to sharing in a mission of life.

Well, look with me a bit more closely at this to see if we can’t shed some more light on the issues here.  Jesus commands us to teach people to observe, keep, or guard His words.  In the Greek the word here is didasko which is the basic word for “to teach.”  Not so notable, I’ll grant you.  But when Jesus spoke these words, He was almost certainly not speaking Greek.  Matthew had to use the best word available in the language in which he was writing and the sense of what Jesus was communicating was primarily wrapped up in teaching.  But, the language that Jesus was probably speaking, Aramaic, is a cousin of the same ancient Hebrew in which most of the Old Testament was written.  And in Hebrew, the Greek word didasko most often translates the word lamed which can mean “to teach,” but it also often means “to learn.”  Why does this matter?  Because the assumption here is not necessarily that we have already arrived somewhere and are teaching from the position of expert.  Yes, we are to be striving to be experts in the mission of Jesus, but this is not necessarily the position from which we proclaim the message.  Now, there is a sense in which current disciples of Jesus are teachers and future disciples of Jesus are students, but there is a deeper sense in which current disciples are merely tutors, fellow learners on the journey to perfection that runs long before us.  Let me give you an example to unpack what I mean.  When I was in college I served (forced labor, really) as a music theory tutor for most of my first three years.  I was asked to serve by my professor because I was pretty good at music theory, but I was not anywhere near the expert she was.  Instead, with respect to the students I helped, I was merely a fellow learner who happened to be a few steps further along on the journey to mastery.  When we invite people to share in Jesus’ mission, we are not handing down from on high something we have already mastered.  We are inviting them to take up a journey we ourselves are still traveling.  We don’t speak from the position of having accomplished this.  We speak from the position of someone who has been learning and trying for a while and who has seen the incredible benefit it brings to our lives.  From this position, we offer them the opportunity to experience some of the same blessings.

So then, what is the content of “everything I have commanded you?”  I mean, John wrote near the end of His Gospel that there aren’t enough books in the world to contain the sum total of everything Jesus said and did.   We could try and make a list, but this would only lead us down the path of legalism from which we were only moments ago trying to escape.  Furthermore, we would find ourselves in the place of the Jews when points of the Law which were unclear arose.  God said “don’t work on the Sabbath.”  The exact nature of work, however, was left undefined (you think He might have done that on purpose?).  So, they went to great lengths to define it very precisely and came up with 39 categories of work with numerous subcategories.  Now, we look at them doing something so silly and laugh, but we must keep in mind that they did this with the utmost of sincerity and reverence and with a desire to make sure that literally everything they did brought honor to God.  Is that your driving force in life?  When Jesus said that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees it really was a big statement because this was their driving force.  Now, did they get off track in this effort and start worshiping the effort instead of the God?  Certainly, but how many times have we taken a similar journey?  There were a few, though, who recognized the inanity of this approach.  One of these came up to Jesus in a story recorded in Mark 12 and asked Him which of the commandments is the greatest.  The idea was to get a summary statement which by keeping would result in the observation of all the commandments.  Jesus gave him just such a summary: love God with your whole being and love others in light of this.  This same summary applies to Jesus’ teachings.  This idea of loving God completely and loving others reciprocally from this is the basic thrust of Jesus’ message.  This is what we want to invite others to share in when they are disciples of Jesus.  In other words, the second how of making disciples is to invite them to share in Jesus’ message.

With this in place, let’s put everything we’ve talked about this morning together.  First, I’m a raging perfectionist and need help.  Second and more to the point, Jesus did not leave us with an impossible task that is the bane of a perfectionist’s existence.  We do not have to get obsessive about people or numbers or percentages or population growth or any other demographic facts and figures.   The hows of the Great Commission are much more gloriously simple than that.  Jesus’ followers (that would be us…right?) are to make disciples of all nations by helping them share in His mission and in His message.  Put more directly, disciples of Jesus are to share in His mission and His message.  Here’s how this works.  First, we share in these two things.  As disciples of Jesus we are to work every day to take up our crosses and follow Him.  We are to work every day at loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbors as ourselves.  That’s Jesus’ message.  As we pursue this task we will naturally be sharing in Jesus’ mission of bringing light and life to a dark and dying world—a commitment demonstrated by our baptism.  Disciples of Jesus share in His mission and His message.  As we pursue this life for ourselves—which comes when we are active in serving the world around us in the name of Christ—we will very naturally be putting ourselves where others will see and want to know more about this.  When this happens (and seeking out such opportunities isn’t such a bad idea) we don’t have to worry about a bunch of techniques and tricks and tips to get them to cross the line of faith.  All we do is invite them to share in Jesus’ mission and message.

And get this: inviting someone to share in His mission is easy.  Again: Jesus came to bring light and life to a dark and dying world.  There are not many people who have grown so apathetic about the state of the world that they don’t want to make a positive impact on it or see it otherwise improved in some way.  This invitation is simple: do you want to be able to make a positive impact on the world around you?  On your wife?  On your husband?  On your kids?  On your neighbors?  Okay let’s not get too crazy here.  Do you want the assurance that you can actually do it?  Come share in what Jesus was trying to do.  Also, as it turns out, inviting people to share in His message isn’t any harder.  It’s something this simple: when I try life on my own it doesn’t work out nearly as well as it should or could all the time.  I’ve found that by putting myself in the hands of someone a lot stronger, I have a more hopeful go of it.  Things aren’t always easier, sometimes they are actually harder, but I always know the end will be worth it.  Disciples of Jesus share in His mission and His message.  And remember: we’re not trying to make converts.  We’re not trying to get people to come to church.  We’re not trying to make them more religious.  We’re simply offering them the opportunity to join their lives to a mission and a message that transcend their individual, solitary existence; to be a part of something—the one thing in fact—that really matters.  Disciples of Jesus share in His mission and His message.  So as you look for opportunities to fulfill the Great Commission in the world around you this week, don’t worry about how to best measure your success.  Change your scorecard.  Simply be active in sharing the mission and message of Jesus and offer others a chance to do the same.