One for the Ages

Scripture:  Matthew 28:16-20

In 1992 Francis Fukuyama published a book that has an odd distinction of being both incredibly influential and incredibly obscure.  The book entitled The End of History and the Last Man is obscure because there is a good chance that you have not heard of it.  It is an academic political philosophy book that clocked in at 418 pages, so it is not exactly casual beach reading.   The general concept of the book is that Fukuyama saw the ideological differences between Soviet Russia and democratic America as the logical culmination of human history up to that point.  Once the cold war ended and one side emerged victorious it set forth a new age because that was the point that humans history had been leading to.

Obviously history did not stop in 1992 and forty year later his basic theory does not really hold up well.   However, his book ended up being influential because it sparked a debate in ivory towers about what the end of history means that lasted for over a decade and it laid the groundwork for the concept of postmodernism, which is the framework used to describe the world we live in today.  While it is not as common today, historians have historically, liked to divide time into ages such as the Stone Age or the Medieval age or the modern age.  Ultimately, ideas like the medieval ages or the postmodern age are constructs that we have created to better define and provide understanding to the history of human experience.   It can be helpful to view history as a series of different ages, but in the end it is a concept that we have created to help ourselves.  Which makes this morning’s scripture stand out as a little curious.  Because Jesus’ closing words in this morning’ scripture is a promise that he will be with his disciples until the close of the age.  Coming to an understanding of what Jesus might have meant by this will also help us understand why the great commission he gives in this morning’s scripture is so important.

There is some consensus among biblical scholarship as to what is being referred to when Jesus speaks about the end of the age, because it is connected to an idea that existed in elements of first century Judaism and it is a viewpoint that echoes throughout areas of scripture.  Because of humanity’s rebellion against God, sin had taken hold in the world corrupting creation.  This corruption began an age of corruption, an age of darkness, and an age of sin.   By the time of Jesus, there was hope that this age would come to an end and the messiah would usher in a new age.  As Christians, we believe this is exactly what happened.  Jesus proclaimed the message “The time has come.  The kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe the good news!”  Through his death and resurrection, Jesus defeated sin and death.  He ushered in a start of a new age, the kingdom of God, where reconciliation with God is possible.  Yet, at the same time the old order of things has not yet passed away.  All of creation has not been redeemed.  We are not yet in the reality that the book of Revelation describes where “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.  They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the older order of things has passed away.”

This puts us in a place where salvation is possible but the kingdom of God is not yet fully realized.    The new age has begun, but the old age has not fully passed away.   So when Jesus promises to be with his disciples until the very end of the age, it is a promise to be with them until the old age comes to an end.   This is where we currently are, in an in between time.   History has not yet ended, and that is good news because that means we still have time.  Because in these last words that Jesus said to his disciples, he also gave them a job do and that is our job as well.

Often this morning’s scripture is called “the great commission.”  In this sense a commission is an instruction, command or duty given to a person or a group of people.  The implication of a commission is that it is a standing order.  It is an authorization to keep on fulfilling and doing what one was commissioned to do.  So the commission given in this morning’s scripture is “go and make disciples of all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

That is the task that Jesus gave his original disciples, and as the current generation of Jesus followers it is the standing order that we have as well.  This naturally leads to the question, how do we make disciples?   That is a question, which a lot of people would love to sell you an answer to.   There are no shortage of church leadership books, evangelism programs, and full church program kits that promise to have the answer to this question.  Despite all of this wisdom, despite all of the great ideas, and the successes the reality is that as a whole American Christianity is not fulfilling the great commission.  For their book Growing Young authors Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin analyzed extensive amounts of data collected by the Pew Research Center.  This data showed that the American church is actually doing the opposite of making disciples as over a multiple year trend the number of people identifying as Christians dropped, and the amount of people who identified their religious affiliation as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular rose to 23%.  Their book was published pre-Covid.  In 2022 the unaffiliated was up to 29%.  This is not an isolated problem.  While some individual churches can celebrate incredible success at seeing new disciples being made, those are the exception.   In the analysis in Growing Young the authors concluded: “To summarize no major Christian tradition is growing in the US today.  A few denominations are managing to hold steady but that’s as good as it gets.”

We should resist the temptation to place blame as to why this, because ultimately pointing fingers is not helpful.  Pointing fingers is not going to help us actually fulfill the mission and live into the great commission to make disciples.  How to make disciples in general, and how specifically to reach people today, is clearly a complex issue.  The fact that we collectively are struggling so much with it shows this does not have a one-sized fit all answer and there is not a magic bullet that is guaranteed to always work.  So clearly this is not a problem that we are going to solve today, but I think what we can do is focus on the basics and remind ourselves exactly what is in in the great commission.

I have had the privilege to teach Jr. High at LifeWise this past school year.  LifeWise provides religious instruction during the school day and I was privileged enough to be part of a Jr. High teaching team. In general, I love to teach and my favorite part of teaching is when students have a lightbulb moment and when they get the answer not because they were told what the answer is but because they make the connections and come to it on their own.  It does not always happen, but facilitating those connections is the best part of teaching and I got to see that in the LifeWise class room recently.

A couple of weeks ago, I actually had the opportunity to lead a lesson over this particular scripture, so I asked the 7th graders the same question, “how do we make disciples?”   Because they are 7th graders, there was some silence until one brave girl took a stab at the answer, and said “we tell people about Jesus.”  I agreed with her, that is a good start but I followed up and asked, “If someone currently has no interest in Jesus, are they going to listen to anything we say about Jesus?”

She answered, “No, probably not.”  And she is right.  This may be one of the reasons why all of the books and programs about making disciples struggle to produce results.  Research indicates that  88% of the people who indicate their religious preference is “nothing in particular” have no desire or interest in finding a faith community.  This led James Every White to conclude in his book The Rise of the Nones that “It’s amazing the degree to which outreach strategies rest on a single, deeply flawed premise that people want what you have to offer.  More often than not, they don’t.”

So the 7th graders know that our default strategy of trying to sell a message and telling people about Jesus is not working today, because the people who need Jesus the most are not listening.   Knowing that asking the same question again was going to get the same answer, I refocused them on the great commission: “to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, and the of the Son, and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  I then reframed the question by asking “Did Jesus give us any clues about how we can make disciples?”

There was more silence.  An uncomfortable amount of silence, then one the students offered up the answer of “we go.” Now I was starting to get excited because I think the students were beginning to make those connections, and I followed up by asking “Where do we go?”  One of the students replied, “to people who do not know Jesus.”  I reminded the students to look back at the verse, and then asked, “And what do we when we go to the people who do not yet know Jesus?”  This time there was not any silence and one of the students said, “We teach them to obey everything Jesus commanded.”

Next I asked a fairly big question, because it was a question that asked the students to rely on what they had learned throughout the grading period,  and I asked, “What did Jesus command.”   These students did not disappoint and they answered “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Sometimes I get a little fired up, a little bit excitable, and a little bit animated.  This might have been one of those times, and I asked the final question, “How do we teach people to obey those commands?”   Then one of the students, who normally did not answer questions and was fairly quiet said, “We show them.”  There it was: the lightbulb moment.   The way that we fulfill the great commission, the way we make disciples, is we show the people who do not know Jesus what love looks like.   I am not any kind of expert that can write a book about how churches can make disciples, but I am convinced that any attempt at making disciples must begin and end with love.

Putting love into practice can be difficult and messy, and sometimes we are going to miss the mark.  I am reminded of the basketball career of Indiana legend Larry Bird.  He practiced free throws all of the time.  Growing up in French Lick, he challenged himself to make 100 free throws in a row, the goal was to swish the first 99 and bank the last one.  The ultimate goal was to do it five times in a row. Every single night in the summer he would shoot hundred free throws, and he did this for years.   Even to this day he is one of the most reliable shooters to ever play the game.  Despite all of that practice, Larry Bird still missed 511 free throws throughout his career.  It is impossible to get it right 100% of the time.  Even though we know we will miss sometimes, we should still try.  While Larry Bird missed 511 shots from the line he still hit 4,471.

If we are serious about living into our mission of making disciples, then we must show people the love of God, and we do through accepting as they are, we do that by tending hurts in the community around us, and enabling dreams of those who feel lost and forgotten.  Sometimes our best shot is still going to miss the mark.  Sometimes we are going to fall short because we are still imperfect people in an imperfect world, but we should take the shot anyway.  Not only should we take our best shot to love others but we should do so with confidence, because Jesus promised that he will be with us to the very end of this age.  So until this age ends may we be willing to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of this world.

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