They call it the Great Commission. It is the sending out of the Church of God with a purpose, a mission that gives it its definition. This is not a one-time or temporary thing the Church is to do, like a checkmark on a long list of other priorities. No, this is its very identity. It is what we are to fill our days with as we await the end of all things and the return of our Lord. On a mountaintop in Galilee Jesus meets His disciples. There they worship their resurrected Lord and He says to them, “All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). The Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ and it is to do so by baptizing and teaching. They are to go and hand over the things they have received from Jesus. They are to love, to forgive, to teach and to baptize. If there was ever a time to remember our role in this world, to recall again the great commissioning of the Church, perhaps today is a perfect time to remember.
On this day amid coronavirus fears, record unemployment, racial inequality, riots in our streets and a lack of law and order, we have found a way to come again to church. We sit next to brothers and sisters in Christ and we hear the call, once again, to go and make disciples of all nations. In fact, on this particular day in this particular congregation, we will have 4 of our children stand before the church and make a bold and public confession of their faith. They become, in a way, a living example of the disciple making task of the Church. They have been baptized. They have been instructed in the faith. They have confessed their sins and received absolution. Today, they will declare that the confession of our Lord’s Church is, in fact, their confession as well. They join us in the mission to proclaim the good news to this troubled and dying world. It is a day of some celebration for a change, some joy we can get ahold of.
But lurking deep within the sceptics and cynics out there, there is the thought that this all seems too good to be true, that the whole making of disciples is much easier said than done. Just because that is the purpose and the focus of the Church’s existence does not mean we are actually all that successful in doing it. The Church has moments of victory and joy, like we have today, but it is no stranger to heartbreak and disappointment as well. For instance, there have been disciples we have walked along side of, loved and cared for who have left the faith. We have stood there dumbfounded as they show up less and less, as they prioritize something else over the receiving of the gifts of Christ and we did nothing. Perhaps we did not feel it was our place to speak up. Perhaps we felt insecure or ill prepared, or that it is someone else’s job to get done. We wonder how good can we be at making new disciples if we cannot even hold on to the ones we have? But we know we are supposed to go, so we go.
When I was younger and eagerly digesting all the theology I could get my hands on, I studied a lot of Christian apologetics: The study of making a reasoned defense of the faith. If felt like I was getting ready to go out and convert all those who had any resistance to the faith. I was eagerly preparing to make logical arguments, show them the errors of their preconceived notions, impact their world view, and so bring them into the Kingdom of God. I was young and untested, but wanted to give the quick answers to make disciples. I viewed those I encountered as targets, trophies to mount on the wall.
As we come into the church, though, we tend to make a shift in how we look at those we target as candidates for discipleship. Maybe we do not see them as trophies anymore, another notch in our belt, but rather we begin to weigh out the risk versus reward in making them a disciple in the first place. After all, it will take some time, an expenditure of our resources, will they be the sort of individual who is worth it? To put it crassly, we begin to want those who will be faithful supporters of the ministry, those who will give of their time, those who will volunteer their specific talents and, above all, those who will support the endeavor financially. Perhaps we seek out influential people, powerful people in our community, those that will really help us make a name for ourselves. We want a certain sort of person. Perhaps it matters how they dress or speak or what they do for a living.
All of this means we can get comfortable with the message of, “Go and make disciples.” We can be choosey about it, subconsciously deciding who is worthy and who is not. We define disciple making in such a way that we are allowed to be comfortable in the task. If we are learning anything about the unrest in our country right now, it ought to be how it is easier to align ourselves with those whose ideology is like ours. It is simpler to see ourselves as the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it. Easier to want to be with law and order rather than those who abuse their power and destroy life. We are on the right side of history and not the wrong. We will go out to those who agree with us, look like us and vote like us.
But if disciple making is rooted in the teaching of Christ, if we are to start not with ourselves or our desires but with the Word of God, then things begin to change. If the marker of discipleship is not our worthiness but the reception of Holy Baptism as a washing away of sin and filth, then the measuring stick for a candidate for discipleship is not righteousness but sinfulness. We are called today to see we are bound in mission to the sinner, the broken and the wrong in society. We go and make disciples because they are us. They share in our sin, in our shame, in our disgrace before the throne of God. As Saint Paul reminds us, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).
So, if we are bound with them in our sin, then we are equally bound with them in the promises of salvation which come outside of our work, outside of our desire, outside of our worthiness. There is a rich and powerful humanity found in the making of disciples for it pulls us all together from our own self-created darkness and brings us into the glorious light of Christ forgiveness. His sacrifice stands at the heart of all discipleship. His forgiveness flows through us to one another. There is hope in our world amid the chaos, for there is the love and promise of Christ for you and for your neighbor.
Today’s Confirmation ought to stand as a reminder of that hope. It may not be as easy as we want it to be. It may be marked by failure and struggle time and again, but disciples are still being made. Baptism still happens as God calls His children by name. Teaching the Word of God still echoes in our ears daring us to love, to forgive and embrace one another as you have been loved by God. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are at work, still using His Church to spread His Word, still calling you to go and make disciples of all nations.