By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
These are special days around St. Paul Presbyterian. Our 40th Birthday celebration continues. We had that delightful HOMELAND concert last night; we look forward to the BBQ/Talent Show on the 21st, then Jerry McCann’s return to this pulpit on the 22nd. Good times.
Times such as these provide an opportunity for celebration but they offer a good incentive for reflection, for creative dreaming as well, days that the church needs every so often if we understand ourselves as people with a mission. To my mind, there is no better passage of scripture than that which we just read that better explains our task over the PAST 40 years and affirms our calling for the NEXT 40 years: GO, MAKE DISCIPLES, BAPTIZE, TEACH…our heavenly commander’s marching orders (and make no mistake, these are ORDERS, not suggestions) for soldiers of the cross.
Now, I admit that our society does not like orders and that folks will often do whatever is necessary to avoid obedience. I recall reading of a water shortage a few years ago in Kodiac, Alaska. An order came from the commanding general there that passes and liberty would be cancelled until the water supply was back to normal. All the armed forces complied except a small outpost of Seabees, about 30 in number, under the command of a rough-and-ready warrant officer. Saturday evening came and the Seabees stormed the nearly abandoned city only to be rounded up by the MP’s and returned to their base.
The chief warrant officer was brought before the provost marshall and asked if he had received the general’s order. “Yes, Sir.”
“Then why didn’t you comply?” roared the provost.
“Well, Sir, I didn’t think it applied to us.”
“And why not?”
“Because, Sir, when my men go to town, they don’t drink no water.”(1)
Whatever it takes. Fortunately, those men who first heard the Lord’s orders did not look for ways to get around them but did what they told.
There is comfort in that. After all, these disciples were not super-human in their capacity for faithfulness. Just a few days ago, when they had seen their master dragged before the court of Pontius Pilate, condemned to death and crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem on a hill overlooking the town dump, they fell apart in their disappointment. Now, even though Jesus had returned from the grave and they were seeing him in the flesh once again, as the lesson says, “…but some doubted.”
Why would that be a comfort? Good company, that is why. Have you ever had doubts about your relationship to Jesus Christ? I have. Have those doubts bothered you? They have bothered me. Do those doubts at times make you feel unworthy? They do me. But as I read these words, “…but some doubted,” and realize that the “some” are some of the APOSTLES, I find I am not the only one. Even Jesus’ most intimate friends had some doubts about what was going on. What made them special was that they did not let their doubts keep them from following orders. If we can manage that, we are doing as we ought.
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Think of the orders those Christian soldiers got that day in Galilee. There was a preface that made plain the chain of command…”All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me (Jesus).” It is good to know that if you are about to get some orders to follow that they come from someone who has the power to give them. Jesus made plain that there was no greater power in the entire universe to give orders, reason enough in itself to make sure the orders are followed to the letter.
Then he says, “Go therefore…” Anytime you see the word “therefore” in scripture, ask yourself what it is “THERE FOR.” In this case, “therefore” gives the rationale for doing what Jesus is about to say to do. BECAUSE I have all authority (or all POWER, as the old King James Version has it), BECAUSE I have overcome your most powerful enemies…sin and death…, BECAUSE I am in TOTAL COMMAND, and BECAUSE that news needs to get out, “THEREFORE…” here is the plan. There is good reason for the orders he is about to give.
Have you ever been given orders for which you could get no reason? I suspect so. Everyone of us, at some time were told by Mom or Dad to DO something; we asked “Why?” and got the response, “Because I SAID so, that’s why.” We followed those orders because we had no choice in the matter – the one who gave them had the power to back them up. But we probably did not carry them out with as complete conviction as we might have had we understood why they were being given. As we grew older, others gave us orders…orders that were not to be questioned. “Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do and die.” One fellow, on getting out of the military, filled out an application for some insurance. When he came to the question, “What did you do in the service,” he wrote in large letters, “AS TOLD!”(2) No doubt. But again, what conviction might have been brought into the completion of any task was diminished because the superior felt no need to give any rationale for doing it. At least Jesus gave his troops a reason before he told them what their orders were.
The first instruction he gave was to GO…not an unusual order for soldiers. There is a war to be fought, a battle to be joined, and victory is only possible if the troops will get themselves to the front. Every army in history has heard the same orders read to them. GET UP AND GO. It might only be down the street, or it might be halfway round the world, but nothing is accomplished by soldiers who are content to remain right where they are.
Sad to say, the commitment to GO on the part of contemporary Christian soldiers has flagged considerably in recent years. There is far less desire for world mission than there once was. There is less desire for mission down the street than there once was. Evangelism is something that a few revival preachers do, not the task of everyone of us. Is it because our orders have been changed? Hardly! To put it into the military terms we have been using, we have stopped following orders. And anyone who knows anything about troops in combat knows that refusing to follow orders is a capital offense. It is a good thing that Christians have a merciful Commander.
The next thing Jesus said was to “make disciples of all nations.” In the King James Version of this passage with which many of us grew up, the rendering is “TEACH all nations.” A more literal translation of the Greek would be “MAKE LEARNERS of all nations.” What is striking in looking at the verse in the original language is that, of all the orders that are given, this one…to MAKE LEARNERS…is the only main verb in the entire series. What we have in English as GO, would be better translated as GOING. The BAPTIZING and TEACHING obedience to the commandments of Christ that we will come to in a moment are rendered correctly as participles. Basic Greek grammar says that main verbs are always more important than participles. And the message in that little seminary lesson is simply that the MOST IMPORTANT PART of this instruction involves helping the world to LEARN…to LEARN about Jesus. GOING is assumed of a loyal soldier. BAPTIZING AND TEACHING will be the result of the LEARNING that Christ considers so critical.
This is one of the reasons you always hear Presbyterians put such an emphasis upon the educational ministry of the church. Yes, we are a worshiping community, but we can only worship properly when we learn WHO this commanding general of the universe is and WHAT it is he would have us do. Making LEARNERS takes more than one hour a week on Sunday morning.
What about this phrase, “all nations?” For modern Christians, we have no problem understanding that; it means missionaries are to be sent around the world. Yes it does, but it means something even more striking than that when we consider those men of Galilee who were the first to hear these words. To those men, all Jews, it meant that there were some people whom they would never have CONSIDERED as likely recipients of the good news of Jesus Christ. They were UNCLEAN: they did not keep the sabbath; they obeyed no dietary laws; they worshiped other gods. In the eyes of a good Jew, those other people were SCUM. And everybody knows that good people do not associate with SCUM, much less try to teach them anything. But now Jesus has said, “TEACH THE SCUM. My Gospel is not limited to just the people who are just like you. I recognize no barriers. The good news of victory and liberation is for ALL.”
Fortunately, those men of the first century followed the orders. They DID take the message to ALL, and it is a good thing for us, because we were some of that SCUM they would have avoided at all costs unless they had been instructed otherwise. The message to modern Christians is clear: Yes, send missionaries all around the world, but do not forget the ones we might think of as SCUM right in our own backyard. Jesus died for them as well as for you and me.
The next instruction…BAPTIZING. Did that mean Jesus wanted his troops to make sure to wage all their battles near some water so these new learners could undergo some magical rite as the climax of their training? Did he mean that learning would not be sufficient without this ritual? Not at all. If baptism is rightly understood, it is seen as a ceremony of initiation into Christ’s church. It is symbolic of the beginning of a new relationship that finds its fullest expression in the life of the fellowship.
Why would Jesus include this as a part of the marching orders for his troops? Simply because all the learning in the world about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and what God continues to do through the Holy Spirit only really makes an impact on us within community. Without the support of other believers, without someone around to help fan the flame that is within us, we soon die down to nothing more than Christian “embers”…not much good for anything unless we are pressed. How often has it happened that someone has made a profession of faith, become active in the work of the church, lived a life of positive witness to the power of the Gospel and then, for some reason, ceased to give any evidence of their faith at all. It happens…and it happens when people begin to think that they no longer need the church. If you take a coal from a furnace, it will remain hot and glowing for awhile, but eventually it will die out. The same thing happens to Christian disciples who are removed from the fellowship of the church. No wonder Jesus gave this instruction: Baptize…get them into the church…or they will not be much good as my troops for very long.
What about this final instruction, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you?” There are standards. Being a follower of Christ should make a difference in the way we live. After all, the same Bible that says BELIEVE also says BEHAVE! There ARE standards that we are called to uphold…not to earn our salvation because that would be impossible. No, we live lives that are pleasing to our heavenly commander in gratitude for his rich grace.
Notice something here: the instruction concerning teaching obedience comes AFTER people have been made disciples, AFTER they have made a commitment of faith, AFTER they have become a part of Christ’s church. The way Jesus describes it, obedience is a response to something that has already taken place. Soldiers are expected to maintain certain standards, certain DISCIPLINE. CHRISTIAN soldiers do it out of love, but they need to be taught what that discipline involves to manage it effectively, and that is why the Lord included it as a part of his orders to the troops.
Will it require any sacrifice to follow the orders properly? Of course it will. Any soldier knows going into battle that the price for following orders can be terribly high. Just being in the battle ZONE is dangerous. Countless thousands have found out how high the price could be. Tradition tells us that of those eleven who gathered there on that Galilean hillside, only one ever died a natural death; all the rest were martyred in the course of their following orders. For us in 20th century America, the sacrifice is rarely that dramatic. It might involve some ridicule or some abuse; it might require the expenditure of time or effort or money…rarely much more than that. But if we realize that of the almost one billion people in the world who call themselves “Christian,” TWO-THIRDS of them live in nations where Christianity is a persecuted faith, we know that sacrifice is still the order of the day.
Fortunately, Christian soldiers have one tremendous piece of assurance about our task. We have a promise from the commander, “…and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age,” the abiding presence of a commander-in-chief who has promised he will never leave us nor forsake us. Because of that, we can follow his marching orders with the full confidence of every bit of support we need.
Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follower of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own His cause
Or blush to speak His name?(3)
Yes, these are special days at St. Paul as we recall our first forty years of history. They are also good days to recall our marching orders: GO, MAKE LEARNERS or DISCIPLES, BRING PEOPLE INTO THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE CHURCH, TEACH THE STANDARDS OF DISCIPLINED CHRISTIAN LIVING. And all the while, realize that we are not alone as we carry those orders out.
1. Robert L. Jamison, “Humor in Uniform,” Laughter, the Best Medicine, (New York, Berkley Books, 1981), p. 29
2. Carol Henry, Laughter, the Best Medicine, p. 148