Years ago there was a time when if you grew up in Canada, and you wanted to cheer for a Canadian NHL hockey team, there were only two choices. Your team was either going to be the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadiens. In 1970, the options increased from 2 to 3 when the Vancouver Canucks joined the NHL. Then the number of Canadian teams doubled in 1979 when the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques came into the fold with the merger of the NHL and the WHA. With the addition of the Calgary Flames in 1980 and the Ottawa Senators in 1992, and the departure of the nordiques in 1995, there are now seven teams a Canadian kid can choose from.
These days, people do not restrict themselves to only cheering for Canadian-based NHL teams, and there are soon to be 25 other NHL teams in the US for which one can cheer, plus 32 NFL teams, 12 WNBA teams, 30 NBA teams, 30 teams in MLB, and 26 in MLS. There are lots of choices when it comes to choosing a team to follow.
I have noticed that there is a process by which people tend to “choose” which team they’re going to follow. I say the word “choose” in air quotes because sometimes it seems like the team we follow has chosen us. First, a person develops an interest in a particular sport, often because they play that sport themselves. Second, a particular sports team intersects with their life in a significant way. Maybe that team is the closest one to where they live geographically, or that team won a championship during a special time in that person’s life, or there is a star player on that team that becomes a role model for them, or maybe they just like the team colours. Whatever the reason, something about a particular team draws a person in. Third, at some point that person tends to cement their loyalty to their team by declaring it to others with their words, or adding some team branded bling like a hat, a jersey or a coffee cup. Fourth, and finally, the choosing process is complete when this loyal team fan becomes part of a large mostly invisible Army of supporters that work together to help to accomplish the team’s goals, which are to win games and make money, and also draw more people into becoming followers of this team.
If you have ever cheered for a sports team then you know how someone becomes a team follower. In the process is very much the same for becoming a Jesus follower, except that the stakes are much, much higher. If you cheer for the wrong sports team, your dreams of success and Glory will only turn into temporary frustration until the next season begins. But we only get one chance at life in this world. And among the many teams which we could follow, there is only one which will change our eternal destiny from one of regret, remorse and everlasting condemnation, to one of redemption, renewal and everlasting joy. And that team which can make all the difference in our lives and in the lives of others is team Jesus. So the words of Jesus that we are reflecting on today in our Back to Basics series are very, very important for us and for others. Those words are “Go and make disciples” or followers of Jesus.
- Clearing Up Misconceptions About Making Disciples
Before we begin to unpack Jesus’ words, it would be helpful for us to clear up some common misconceptions. First, Jesus is asking us to make followers of Him. Jesus is not asking us to make followers of any particular church, or Christianity in general. We read in Acts 11:26 that the word “Christian” was first used by non-Christians to describe followers of Jesus in Antioch around 40 AD. It was meant as a label to put people down, but those who follow Jesus adopted it as a fitting description for those who follow Jesus the Christ. The same thing happens today with Beliebers, Swifties, the Beyhive, and Little Monsters, who follow Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Beyonce and Lady Gaga. Though at some point, what you want to do with these labels is to “Shake it Off”, eventually you realize that you have to “Go and love yourself”, and wear that label as a badge of pride because you are “far from the shallow now.” And “if you like it, you shoulda put a ring on it.” So we embrace the word “Christian” as a fitting description of us, not because we are members of a church club, but because we follow Jesus. What He says and does has a major positive impact on our lives and we want to imitate His attitudes, perspectives and values in our own life. We want to be like Jesus.
Being absolutely clear about what it means to be a follower or disciple of Jesus is critically important because, over time, the word “Christian” has changed to mean someone who fits into a certain standard of behaviour. One of my adult children once told a co-worker about one of the differences our family noticed when we moved from Saskatchewan to the Lower Mainland of BC. My son told this co-worker, “In BC, when people see a squirrel crossing the road, they slow down so it can safely cross. In Saskatchewan, there are gophers, which are very much like a squirrel. And when they run across the road, we swerve and try to hit them.” And my son’s co-worker turned to him with a look of shock on his face and said, “I thought that you said you were a Christian.”
The word “Christian” has come to mean a subculture of people who look, dress, and vote a certain way, and, apparently, do not run over rodents. And while we cannot do anything about other people’s misunderstandings of us, let us not misunderstand our mission. It is too easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that our own version of Christianized culture is the best and all others need to adopt if they want to become Jesus followers themselves. All cultures have something good in them which is from God and some bad things which need to be redeemed by God. The way that God works in cultures is to bring the Good News of Jesus into a particular culture and then transform it from the inside out as that Good News works its way through the culture, just like a pinch of yeast will work its way through a large pile of dough. So says Jesus in Matthew 13:33, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about thirty kilograms of flour until it worked all through the dough.’ (Matthew 13:33 NIV).
- Only Jesus is the Savior of the World
Our culture is not the Savior of the world, our church is not the savior of the world, and we are not the savior of the world. Only Jesus is the Savior of the world. Only Jesus is God the Son who came into this world and became one of us in order to undo all that sin has done, open the door for humanity to have a living relationship with the loving God who created them, and make a path forward for all things to be restored and renewed forever under God’s loving care. The way that Jesus did this was through sacrificial love. Knowing that the perfect, self-giving love that He had from God the Father and God the Spirit was enough for Him, Jesus set aside all the glory and power of heaven to become weak and helpless before human beings, like Herod the Great, who wanted to kill Him. Jesus was totally reliant on His heavenly Father working through His mother and human father for protection. Though He was raised in a good home and had learned a trade from His human father, Joseph, at around the age of 30, Jesus set all that aside and began traveling through the countryside of what is present-day Israel to teach and demonstrate to people that the door to life under God’s good and gracious reign was now open to all through Jesus. And if people would simply turn away from the life-stealing things that have been governing their lives and turn towards the life-giving love of God, they enter into life as a citizen of heaven, who lives for a time in the land of far, far away, but will one day come home to a new heaven and earth where there will be no more sorrow, suffering, sickness or death for all things, including us, will be restored to the original perfection which God has always intended us to have.
Our entry fee into life in God’s kingdom has already been paid for in full by Jesus. It costs us nothing, but it cost Jesus everything He had. By His example, Jesus is showing us what love does. Love takes the lower place so that others can be lifted up. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Jesus followers in Philippi, as he described Jesus’ posture of humility: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8 NIV) On the third day that followed His suffering and death, Jesus rose from the dead to win the ultimate victory over sin, death and the devil and give us forgiveness, salvation and eternal life with Him. When we trust in Jesus, all those great and wonderful gifts become our possessions. In Jesus, we are beloved, forgiven children of God, who know that we are forever-safe in the everloving arms of Jesus.
- Jesus is Calling Us to Lead People Into Following Him
As Jesus’ followers, He has given us a very important task to do. In chapter 28 of his biography of Jesus, Matthew records Jesus’ instructions: … “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
This Great Commission has been with us for nearly 2,000 years and we used to know how to carry it out. We would start a new church and then bring people into it where they could be taught how to become followers of Jesus. Walnut Grove Lutheran Church was started 32 years ago with this very purpose in mind. And the method worked because being part of a church was a value in our society for centuries. Church was where people became good citizens, found a relational network and received the support they needed when times were tough. In the fifties and sixties, our society began to change, and those changes have accelerated in the last 32 years to the point where being part of a church is no longer valued in our society. For many people, church is not even an option when they look for moral formation, relationships or support. So how do we make disciples as we move forward into the future?
Let’s go back to the sports team analogy because I think that there might be some clues for us there. First, let’s remember which sport we are playing because that makes a difference in how we connect with others. We are not in the religion sport, the church sport, or even the spirituality sport. We are in the sport of life, and everyone has an interest in life. So we need to begin with a process of translation. We know what it means for us to be a follower of Jesus. But we are church insiders who are used to using church language to describe what happens in our going-to-church life. So what does following Jesus mean for someone who is not a church insider and is unfamiliar with church language and culture? A lot of the things that are important to church people–like the church building and our traditions and our inside-the-church relationships–are not very important to people who are outside the church. So let’s not make those things the main thing in our interactions with them. When you boil being a follower of Jesus down to its essence, the main thing is the relationship we have with Jesus. So let’s make that the main thing in our lives and choose to take the lower place–by making our church language, culture and relationships of secondary importance–so that people who are not yet following Jesus can be lifted up into a relationship with Him. And let’s translate what our relationship with Jesus means for us into language that will be meaningful for those who do not yet know Him.
Second, we need to live our lives in such a way that the people around us have meaningful interactions with Jesus. I am suggesting to you that the best way for that to happen is for each and every one of us to grow closer to Jesus, and become more like Him as we follow Him. Jesus Christ is not only the God who came into the world, He is the God who has come into us. As we read in Galatians 2:20, I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20) It is Jesus, who lives within you, who will touch the hearts of the people around you as you interact with them. It is the words that Jesus gives you to say and the actions that Jesus gives you to do that will move people one step closer to faith in Him. It is the love that Jesus has poured into your heart that will move you to say to yourself, “I already have the love, acceptance and life I will ever need in Jesus. But this other person does not yet have that. So I am going to choose to love them sacrificially. I am going to humble myself, and I am going to give, even though it is going to cost me because I want the best for that other person. I want them to have a relationship with Jesus.”
So how do we grow closer to Jesus? Paul tells us in another letter, the one he wrote to the church in Colossae. In Colossians, chapter 2, starting with verse 6, we read: And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-8)
Conclusion: So our 21st century disciple-making process, and the 3-part challenge that I am leaving you with today, is, first, root yourself in Jesus. Make a practice of spending time each day with Jesus and putting your roots into what He is telling you in the Bible. Listen to what Jesus is telling you and follow what He says. Second, translate your blessings. Identify the blessings that Jesus has given you in your relationship with Him, and think about how you could tell someone else about those blessings in a way that would be meaningful for them. Third, interact with others. Talk to people and listen to them. Listen for the hurts and needs they are experiencing because there may be an opportunity for to meet their need with a word or an action that Jesus gives you.
Whether that other person begins to follow Jesus and declares their allegiance to Him is between them and Jesus. Our only job is to be the beat-up, old backpack that carries the beautiful treasure of Jesus to the people around us. We choose to decrease so that Jesus may increase in us. And, with Jesus Christ living within us, we will be portable, disciple-making machines who fulfill Jesus’ calling to go and make disciples by bringing Jesus into our everyday encounters with others. Amen.