Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Church - Sent to Make Disciples

In trying to understand the nature of the church I’ve been making a case for recognising that to be connected to Jesus is to be connected to His body – the church. No one gets married to just a head! In the book of Acts they were not only added to Jesus they were added to the church. The two went hand in hand. But now we come to asking the simple question; “Why is the church here?” This touches on the heart of why Jesus is building the church.

In the NKJV of the Bible the word ‘sent’ appears fifty seven times. Jesus came because He was sent – sent on a mission. And in John 20.21 He says to His disciples; “As the Father has sent Me so I am sending you”. God is a God of mission. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved”, John 3.17. God’s mission is redemptive in nature. It is the ‘Missio Die’ as theologians call it. It is not so much that the church has a mission but that the God of mission has a church. And like Jesus we too are sent.

This sense of mission was central to the motivation and focus of Jesus. When urged on one occasion by His disciples to eat He declared; “I have food to eat of which you do not know”. This left them confused thinking He was talking about a secret supply of food. He then clarified His meaning; “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to finish His work”, John 4.32-34. Jesus was feasting on doing the will of God, on participating in God’s mission – until it was complete. The piercing shouts from the cross, “It is finished!” John 19.30 was a testimony to the fact that Jesus completed His mission. This mission fed Him, it inspired Him it compelled Him and He willingly surrendered to all its demands.

This is how it is meant to be for us. Mission lies at the heart of why we are here. There are a number of areas covered by the word mission but chief among them is the mandate to “make disciples of all nations”, Matt 28.19. The word nation here is ethnos in the Greek. It means all ethnic groups. So even in one nation we can find many ethnos and in all major cities of the world ethnic groups abound. The full text says, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.....” Matt 28.19-20. In these few verses there are four verbs; go, make, baptize and teaching. The main verb is ‘make’ as in make disciples. All the other verbs serve this greater purpose.

We go because we are sent. Like the labourers we pray to be ‘thrust out’ by the Lord of the Harvest we go in response to the call of God. And as we go we make disciples of Jesus. We baptize them or literally immerse them into God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Further we teach them to do all that Jesus commanded His disciples to do. It is a process. Getting a decision is important but it’s not enough. Asking a girl on a date requires her to make a decision, but having her turn up shows the sincerity of her commitment. Disciple making is like that. We can’t be content with just making decisions. There has to be follow-through. We are here to make disciples.

A disciple is a learner. This implies a number of things:

1. Discipleship is a process. The Gospels show early on how Jesus called the twelve to ‘follow Me’, Mark 1.17. They were invited to enter a process where Jesus promised to make them ‘fishers of men’. And at the end of John’s Gospel in chapter 21 we have a dialogue between Jesus and Peter. The Cross is now a past event. Peter has denied Jesus. Will John now be chosen to replace his leadership because of this momentous failure on Peter’s part? Amazingly Jesus re-commissions Peter, leaving him with the words he first heard when he was called, ‘You follow Me’, John 21.22. Discipleship is more than just an event and a decision; it is a life-long process of following Jesus.

2. There is a clear goal. We are to become more like the Master – Jesus; Luke 6.40, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher”. It’s about living like He did, fully dependant on God the Father; speaking words that bring release, healing and empowerment; healing the sick, exposing religious hypocrisy, becoming like Him in every way.

3. The best word we have today that captures the essence of what this means is apprentice – someone who learns, on the job, alongside a master. It’s about watching, listening, learning and doing – ‘til we get it right. This is what the disciples of Jesus did. They went with Him seeing all He did and hearing all He said. But then they had a go! Sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they didn’t. It was part of the process, part of the learning. Finally they were left to get on with the job – empowered by the Spirit.

Think about your own discipleship for a moment. Where are you in the process? What is challenging you at the present time? Are you breaking through? The believers at Corinth were struggling to leave aspects of their old life behind. There were attitudes and practices that Paul had to challenge, 1Cor 3.1-4. Remember the goal is to become like the Master, living a purposeful life as a ‘sent’ one.

I see four stages in scripture that reflect this maturing process. The first is becoming a believer, a man or woman of faith. It is interesting to me that whenever Jesus encountered people this was always the first thing He looked for or tried to develop in them. The problem I see today is that we have unbelieving believers. People who have made a decision in the past, expressed faith in the past, but in the present moment do not believe. John’s gospel shows this.

Nathaniel is described by Jesus as ‘....an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile’, John 1.47. Nathaniel says what he thinks; no pretence, no hidden agendas. Yet when Philip told him that he had found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, he is incredulous, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth”, John 1.46. In other words, ‘I know that town; no Saviour would ever come from there’. Yet, after exchanging a few words with Jesus, he declares, ‘You are the Son of God, You are the King of Israel’, John 1.49. In one exchange he goes from unbelief to faith.

In the telling of the healing of the Nobleman’s son we have a similar story, John 4.46-54. He asks Jesus to come and heal his sick boy, but Jesus sends Him home with the assurance, ‘....your son lives’. His response is faith, ‘So the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went his way, John 4.50. But the story goes on. On returning home he discovers his son is well and enquires when the healing took place. It was exactly at the time he encountered Jesus the day before. The text concludes, ‘And he himself believed and his whole household’, John 4.53b.

But I thought he already believed? As soon as Jesus spoke to him he believed, didn’t he? So now we come to the point. John is trying to help us see that this Nobleman went to another level of faith. He became a believing believer and it impacted his whole household. They too believed. Is your faith growing? Have you reached a plateau, doing what is within your comfort zone as a believer? Are you allowing yourself to go to new levels of faith? All of us need to be in a faith zone if we are to do anything significant with our lives.

But I see another level, the apprentice. It’s not that we graduate from being a believer. Rather we add the dimension of learning to do what Jesus did while a believer – apprenticed to Him. Today that means we actually allow someone to influence our life, to train us the way Paul trained Timothy or Peter did with John Mark. The concept of an apprentice is age old and is one of the best ways to learn a skill or develop a new way of thinking. In the field of sports most athletes have a trainer or a coach. They help the athlete reach their full potential, bringing all their years of experience and wisdom to bear. They know how much training will stretch them to go to new levels and how much will damage them. We all need that kind of input. Where are you getting yours from?

The third level I see is that of practitioner. Again, we don’t ever really graduate from being an apprentice, yet we do learn enough and have enough success for us to be trusted to do it alone. Most disciplines have a graduation day. Doctors are allowed to practice after years of study, yet they all know that their learning and skill will develop over a lifetime. So it is with ministry. Jesus trusted His disciples enough to send them out on mission trips alone. On their return they reported all that had taken place. It built their faith and they grew through the process, Luke 10.1-20.

The final level I see is that of ‘labourer’, spoken of by Jesus in Matt 9.36-38. A labourer is a practitioner who has been sent. And according to Jesus they are few! For a labourer is prepared to go anywhere they are sent. The Greek word for sent in this text is ‘ek balo’. Two words in Greek that together mean ‘thrust out’. It is this phrase most often used by the gospel writers to describe what Jesus did when He ‘cast out’ demons. They were literally ‘thrust out’. I am left with the impression that these are the practitioners who have a bit of a track record. They know how to bring people to faith and produce disciples. They have done so for some time. Now they are ready to be ‘sent’ to a part of the harvest that needs their skill.

Think of the apostle Paul. He tried to preach in Damascus and had to escape from a conspiracy to kill him. He tried to preach in Jerusalem and again had to get away before being killed. He returned to Tarsus and we don’t hear about him again until Barnabas brings him to Antioch. Years of silent obscurity re-learning his craft of teaching. Then in Antioch some eleven years after his conversion, according to many scholars, we see him in leadership – a practitioner alongside of Barnabas. But after a year of leading the church he is set apart by the Holy Spirit for a specific task. The practitioner is now a labourer, crossing all kinds of boundaries to take the gospel to new parts where the harvest is ripe.

Let me encourage you to pray for this kind of maturity and development in your own life. The Lord of the harvest knows where hearts are open and ready. He was able to encourage Paul at Corinth, “Do not be afraid but speak and do not keep silent; for I am with you and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city”, Acts 18.9-10. Paul must have been tempted to go for a quite life in Corinth. His own confession to them was, “I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling”, 1Cor 2.3. But Jesus came with a word that showed Paul the harvest was ripe in this city. The only obstacle he had to overcome was his own fear. And he did. And the church of Corinth was established and grew.

Let’s dare to be developed to new levels of faith, being apprenticed by those who are a few steps ahead of us until we can be practitioners – doers of the word. Then we too will be ready to be thrust out by the Lord of the Harvest into His Harvest.