Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Easter’s Call to Discipleship

This year, while reading the Easter narratives from the four gospels, I’ve found myself paying special attention to the way they end.  Each writer focuses on some different facet of Jesus’ departure, stressing in his own way that at the end of the resurrection appearances, the risen Christ turns things over to the disciples.  Matthew is perhaps the clearest:

17 And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.  18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19 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, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
Matthew 28:17-20, RSV

There are three components to Jesus’ message: assurance, instruction and reassurance.  The first assurance is actually a claim of authority (Second half of vs. 18).  The instructions concern the disciples’ mission (vs. 19, and first half vs. 20).  The reassurance tells them that though he now leaves, his Spirit will accompany them (vs. 20, second half).  If you think about what he says, you realize that he is setting forth nothing less than the charter for the infant Church, and he does it in only 69 words.  No wonder this passage is traditionally called “The Great Commission!”

Mulling over this end to Matthew’s gospel, I’m struck anew by its elegant simplicity, and how different it is from the way modern leaders approach the start of a new enterprise.  There is nothing here about structure, no reference to projections, goals, risk analysis, or reporting procedures.  Go and make disciples.  Not even members.  Disciples.

I’ve come to believe that one key to the struggle most churches are experiencing in our time is that we have slipped away from the charge given us in the Great Commission.  We major in organization, and minor in mission.  We spend endless time, effort and energy managing details, and forget that we are invited to be partners with Jesus in changing lives.  We fuss about the responsibilities of membership, all the while neglecting to take seriously our call to discipleship.

Let me say that I have nothing against organization.  Anarchy produces nothing but confusion and chaos.  People who say religion should not be organized need to ask themselves whether any meaningful human endeavor can succeed without organization.  The question is not organization vs. disorganization, but the goal toward which organization is directed.  Organizations that exist simply for the sake of maintaining the organization, dash in circles.  Lacking any purpose beyond their own maintenance, they serve an ever-narrower constituency, and lose their awareness of why they came into being in the first place.

Applied to the church, membership is about maintaining the organization; discipleship is about recovering an understanding of who and whose we are.  A decade ago Michael Foss, in his book, Power Surge, reported the results of nationwide surveys of thriving and stagnant churches in all denominations.  A consistent theme in the ministries of thriving churches was a strong emphasis on growing disciples, who see the church as the arena where they can be obedient to Jesus’ Great Commandment.  In the years since Foss wrote, subsequent surveys of American churches have reached much the same conclusion.

This Eastertide I’d like to challenge us to take an honest look at the state of our discipleship, as individuals and as members of local churches.  Do we understand how important our commitment is?  Do we see ourselves as members or as disciples?  Do we see our church primarily as an organization, or as the Body of Christ?  Are we in church primarily to find a social outlet, or to embody the love of Jesus, who promises to walk with us through all time?  Is the church an enhancement to our already-busy lives, or the setting where we seek and find the meaning that shapes all our other activities? 

A primarily social organization in which our membership enhances our busy lives will call forth one kind of involvement.  The Body of Christ, in which our discipleship embodies the love of Jesus, and gives meaning to all we do, will engage us in an altogether different way.  The choice is ours, individually and collectively.  I invite you to think and pray upon that choice.

Howard MacMullen
© May 2013

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