Jesus’ Last Words
Text: Matthew 28:18-20
Jesus said and did so many things that John says, “If every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25). That being the case, what is the most important thing that Jesus said? Is there something that has more value than anything else he said? One might think that the last recorded words of Jesus would rate very high as being of the utmost importance. And that makes the text for our lesson today–the words that the disciples heard ringing in their ears as Jesus ascended into heaven–“numero uno.”
Someone has said these last words of Christ are the marching orders for the church. Here is Christ’s last command: the Great Commission! Peter Drucker, an esteemed business consultant, says that every company should be asking itself two critical questions: What business are we in? and How’s business? In these last words to his disciples, Jesus makes it very clear what business we are in: making disciples!
In the book Reclaiming the Great Commission, Bishop Claude E. Payne and Hamilton Beazley lay out the critical nature of this assignment from Jesus for the church as a whole:
Evangelism is not a program of the church; rather, it is the essential work of the church. It is not an option for Christians but an obligation, a fundamental commission of their Christ. Mission infuses all that the church does. No person living richly and fully in his or her faith can ignore the call to make disciples of others. Evangelism, properly understood, is a powerful and rewarding activity of the faithful, a means of spiritual growth, and an invitation to an ongoing, intimate relationship with the God of abundant and everlasting life” (Reclaiming the Great Commission: A Practical Model for Transforming Denominations and Congregations (Jossey-Bass, 2000), p. 19).
This is not the only business that we are in as churches. Certainly the sheep must be fed (John 21) and care must be provided for the people of God as they make their way through their life of faith. But Jesus made it very clear that the primary role and goal of the church must be making disciples. Churches often say that they want to get their own act together first and then they will do evangelism. That time never comes. Jesus didn’t wait for the disciples to get it all together before he gave them the Great Commission. They made many mistakes before and after these last words from the Lord. But it is crystal clear that everything that the church is and does must be shaped and directed by this all-important command of Christ. Unless the church is fulfilling this assignment from Jesus it is missing what he intended them to be and do!
Every year at Christmas the Arizona Republic publishes the story of the lighthouse and the lifesavers who were stationed there to save people who were shipwrecked on nearby shoals. Over the years their role gradually changed from actually making rescues to talking about rescues and lifesaving techniques in a format similar to a club of aficionados. The comparison that can be drawn to the church seems embarrassingly obvious.
But having made this observation, a question arises: Just how can we evangelize in the twenty-first century? What exactly would this look like in a church? Many churches have a bad image in the community due to their efforts at a kind of evangelism that leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths. It’s possible to do more harm than good. What’s the answer to these concerns? On another occasion Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men [people].” Recently the Arizona Ecumenical Council in Phoenix honored Joe Garagiola for his work with Native American children. In his acceptance speech he alluded to a bumper sticker he had seen that read: “Be fishers of men: God will clean them.” It often seems that we are better at trying to “clean them” rather than “catch them.”
And just how can we “catch” people without being obnoxious? Whether it happened as we were children growing up, or even as adults, most of us were influenced by someone for whom God was not a stranger, someone who lived a life of loving acceptance and positive spiritual attitude. I can think of a host of people, from Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, peers, parents, pastors, and a few celebrities like Billy Graham, who greatly impressed me in terms of the Christian faith, and who helped me express my faith personally in Jesus as my savior and Lord. It was the people, and not so much the preaching, the books, the music, or even the Bible. All those took on importance for me later, after I personally experienced the Jesus whom these people had come to know and love.
The disciples had relationships with real people. They reached out to them in the love of Christ; they cared about them and continued to relate to one another in the community of faith that Jesus had created during his time with them. But they avoided becoming self-absorbed. They did not go inward. Instead, they followed the command of Christ that they go into the whole world baptizing (initiating) and teaching (nurturing) the faith that had been imparted to them by Jesus, their leader.
And then it happened! People responded to the love they shared and the message of the good news that they bore. They didn’t do it. God did! After all conversion is not our work but the work of God through the Holy Spirit. But God makes his appeal through us. In a parable Jesus said:
“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would spout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:30-32).
People today continue to show major signs of spiritual hunger. It may not come out in ways that we might expect, but it is there nonetheless, seeking the Creator-Redeemer who loves them deeply. Will we “follow Christ in mission, in a lost and broken world so loved by God” as the RCA mission and vision statement states? Sure, we feel inadequate. And we don’t know where to start. But Jesus ended his commission with a promise: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20b).
- On a scale of 1-10 (1 being lowest) how would you rate your church in terms of actually fulfilling the Great Commission? Is it a high priority in the life of your congregation? How does that become apparent to a visitor?
- Is there a relationship in your life that God is using to help someone express his or her faith in Jesus as savior and Lord? Who is the person? What is the next step for you in witnessing to the impact Jesus has made in your life?
- It has been said that people without faith in Jesus are not so much interested in what you believe, but in how you have experienced God in your life. Does this help you in terms of sharing your faith?
- Do your building, bulletin, church sign, and consistory agenda bear witness to the fact that yours is a church that takes seriously Christ’s command to make disciples? Explain why or why not.