A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on August 19, 2012.
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him. The Mission of the Twelve
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment (NRSV).
Shortly after I came to First Baptist I was invited to lead the annual staff retreat. I was happy to do it. It was a good opportunity for me to get to know the staff better, and for them to get to know me. There were fifteen or sixteen of us who gathered at a nearby conference center. We sat in a big circle and told our stories one by one, trying to keep them under five minutes. By the end the stories were stretching out to fifteen, twenty, even twenty-five minutes. It took all morning. But after lunch we turned our attention to the church. I wrote one question on the flip chart: “Why are we here?” I had to explain that I didn’t mean “Why are we here on retreat?” I meant, “Why is this church here in the city of Richmond? What is our mission? What is our purpose?”
It turns out almost everybody knew the answer to that question, because the church had adopted a purpose statement just a year or so earlier. It’s the one printed right there on the flap of your bulletin. It says: “First Baptist Church exists to make disciples of Jesus Christ through joyful worship, caring fellowship, spiritual nurture, faithful service, and compassionate outreach in the Richmond area and throughout the world.” It’s an excellent statement; I didn’t have any problem with it. But for the next few minutes we talked about what it means to make disciples. I asked, “If this were a disciple-making factory, and disciples were coming off the assembly line every few minutes, what would they look like? How would you know when one was finished? And what would it do when it was?”
That question was a little harder to answer.
I think we often get confused about what disciples are and how they are made. We seem to believe that if we can get someone to confess her faith in Jesus as Lord, and if we can get her baptized, then we’ve made a disciple. But that’s only the beginning. If you get that far you’ve made a convert to Christianity (and good for you!), but you haven’t made a disciple. In Greek, the word for disciple is mathetes, which means, literally, “learner,” but a more helpful translation might be “apprentice.” Think about how Jesus must have learned carpentry from his father, Joseph. He must have spent some time with him in his wood shop. He must have watched him work, and studied his approach. Eventually Jesus may have tried to make something, maybe something simple, like a doorstop. If Joseph was a good teacher (and I have a feeling that he was), he would have begun by showing and telling Jesus how to do it, and then, when he seemed to have the hang of it, he would let him try it on his own, watching and giving him instructions and encouragement along the way. When Jesus finished Joseph would say, “Not bad. Not bad at all! Now try it again, this time by yourself.” And when Jesus was finished Joseph would look at his work, praise him for what he had done right, help him correct what he had done wrong, and let him try again. Eventually Jesus would be ready to move on to something more challenging—like a bookshelf.
Now, think about how Jesus used that same approach when working with his disciples, his “apprentices.” Notice that when he called them he didn’t ask them to believe that he was the one and only Son of God; he simply asked them to follow him; and that’s what they did. They spent time with Jesus and watched him work. They studied his moves; they learned his trade. But eventually Jesus let them try it on their own. In Matthew 10—less than halfway through the Gospel—he gives them authority over unclean spirits and over every disease and affliction, and then he sends them out to preach the good news that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” to cure the sick, raise the dead, to cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons (vss. 1, 5-8). In other words, he sends them out on a mission trip, and apparently it is a successful one. In another version of this story Luke says the disciples returned with joy saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” (Luke 10:17). But here’s something I hadn’t noticed until recently: Matthew 10 begins by saying that Jesus called his twelve disciples, but once he had given them their assignment and sent them out they were called apostles, because that’s what the word apostle means: “one who is sent.” And here’s what I’ve been wondering ever since: are disciples supposed to become apostles? Are we supposed to follow Jesus and learn from him until we are ready to try it on our own?
I’ve told you this before, but sometimes I go into a Sunday school class and see a map on the wall labeled, “the Journeys of Paul.” There they are, sketched out in red ink around the Mediterranean Sea: missionary journeys one, two, and three. And I think, “Well, that’s a good thing to learn.” And a group of disciples, of “learners,” might want to spend a Sunday school class or two learning about those journeys. But I also have a feeling that when we stand before the Lord he won’t ask us where Paul went on his missionary journeys. I have a feeling he’ll ask us where we went on our missionary journeys. And that’s why I sometimes ask the question, “When do we graduate from Sunday school? When do we stop learning and start doing?” I don’t mean that we should stop gathering for Bible study. There’s always more to learn. But if our children did this sort of thing—if they went off to college and then just kept going—if we were still paying tuition after ten years, or twenty, or thirty, don’t you think we would clear our throats and say, “Sweetheart, I don’t mean to rush you, but were you intending to graduate at some point and get a job?” Does Jesus ever feel like that? Does he ever want to clear his throat and say, “Disciples, listen…I don’t mean to rush you, but are you ever going to become apostles?”
There’s a moment in John’s Gospel when the risen Christ first appears to his disciples. They’re in that upper room, with the doors locked, when—suddenly—Jesus is standing there. At first they are terrified, but he says, “Peace be with you,” and shows them his hands and side to prove that it’s him. “Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord,” John says. And then Jesus says again, “Peace be with you,” but adds, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And then he breathes on them and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:19-22). It’s one of the most remarkable moments in all the Gospels: it’s like Easter Sunday and the Day of Pentecost rolled into one. It’s the precise moment when Jesus’ disciples become apostles. It’s their graduation day. And yet, when it comes to our mission as a church, we rarely turn to that passage. Instead, we turn to the Great Commission in Matthew 28, where Jesus tells his followers to go make disciples. And then we get confused about what that means, and think we’re all supposed to go out and convert people to Christianity.
But what if that’s not what Jesus had in mind at all? What if he simply wanted his disciples to follow him around until they got the hang of what he was doing and then go out and try it for themselves? What if that’s what he meant when said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”? In the same way he learned the trade of carpentry from his earthly father, he learned the work of the Kingdom from his heavenly father. He passed it along to his disciples so that they could pass it along to others, believing that in this way the movement would spread and the Kingdom would come. The very idea makes me look at the Bible differently. Instead of looking for ways to convince people they should believe in Jesus I start looking at the things Jesus actually did and wondering if there are any of those things I can do.
- Can I cure the sick? Well, no. Not in the way Jesus did. But I can lay hands on them and pray for them. Sometimes they tell me that helps. And we’ve got people in this church who have studied medicine—doctors and nurses and paramedics—who are involved in the work of healing every day. We have members who have gone on medical mission trips and handed out vitamins and medicine where those kinds of things can make all the difference. They’ve helped people get clean drinking water, and taught them to wash their hands to prevent disease. And when people ask them why they’ve come they say, “Because of Jesus. Because I believe this is what Jesus would want me to do.”
- Can I raise the dead? No, not in the way Jesus did. But I have seen people come alive. When they get to that place where they can believe that God loves them, that their sins are forgiven, when they feel born again and then begin to figure out why they were born—it’s like they’re lit up from the inside. I think it’s what Jesus meant when he said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.” I’ve seen people come through our Divorce Recovery Workshop who were as good as dead, but now they’re alive again. And people who were struck down by grief, who didn’t see a reason to go on, have gradually been nursed back to life by the love and prayers of family and friends.
- Can I cleanse the lepers? No, not in the way Jesus did. But I can say to the person who feels like an outsider, “Come on in.” I can say to those who have been pushed to the fringes of society, “There’s a place for you at the table.” All of us can do that, and most of us do. There are people in this church who are especially good at leaping over the barriers that separate us from others and sharing the love of Christ. There are some who are really good at opening doors and inviting people in. There are others who will go to the ones who won’t come. And there are people who really do cleanse lepers—who wash their ravaged bodies, bandage their wounds, and put their arms around them. I’ve met some of those people, and when you ask them why they do it they say, “Because I believe it’s what Jesus would want me to do.”
- Can I cast out demons? I don’t think so, not in the way Jesus did. But when someone sits in my study and weeps because they feel worthless and unlovable I can cast out that demon. I can tell them God loved them enough to send his only son, and that his only son said there’s not a sparrow that falls to the ground that the heavenly Father doesn’t know about and care about, and that they are worth far more than sparrows. Some of you, as you listen to people who have been fed a pack of lies by the world can tell them the truth: that they are precious in the sight of God. Skilled counselors, therapists, and psychiatrists can tackle some of the more vicious demons that afflict people: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia. And all of us can gather around those people plagued by the kind of demons Jesus said would only come out through fasting and prayer. We can fast and pray for them.
- Finally, Jesus did this: he told people about the Kingdom. He told them it was near, right around the corner. He showed them what it would look like when it came. There wouldn’t be sickness any more. There wouldn’t be sadness or suffering or death any more. Instead there would be celebration, rejoicing, and enough of every good thing for everybody. When his disciples said, “Teach us to pray,” he said, “Pray for that: pray that God’s kingdom would come, pray that his will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” He wanted them to pray for it, but he also wanted them to work for it. He showed his apprentices how to bring in the Kingdom, and then he sent them out to do what he had done. He said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2).
Maybe that’s what he meant when he told the apostles to make disciples: maybe he simply meant that bringing in the Kingdom is a big job. It’s huge. They wouldn’t be able to do it by themselves. “So go,” he said, “and make some disciples who will become apostles, who will go out just as you have gone out to do the things I’ve taught you to do—to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons, and to tell people the Kingdom is near and it’s getting nearer. One of these days God is going to have his way in the world and when he does all heaven will break loose.”
At our last staff retreat [Senior Associate] Lynn Turner said, “What if we took the whole church on a mission trip?” And that started a conversation that resulted in this idea of a year-long, every member mission trip to Metropolitan Richmond. We’re calling that trip “KOH2RVA” (picture one of those vanity license plates). It stands for “Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.” It’s going to begin just a few weeks from now, on September 9, when we’re all going to come back together after the summer in one, wonderful worship service at 11:00. In some ways it will be like all of us getting on an enormous bus to go on a mission trip, but when the service is over the doors of the church will open and we will all step off the bus and onto the mission field, going out to do the things Jesus did, and to see what we can do in a year’s time to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.
We’ve come a long way since that staff meeting four years ago. Yes we’re here to make disciples, but we’re here to make disciples who will become apostles, who will go with us onto the mission field that is right outside our door and do the things Jesus himself did: cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, and share the good news that the Kingdom is near, and with our help it will get even nearer, until God finally has his way in the world,
And all heaven breaks loose.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.