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Encouragement: Making Disciples

May 17, 2009
Sermon:  May 17, 2009
Text:  Matthew 28:19, 20

On this Graduate Recognition Sunday, our text comes from Matthew 28:19-20.  You may think I am going to preach a missionary sermon.  Every time we read the Great Commission, we think about the many lessons we have heard about the importance of doing mission work around the world.  We certainly understand that this Scripture is a missionary imperative.  Many have been sent into the uttermost parts of the earth.  Today as we think about the meaning of the Great Commission, I want to suggest that these verses are perfectly appropriate for Graduate Recognition Sunday.

Matt and Tiffany Crosland, members of Morningside, are making preparations to go to the mission field in Papua, New Guinea.  Matt, skilled in construction, has finished undergraduate school and seminary.  He feels that God has called him to use both his construction skills and his seminary training as a missionary.  Matt tried to sign on with the International Mission Board, but they did not have a place for him.  The organization known as Wycliffe Bible Translators has a need for him and Tiffany to travel to New Guinea, a place of multiple languages.  The Great Commission is definitely a large part of their lives.  This week, Matt and Tiffany had their fifth child, little Evangeline Peace.  Matt and Tiffany have been called to do this missionary work, but they also have another calling – to be parents of those children.  As we pray for them, we need to keep that in mind.

Usually on Graduate Recognition Sunday, the pastor stands here and preaches a sermon designed for the youth on the first two rows who are wearing caps and gowns.  The rest of us sort of listen, nod, and think, My, how they have grown!  We are surely celebrating with them this milepost in their lives, but they really have not seen anything yet.  They do not have any idea what is out there, what is ahead for them. 

I would like to suggest to you that on this Graduate Recognition Sunday, the message I have is not just for these youth.  Today’s message is for the congregation, for the entire church family.  It is based on the Great Commission, a dangerous text to pull out when preaching to the whole congregation.  Some people will say, “It is Graduate Recognition Sunday.  Surely, you cannot be speaking to me.”  Others will say, “Matthew 28:19-20 is the mission imperative, and I am certainly no missionary.  In fact, I am pretty disinterested in missions.  He cannot be speaking to me.”  I want to suggest to you that this Great Commission is for every Christian, for every person who acknowledges Jesus Christ as Savior.  These last words of Jesus, spoken to his disciples according to the Gospel of Matthew, are also directed to every single one of us who declare Jesus as our Lord and Savior.  He has called us to make disciples.

This week, a man with a sense of excitement spoke with me about Morningside.  He asked, “Do you ever step on the toes of the congregation?”  You know that I am a preacher who prefers to lead instead of prod.  I have the notion that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.  Get ready, folks.  I am going to step on your toes this morning. 

I have a question for you, one that is confrontational, one that all of us need to hear:  When is the last time you made a disciple?  Jesus’ commission is for all of us:  “Go into all the world and make disciples.”  When is the last time you had a hand in making a disciple for Jesus Christ?  You might say, “Wait a minute!  I am no missionary.  I have not been called to be a missionary.  How can you put that on me?”  The Lord Jesus spoke these words to all of us, not just to those disciples he had hand-chosen to assist him in his ministry.  We are to be disciples, and we are to make disciples.  It is a daunting task to be sure, one that many of us might wish to dodge.  Nevertheless, it is a task that Christ gives to everyone who follows him. 

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day.  Do you remember that early in the service we dedicated three sets of parents and their little children to God?  I asked those parents if they promised to nurture those children in the admonition of the Lord.  They agreed to do that.  Next I asked for extended family members – aunts, uncles, grandfathers, and grandmothers – to commit themselves to nurturing these children.  Finally, I asked the entire congregation to stand and pledge themselves to nurturing those three infants, helping them to become the men and women God had intended them to be from the time of their birth.

Now, just a week later, we are here to celebrate with our high school graduates.  Some of you can remember when they were dedicated.  It does not seem like so long ago if you have enough mileage on your odometer.  To these graduates, though, it has been a lifetime.  I would suggest to you that a close connection exists between the dedication last Sunday and our service here today, a service dedicating infant children and a service recognizing graduates who now have completed this stage of their life and are moving on to a new period.  In those intervening years, something has been happening.  They have become and are still becoming disciples of the Lord Jesus.

When our children were in high school, Clare and I liked to be involved as much as we could in every aspect of their lives.  One year, some of our children wanted to have friends come over to our home before the junior/senior prom.  They knew that I had spent a lot of time in the garden and that many flowers were blooming.  They thought the garden would be a good backdrop for prom pictures.  The young men felt a little awkward in their rental tuxedos that did not fit quite the way they wished.  The girls, dressed to the hilt, were wearing their mother’s jewelry.  They had had their hair fixed.  They had had manicures and pedicures.  They felt a little awkward, too. 

After the students took pictures and ate some refreshments Clare had fixed, they left to eat dinner and then on to the prom.  We knew they would return to our house at 4:00 in the morning because we routinely fixed breakfast for the couples on prom nights. 

After the group left for supper, I asked Clare, “How do you know the names of all of those kids?”  I knew some names, but she knew every single one of them.

She answered, “Kirk, you must never tell them this, but I changed most of their diapers when they were babies.”  Clare had worked in the nursery at the church where we were members.  She had known those students, almost from the time of their birth.  Now, they had come to our home on the threshold of graduation.  Of course, she knew their names.  A connection exists between those infant years and the time when they graduate.  The connection, which goes on beyond that, is so important for those of us in the church to understand. 

I want you to indulge me for just a moment and allow me to talk about my grandson, Ben, the fourth of our grandchildren.  He is now four months old.  Since his mother returned to work, Clare has assumed the responsibility of taking care of Ben on an alternate schedule with his other grandmother.  We love keeping Ben.  We sometimes keep him a little extra.  Today, for example, is Wofford College’s graduation, so his mother is involved in that event all day.  When he is at our house on Fridays, I spend a little more time with him. 

Ben is a bright-eyed little boy.  When he smiles, he will absolutely charm the socks off of you.  Every superlative you use to describe your grandchildren applies to my grandson.  We have the best time together.  We both like to eat.  We both like to sleep.  We enjoy taking naps together.  I can already see something of his personality emerging.  Ben has a very low tolerance for boredom.  He will put up with something for a while, but when it gets old he wants to move on to something new.  He can give his undivided attention for a short time, but then he wants a change of venue.  I have noticed that he has a hot-button temper that he inherited from his grandmother, I am sure.  I do not where else he could have gotten that temper.  Somewhere along the line, his mother and father and possibly his grandparents will need to help him with that trait.

Ben and I have been having some important conversations with each other.  We have talked a lot about fishing, but I am going to wait a little longer before I take him with me.  I will wait until he looks less like a fish and less like bait.  We have big plans for when we can go together.  Recently, we have talked about is how important it is to spit on the bait.  We have been working on our spitting, too.  Honestly, I did not have to teach him very much.  His ability kind of came with the territory.  He has enough volume in his saliva, but he really needs to work on his distance. 

I was holding Ben on Friday, and he fell asleep.  As I rocked him, I thought about today’s sermon and tried to imagine what the future holds for him.  He will learn to crawl.  He will learn to walk and learn to talk.  He will attend kindergarten and first grade.  He will learn to throw a baseball and ride a bicycle.  Dare I even say it; he is going to learn to drive a car.  Some day, he will probably ask some young lady to go to the prom with him.  He, too, will possibly feel a little awkward in his rental tuxedo.  One day, he is going to graduate.  Then what?  Will he go to college?  Will he go into military service?  Will my grandson, Ben, go to war? 

I thought about all of these possibilities, and, of course, I prayed for him.  I know what his parents want.  I know what his grandparents want.  Most of all, we want him to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Whatever his vocation, whatever decisions he makes along the way, we want Ben to grow to be a Christian man.  I am sure you want the same for your children and grandchildren.  I believe you want the same for every baby in our church nursery, for all children in the preschool department and those in our elementary age group.  You want the same for those teenagers in our youth group.  We want every single one to become disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.  When children are dedicated, as they were last week, we pledge to do all that we can to help that happen.  When the day comes for them to graduate, we will celebrate the accomplishments they have made this far.  We take delight with every step along the way.

How do we teach the children to become disciples? First, we are to teach them to obey. “Teach them to obey all of my commands,” Jesus said.  That task is so daunting because Jesus gave us many commands.  Think how long we could spend just teaching the Sermon on the Mount to our children.  Consider Jesus’ response when asked the question, “What is the most important commandment?”  He answered, “The most important commandment is this:  ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’”  What does it mean to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength?  It means that you love God emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically.  Then Jesus added, “The second commandment is like the first:  Love other people as you love yourself.” 

What if we just consider how to make our children disciples, using just those two commandments?  Whose responsibility is this?  They cannot learn it just by coming to Sunday School.  Parents and grandparents have the responsibility of instructing the children.  The whole Christian community has the responsibility, as well.  It is certainly our responsibility.  It takes every moment of every day to teach these characteristic marks of discipleship. 

Do you remember what the Gospel of Luke recorded about the adolescence of Jesus?  When his parents found him in the temple, they took him back to Nazareth.  The Scripture says that Jesus obeyed them and that he grew in wisdom, which is the mind.  He grew in stature, which is the physical side.  He grew in favor with God, which is the spiritual side.  He grew in favor with other people, which is the relationship aspect, the emotional side.  The four ways that Jesus grew are the very ways that we are supposed to help our children grow.  They are to grow to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. 

To love God with your heart means, first of all, that you learn to trust Him.  A little child must first learn to trust his or her parents.  That trust is transferred to a heavenly Father.  How do we teach children to trust?  The best way is to teach them by example.  They will learn to trust God if they see that the adults in their world trust God.  Children will see and pick up on the fact that the adults in their world live by faith.  To love God with your heart means that you want to have a heart like Jesus.  You want to have a servant’s heart.  Philippians 2:8 says that Jesus humbled himself and became obedient.  As the hymn so succinctly states, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.”

How do you learn to love God with your soul, spiritually?  I know of no way you can do that without the life of prayer.  Do you remember the sermon series on the prayers of Jesus?  The most important point I tried to make during that series is that prayer is a relationship.  We want children to cultivate a personal relationship with God in Christ.  That relationship has to be developed through the life of prayer.  How do they learn to pray?  Again, they learn by example.  The people in their lives pray with them.  They see that Mom and Dad take time to pray.  They see that grandparents make time to pray.  They see people who are involved in church services and programs pray.  In this very service, we heard a lawyer pray.  Having a Christian layperson offer a prayer during the service of worship sets an example for our children.  They learn through example.

How do they love God with their mind?  You have heard me say before that when people walk into this church we do not expect them to check their brains at the door.  We like for people here to be thinking Christians.  We need to use the mind that God gave us.  That is one of the admonitions given to us.  We want these young people to continue developing knowledge of God’s Word, to continue studying what this Bible says.  We want them to grow in knowledge but also in wisdom.  We want them to know the great difference between knowledge and wisdom, the difference between being smart and being wise.  How do they do that?  Again, they learn by example. 

The word discipleship is a first cousin to the word discipline.  Being a disciple of Jesus means that we adopt certain disciplines in our lives.  Richard Foster, in his wonderful book The Celebration of Discipline, identifies twelve spiritual disciplines that are a part of the Christian life.  Loving God is not just something we do with our words or our thoughts.  Loving God means that we are willing to put some sweat equity into doing God’s work.  We not only have a servant’s heart, but we also become servants. 

It is so gratifying to me to see many of our members involved in wonderful ministries like Mobile Meals and TOTAL Ministries.  Some of you volunteer at Miracle Hill or at St. Luke’s Free Clinic.  Our young people also need to be involved in these ministries, right alongside you.  They need to be involved in mission work because loving God with all our strength means that we learn to put our shoulder to the task to accomplish what God has called us to do.

The second commandment is like unto the first.  Jesus tells us that we are to love other people as we love ourselves.  That means all people, all people, even those who are like us and those who are different from us.  It means learning to love your enemies.  It means learning to love every person for whom Christ died.  That is everybody.  My goodness how hard that task is! 

How do our children learn to love like that?  They learn by example.  It takes disciples of Jesus Christ to make disciples.  When Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 28, “Go and make disciples,” the implication, of course, is that we, too, will be disciples.  The implication means that we, too, will do everything possible to follow his steps and live by his instructions.  It means that we are to have the heart of Jesus, the mind of Jesus, and the spirit of Jesus.  We can be involved in so many ways from the point of birth until this task is complete.  When we do that, we set an example.

Matt and Tiffany are not only going to make disciples among the people of New Guinea.  They are also going to lead their five children to be disciples of Jesus Christ.  The same is true of everybody who has any family and true of people who are involved in any way.  You cannot make a disciple sitting in a chair.  You have to get up, show interest, move around, and make yourself available.  You must be an encourager.  You cannot make a disciple through criticism.  You must use encouragement, move beside them, and above all, set the example for them.

Those kids who came to our house to take prom pictures came back at 4:00 in the morning for breakfast.  Their parents were glad to know that they would be at our home at that time in the morning.  They felt safer, knowing that the last place their child went on prom night was our house.  They knew we would not put up with any bad behavior.  The tuxedos and the gowns were long gone.  They were wearing blue jeans and t-shirts when they returned.  After they ate, they pulled cushions and throw pillows off the couches in the den and had a big slumber party for several hours.  At 6:00, I woke them all up and sent them home. 

As I was holding Ben Friday, I thought about what those kids are doing now.  Some are physicians.  Others are lawyers.  Some have their own business.  Some teach school.  One or two are in the ministry.  Every one is them is a disciple of Jesus Christ.

This Great Commission is not just for a few.  It is for all of us.  We are all charged with the responsibility of making disciples.  Carole, Jack, and Nathan can show you ways to be involved.  Vacation Bible School is scheduled for next month.  Think about that wonderful opportunity.  What would it cost you to give up one week to make a few disciples?  It is the task of the Christian church.  From the time we dedicate our children as infants until the time they reach these important milestones, we are at this task.

This morning as our Call to Worship, I used that great verse from Philippians 1:6.  I would like to repeat that passage, speaking directly to the graduates now:  “I am confident that the same God who began a good work in you is going to see it through to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  We are so proud of you, graduates, and we will continue to pray for you.

Kirk H. Neely
© May 2009

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