Living The Mission – Receiving the Commission
“By examining the early church’s struggle in the wake of Jesus’ devastating death and awe-inspiring resurrection in the book of Acts, we learn how we can follow Jesus, how Jesus is still with us in the Holy Spirit, and how we are called to form communities into which we are forever inviting others.” – from the back cover of Living The Mission – A Renovare Spiritual Formation Guide
I’m probably doing this backwards, but for the purposes of this series, I’m going to be working with the idea that the vocation of the Jesus-follower (individually and communally) is to do and be for their locality what and who Jesus did and was for first-century Israel. I think it is backwards because I don’t have space or time within the context of this series to argue or defend that paradigm. I believe, though, that by the end of our journey through Acts, the point will be half-proven. That, too, is backwards, because it will be proving the wrong half first. It will define how the Spirit of God implemented, developed, and expanded the mission of King Jesus, but it will remain to be seen whether that implementation, development, and expansion truly coincides with the mission of Jesus. I will work this out later, as I am developing an 8-quarter series, “The Life of Jesus in Historical and Theological Context” for the church.
For some, the mission of the church as it will be portrayed in this series will display serious discontinuity with their understanding of the mission of Jesus. For those, I pray that this journey through Acts will glorify the risen Lord and help wipe away some cobwebs, and bring to memory things that never should have been forgotten.
With that final bit of prefacing taken care of, let’s set off on the Way!
Receiving the Commission
“For at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress toward or in discipleship. Contemporary American churches in particular do not require following Chruist in his example, spirit, and teachings as a condition of membership — either of entering into or continuing in fellowship of a denomination or local church…
“A different model was instituted in the ‘Great Commission’ Jesus left for his people…. the Christian church of the first centuries resulted from following this plan for church growth — a result hard to improve upon… But in place of Christ’s plan, historical drift has substituted ‘Make converts (to a particular ‘faith and practice’) and baptize them into church membership.’ This causes two great omissions from the Great Commission to stand out. Most important, we start by omitting the making of disciples and enrolling people as Christ’s students, when we should let all else wait for that. Then we also omit, of necessity, the step of taking our converts through training that will bring them ever-iincreasingly to do what Christ directed…
“When confronted with the example and teachings of Christ, the response today is less one of rebellion or rejection than one of puzzlement: How do we relate to these? What do they have to do with us? Isn’t this bait-and-switch?” – from The Great Omission, by Dallas Willard
Bait-and-switch. That’s one of the first things that made my thoughts quiver like a tuning fork. That is exactly the look I get when I teach about the dangerous, brilliant, passionately human historical Jesus (as opposed to the flannel-board Jesus of Sunday School lore). How can THAT be the real Jesus, when I’ve heard all my life that “Jesus had nothing to do with politics” and “Jesus died to establish the church” and “Jesus wasn’t REALLY tempted because Jesus was God and God cannot be tempted”?
As we work our way through Acts, I think we’re consistently going to have to battle that bait-and-switch response of puzzlement and frustration. Because the early church wasn’t implementing the life-work of “Jesus, meek and mild” but taking on themselves the radical vocation of a Jewish prophet who acted out and incarnated the kingdom, the judgment and the reconciliation of God on his people, and applying THAT work to their world.
The Renovare authors help us with this by first recommending, not study, but practice. Each of us, they say, “learned how to live from somebody else. There are no exceptions to this rule, for human beings are just the kind of creatures that have to learn and keep learning from others how to live.” Because of that, they recommend the following exercise:
“Decide to become a disciple or apprentice or student of someone this week. Ask your spouse, parent, or friend to teach you how to make their signature recipe. Or ask a member of your household to show you how to do something that they normally take care of –caring for a child, managing the budget, or doing the laundry. Perhaps you would like to learn a new hobby or skill… which will require that you ask a teacher or friend to instruct you over a long period of time. Another way of apprenticing yourself is to study someone at work…. Choose your mentor carefully. You want someone who knows the subject matter well; you can’t be an apprentice to someone if you are not willing to submit to their authority… Do your best to understand why the person you are watching does things a certain way, and pay attention to your own feelings about being taught.”
How did you serve your apprenticeship? How did it feel to be in the position of student? What insight did it give you into how the disciples apprenticed themselves to Jesus?
I served my apprenticeship with livestock (goats, to be precise). I learned how to trim their feet, how to tag them, how to medicate them, how to feed and water them accurately, and how to build fence for them. Being an apprentice is challenging to me at multiple levels. I’m smart, so I instinctively dislike being in a position of ignorance. I’d rather run away and hide my lack of knowledge. Also, I’m a bookish sort who prefers reading and coffee to manual labor (at least I THOUGHT I did). So learning new rhythms with my body was also a challenge, but one that I actually began to enjoy, much to my surprise.
The major insight into the position of the disciples was the constant reminder that most of the time, they were doing what they were told to do without much of any idea why. They were being taught to BE different, not just THINK differently. Submission to the practical wisdom and experience of another is not something we often deal with in church. We tend to teach people to get their thoughts right, and we hope that everything else will follow. But our bodies have a mind of their own, so to speak.
After responding to the question, we’re encouraged to read Matthew 28:16-20, and to answer the following questions.
“What gut reaction do you have as you read this Scripture? What statement of Jesus’ is most difficult for you to believe or to relate to your own life? Which is the easiest? Why?”
I’m at the early stages of really wrestling with this passage, and hearing how often Jesus and Matthew foreshadow this proclamation. The Lord’s Prayer in Matt 6 and Luke 11, for example, point directly to this statement. Am I really a disciple? Am I really committed to doing God’s will just as it is done in heaven? IS Jesus really with me?
The next section summarizes the Jesus-curriculum under which the disciples apprenticed. “Who is really well off? Who is a genuinely good person?” These questions were answered in the Sermon on the Mount and then lived by Jesus and, in somewhat checkered fashion, imitated by the disciples. Healing; confronting evil; learning the importance of prayer, worship, study, and other spiritual practices; casting out demons; baptizing with water. “Jesus’ ministry had been full of action, and they had been in the midst of it learning, observing, experimenting, obeying, imitating, studying — becoming disciples.”
Then, the authors expound further on this “becoming disciples.” They say:
“The commission to the disciples was to make disciples of Jesus Christ who would then make disciples of Jesus Christ, ad infinitum. Somewhere in the history of the Church this message got turned into ‘preach the gospel’ only. In his early travels around England, John Wesley preached the gospel and saved many souls. But later in his travels, he writes, ‘I was more convinced than ever that preaching like an apostle, without joining together those that are awakened and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer. How much preaching has there been for these twenty years all over Pembrokeshire? But no regular societies, no discipline, no order or connection; and the consequence is that nine out of ten of the once-awakened are now faster asleep than ever.’ Wesley sought to solve the problem by establishing groups of various sizes — bands, class meetings, and societies — where people trained to be disciples of Jesus Christ.
The authors believe that, at its heart, discipleship is obedience. Further, they remind us that we do not need to “have everything together” in our lives to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Peter, Thomas, the Emmaus road disciples, all the believers who went into hiding. And, finally, we are not alone. “The Holy Spirit is always there to be our advocate, our comforter, our helper, our teacher. If we are seeking truth, the Holy Spirit will guide us ‘into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears…’ If we are seeking to make a difference in the world, the Holy Spirit will use our lives to bear fruit (Gal 5:22-23).”
After reading these descriptions of a disciple, do you consider yourself to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? Why or why not?
Being a disciple means “deliberately choosing to observe and emulate another, by watching them or reading their writings or hearing them speak, by spending as much time with them as you could, by trying to act like they might act in certain situations.” It is this like of deliberate dedication that we must apply to become disciples of Jesus.
“But all this talk of deliberate decisions and firm commitments can make discipleship sound like an onerous, thankless task. We often focus so much on the costs of discipleship — leaving the life we know behind — that we downplay or forget entirely the benefits of a life apprenticed to Jesus. As Willard writes, ‘One of the things that has most obstructed the path of discipleship in our Christian culture today is this idea that it will be a terribly difficult thing that will certainly ruin your life… here is the whole point of the much misunderstood teachings of Luke 14…. as long as one thinks anything may really be more valuable than fellowship with Jesus in his kingdom, one cannot learn from him.”
What about the idea of discipleship is daunting or scary to you? What opportunity does it present to you?
Who have you been a disciple of? Who are the most important teachers in your life?
When you became a Christian or were old enough to understand what it meant for you to be a Christian, did you view it as becoming a disciple of Jesus, seeking to become ever more like him? If not, what was your understanding?
Do you agree with Willard’s assertion that modern churches create converts rather than disciples? Why or why not? If so, what might be done to help churches create disciples?
God has set my feet on the path again and again. So many times, I’ve either detoured or just sat down and pouted because my feet hurt or it was too hot or too cold or I just didn’t like the scenery.
Jesus is on the move. I see that now. I missed a lot of opportunities, and I’m sure I’ll miss more, but I’ve eaten this word, this Great Commission word. It burns my heart a lot more than it is sweet in my mouth. Look at John 13:36-38; 18:15-18 and 25-27; 20:24-29. Look at Luke 24:13-31! These guys missed it too! but once they GOT IT, the world has never been the same.
What will the world look like if we accept that we are bound together to serve our world for the sake of King Jesus? Together on mission to save our little communities?
I know one thing — if we try to do it by our own power, we will fail, and probably die in the process. Next week, we will take the next step in Living the Mission – Being Empowered By The Spirit.
in HIS love,