St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 1st May 11
An All-Age Introduction
Well, this morning I thought I’d get you to do a little bit of work – although I hope you’ll find it a bit of fun as well.
Don’t you ever get fed up when the preacher starts talking about what the passage says in the New Testament Greek? Don’t you find it frustrating when you can’t check up on what’s he saying? Don’t worry – this morning I’m going to give you a little lesson to help you get your own back.
No, don’t panic – this isn’t going to turn into one of those language lessons you loathed and hated in school. We’re just going to do something simple, and learn how to count up to ten. I’m going to hold up my fingers, say the word, and then I want you to repeat. Do you think you can manage that?
That’s very good. I might even test you on it at the end. But I just want you to stop and think how we learnt to count this morning. I said the word, I showed you the number, and you repeated what I said. In other words – you listened, you saw, you followed.
Today we’re starting a major new series on the theme of discipleship. It’s a very long word “discipleship” and it can sometimes be hard to understand what these very long words mean. But in essence a disciple is someone who listens to Jesus, who sees what Jesus is doing and follows Him. In other words, just as we learnt to count up to ten, so a disciple is a learner. Someone who learns day by day, week by week what Jesus wants them to do.
More about that later….
I want you to imagine what it must have been like for those eleven disciples travelling up to Galilee. They had been through so much over the past few weeks: the joyful and triumphal entry into Jerusalem; the special and yet somewhat mysterious gathering at the Last Supper; the despair and desolation of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion; the joy and the awe of Jesus’ resurrection, followed by His appearances in the Upper Room. So much had happened in such a short space of time, and there had been so little opportunity to take it all in. But now they finally had a chance to come together, to share experiences, to piece together exactly what had happened, and try to make sense of all those events that had turned their lives upside down.
And as they went along – I can see them in a small tight group, talking with each other, quietly and seriously – I wonder what they expected would happen next when they finally arrived in Galilee? Did they imagine the story would end with a joyful reunion with Jesus back in the place where they had spent three extraordinary years together? Did they anticipate Jesus declaring that the Biblical land of Israel was being restored? Did they even – despite all they had been told time and time again – anticipate they would be given top jobs in God’s new kingdom?
If they did, they were in for another huge surprise. Because what were Jesus’ first words to them when He saw them? All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go… This meeting in Galilee wasn’t going to be about a new political power on earth, or the appointment of bishops, or even the founding of a new religion. It was going to be about Jesus’ announcement that He was going to return to His Heavenly Father in power and authority, and that it would fall to His eleven disciples to carry on His work here on earth. Now Matthew doesn’t record the disciples’ reaction, but I guess there must have been not a few questions when they heard these words. Who, me? How? What exactly am I supposed to do?
Wind forward about two thousand years and here we are gathered on the first Sunday after Easter. We have journeyed with the disciples from Palm Sunday, through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, into Easter Sunday and we have reached the end of Matthew’s gospel. There is no Matthew chapter 29, there are no more verses left in the book. So does that mean we have reached the end of the story? Can we take a breather for the next few months before we go back to the beginning and start preparing for Advent and Christmas? Well, no. Because the risen Lord Jesus has a work for each and every one of us to do. We too are charged with spreading with the good news that Jesus is Lord and King, and we too are called to go in the power of His name.
I don’t know about, but that sounds a little scary, doesn’t it? After all, even on a good Sunday St Michael’s and St Barnabas are only about 80 adults and children in a benefice of about 8000. And that’s just counting residents in the two parishes. It doesn’t include all the other people we meet week by week, our colleagues at work, our friends at the social club, our classmates at school. Put it that way, it’s not surprising that churches in our situation may sometimes be tempted to forget about mission, and concentrate instead on keeping the services running. Or subcontract out mission to a big name evangelist once a year so that it becomes someone else’s problem. But that’s not what Jesus calls us to do. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go… And unless you can persuade me otherwise, that seems to be a word for each and every one of us here this morning, no matter our age, our ability, our background.
So how are we going to carry out these instructions Jesus gave us? Well, let’s go back to the eleven disciples. Because no matter what they thought of Jesus’ words, we know they carried them out. How? For the simple reason that you and I are sitting here this morning. They passed on what Jesus told them. The person who heard their message told someone else. Little by little, by word of mouth, the good news spread. From place to place, from generation to generation. And although we can’t establish a precise connection, there is an unbroken link from that meeting with Jesus on the mountain, to you and I gathered here in church this morning. All because those eleven people did what Jesus asked of them. Isn’t that truly amazing?
How, then, did the disciples gain such a hearing for their message? Did they invest in a huge marketing campaign? Did they set up a mega-church with a slick evangelism committee? Did they start an appeal to build lots of places of worship? No, as we saw earlier, they quite simply followed Jesus. They listened to Him, they saw Him, they carried out His instructions.
And here’s a really important point I’d like all of us to take on board. As a church leader, I am not going to ask you how people you talked to about Jesus last week, or how many doors you knocked on, or how many tracts you handed out. But what I am going to ask you is how closely you are following Jesus. Because when we are following Jesus closely, when we are keeping in step with His will, then we experience growth – both on an individual level and as a church. That’s why there’s so little in the New Testament about evangelism and outreach, and so much about obedience and faithful living. Understand what it means to be a disciple, and the rest will follow.
That’s why over the next few months our teaching both on a Sunday and in our GIFT groups will focus on this theme of discipleship. And whether you are a long-established member of our churches, or have only recently started coming along, I do hope that you will engage with the material as much as possible. In fact, I’d like to challenge you to make the next two months at church a priority, because there is no more important thing than any of us can do than learn to follow Jesus. And learning to follow Jesus isn’t just about a one-off decision. It’s a lifelong process that we have to do together, if we are truly to be known as His disciples.
Let’s go back to our little lesson earlier. Do you remember those Greek numbers you learnt? Let’s go through them again. Excellent. You listened, you saw, you followed.
So let’s think, first of all, what it means for us to listen to Jesus. After all, the whole reason why the disciples went to Galilee was because Jesus had given them a word. Verse 16: Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. Learning to follow Jesus, you see, begins with hearing and understanding what Jesus wants of us. And that’s why if we are serious about being a disciple we need to get into the habit of reading the Bible, carefully, prayerfully and regularly. You see, the words we find its pages aren’t just words written many centuries ago addressed to people in a far-off land. They are words also written to us.
It’s for this reason, when I stand up on a Sunday morning and begin to preach, I take the Bible as my text. Not the local newspaper, or a poem I’ve been reading, or something I found on the Internet. But the Bible, because the Bible is God’s word to us. It is, to use the lovely expression found in 2 Timothy 3:16, God-breathed. It was written under the influence of the Holy Spirit and it is the same Holy Spirit today who takes the words we see on the pages and turns them into communication from the living God.
If you go onto the church blog you will find a link to the new Christianity Explored website that I can thoroughly recommend. On that website there are real-life stories of people who have become Christians. One of them involves a woman who found a Gideon’s New Testament while high on heroin and began to read it. Nine years on she is clean from drugs and totally in love with Jesus. Yes, I know people come up with all kinds of practical reasons why they can’t read the Bible each day. Yes, I know people say there are all kinds of difficulties in reading and understanding what the Bible says. But the fact remains, it is a communication from the living God that changes lives. And as disciples of Jesus, we must learn to keep on reading, to keep on engaging with Scripture. Because that is the only way we will ever keep on following Him.
The disciples listened to Jesus. They also saw Jesus. How, I wonder, might we see Jesus today? The short answer, although I know it often surprises a lot of folk, is through you and me. That’s what it means when we call ourselves the body of Christ. When we gather today in the name of Jesus, we become His visible presence in the world. That’s why to be a disciple involves being part of a church. So in answer to the age-old question “Do you have to go to church to be a Christian?” the answer most definitely is “yes”!
Of course you could argue in our passage this morning there is no mention of church. As far we as know the disciples didn’t meet with Jesus in a building. Nor did they hold any kind of formal service. Yet the essential point is this: they came together, they saw Jesus, they worshipped. For, unless we root our Christian life in regular worship with our fellow believers, we will find hard to sustain our daily walk with Jesus.
Now I realise that some people find the whole idea of joining in worship difficult. It might simply the fact that you find the words or music difficult. It might be that everyone else seems to have their lives so much more sorted than you. Especially if you’re a newcomer to the church gathering, it can be hard to feel that you fully belong to this particular group of people who clearly already know each other and Jesus well.
If that’s the case for you, then listen to verse 17: When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. You see, you don’t have to pretend when it comes to worship. In fact you can’t, because Jesus already knows you better than you know yourself. So don’t feel that to worship properly you have to hide your questions or your doubts, or try to become like the experienced Christian sitting next to you. Jesus wants us to come as we are. Because it’s only as we are honest with Jesus and real with Him, that we will see Him at work in our lives. And just as importantly, that others will see we are the body of Christ where the Holy Spirit is at work touching and transforming real people and making Jesus visible in the world.
The disciples listened; the disciples saw; the disciples followed. Now we don’t have time to go through Jesus’ words in verses 18-20. They will form the subject of the next eight weeks’ sermons, and if you haven’t already grabbed a hand out, then may I urge you to take one when you leave. But the point I simply want to make is this. The experience the disciples had of Jesus led to practical action. They didn’t simply hear Jesus telling them to go to Galilee. They acted on His word. They didn’t simply see Jesus and worship. They went out in obedience to the calling they had received, and they carried on worshipping day in, day out.
So let’s get practical here. Are these words from Mathew’s gospel going to remain just words, or are they going to lead to action? Think what it means for you to listen to Jesus day by day, and if you’re not sure how to do this, talk to me after the service or arrange to see me. Think what it means to see Jesus, and ask yourself how the worship here impacts on your daily life. And let’s pray that like the eleven disciples we would truly be the body of Christ that makes Jesus visible in this world so that others too learn what it means to truly follow Him.