Facing the Future

What do you know about MTD? Social scientists say this is the religion of a significant number in the West today and it is the religion that is invading the churches. MTD is "moralistic therapeutic deism". It is moralistic in believing that being kind to other people is the main thing. It is therapeutic in believing that religion should be about feeling good and pain-free; and providing tools to deal with life's problems, so you can feel good and pain-free. And it is a form of Deism because, it is believed, God does not have to be particularly involved in your life except when you want to get out of a fix. So you can live life on your own as you see fit, with you making up the rules. And you have little time for concepts like is sin and judgment and hell, and so the cross of Christ.

How different is the faith that has changed the world and resulted from those final words of Jesus we had read to us as our New Testament reading - words spoken in that final Resurrection appearance recorded in Matthew's Gospel – chapter 28.18-20. So, tonight, at this Commissioning Service as we think about Facing the Future, I want us to focus on these words of Jesus. And my headings are first, The Great Claim; secondly, The Great Commission; and, thirdly, The Great Promise. But first, just a few words of introduction. Look at verses 16–17 (and the first words of verse 18):

"Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came…"

Matthew has just been reporting in the previous verses how the guards at Jesus' tomb that first Easter had reported the Resurrection to the religious leaders. Those leaders then bribed the guards to say the disciples had stolen the body. That shows what lengths people will go to avoid the truth when it comes to Jesus and his resurrection. Then verses 16-17 are setting the scene for these final words of Jesus. "The mountain" was probably a place to which Jesus had regularly gone and from which he had taught small and large groups of people. And he is here teaching the eleven disciples (with Judas, sadly dead) and maybe others were gathering around to listen. So much by way of introduction.

First, then, The Great Claim and verse 18 where Jesus says:

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."

That is an amazing statement. Saying this, Jesus is saying that he is the one who has fulfilled the prophecy, from way back in the Old Testament in Daniel (7.14):

"And to him [one like a son of man] was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him."

So Jesus Christ is the one to whom previous history pointed. Yes, he had "authority" in his earthly ministry before that first Easter. But now he has all authority as that prophecy implied. Of course, the evidence for the truth of Jesus' claim is his Resurrection. And, of course, it means so many things. But let me give you two.

First, it underlines the uniqueness and finality of Christ in that he has no equals and no successors. Having all authority in heaven and on earth means Jesus is not just one of history's great leaders – spiritual or political – like the Buddha or Alexander the Great before him, or the Emperor Augustus his older contemporary or Mohammed after him. They had no such authority. And this authority means he was not just unique in his incarnation that is quite different from the a-historical avatars of Hinduism, or in his atonement, dying once for all for our sins, that Islam denies, or in his gift of the Holy Spirit to transform us in a way secular philosophy never can. No! He is unique because he has all authority in heaven and so in his work in creating this whole universe of space and time, and then in keeping it in being. As John's Gospel reminds us each Christmas (John 1.3),

"All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made."

Then Hebrews 1.3 reminds us that:

"he upholds the universe by his word of power."

So Jesus Christ, now risen and reigning, uniquely has that heavenly supernatural creative authority. But there is more, for he now has all authority - not just some but all authority - on earth as well. And that authority is not only in the Church but also in the world. For, secondly, this claim to all authority in heaven and on earth means that Jesus is really Lord of all – he is Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

On Wednesday and the previous Saturday to celebrate our Queen's reign as the longest in British history, The Times newspaper published a famous photo of her holding the orb at her coronation. But it didn't mention those vital words that go with its presentation, namely:

"Receive this orb set under the cross and remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our redeemer."

That is so true. Paul writes in Romans 13 that the governing authorities have been "instituted by God" and "there is no authority except from God." So governments – all governments including ours - rule by the authority of Christ, the second person of the divine Trinity. For all authority on earth is Christ's. Therefore, it is Christ's authority that has been delegated to David Cameron and our government. And that is why he should be seeking Christ's will for this nation, in so far as he can. And it is so sad and wrong when he defies the clear teaching of Jesus, as he has done regarding homosexual marriage, and why Christians have to teach and act (peacefully) against it. Yes, one day the authority on earth that was given to Christ will, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15.24, at the end of time, be given back to God the Father:

"Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power."

But that is not yet. So now Christ's kingdom is, in reality, over all, while being acknowledged only by some. And that means you, as a Christian, need to be concerned for human flourishing and so for your secular world outside the Church to be more conforming to Christ's will. For Jesus says, "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."

That brings us, secondly, to The Great Commission. Look at verses 19 and 20a:

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you."

Because Jesus is ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father, as we say in the Creed, and with all authority, he wants one particular consequence. So you have "therefore" in verse 19. For what follows solves a problem, if I may put it this way. The problem is that Jesus was not like Mohammed. Let me explain. In this period between his first and second comings, while Jesus delegates to the state and its governing authorities power to use force in restraining what is bad and for encouraging what is good, the Church must never use force. Jesus had said to Pilate, referring to the divine kingdom of those who acknowledge his Lordship and follow him (John 18.36):

"My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world."

But Mohammed, of course, was a great military leader who once he had left Mecca and settled in Medina was able to extend his kingdom by force and warfare. Jesus, however, didn't ride into Jerusalem to conquer, like Mohammed rode into Medina to conquer. Jesus rode into Jerusalem to die on the Cross. So the problem is how can this amazing authority of Jesus be used peacefully to change the world for good? For force is prohibited. The answer is in his command,

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you."

Jesus wants change in the world through making disciples who will then change the world. And notice two things, first, a fundamental of this commission and, secondly, the method required.

So first, the fundamental – the commission is not only to make disciples – literally "learners". It is to make disciples, yes, but of "all nations" and not just Jews. That was and is hugely significant. The restriction of the disciples' mission just to Israel has now been lifted. This is a sea-change. In the Old Testament people envisioned crowds coming to worship God in Jerusalem from all over the world. But now the command of Jesus is not to invite people to come to Jerusalem. It is for those who are already Jesus' followers to go to where people of all nations are, and to make disciples where they live and work. And that is so fundamental.

Secondly, the method to be employed and it is threefold. It is by going, baptizing and teaching. First, and obviously, it needs you to "go … and make disciples". That is why going multi-site into another area such as Benwell and working from St Joseph's and not just using our resources of personnel and money in Jesmond is so right. Secondly, with regard to method, there are to be baptisms which involve teaching folk the basics of the Gospel. They must know that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead after dying for their sins and, repenting, then commit themselves to him and, as forgiven, publicly acknowledge him as Lord. Paul says (Rom 10.9):

"If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

Who here tonight needs to do that? And new Christians need to be baptized as a witness and symbolizing their faith in the name (not names, but name) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps, you are saying, "but can new Christians understand the Trinity?" Well, Jesus is clearly teaching the divine Trinity. Certainly new disciples need to know that in speaking of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as three distinct persons, nevertheless they are all co-equal. As the Athanasian Creed says,

"such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit."

And yet these three are one. It is a great mystery. But as Paul says regarding divine mysteries,

"now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face [that is when Christ returns at the end of history]" (1 Cor 13.12).

So in the meantime we humbly accept the doctrine of the Trinity and understand that for our salvation we need the work of all three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As old Bishop J C Ryle put it: "we may receive practically what we cannot explain theoretically". At any rate, Jesus wants us, in making disciples to ensure that people go public and are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

But then, thirdly, by way of method comes teaching Christian ethics or "holiness", or as Jesus puts it, "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." And "all" as in the previous verses has to be underlined. Jesus has "all" authority, he wants us to go to "all" nations – to everybody of every race and colour and class and background. And then we are to teach "all" that I have commanded you, not just some commands. There are two things to note about this.

First, that we must teach Jesus' commands and not be confused about their present relevance. For people read Romans 6.14 that "you are not under law but under grace", and Romans 10.4 that "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." They then think that God's law is abolished and can be ignored. But, of course, Paul is referring in those two Romans' passages to our acceptance with God by faith and so the way of salvation, not the way of holiness. By contrast elsewhere in Romans he tells us about holiness and that Christ's death on the Cross and the sending of the Holy Spirit was (Rom 8.4):

"in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."

That is why James, in his Epistle, says that true faith has to be proved by our works. And Jesus himself is so clear about the need to obey his commands. For he had taught, John 14.21:

"Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me."

So Luther said "the law drives us to Christ to be justified; but Christ sends us back to the law to be sanctified." Yes, we must teach Jesus' commandments.

But, secondly, Jesus wants us not only to teach his commandments but to teach all that he has commanded us. That means teaching not just the letter of the law but also the principles behind the law. He taught those in the Sermon on the Mount as we have been learning over our Summer Series of midweek meetings. And that also means we must teach not only the commandments coming from his own mouth but also the mouths and pens of his authorized disciples – the apostles. And "all" means we are to teach the commandments of Jesus or his Apostles regarding all of life - the state as well as the church, our money as well as our time, our home life as well as our work life, peace as well as war, sex and marriage as well as chastity and singleness, personal faith and personal prayer and corporate church life and much else.

So, to sum up the obvious - the commission to make disciples involves three things, going (and all that means), baptizing (and all that means) and teaching godly living. But, to take that seriously as we are already finding with St Joseph's, is costly. It is costly because you can expect the devil to be active when something great for Christ is being planned and executed. We are discovering that in personal terms and that includes, of course, illness. We are discovering that in financial terms with still some way to go to fund our work. We are discovering that in being able to get the buildings and money ready for the preview services. But, nevertheless, we can be confident and not fear, however dark things become.

That is because of my third, heading, The Great Promise. And how we need to keep this promise before us, as we face the future in our individual lives and as a church. Look at the second half of verse 20:

"And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

The words "and behold" are to give great emphasis to what follows. And what follows in not just a promise. Jesus is stating a fact when he says: "I am with you always [literally, all days]" - to guide, to guard and to empower by his Holy Spirit, to forgive and to do much else. So, as a church, as we "go and make disciples" in Benwell, it is not just a promise, it is a fact, that Christ is with us as we prepare and when we go. And as individuals, with some of you, facing very difficult futures in one way or another, it is a fact that as you trust him - the one who has all authority in heaven and on earth, Jesus Christ - he is with you always [every day, not some]."

And that is a fact until the end of the age when heaven will become a reality. So as you seek to work for, and witness to, Jesus Christ, Monday to Saturday (as well as worship on Sunday), he, by his Holy Spirit, is with you every day. He is with you to help you and guide you and guard you, in all of life and, finally (if he does not first return) in death. For when you "walk through the valley of the shadow of death," as the Psalmist said of the divine Good Shepherd who is Jesus (Ps 23.4): "You are with me; your rod and staff they comfort me."

I must conclude. In 1791 at the Northampton Association Ministers' Fraternal, a young Christian, William Carey proposed Matthew 28.19-20 as the subject for discussion and so started the modern missionary movement that undoubtedly changed the world and saw huge growth, world-wide, of the Church of Christ - Carey's motto being, "Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God." So my prayer is that we, too, see change on Tyneside (and further afield) as we make disciples by going to Benwell and the West of the city with its vast unchurched population and out into Jesmond and this part of the city with its unchurched student population and face the future trusting and obeying these last words of Jesus.

Back to top