Making Disciples in a Postmodern World

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The Bishop's Blog


All authority has been given to me, Jesus says.  Therefore go and make disciples.  Someone noted a generation ago that “disciples are made, not born.”   And thus the Christian life is always a process, a journey, a new creation.  To keep going we need disciplines.  The call gets us started.  The disciplines keep us going.  There is a connection, between what we hear from God, and how we respond to what we have heard.  Is there a resonance between the call from God, the call to others and our way of life?  Is it real?


Sometimes the answer is no.


Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom (7.21).  


But at other times, and with the help of God, the answer is yes.


Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice, Jesus says, is like a wise woman who builds her house on the rock.  (7. 24)


The call and the disciplined life we see most clearly in Jesus.  Matthew tells us, in the Sermon on the Mount, that the people were amazed, “because Jesus taught them as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” (7. 29) 


What does it mean to teach with authority?  That is an intriguing question in our postmodern world.  In a modern world, we could convince skeptics to believe through the brilliance of our arguments: this was C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict.  But in a postmodern world, authority is derived from something quite different: not the compelling nature of our argument, but the degree to which our words resonate with our lives.  


He taught them as one who had authority.  Jesus had the form of godliness, but he also had the power. The power fueled his mission: to make disciples.  And so we too are called to make disciples, sent to make disciples, of all nations, even the gentiles.  Go not just to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, Jesus says (15. 24); that had been his mission, but now it expands. 


Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  The Trinitarian doctrines had not been worked out at this stage in the early church, but the names had meaning nonetheless.  Surely the disciples would have known the story of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3, which comes just prior to his calling them to follow in Matthew 4.


The voice of the Father—an affirming, blessing voice.


The descent of the Dove—an empowering, encouraging sign;


The obedience of the Son—who hears, who stands in the waters for us and for all who would come later.


And so we baptize in order to bless, to affirm, to empower, to point toward future obedience.  Baptize, Jesus says, and teach them to obey all that I have commanded you. 


We teach, primarily, from the scriptures, and we obey as we learn to listen to them.  There is a linguistic connection between the words obedience and auditory.  To obey is to listen.  In the present moment, this is the fundamental practice of discipleship.  And as leaders, lay and clergy, we can carry this one step farther.  We read the Bible in a context.  Martin Luther helped us to struggle with the relationship between the Bible and the Church. In his own time, he felt, the church had become captive to a culture of greed and had missed the core message of grace. This has been a rediscovery of the church throughout history. John Wesley as a young adult was caught in the grip of trying to please God as a missionary; he failed at this and returned to his home in London. And then he describes this experience:


“In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”


I will let you in on a secret, if you promise not to share it too widely: the church is a fallible institution, and throughout history the church has been on the wrong side of justice and even the will of God.  A catholic historian gave this analysis of the church in Luther’s day:


Night fell on the German church, a night that grew darker and darker…amongst the common people, a fearful decline in true spiritual practice into religious materialism and morbid hysteria; amongst the clergy, both lower and higher, widespread worldliness and neglect of duty; and amongst the very Shepherds of the Church, demonic ambition and sacrilegious perversion of holy things.”


But God is never without witnesses. Men and women of conscience have come along----Martin Luther and John Wesley, Sojourner Truth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa,  Oscar Romero and who knows, maybe even Pope Francis—as witnesses to truths that had been buried in the ground, like treasure hidden in a  field and waiting to be rediscovered.


And so the church is always in dialogue with the Bible. As Karl Barth, the great theologian insisted, “the church is always being reformed according to the word of God”.   Luther’s reformation had the effect of placing the scriptures in our hands, urging us to read them, for the formation of our consciences.   For the Christian who is engaged with the world, this is discipleship.  And it is not that this supplies us with all of the answers:  instead, as a fellow bishop friend often says, we are forced to “enter into the agony of our own decisions.”


This is what is asked of the church, in every generation:  that we engage in the interpretation of all that Jesus commands—to seek the reign of God, to love one another as he has has loved us, to announce the forgiveness of sins, in his name, to make the cross visible, costly grace, but grace still, demand and gift.


For the one who challenged:


unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will not enter the Kingdom of God (5. 29) 


also comforted:


Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…my yoke is easy and my burden is light (11. 29).


We believe in the grace of Jesus Christ, a free gift, and yet a grace that calls for a lifelong disciplined response.  Here, it seems to me, our two traditions (Lutheran and Wesleyan) have much to teach each other.  It is a wonderful gift to be a member of the body of Christ, and to be in full communion an extraordinary sign of that.  At the same time it is inherently demanding, because it is the way of the cross.  And yet along that costly way there is a glimmer of light, contained in the promise:  I am with you always.


Tom Long, in his commentary on Matthew, gets it right:


There was only one word that could have prevented them from collapsing with laughter or racing away in fear at the enormity of the mission, only one word that could have strengthened their resolve and sent them out to the vast and forbidding world carrying only the gospel, and that was the word that Jesus spoke:  


Surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.


The early Christians, Mortimer Arias writes, had lost their missionary nerve.  Matthew’s community was not a utopia.  The weeds and the wheat were growing up together, the bad threatening to choke the good (13. 34).  There were false prophets and people who misrepresented themselves, hypocrites who were not what they seemed to be.  They needed the clarity and confidence as they engaged the culture.  They needed to remember what that meant for themselves and for the world.  In the life of Jesus, and in his last words, they were reminded of a call, a disciplined life, a witness, a teaching.  We need these reminders.  


A part of what it must mean to be in full communion with one another is to say, “we will remind each other of the common sources—grace, faith, discipleship”.  And when we struggle to live the Christian life, or even to make Christ visible in the world, when we lose our way, we are confessing, “we need to be reminded”.


The disciples heard the call of Jesus in their lives and they must have asked the question, “ how could they possibly do all that God was calling them to do?”  Then they remembered the promise.   My preaching professor at Duke Divinity School, Rick Lischer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, would insist that no sermon should end without an announcement of the good news.  Here it is.  They remembered the promise:


I am with you always, even to the end of the age.


It turns out, that was all they needed.

It turns out that is all we need.


Or, as your tradition teaches so profoundly:


I did nothing.  The word did it all!


In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.



Sources:  Mortimer Arias and Alan Johnson, The Great Commission; Thomas Long, Matthew (Westminster Bible Companion); Martin Marty, A Short History of Christianity; Albert Outler, ed., John Wesley.

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