Our mission tells us how we will accomplish our vision. We will never become the family we envision until we become fully devoted followers of Christ. On the other hand, our vision statement defines what a fully devoted follower of Christ looks like. Both vision and mission are intertwined.
[Text: Acts 2:42-47]
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Our tour group was swept along in a sea of sweltering, sweating, shoving pilgrims. We moved slowly along the Via Dolorosa, retracing Christ’s road to the Cross.
Then we saw something that filled us with dismay and disgust. An entrepreneurial Palestinian had stacked life-sized crosses against the wall across from his marketplace stall. Tourists lined up to shoulder these crosses and get glossy photos to take back home as mementos of their Holy Land pilgrimage. They mugged for the official $25 photograph and cheerfully waved while friends took more pictures of them with cameras and cell phones.
We were appalled that Christian tourists would use the cross as a prop for a Holy Land photo op.
In Matthew 16:24 Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” In a single statement Jesus defined discipleship:
A disciple of Christ is someone who carries his cross.
The cross is not a prop for a photo op. It was a brutal tool of capital punishment; the cruelest instrument of torture ever devised. Crucifixion was so horrific that it was illegal to execute a Roman on a cross. Only the worst criminals and barbarians were crucified. C.S. Lewis wrote,
“The cross was so shameful that Early Christians refused to put it in their places of worship, or wear it as a symbol of their faith, until the last person who had witnessed a crucifixion had died. For them to display crosses would be tantamount to us erecting gallows in chancels or wearing miniature electric chairs on gold chains.”
Jesus could not have given a more radical definition of discipleship than when he said, “If anyone will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.”
Anyone who took up a cross was a dead man walking. There was no turning back. The way of the cross ended at the place of execution. When he picked up his cross, the condemned was saying goodbye to his family, friends, and earthly possessions. He was saying hello to pain, shame, and death. Such was the old rugged cross.
The new cross is so different. We cast it in gold and silver, encrust it with jewels, and wear it as a fashion statement. We use it to decorate our churches. We make the sign of the cross as a good luck charm when the game is on the line and we have to sink a foul shot. The cross becomes a cheap photo op on the Via Dolorosa. We pick it up when it serves our purposes, and set it aside when it becomes inconvenient. No wonder Miguel de Cervantes wrote, “The devil lurks behind the cross.”
Friedrick Nietzsche cynically observed, “The only true Christian died on the Cross.” Maybe Nietzsche saw too much of what I saw one morning in Israel. An American tourist, wearing a jeweled cross, accosted the Palestinian hostess at the hotel restaurant. She loudly complained that the lady’s bathroom on the other side of the lobby was dirty. I was embarrassed to see a Christian berating this Muslim hostess while Islamic Palestinian waiters watched. The prophetic in me felt compelled to rebuke her. My voice was soft, but my words strong: “Do you remember that Isaiah 53 calls Jesus the ‘The Suffering Servant’?”
She replied, “Yes.” I continued, “Then why, when you are inconvenienced, would you make a servant suffer? Especially when that servant will evaluate your Savior by the way you treat her?” As I looked at her jeweled cross, I thought, “It’s easier to worship a suffering servant than to be one, and so much easier to wear a cross than to bear the cross.”
Jesus said that, before we pick up our cross, we have to deny ourselves. That is the beginning of discipleship. In this edition of The Road Ahead we are looking at Covenant’s mission statement: Developing fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. “Fully devoted followers” is another way of saying disciples. Jesus was uncompromising at this point: it is impossible to be his disciple unless we shoulder his cross. Make no mistake about it:
Our mission is to develop fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ!
Oswald Chambers wrote, “All heaven is interested in the cross of Christ, all hell is terribly afraid of it, while men are the only beings who more or less ignore its meaning.” To be cross-bearing disciples, we will have to be “fully devoted followers of Christ.”
Covenant has adopted a vision that is set by Acts 2:42-47: A loving family, dependent on the Holy Spirit, committed to the Word, growing in grace, reaching out in mercy. Over the past weeks, we have unpacked this vision. Its implications are breathtakingly radical and beyond our capacity. We will have to be dependent on the Holy Spirit if we have any hope of living out this vision.
A great vision calls people to something so big that it can never be accomplished in their lifetime. Ten years from now we will say, “We still aren’t there yet, but we know exactly where we are headed. And we are closer than when we first began.” A great vision meets John Edmund Haggai’s challenge: “Attempt something so great for God that you are doomed to failure unless he is in it.”
This vision won’t be accomplished by passively waiting on the Holy Spirit. We also have to take action. Thus our mission statement: Preparing fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. To accomplish our vision, we will have to commit to the mission. Only “fully devoted” followers of Christ will ever strive to be “a loving family, dependent on the Holy Spirit, committed to the Word, growing in grace, reaching out in mercy”—no matter how much it costs or how long it takes. We will have to deny ourselves. We will have to pick up our cross and never look back.
The last time Jesus gathered his disciples together he gave them a mission. History has called it The Great Commission because he was calling us to teamwork: Jesus together with us; dependent on his Spirit while giving it our best effort; Christ’s work and our work. This is a partnership; a great co-mission. See how Jesus describes this mission:
“All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to do everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” —Matthew 28:18-20
Matthew 28:16 says that Jesus is speaking only to his disciples. These eleven have taken up their crosses. Some of them will eventually die on crosses. All but one of them will die martyrs’ deaths. Just before Jesus ascends to heaven he gives them their marching orders. You could reduce their mission to “Preparing fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.” What does this mean for those eleven disciples, and for the disciples at Covenant? I think that we can reduce it to four action words:
In verse nineteen Jesus says, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations.” Where are his disciples to go? The answer is inescapable: to all the nations of the world. In Acts 1:8 Jesus put it another way: “After the Holy Spirit has come into you, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.” How far are we to go? Again, the answer is inescapable: as far as we have to go!
To go to “the ends of the earth” is to go until you can go no further. It is to go as far as you need to go to find the people who need to be found. It may be to the other side of the world or across the street to your neighbor’s house. To go to “the ends of the earth” requires you to get out beyond your comfort zone, and even go to the end of yourself.
What did the “ends of the earth” mean in the book of Acts? For a deacon named Stephen it meant facing a hostile crowd at the gates of Jerusalem, and preaching the gospel even as they hurled stones at him. He became the first martyr of the Church that day. Stephen went until he could go no further. For Philip it meant taking the gospel to the Samaritans even though it forced him to overcome a lifetime of cultural prejudices. Going to the “ends of the earth” drove Peter to overcome a lifetime of ingrained religious traditions, enter a Gentile home and gag down non-kosher food, so he could evangelize an Italian named Cornelius. For Paul it meant going westward to Rome itself, and then making plans to go further west to Spain. If he hadn’t been martyred, he might have even beat Christopher Columbus to the Americas. Such was his drive to go to “the ends of the earth.”
But we can never “go” until we are first willing to leave everything behind: families, careers, comforts, culture, prejudices, traditions, and anything else that stands between us and “the ends of the earth.” We can never go into all the world until we are willing to leave our world. That’s why Jesus said that we have to deny ourselves and take up our cross. Taking up a cross means dying to self. Once the cross is shouldered you can never really go home again.
Today the Fiji Islands have the highest percentage of church attendance on planet earth. But 150 years ago these islands were hellholes of witchcraft and cannibalism. During the presidency of Abraham Lincoln the first American missionaries came to these islands. As they were preparing to disembark, the ship’s captain begged them to reconsider. He warned them that they would all be killed and eaten by the savages. The lead missionary replied, “They cannot kill us. We died the day we took up our crosses to follow Jesus.” Almost immediately, those first missionaries were killed and eaten by Fijian cannibals.
Yet, they proved the words of the ancient North African, Tertullian: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” These missionaries fell like seeds into the desolate soil of Fiji only to have their faith turn those islands into a spiritual garden. On the eve of his own martyrdom, missionary Jim Elliot wrote in his diary, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
We do not leave to go aimlessly into the future, charting our own paths. Jesus says in Matthew 28:20, “Surely I am with you to the very end of the age.” Jesus’ logic is undeniable: if he is with us, then we must be with him. This is not the Great Mission; it is the Great Co-mission. It involves two parties. Jesus doesn’t want to go without us, and we would be crazy to go without him.
In Matthew 16:24 Jesus said, “…take up your cross and follow me.” This is scary stuff. Jesus will take us where we have never been before. He has an infuriating habit of taking us where we do not want to go. In John 21:18, Jesus said to Peter, “When you are old, you will go where you do not want to go.” Jesus was predicting Peter’s martyrdom. Years later, Jesus would lead Peter to Rome. The old apostle would follow his Master right into the throne room of the mad emperor Nero. He would then be led to a lonely hill outside Rome and crucified upside down.
If we take up this mission “to prepare fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ” our Lord will surely lead this church to places it doesn’t want to see. It sounds so wonderful to be “a loving family, dependent on the Spirit, committed to the Word, growing in grace, reaching out in mercy.” But Jesus is going to lead us into tough situations that will test whether or not we are a loving family. He will put us in desperate spots where we will be forced to be dependent on the Spirit. He will lead us into situations that will challenge our commitment to the Word. We will have to deal with ungracious people who will force us to grow in grace. Reaching out in mercy will be messy and complicated.
But this is the good news: if we follow him, we can’t lose. He begins the Great Commission in verse 18 by saying, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” In other words, he has absolute authority over everything that Satan and the world can throw at us. Like a halfback following a lead blocker, if we follow close behind Jesus, he will knock down all the opposition that is out there to keep us from crossing the goal line.
He ends his Great Commission in verse 20 with this promise: “And surely I am with you always to the end of the age.” Not only is he all-powerful, he is ever-present. If we commit ourselves to his vision and mission for disciples, we can’t lose.
Discipleship is a call to extraordinary living. So many churches and Christians are content to drift through grey shadow lands of mediocrity, amusing themselves to death with religious games. I used to think that God was angry with most Christians. As I get older, I wonder if he just isn’t bored with us. After a season of persecution, the Chinese pastor Watchman Nee wrote a book called The Normal Christian life. In his convicting little book, he says that most Christian lives are so unordinary that, when anyone lives an ordinary biblical lifestyle, folks think that it is extraordinary. The truth is: the normal Christian life should be extra-extraordinary. We should never be content with lesser things or puny pursuits. If Jesus goes ahead of us with all authority, and walks beside us with resurrection power, then we should go forth boldly.
Scratch beneath the surface of the Great Commission, and you are stunned at how radically different it is from most evangelical thinking today. Look carefully at what we are called to do in verses 19&20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Evangelicals often think that the Great Commission has been fulfilled when we share the plan of salvation, get people to pray a “sinner’s prayer” and then baptize them. Once they are on the rolls of the Church, we act like the job is done. Churches are full of professing Christians living the same worldly and defeated lives as nonbelievers, but they are told that they are still “saved” because they once walked an aisle and “accepted” Jesus.
Corrie Ten Boon was disillusioned when their Dutch Reformed pastor came to their house and warned them to stop hiding Jews in their attic during the Nazi occupation. After he left, Corrie complained to her father, “How can a Christian pastor say such things?” He father replied, “Just because a mouse is in the cookie jar, it doesn’t make him a cookie.” Jesus doesn’t call us to put mice in the cookie jar. Professing Jesus is only the first step. The Great Commission is about going beyond “accepting Jesus as Savior” to making disciples who follow him as Lord.
I believe that you cannot be a true Christian unless you are committed to discipleship. Jesus says, “…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The word “teaching” in the original Greek language speaks of a continuous process. No one becomes a disciple overnight. For most of us it takes years. We will never finish the process this side of heaven. But we should have a goal: “to obey everything he has commanded.” This is not a “pick-and-choose” what you want to obey. Jesus says “everything.” He reminds us that these are his “commands.” He is not only our Savior; he is our Sovereign King. If he is not the Lord of all, he is not the Lord at all.
The phrase partial devotion is an oxymoron. That’s why our mission is “preparing fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.” But before we can prepare others to be fully devoted followers, we have to be fully devoted followers ourselves. Look again at verse twenty: Jesus says to his disciples, “…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” It starts with us. We can’t teach others to obey commands that we aren’t obeying ourselves. That sort of Christianity is hypocrisy! Postmodern young people are turning away from churches in droves because their parents and grandparents don’t walk the talk. Full obedience to his commands is the acid test of fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.
Jesus calls his eleven disciples together in verse sixteen. Then, in verse nineteen, he calls these disciples to “…go and make disciples…” There is an unalterable law of nature: Kind must reproduce its own kind. This inviolate law has two parts: 1) Healthy life must reproduce. God reproduces himself in creation. He makes humans in his own image. Everything he creates must reproduce itself. But, in a sinful and dysfunctional world, some creation and creatures are barren. Barrenness is not healthy. We weep for the unhappily childless. In the Scripture, God has a special love for women who are not able to bear children. Some of the Bible’s greatest heroines were barren: Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth. Their barrenness wasn’t a result of sin in their lives, but sin in this world. There would have been no barrenness in Paradise before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. But when God redeems fallen people, and makes them new spiritual creatures, he expects them to reproduce. In John 15:16, Jesus said to his disciples, “…I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit…”
2) Healthy life reproduces its own kind. Jesus asks his disciples in Matthew 7:17, “Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles?” He goes on to say in Matthew 7:18, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” What is true in the natural realm is just as true in the spiritual world. Disciples produce disciples. Conversely, partially devoted followers of Jesus Christ cannot produce fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. We must first be disciples before we can make disciples. On the other hand, if we are not making disciples it is because we aren’t disciples ourselves.
Shortly before he went to his own cross, Jesus hungrily reached into the branches of a fig tree for some fruit. There were no figs. The tree was barren. Jesus angrily cursed the tree, and it withered and died right on the spot. On the surface, it seems like a temper tantrum from a petulant child. But Jesus was teaching a powerful lesson to his disciples: God is not playing games when he asks us to reproduce the life of Christ. He expects us to bear fruit. Disciples must reproduce disciples. If we don’t, we are of no use to him or his kingdom. The world is full of churches and Christians who are withered and dying. There is a curse on them. You could write above these dead churches and milquetoast Christians the Hebrew curse Icabod that was written above the temple in Ezekiel’s time. Icabod literally means, “The glory has departed.”
But we can expect better things for Covenant. We are committed to taking up our cross and following Jesus. Our mission is “preparing fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.” How will we know whether our mission is bearing fruit? We will see it when our vision is being lived out. The proof of the pudding is in whether we will be “a loving family, dependent on the Holy Spirit, committed to the Word, growing in grace, reaching out in mercy.” Only time will tell whether or not we are fully devoted to such a vision.
But for now, we will not temporarily pick up our cross as a photo op on the Via Dolorosa. We will shoulder it for the road ahead, as we leave the past behind, follow our Lord ahead, committed to obedience, and expecting to reproduce his life in others!
Copyright 2008-2014, All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from Dr. Robert Petterson, Pastor Trent Casto or Covenant Presbyterian Church of Naples.
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