Here’s my sermon from this past weekend. My text was Matthew 28.16-20. You can listen to it below or download it in iTunes here.
Thanks to artists’ renderings and Mel Gibson, we all know what Jesus looks like.
Obviously there’s slight variations but, basically, we all know what Jesus looks like. We all know he’s white (just kidding…please don’t write a letter to the bishop) and we all know Jesus bears an uncanny resemblance to Kenny Loggins from his pre-‘Danger Zone,’ ‘This is It’ yacht rock period.
So we know what Jesus looks like, but we don’t know what Jesus sounds like.
When Jesus says ‘…go therefore and make disciples…’ we don’t know what he sounds like. There’s no recordings, not even an 8 track. It’s like the opposite of radio; we have the images we’ve got to supply the voice.
And for each of us it’s somewhat different sounding For a lot of you, Jesus sounds like a gentle, soft-spoken, inspiring teacher someone like the dog whisperer, say, or Donald Trump.
Scripture does say the Father and the Son are one, the same, so no doubt some of you think Jesus sounds just like God, who, we all know, sounds just like Morgan Freeman.
Because this is DC, I know a lot of people in politics and to them Jesus sounds…just like them. It’s amazing. It might be the only thing in town on which there’s bipartisan consensus. Whether they want to make America Great Again or they’re Feeling the Bern, they all hear Jesus in their own voice.
Not me though.
On my good days, Jesus sounds to me just like Gandalf- not Dumbledore, that would be childish. On my good days, Jesus sounds exactly like Gandalf.
But on my not-so-good days, on my bad days, you know who Jesus sounds like to me? That’s right, Sally Struthers, which I think qualifies me as a feminist.
Not the Sally Struthers of Five Easy Pieces or The Getaway. Not Gloria from All in the Family. Not even Sally Struthers the voice of Pebbles Flintstone on the Pebbles and Bam-Bam Show.
No, on my bad days and my not-so-good days, Jesus sounds to me exactly like Sally Struthers of those once ubiquitous Christian Children’s Fund commercials.
You know, the ones where she shoves a Starvin’ Marvin kid with flies in his eyes in front of the camera and, with tears and earnestness in her eyes, stares through the television screen at lazy, fat, self-centered you, who can’t even spare the cost of a cup of coffee to save a life.
On my bad and my not-so-good days, when I hear Jesus say something like ‘…go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them everything I’ve taught you…’
Jesus sounds to me like Christian Children’s Fund Sally Struthers, her/his whiney voice guilting me that if I just gave more money, sacrificed more time, exerted more effort, mustered-up some more mindfulness then I could do what I’m supposed to do (the things that Jesus did) and I could be who I’m supposed to be (just like Jesus).
Maybe it’s just me. When you’re a pastor you spend a lot of time thinking about what you should be doing as a Christian.
It doesn’t mean you’re a better Christian (and if you’re a United Methodist, probably the opposite is the case), it just means the rhythms of the job and people’s perceptions of you make you feel like you should be saying Jesusy stuff and doing Jesusy things 24/7.
I mean, you never read about Jesus sitting in his boxers, eating a family-sized bag of potato chips, drinking a beer, and binge watching an entire season of Californication. Not that I’ve done that; it’s just a ‘for instance.’
My point is Jesus never does anything like that. Time’s too precious. The Kingdom of God is at hand and all that.
Last Sunday I taught our confirmation class, and at the beginning of class I asked the students to throw out at me all the attributes of their all-time favorite teachers. Kind. Nice. Generous. Challenging. Engaging. Fun.
And when I asked which of those attributes Jesus possessed as a teacher, guess which one they left off the list? Fun.
Jesus wasn’t, isn’t, fun they all concurred.
Who can blame them for thinking that way?
Sure, Jesus eats and drinks with sinners but even that’s to prove a point about who is in and who is out when it comes to the Father’s love. Jesus never just Wang-Chungs on any night.
Yeah, Jesus slips away a lot for quiet time but whenever he does it’s to pray to God. How annoying is that? Jesus never just chillaxes.
It seems like he’s always speaking truth to power and showing compassion to the poor, and, as disciples- as we tell our confirmands, we’re supposed to be just like Jesus and do the things Jesus that did.
And, as a pastor, you’re never not auditing your shortfalls on both counts. It comes with the job.
And so, even though we know Jesus looks like Brad Pitt circa Legends of the Fall, on a lot of my crappy days our Lord and Savior sounds to me like ‘Save the Kids’ Sally Struthers, her Christian Children’s Fund commercials making my faith feel like a guilty monkey on my back.
For example, for Christmas we bought the boys a Playstation 4. I insist on using the whole title, Playstation, because I’ve already learned that when you say ‘I’m going to go play with my PS’ too quickly, it can sound dirty and lead to unproductive potty humor.
Anyways, we bought the boys a PS4 for Christmas. If you have an actual human style life and you’re not a gaming nerd and you don’t know, the PS4 costs approximately $8,000.
This is true: for the same amount of money we spent on the PS4, we could have provided clean water to an entire, impoverished village in Africa.
I know that stat because I’m a pastor and because Jesus/Sally reminded me in her guilt-tripping voice as I swiped my debit card at purchase.
Sure the PS4 was expensive but we had to buy it. I mean, their Nintendo Wii was at least 2 years old. What else were we supposed to do? We had no choice.
Still, though, I couldn’t shake the sense of shaming buyer’s remorse that ‘PS4’ is seldom the answer to the question ‘WWJD?’
So when my boys unwrapped the PS4 and opened it up and invited me to play with them, what did I say?
‘Well, I’d love to boys but unfortunately I’ve got more important things to do. I’m going to go pray and then read the Bible and then maybe I’ll go find some sinners to eat with.’
Of course, that didn’t stop me from creeping down to the basement after everyone had gone to bed and playing the Last of Us, a violent, sex-filled, apocalyptic, zombie-killing game for like 9 hours on end.
I didn’t even get up to go to the bathroom. I just peed in a cup. Even my dog, lying next to me on the sofa, looked at me like I was pathetic.
And looking back at her, I saw in her eyes Sally Struthers’ pained expression and in my head I heard Jesus…reminding me that this was not something he would do and so- he didn’t need to point out- it wasn’t something I needed to waste my time with.
After all, the Last of Us costs about $50.00 and, according to that other Christian Children’s Fund guy, the bald guy with the Wilfred Brimley beard, a cup of coffee only costs $0.39. I don’t know where he buys his coffee but apparently somewhere a cup of coffee only costs $0.39.
Do the math: that PS4 game costs the same amount as 128 cups of coffee and, according to that aforementioned bearded guy, that’s 128 starving children for whom I could provide food, water and medicine.
Jesus saves and so could I, but instead I spent a fortnight trying to advance to the next level of a video game that makes Games of Thrones seem like the 23rd Psalm.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s because I’m back to being an on-the-clock Christian, but math like that runs through my head all the time and it’s usually followed by Sally Struthers doing Jesus voice over in my head.
According to World Vision, 3/4 of the world’s population- 75% of everybody- live on less than $10/day. That’s $70/week.
Just to put that into perspective, because I’m a professional Christian and that’s the kind of math I do: I’ve rented the 2010 John Cusack film Hot Tub Time Machine 3 times from the iTunes store.
I’ve rented it on 3 separate occasions.
At $2.99/rental that equals roughly $9.00, plus what I paid to see Hot Tub Time Machine at the theater on opening night ($24) and figure in the ankle-grabbing concession cost ($50) and, according to the Sally Struthers- narrated abacus in my brain, that comes out to a grand total of $83.00.
More than what 75% of everybody in the world has to survive off of for a week- that’s the amount of money I’ve spent on a terrible, infantile movie with a title like Hot Tub Time Machine.
Even a hot tub is a luxury item. And I’m supposed to be like Jesus and do the things that Jesus did!
It’s no wonder Jesus sounds like Sally Struthers to me and not just when it comes to poverty and money.
Not too long ago, I was at Starbucks, sitting at the bar and doing some research on today’s scripture text, when a friend from church- a friend about my age, though not as young-looking as me- sat down next to me.
I don’t want to violate his privacy so let’s just say his name rhymes with Ryan Polarz.
And he said to me: ‘Hey, I just listened to your Ash Wednesday sermon from a few weeks ago, the one where you mentioned the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. It really got me thinking.’
And I replied: ‘Thanks, I’m glad you liked it.’
Now, take a guess where our conversation went from there.
Did I ask him if that sermon edified his faith or helped nurture his relationship with the Lord? Nope.
Did I inquire about the state of his soul or ask ‘If you died tomorrow do you know where you’d spend eternity?’ No. None of it.
No, we spent about 25 caffeinated minutes Googling 1990 era swimsuit supermodels and reminiscing about our adolescent infatuations. Nearly a half of an hour.
About as long as Jesus was scourged for my sins, instead of teaching anyone everything Jesus taught his disciples. I Googled the women I’d once oogled as a newly pubescent boy.
And even then, in the back of my head, I heard Sally Struthers from the sermon on the mountain saying: ‘If you’ve lusted in your heart, you’ve committed adultery.’
I mean, is this the kind of uncertain, self-incriminating agony we want to confirm our kids into?
I could go on all day just telling you about my day yesterday or the day before that so it’s not surprising that on a whole lot of days the Jesus in my head sounds a whole lot like ‘Call this # now’ Sally Strutters.
And… it’s why, I think, those first disciples, when they met the Risen Jesus up on that mountain, they doubted.
According to Matthew, when the women go to the womb at dawn on Easter morning, they’re eventually encountered by the Risen Christ, who tells them to go find the disciples and tell them to go to Galilee, to the mountain.
And they do, says Matthew. And just before today’s text, Matthew says that when they see the Risen Christ, they worship him.
Just like that.
In a moment, they break the first- and, really, the only- commandment. Immediately on that mountain they toss aside everything it meant to be a Jew: to worship no gods but God.
As soon as they encounter the Risen Christ, they do what they’d never before. Not when he’d walked on water. Not when he’d multiplied the loaves and the fishes. Not when he’d declared himself the Son of Man.
Only now, vindicated by resurrection and having triumphed over the Powers of Sin and Death, do they worship him as God-in-the-flesh.
But- Matthew reports in the same breathe, the very same sentence- some of the disciples doubted.
While they’re on their knees worshipping him, some of them doubted.
What did they doubt?
Did they doubt, as Thomas does in John’s Gospel, that Jesus was really resurrected?
Maybe. But the Risen Christ is right there in front of them, and you don’t kneel down and worship something you’re not really sure is even there. And you certainly don’t worship him if you think he might be someone else entirely.
Speaking of worship- did they doubt whether or not they should be worshipping him?
I doubt it.
If ‘You shall have no other gods before me’ is the lynchpin of your self-identity, then you don’t turn your back on that and worship with fingers crossed behind your back.
No, I think their doubt has everything to do with that mountain they’re on.
Notice, Jesus didn’t need to specify on which mountain they were to meet him. They knew which mountain. They knew that ‘the mountain’ in Matthew’s Gospel only refers to one mountain, to the place where Jesus gave the sermon on the mountain.
In fact, a better translation of v.16 reads: ‘Now the 11 disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had laid down the rules for them.’
Rules like ‘Blessed will be the peacemakers.’
Rules like ‘Love your enemies’ and ‘Turn the other cheek.’
Rules like ‘Do not hide your faith in the dark’ and ‘Worry not about the speck in your neighbor’s eye when you’ve got a 2×4 in your own.’
Commands that not one of those disciples had proved capable of emulating like Jesus when Jesus was alive and, now, he’s alive again.
And as they worship him on that mountain, I’m willing to bet that what they doubt is themselves. I’m willing to bet what they doubt is their ability to embody those commands like Jesus embodied them. I bet they doubt they can do it. Be just like him.
And if they’re doubting it as they’re worshipping him, I’m willing to bet it gets even worse a verse and a half later when Jesus tells them it’s their turn now. To make disciples of every last person, teaching them every last thing he commanded them on that mountain, every last command they couldn’t keep like he did. I’m willing to bet the house- also not very Jesusy- they doubt that they can be just like Jesus and do the things that Jesus did.
Still though, those same disciples (plus others just like them)- they changed the world.
Despite their doubts about themselves, despite their serious and abundant shortcomings that the Gospels don’t even bother to gloss past, they changed everything.
Sometimes in all our pious jargon and churchy lore we forget something. We forget a simple fact of history:
Jesus did not change the world.
When Jesus died, he had a grand total of 0 disciples.
And just after Easter, he had only a handful.
Jesus did not change the world.
The disciples did. Those disciples did.
They took Jesus’ Kingdom movement and in less than 300 years they literally converted the heart of an Empire.
Those disciples and others just like them, who were just as bad as us at being like Jesus and doing the things Jesus did, changed the world. How? How did they do it?
The Holy Spirit is the easy, obvious confirmation class answer, and I’m not saying it’s wrong. I just think it skirts the question.
I wonder if something else is a part of the answer too. I wonder if, after the mantle was passed to them, those disciples discovered something that we- or me, at least-so frequently miss.
Here it is, and this is everything so wake up now:
Discipleship does not mean we try to be just like Jesus.
Discipleship does not mean we try to do everything Jesus did the way Jesus did it.
Maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s a byproduct of ordination but, as important a distinction as this, I forget it all the time.
To be a disciple is to live your life- your life- as Jesus might live it if he were you.
Do you see the distinction?
To be a disciple is NOT for you to be just like Jesus.
To be a disciple is to tease out what you would be like if Jesus were you.
If yours was the life Jesus had been given to live, not as a first century Jewish carpenter but you, your life. With your humdrum job or your jerk boss or your remaining years and failing health. What would you be like if Jesus were you, with your kids or your aging parents or your shame and regrets or your addiction or your student loans and mortgage bills.
What would you be like if Jesus were you, with your pain-in-the-butt in-laws or your spouse. Who would you be if he were you? If he was a single Dad or a stay-at-home Mom or an enlisted soldier? What if Jesus had cancer? What if he had enlisted? What if he were gay? What if his parents didn’t understand him? How would you be different if he were you?
Discipleship is the word we give to how we answer that question. And obviously it’s necessarily different for each one of us.
I think that’s something we miss when we confirm our kids into the faith.
We make them, make you, mistakenly think that discipleship is mainly about prayer and bible reading and preaching and serving the poor- because that’s the kind of stuff Jesus did in his life.
And then you make the mistake and think that someone like Mother Theresa or Pope Francis or even me is somehow more of a disciple than you.
And so it’s only natural that Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples would be left to those kind of ‘real’ disciples.
But if discipleship is about who you would be if he lived your life, then discipleship is not even about what you do. It’s about how you do what you already do.
It’s about how you do what you already do.
Let me say it this way:
No apprentice must become the exact, carbon copy of their Master. God only needed one Savior.
You don’t have to live his life.
Jesus already lived his life, and God gave you yours.
There is no other life God wants from you other than the one God’s given you. There is no other life God wants from you other than the one God’s given you.
No other. All God wants is for you to live your life the way Jesus might have lived it if it was your flesh he put on. If it was your shoes he was standing in.
Sure, Jesus of Nazareth never wasted time playing inane games on the PS4, but if Jesus of Anesbury Ct had 2 sons who wanted to spend time with their Dad?
He probably still wouldn’t play a soft-porn, vigilante zombie game in the beer-drenched darkness of a basement, but Star Wars Battlefront with his boys? You bet.
Sure Jesus of Galilee wasn’t married (no matter what Dan Brown claims) but if Jesus of Alexandria was married to his high school sweetheart, a woman who perfected even him.
And if his wife had had a crush on John Cusack ever since he played Lloyd Dobler held Peter Gabriel aloft over his head, then maybe even Jesus would spend $70 to take his wife to opening night of Hot Tub Time Machine.
Yes, Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s doesn’t seem to have an off-color sense of humor, but if Jesus, Mark and Sue’s son, was sitting at Starbucks one day and if a friend wanted to become more of one by being silly and hashing over the silly infatuations of youth, then (don’t call the bishop) I’m going to go out on a limb and say that even Jesus might Google ’90’s swimsuit covergirls.
If discipleship isn’t about you being just like Jesus
If discipleship is about figuring out who you would be if he were living your life, then the good news is that the only way to fail at being a disciple is to decide not to try.
That’s the only way to fail.
It’s not on you to be just like Jesus and to change the world.
Jesus already lived his life.
You only need to figure out who you might be if he were you, in your shoes, in your little part of the world.
If we all, each of us, just did that-
Not only would it get rid of that Sally Struthers voice (let’s face it) we all have in our heads. It just might change the world.
The only way to fail is not to try.
If you’ve never confessed Jesus Christ as your savior, if you’ve never invited him into your heart, if you’ve never come forward for an altar call, if you’ve never held your hand up during up a sinner’s prayer, if you’ve been confirmed but never really converted…
However you want to put it- if you’ve always held Jesus at arm’s length, if you’ve always only been a maybe, kinda, sorta, almost Christian…DON’T BE.
There’s no reason to be because the only way to fail at being a disciple is not to try.
Give yourself to him. Give your life to him.
And then live.
Live as if yours was the life he was given to live.