The Lord promises Abraham a child, and Sarah laughs. Jesus looks with compassion on the people of Israel and calls twelve disciples to follow him, giving authority to each one, even to Judas Iscariot, who would betray him. Our Scripture lessons this morning remind us: what God is up to in this world is not how we would do things. A couple far too old to have children? A traitor? We would have nothing to do with them, but they’re both essential actors in building the kingdom of God, what Matthew this morning calls the kingdom of heaven. This is a kingdom not our own, a kingdom we would not build if it were up to us, a path we would not forge if we were in charge. In this kingdom, in the kingdom of God, we are called, not to be owners or deciders, but to be followers of the king, the good shepherd, the Lord. Like Sarah and Abraham and Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James, Thaddeus, Simon, and Judas, we are called to be disciples, to follow Jesus on his authority, not ours, proclaiming his gospel, not our own.
School is out for the summer, but starting today and for the next six weeks, Scripture wants us to gather at the feet of the Great Teacher, Christ himself, and learn from him what it means to be his students, his disciples. This is Discipleship 101: Discipleship in the Kingdom of God, and class is in session. It’s not our teaching that matters here; it’s not our ideas that are most important. If we’re to learn, or re-learn, how to follow Jesus, we need to give him our full attention. Discipleship, after all, is in his kingdom, because wherever Jesus goes, there is the kingdom of God! And wherever we go, we want to be on the lookout for Christ, so that we can be his disciples where he is, where the kingdom of God is.
Our reading from Matthew this morning picks up right after Jesus has been performing wondrous signs, healings, throughout the Galilean countryside. Now he’s calling the twelve, who will be ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven, sent abroad to continue the kingdom-work Jesus has been up to. They’re sent out with a package deal: proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom of heaven, curing the sick, cleansing the unclean, casting out demons, all of these things go together. Too often we hear people who pit evangelism against ministries of compassion and justice, but Jesus will have none of it. You cannot proclaim the gospel if you do not care for the people Jesus loves. That’s the first, and maybe the most important lesson, of this course in discipleship. In our kingdoms, in the way we would do things, we want to split these things apart. But this is a kingdom not our own, and the kingdom of God unites what we would pull apart.
The call, the commission of Jesus Christ to those first disciples is not just meant for them. It is meant for anyone who wants to know Christ; it is for you and for me, too. The way to know Jesus is to be his disciple, and the way to be his disciple is to go where he sends you, to do what he tells you to do, and to listen to and heed what he teaches you. That is how you get to know Jesus; that is how you have a relationship with him. That is the essence of what it means to be saved by him.
But this is not something we do on our own, or only for ourselves. If you want to grow as Christ’s disciple, if you want to get to know Jesus better, you need to be involved with others who want the same thing. If you want to follow Jesus, you need to join with others who also want to follow him. Jesus himself sets things up this way. Matthew doesn’t say, Jesus called Simon Peter, then, Andrew, then James, then John, then Philip, one after the next, until then there happened to be twelve individual followers of Jesus. No! Matthew reports the disciples as a group, not as individuals: they are the twelve apostles before they are Simon Peter, Andrew, James, or John. And to underscore the point, Matthew reports their names in pairs: Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, James and Thaddeus, Simon and Judas. Discipleship happens in a group, in small groups, of people who share a common call to follow Jesus, together.
John Wesley said it this way: Following Jesus “is essentially a social religion and… to turn it into a solitary religion, is indeed to destroy it” (Sermon 24). You cannot be a Christian, a Christ-follower, a disciple, on your own. Christianity is “a social religion,” it happens when we follow Jesus in groups. Turning it “into a solitary religion,” making it just about me and my relationship with Jesus and how I feel and whether I’m saved, is to destroy what it means to follow Jesus. So John Wesley set up small groups, of about twelve people, who would meet once a week, pray together, support mission work together, and ask each other, “How have you followed Jesus since we last met?” Without those weekly meetings, there would have been no Methodism two hundred fifty years ago, and you and I would not be gathered here together today. As the Methodist revival caught fire and swept across England and this country, no one talked about joining a congregation. The important thing was: do you belong to a discipleship group? Are you meeting, weekly, with others who can pray with you and share together in the journey of discipleship?
Bible studies are fine; Sunday School classes have their place; but I join a growing number of sisters and brothers in The United Methodist Church who believe that God is calling us to revive these intentional small groups for the sake of his kingdom. And I am convinced that Centre must become a church where everyone has joined such a group, if we are to continue to be the church of Jesus Christ in Forest Hill.
Jesus doesn’t just summon the twelve. He doesn’t just organize them into small groups. He gives them authority, power, in his name to cast out unclean spirits, and “to cure every disease and every sickness.” What are the diseases and sicknesses and unclean spirits that infect people today? They are not cancer, or heart disease, or diabetes. They are drug addiction and racism and greed and fear and violence and hatred, and at the root of all of these lies the isolation of individualism, the corrupt belief that each of us has to go it alone, to power through under our own strength. These are the diseases the disciples of Jesus Christ are called to address today, and in calling us as disciples Christ gives us the authority, the power, to confront and heal them as we live together in the social religion that is following Christ. Our world needs disciples, not because things out there are so bad and we are so good, but because the gift of sharing in faithful discipleship is the cure to the individualism that sickens our societies.
Last week, on Trinity Sunday, we heard the Great Commission from the end of Matthew’s gospel: Go 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. Each person who is baptized gains entry to a kingdom not our own, a place where the Triune Lord reign and our ways yield to his better ways. It is a kingdom of learning and unlearning at the feet of Jesus, with our fellow disciples: learning the life of the kingdom of heaven by living it out, and unlearning the ways we have been taught by the world and even by the church, by giving them up.
Sarah laughed at the promise of a child, and maybe some of us share her cynicism, but the kingdom of heaven does not wait for our faith to catch up with God’s work. Christ is on the move! He summons us! He calls us to be his disciples! Follow him—together—to new life in his kingdom!