Practice Makes Perfect (or at least Better)

Practice Makes Perfect (Or At Least Better)

Mark 6: 9-13

(This is a version of a sermon I have given in the past in Memphis and Ohio.) It has been posted here before in a different format. 

I recently up golf as a serious matter. I returned to San Antonio from helping a church in Ohio on March 1 this year.  Our family spent most of March and April welcoming a new grandchild and caring for her parents. In May, we had two graduations, and so our time was filled with more grandparenting and celebrating two new graduates.

On June 1, we began what I call the “Scruggs Golf Camp.” I can’t afford to spend a month at Hilton Head or Palm Springs, so my strategy was to watch videos and read golf books at night, and then put into practice what we learned the next day at the course or the driving range. We also needed lessons, so, my wife and I took a few.

Since June, I’ve played or been at the range every day, read books by famous golfers, and watched endless instructional videos. I am not good, but I am getting better. What does it take to learn to play golf? It takes study, observing golfers play, hours of practice at the driving range, playing several times a week, and swinging a club sixty to 100 times a day for a long time.

Golf is hard, but being a disciple of Christ is much harder. Like golf, faith is not merely knowledge in our heads. [1] If that is all it is, it is a dead or inadequate thing (James 2:7). In order to be active disciples of Jesus, we need to practice our faith daily. Furthermore, we don’t need to practice a little. We need to practice a lot—more than we need to practice golf.

The Disciples Practice Being Like Jesus

In our text, Jesus is traveling through the villages of the Galilee teaching (Mark 6:6). The disciples were in a kind of intensive Bible study and small group experience with Jesus—a kind of Christian golf camp. Day in and day out, they were with Jesus, watching Jesus, listening to Jesus, and sometimes running errands for Jesus. One day, Jesus was going to send the disciples to the ends of the earth sharing the Good News of the Kingdom and making disciples themselves. Therefore, he wanted them to practice being like him and doing the things he did.

Hear the Word of God as it comes to us from Mark 6: 6-13:

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts.Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

They went out and preached that people should repent.They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them (Mark 6:6-13).

Prayer: Eternal God, Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ: Come this morning and inspire our hearts to become more like you and to follow our Lord Jesus even when we must get out of our comfort zones to do so. In Jesus Name, Amen.

 We Need to Practice our Discipleship

The term “practice” means the practical application of an idea, belief, method, or knowledge. When we practice something, we repeat the action time and time again until we get good at it. This is why we speak of practicing medicine or law. Professions, like sports, are not just areas of intellectual knowledge; they involve practical application of knowledge as a skill. In practical matters, head knowledge is not enough. We have to practice.

Returning to my analogy between golf and discipleship, when I began to play golf, I could not just read about golf or watch Tiger Woods play golf. As great a golfer as Tiger Woods is, watching him play is not enough to become a good golfer. To become a good golfer, you have to play golf a lot.

Jesus knew his disciples would not get the business of making disciples right the first (or even the second, third, fourth or fifth time). He knew that their “spiritual swing” was not going to get better without practice. He knew that it would not be a good idea for him to do all the teaching, healing, and casting out of demons, and then one day, BANG, send the disciples to the ends of the earth (Matthew 28:16-20). Therefore, he trained the disciples and made them practice what he had been training them to do.

One Sunday day in 1977, I was walking by the pastors’ offices on a Sunday morning between services. Dick Drury, who was the young associate pastor in charge of evangelism in our church, called me into his office. He explained that he was scheduled to speak at the Star of Hope Mission in Houston that evening but could not make it. He asked me to speak for him.

I’d been a Christian only a short time. I can’t tell you how scared I was. That afternoon I wrote a sermon and practiced it as best I could. I didn’t have time to write it out. All I could do was an outline. Then, with fear and trepidation, in front of a bunch of drug addicts and drunks, I preach my first sermon. I even did my first altar call! For a Presbyterian, I was way out of my comfort zone. However, I would not be here today, if Dick had not then, and frequently thereafter, asked me to substitute for him at the mission. [2]

There is an important lesson here: We will never become the disciples Jesus calls us to be unless and until we get out of our comfort zone and put our faith to work. We need to put what we know about Jesus into practice. We need to be doers of the word in addition to hearers of it (James 1:22-25). When we do that, we will grow as disciples of Jesus. The best way to get out of our comfort zone is with other Christians, who can love and support us.

We Need to Practice as a Team

Jesus knew his disciples would have difficulty going on this first mission trip. He knew there were going to be times in which the disciples did not know what to do next. Therefore, he sent them out two-by-two. In other words, they went out in teams.

About a decade ago, our church realized that we needed to do a better job of evangelism. We initially did what good Presbyterians do: We formed a task force. Luckily, two of the people on the task force were in sales.  They really did not like long boring meetings, but they did not mind visiting with people. Therefore, they decided that what the group needed to do was to practice evangelism rather than just talk about evangelism. The group divided itself into smaller groups of two and three and visited every visitor to our church every Sunday afternoon. Guess what” We grew!

It’s important that we take seriously the example of Jesus and the disciples. Often, we think that we will someday engage in some ministry for Jesus when we have learned enough, when we have studied enough Bible, when we’ve become better Christians, etc. If we think that way, we will never go on a mission trip! We will never disciple another person. Part of learning is doing! We all need to go on training missions for Jesus. It may be as simple as making a meal for a sick neighbor and sharing God’s love or as hard as making a trip to a third world nation in a dangerous country. Where we go does not matter as much as that we go.

God Will Fill Us with His Spirit

In today’s text, Jesus commissions the disciples to go on a practice journey, and as he did so he blessed and endowed them with the power to face sickness, demons and evil. In other places, we learned that, when Jesus sent out the Seventy-Two, they returned with joy because the Spirit of God had been working in and through them on their journey (Luke 10:17).

One of the great promises we have from Jesus is that he will be with us as we go in his name (Matthew 28:20). This doesn’t just apply to people who go to Third World countries, although it does. It applies to us whenever we get out of our comfort zone. The promise applies when we pray with co-workers. Wherever we go, the Spirit of Christ goes with us. In fact, one of the blessings of putting our faith into practice is the joy of the Spirit we experience on the journey.

We Seek People of Peace

Many people have problems with the advice Jesus gives near the end of today’s passage. Jesus says to the disciples that, if they come to a place where they are not welcome, they should shake the dust off their sandals and go on (Mark 6:11). In the beginning, this statement seems harsh. In other passages, Jesus more clearly spells out what he is talking about. In some places Jesus is that we should look for people of peace as we go (Luke 9-10). People who welcome the Gospel are “people of peace.” [3]

Does Jesus mean that we should only go to obviously receptive people? No. In other places, and particularly in connection with the Parable of the Sower, Jesus makes it clear that we should always be sowing the gospel of God’s love for the world (Mark 4:1-21). We should sow the Word on rocky soil and on shallow soil. We should sow the Word among the thorns and in the deep soil. We sow everywhere.

However, once we are rejected, once we learn that the soil is hard, once we know that in order to continue on we would be interfering with another person’s privacy, we go on our way. This doesn’t mean we don’t come back to that person later. This doesn’t mean that, if the subject doesn’t come up for a while and then comes up again, we don’t repeat what we said before. It just means that we don’t force ourselves on other people; when we are rejected, we go our way and seek out people of peace.

God Will Provide the Harvest

When the disciples went out and preached the gospel, they did mighty deeds of power (Mark 6:13).  In the same way, when we go out with the power of the gospel, filled with God’s love, and share that love wherever we go, God goes with us and provides a harvest. It does not matter whether we go across the street, and a neighbor comes to Christ after many years, or whether we go to the ends of the earth and an entire people group are touched by the Gospel through our work. God provides the harvest.

That first night when I preached of the Star of Hope Mission, I gave the worst altar call ever given by anyone in human history. It was so clumsy that the men just sort of stared at me for a while. Then, perhaps because he felt sorry for me, one man came forward and then another. I really don’t remember how many came forward. But a few did. Let’s just suppose it only one of those stayed sober and turn their life over to Christ. My lost afternoon and busy early evening were worth it.

When we share with others the love that Jesus shared with us on the cross, when we give up a little bit of our safety and security to go out of our comfort zone and share God’s love, we receive the blessing of Christ. Along the way, the more we practice, the better disciples we will be.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a friend who plays golf to tell him that I was much improved. I am now terrible. Before, I was horrible. There is a saying among golf teachers that golf rewards the patient. Discipleship is the same. God blesses those who just go out day after day and put their faith into practice, doing a bit better that day.

Let’s go.


[1] Both the Greek and Hebrew roots for the words we translate “faith” in English connotes both faith and trust. Trust implies an action. We don’t trust by knowing or accepting somethings as true. We trust when we put our knowledge into action. I might think I know how to safely go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. I trust myself when I do it.

[2] For years I took the Sunday that was previously held by the Rev. Dr. Charles L. King, the long time and pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Houston, Texas  and a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUS).  Then and now , I regarded as a great honor to follow in Dr. King’s footsteps.

[3] Evangelists, church planters and missionaries all speak about people of peace. Fundamentally, people of peace are those who are open to the gospel, respond with curiosity when approached about Jesus, listen attentively to the gospel, and then share that word with their own family and friends. The New Testament gives many examples: the twelve disciples responded to the call of Jesus. For example, the Samaritan woman listens to Jesus, responds, and tells her friends (John4:1-30).