For Jesus, discipleship was deeply personal and relational. He called and calls people to come follow him. While here on earth he discipled his followers by sharing life with them, walking with them, teaching them by example, and setting them free to develop their own disciples. Even now he is with us. He sends his Spirit in us and on us so that we are never alone.
Jesus didn’t gather twelve people into a small group that met on Thursdays at 7:00pm and then hand them a scroll, and tell them to read a portion of it in preparation for the next meeting when they would discuss it. When he calls for us to go and make disciples, he isn’t telling us to invite our friends and neighbors to read Tim Keller latest book or sign up for a course on ‘Basic Truths All Disciples Should Know’ or head to the ‘Disciples R Us’ website for some stellar online training. He calls us to friendship and affection and intimacy. He calls us to lead by example. He calls us to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. He tells us to irritate each other on to good works. All of these thing require relationship. All of these things require proximity. All of these things require vulnerability.
Discipleship outside of relationship is almost impossible. “As you’re going,” Jesus enjoins us, “make disciples.” It is a call to be aware of those God has placed in your path. It is a call to form relationships with those we find along the road of life. Jesus immediately follows this up with a call to baptize them. Being asked to baptize them assumes that they are not already believers. So much of our church discipleship is based on making immature Christians into more mature Christians. Young Christians into older Christians. Ignorant Christians into more knowledgeable Christians. All these are important elements, but the call to disciple is a call to minister before a person ever comes to belief. Jesus invites us to consider the people who surround us who are unaware of the kingdom of God and what it looks like to walk with them into faith.
Jesus calls his disciples to leave what they are doing and come follow him. Proximity matters. He doesn’t teach them his ways from a distance. He models the ways of God from close up. In a world where social media and social structures lead us further and further away from each other, the call of the gospel is to greater and greater proximity. Proximity is uncomfortable. We rub up against each other in awkward and painful ways. The reality of our sin has negative impact. Our words and actions have consequences. Working through disagreements and relational discord is arduous. We don’t have the luxury of unfriending and avoidance. We have to deal with our shame, our false self image, our fears, and our inclination toward self protection. It is far easier to keep our distance than to say with the Apostle Paul, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (I Corinthians 11:1)
Paul isn’t perfect and his invitation isn’t for people to follow after him because of what he offers. His invitation is to mimic in their own lives that which they see of Christ’s life in his. We often hesitate to invite close observation of our lives because our sin is always before us. We concentrate on our sin instead of the gospel and grace of Jesus. We falsely believe that people see us and would rightly choose to never follow us instead of the reality that they might see Jesus in us and follow after him. That should encourage us into an ever deepening desire to reveal Christ in our lives by dealing forthrightly with our sin. By loving each other, confessing our sin, pursuing righteousness, and quickly forgiving each other we can not only honor God, but allow others to see the gospel of Christ in us.
We struggle with vulnerability because our goal is to present our goodness rather than our weaknesses and our desperate need for someone to rescue us. We like people to think well of us. We create and present a caricature of ourselves to all around us out of a deep seated fear that, were we to be ‘known’, we would be rejected. Most all of us carefully manufacture our image, hiding the ugly parts, showing off the good parts, and presenting this false image to the world around us. An additional problem is that we have difficulty wherever the various people and people groups in our lives intersect. The folks at work see me one way, my spouse and children another way, close friends a third way, church folks another way yet, neighbors one more way, and so it goes. We are afraid that it will all unravel and we will be left with only ourselves. We are afraid we won’t be able to maintain our carefully manicured images. Adam said he was afraid because he was naked so he hid from God (Genesis 3:10). We continue to hide. Jesus’ invitation is to walk in freedom. To not be burdened by sin but to allow him to reveal himself in our weakness. In doing so, others see his image in us and are drawn to him. Vulnerability is the key to relational discipleship.
As you’re going through open your life to others. Live the gospel. Take hold of it and trust it in the deep places. Don’t first of all intellectualize it. Experience it in relationship with Jesus. Intellectual acceptance of the Christian faith most often follows relational acceptance. As you more fully trust the gospel, those around you will see Jesus in you. And they will be drawn to him. That is the path to true discipleship.