The Messy Makings of Discipleship

Blog Series:  “Lost In Translation”

Using Paul’s engagement with the Athenians in Acts 17 as a backdrop, we are reflecting on the many gaps, disconnections, and misalignments we see across the landscape of ministry, along with some hopeful and constructive suggestions for how to respond faithfully.

I was taught that there are some things you just don’t discuss in public. Highly charged topics like money, religion, and politics were at one time thought to be too divisive and impolite to be discussed openly. However, now it seems like everyone is posting, op ed-ing, blogging, trolling, and discussing these once taboo topics, and more. There doesn’t seem to be anything that is off the table these days, even if those having the conversation have no knowledge or expertise on the subject at hand. At the same time, those who do have knowledge and expertise opt out of the conversation because public discourse has become too toxic and messy.

Speaking of toxic and messy, I am reminded of Acts 17. By the time Paul arrived in Athens, he had already been chased out of Thessalonica and Berea where he spent time in the temple evangelizing and discipling, also known as arguing from Scriptures explaining and proving that Jesus was the Messiah. In both places, people were convinced and converted while following Paul, Timothy, and Silas to hear more of the gospel message, yet the “hard line” Jews were angered and chased Paul out of the city. This passage is proof that the way of Jesus has always been fraught and making disciples has never been easy.

While waiting for Timothy and Silas in Athens, Paul became angered by the proliferation of idols that he saw around him and verse 17 records, “So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there.” Despite the challenges he previously faced, Paul recognized the need to reach the idol worshippers, so he began to evangelize and disciple them.

Instead of being chased away, Paul was given a larger platform in front of the Areopagus where he argued the case for Jesus as the Messiah with anyone who came along. This time, “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point, Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” Acts 17:32-34 NRSV

What captured my attention in this passage was Paul’s tenacity as seen in his undaunted capacity for messiness, toxicity, and even danger. Despite persecution and fleeing for his life, Paul continues preaching, teaching, and discipling. Paul is single-minded and resolute, not in winning every argument, but in ensuring that the good news of Jesus Christ was heard.

Paul’s example is instructive for us as society becomes less dependent on traditional institutions like the church and more susceptible to the influence of movements and the individuals who shape them. As a result, people are being influenced, shaped, and dare I say discipled, more by cults of personality, political ideology, and cultural entrenchment than the gospel of Jesus Christ. The ability to make one post on social media that can reach millions has exposed the flaw of ‘access absent relationship.’ We each have the power to influence millions without them knowing us or us knowing them. This was never God’s design for us.

We were created for a relationship with one another and with God. True discipleship requires relationship with Jesus Christ, and we as people of faith can no longer opt out of public discourse because of outdated social mores, or intolerance for the messiness that is our world. When we opt out of the conversation, we make room for other voices, beliefs, and ideals to take root in the hearts and minds of those we are called to serve.

Let me be clear, I am advocating for a renewed commitment to discipleship:

– Discipleship that recognizes that we are called to a person named Jesus and not a place called church

– Discipleship focused on building believers and not our political agenda

– Discipleship that orients us toward healing and wholeness by teaching the spiritual disciplines

– Discipleship that isn’t motivated by our institutional anxiety to sustain ourselves with cheap grace and cross-less theology, but is motivated by the humbling reality that the Almighty has something to say, and we are the ones tasked with saying it!

As we continue to navigate this complex and messy time, let us not forget that we are called to sacrifice not for the sake of the church, but for the sake of the cross. In times like these when people are hurting, lost, and searching for more, our job is to point them to Jesus, not toward political dogma, or the latest cultural craze.

There is no substitute for discipleship. When it is missing, believers become malformed carbon copies of each other instead of being transformed into the image and likeness of Christ. While Paul wasn’t perfect (I’ve certainly had my issues with him) I believe his example of persistence and fortitude in discipling others to Christ is exemplary.

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