Monday, January 28, 2013

Missional Discipleship: Part Last

This is the last in my six-part series on missional discipleship, based on a talk I gave to the fine folks at Forge Chicago.Thanks for hanging in there with me. (Read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, and part five here.)

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Play is not always play; sometimes it’s performance before a hostile audience. Jesus warned his followers of this. They would be persecuted because of him; they would be called to testify. They would be sifted like wheat. Jesus himself performed his mission in front of a hostile audience, no more hostile than while he hung from a cross. “Play” is sometimes too gentle, too playful a word to describe the cost of discipleship, the cruciform life God has in mind for us.

Performing in such hostile environments itself requires preparation. Well prepared disciples perform by instinct under stress. It’s why quarterbacks can still complete passes while a thousand pounds of defensive linemen bear down on them with the threat of a perhaps career-ending sack; they’ve prepared themselves. They’ve practiced. Their senses, instincts and muscle memories take over.

John and Peter’s muscle memories took over as they were dragged before the Sanhedrin, as they shouted “We must obey God and not men.” Paul and Silas’s muscle memories took over as they sang in prison for daring to speak the gospel in public. Steven’s muscle memory took over as he told the salvation story of Israel while onlookers pelted him with rocks. Each of them had practiced, prepared for such a performance. Each of them performed well.

So yes, not all discipleship is playtime. But the resurrection—and the resurrection life—is I think best described as playtime. Because the resurrection is good news, and play time is good news. Who isn’t happy to hear that it’s play time? Who likewise isn’t happy to hear that God has conquered death?

The last chapters of the gospels—the descriptions of the days and weeks after Jesus has been crucified and buried—bear a striking resemblance to a running game of hide and seek. Jesus is not found in the tomb. His followers set out to look for him. He’s hidden, he is sought, he is found.

Then there are the disciples, hidden in the upper room. They don’t want to be found, and yet Jesus tracks them down. They are hidden, they are sought, they are found.

This game of hide and seek extends into the book of Acts, as the Spirit sends various people to find one another—Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, Ananias and Saul/Paul, Peter and the Roman Centurion (and the Roman Centurion and Peter), Paul and the people of peace in every city he entered. They had been trained to seek, and so they became masters of the game.

When you see discipleship as a matter of both play and practice, something done in private as preparation for its performance in public; when you see discipleship as the privilege of the children of God, made joyful and exhilarating thanks to the victory over death displayed in the resurrection, you start to see even those times of preparation, those gathered times of practice, as playful. You start to get in touch with the playful God of the universe, who, in the words of G. K. Chesterton,

is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that [like a child at play] God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
To be a disciple, Jesus tells us, is to be like a child. It is to have the eternal appetite of infancy that God displays in each act of creation, each act of redemption, whether in the private space of a gathered, practicing church, or scattered throughout the public and sometimes hostile space of a world that has sinned and grown old. So missional discipleship is the act of becoming childlike, personally, collectively, culturally. It is something to be practiced, of course, but with an eye toward performance. It is to be playful in a world that takes itself far too seriously. It is to repent of our own tendencies to take ourselves far too seriously. I’ll wrap up with a thought from Tim Morey in his book Embodying Our Faith:

Too often, Christianity is seen by those on the outside (and often those on the inside as well) as concerned only with believing the right things, attending church and avoiding certain behaviors. What a contrast this is to the kingdom announcement of Jesus! The church serves as a sign, instrument and first taste of God’s kingdom. When the church lives as it is called to live, the world receives a powerful apologetic: a glimpse of what it looks like when God reigns in the world.

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