Jesus Sneezed // discipleship in the church [originally written for manofdepravity.com]
Jesus sneezed the divine ‘virus’ on His followers, who in turn spread the ‘virus’ to others.
I chuckled the first time I heard that analogy (earlier this year from Alan Hirsch at the Verge — video here). It stuck with me. I keep thinking about sneezing and how viruses thrive in certain situations. So when a couple weeks ago I taught middle schoolers on the spread of the Gospel and the church, a summary of the Book of Acts, guess what analogy we used? Yep, Jesus sneezed. In fact we were sneezing all over the place, and made sure to sneeze out the core message of the early church: Jesus is Lord! (Acts 4:12).
He was the Master, the only true God who called the shots in their lives, so they lived as His missionaries, sent with the Spirit and sent by the One who was sent by the Father (John 17:18). In a age where we’re inoculated with a partial Gospel (go to heaven when you die) it is refreshing when one sees true discipleship spreading like a virus. Receiving Jesus as Lord is both the end of an old life and the beginning of an amazing new reality. Everything changes — past, present, and future. We can now walk in ‘new life’ (Romans 6) and ‘by the Spirit’ through God’s enablement, to venture towards loving God and people fully (Matthew 22:37-40). Thankfully, we shall not walk alone; we belong to one another (Romans 12:3-8). This is the only virus that makes us stronger the more we share it.
Personally, without the impulse towards discipleship present in others (like a virus) I would not be a disciple of Jesus today, nor a faithful husband, a loving father, and certainly not a pastor. Because in our society older men don’t know how to finish well, young men don’t know how to stay married, and young adults are aimless and confused. I would have simply been a statistic, but for the faithful investment of men. There were godly men — many of them, and especially a handful over the years — who poured their lives into me. Jason, Ben, Scott, Mark, Jeremy, Adam, Cliff. I continue to learn from them, and in time they learned from me. Their investment was self-sacrificing and rooted the love of God — He compelled them (2 Cor. 5:9-21). No doubt there were times where my progress seemed doubtful, my pride too present. Yet God is faithful, and through shared life experiences we all were changed.
There were some practical realities at play: first, we spent time together.
Sometimes it was a scheduled hour a week, other times it spilled over into “non-ministry” time. Meals, weekends, playing with their kids, trips to the store. Most of us like sports, so we hit the courts, or gathered a group of guys to tackle one another. I iced twisted ankles and watched Blazer games on their couches. I knew how to reach them, their families welcomed me — for example, I know where the dishes were in their kitchens. Because of a whole-life view, we could each call each other out when our lives where not in line with the Gospel (Galatians 2). Each of these men would say the benefit was mutual (though I argue they invested far more in me). I learned how the Gospel was for all of life, not to be compartmentalized.
They modeled renewal and developed a history with God.
Their “testimony” was not only how God had rescued them in the past from sin, slavery, death and hell. He was and is their present Savior, the all-satisfying One rescuing them in the past, giving hope for the future, and working presently in their lives (we walked through Romans 5-8 time and time again). They connected their story to the Big Story (Creation ➙ Fall & Rebellion ➙ Redemption ➙ Re-Creation), having experienced the risen Christ. There are no shortcuts to developing a history with God. We cannot cram character or spiritual growth. We need to interact with God daily and be renewed by the Spirit. These men not only experienced that reality; they shared it with me and together we dug in the Scriptures and asked God to change us. We saw a key to renewal as God’s initiative and our response, applying our lives to His Word. (Note the order.)
Keeping the Gospel at the center.
What was at the center of our relationship? Christ. That may seem self-evident but these days when I hear middle-aged men talk about discipleship it seems they gravitate towards accountability as the center. Accountability is key, and we must confess our sins to one another, be healed and move forward in freedom. Yet, the Gospel of grace must be the center of our relationships. It means we don’t have to try to impress one another (or God), as Jesus has impressed the Father for us. We can bank on our acceptance before God as motivation to move forward with selfless, bold, and compelling lives. That way I share with you my faith and my unfaith, my obedience and disobedience (to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Dodson). It means we can fight the fight of faith, through the weapons of grace, and be changed into the image of Christ in the process. Only if the good news is at the center of these relationships will we be changed. Otherwise we’re stuck in moralism, seeking to change through self-effort, self-righteousness, or self-actualization. Most of the “Christian” books these days advocate those paths, which are neither helpful or produce long-lasting fruit. We must come back to the Gospel as the only way to get saved, and the only way continue in the life of faith (it is the A-Z of the Christian life, much more than the ABCs).
Discipleship is also about mutual fascination.
There were many other men who have tried to teach me. For some it was a matter of geography (one of us moved), or life-stage, but more often the reason it did not ’stick’ was because one of us what was astonished by the Gospel (continually). Because the Cross levels the ground on which we stand, we can both look up at the heavens and be amazed at God’s grace and love. He chose me? You? Amazing! Rehearse the Story of God with one another, share how He is at work in your lives, and be changed by the reality of Jesus conquering your heart.
Paul reminds us that what we stare at is what we become — 2 Cor. 3:17-18 (to behold is to become). Taking a specific example, if young men are staring at porn every day, it takes someone to walk with them and learn how to stare at Christ and see His glory and worth as far more beautiful and satisfying. “Stop it” won’t work with young men who are in bondage and know no other way to get through the day. Plus, if they’ve been captive for years a new pattern of life will take time to emerge.
Discipleship must be integrated with life.
“So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.” —St. Paul, 1 Thessalonians 2:8
For centuries spiritual life was taught alongside a trade, a skill for young men to learn and master. Productivity was a way to be a cultivator, provider, and learn wisdom. Today we operate in a low-level dualism, when our spiritual lives are separated from our daily rhythms. So, reading the Bible, praying, ‘going to’ church, and other spiritual practices (fasting!) are thought of as add-ons to our jam-packed lives. We simply don’t have time for all of that. Only the exceptional do them, all or part, and usually they are segregated and hidden from daily life. Our Christianity is personalized and privatized. (Public piety sounds so, well, pious!) As evidence we hear one another bemoan how busy we are and how we know we “should” do this or that. But then not much changes. Either we feel guilty or don’t care all that much, so we give up too quickly. We don’t know the “how” or the “why” of being disciples and engaging in Christian spirituality.
Imitation is a key to discipleship, and a common theme in the NT Epistles: check out 1 Cor. 11:1; 4:15-17; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 2 Thess. 3:7-9; 2 Tim. 3:10-11. If we’re serious about discipleship, especially leaders and pastors, we must model this with public piety (Titus 2:7-8; 1 Tim. 4:12). Together we can subvert the patterns of our age through living a different kind of life.
What if we reversed the trend, through sharing rhythms and patterns of life that peeled back the veneer of our consumerism? And since training works best with a partner, what if we who are spiritual took the time to invest in one person this year to teach them the basics of the Christian life? No one will regret it, and while it will impinge on our lives and free time, it is well worth the investment. Let’s do it together, spur one another on. Get creative. Integrate it with daily life. Talk over lunch, or go for a run together and pray up that grueling hill. Unplug from the computer and take the family for hike. Do something constructive together — change the oil in your cars, serve the community, or prepare a meal for a family. Have a landscape project? Share the load and get dirt under your fingernails. If a young man sees how an older man and husband uses his money wisely (or frivolously), ask him about it. We live in an age where much of the common sense that parents (dads) should teach their kids gets forgotten or assumed. So we know little about how things work, how to make a plan to accomplish goals, eating healthy, how to spark up a conversation. Talk about keeping a schedule, how you manage communication (I have 5,000 unread personal emails, so perhaps I’m the one who needs help there), and project & task management. Ask questions, be curious, spread the virus of learning. The list goes on and on, and this is where discipleship gets practical and helpful. The spiritual hits real life.
Release them to spread the virus with others.
One feature of healthy life is that it reproduces. Watch how a vine spreads, over decades how a tiny acorn can grow into a foundation-splitting oak tree. Dynamic life is unstoppable. Paul sets out a pattern for discipleship to the 4th generation: “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
The ‘virus’ and truth spread from Paul ➙ Timothy ➙ faithful men ➙ others. We cannot contain life that wants to grow, and should structure our methods to ensure God’s life spreads this way. I think there’s a reason Paul reminds Timothy to “teach” what he has shared publicly. Not so much a lecture format (a teacher downloading to students everything he or she knows), but effective teaching is actually giving space for people to obey. The best teachers won’t move on rapidly (as slaves to the content or schedule) but will pause, reflect, and wait to see the progress in the student. Mutual fascination is quite helpful in this respect. So is being connected to the church family.
Showing How Jesus is the Good Life
Jesus sneezed His ‘virus’ on His first Disciples, and they caught it. Everywhere they went, God’s Spirit and God’s good news (the Gospel) went right with them. Like the best ‘virus’ ever, the Gospel spread among thousands of new believers in Jesus. They turned the world upside down. Just as Jesus prayed (John 17:20-23) and promised (Acts 1:1-8) — the first disciples demonstrated privately and publicly (Acts 2:42-47). They caught the virus and nothing could ever be the same.
Do you have His ‘virus’? How will you intentionally share it with others? Stick around and be all there. Sneeze on people. Show how Jesus is the good life.