I think those of who have been part of the Church for all or most of our lives can easily forget that transformation into a Christian and then into a disciple takes place over time. I realize that many people have this moment when they are willing to declare their faith in Jesus Christ, but that is often proceeded by encounters with others of faith who inform and provide the necessary seeds for faith to take root by the power of the Holy Spirit. Even Peter, according to the Gospel account of Luke, first heard Jesus preaching to the people on the shore (Luke 5:1-3), then witnessed the miraculous catch (Luke 5:4-7) before he fell to his knees and pleaded with Jesus to withdraw from him because of Peter’s sin (Luke 5:8-10). Peter was not ready to follow Jesus then; he asked him to leave! But it was a turning point, the beginning of a dialogue and relationship that would EVENTUALLY lead to transformation of Simon Peter, the fisherman, into Peter, the fisher of men and women.
Have we so easily forgotten that the Twelve, who followed Jesus for the three years of his earthly ministry, were still confused and scattered at his arrest, trial, suffering, and death? They started to follow at Jesus’ invitation, but they were not complete then too. It would take years of encounter, experience, and witnessing the countless miracles (feedings, healings, and mighty acts) to be in a place to finally be transformed into the disciples we know as those who first spread the Gospel of Christ. I think that Scripture prepares us to be part of the long haul of making disciples. If we follow Jesus’ model, and I think we should, then we have to cultivate relationship and have a conversation that will last years, and not all of that with words. While that same sacred text reveals instances when people immediately became believers, we have to recognize that profession of faith, declaring oneself to be a Christian, is not synonymous with becoming a disciple. A Christian professes belief in Christ, but a disciple follows Christ and his teachings. This world is filled with those who believe, but not all will follow. Just as dozens came into Jerusalem with Jesus, believing in him, but only a faithful few followed him to the cross, while the others scattered in fear and self-preservation. Many profess Christ in their hearts and even with their mouths, but are not willing to take the next step and profess him with their lives. If every person who self-identified as a Christian lived that out, then this world would be a very different place. Love of God and love for others would overflow tangibly.
So why it is that there is this pervasive expectation that we immediately condemn the sinful actions of others, expect them to convert to faith in Christ, and be instantly transformed? While Peter self-identified as a sinful man, he did not stop his sin immediately, but he did immediately start the path by engaging with Jesus. Peter would continue to sin, denying Jesus the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy in suffering and death (Matthew 16:21-23), and denying Jesus himself (Mark 14:66-72), yet he remains an example to all those who would seek to become disciples to persevere over time. Jesus did not begin his relationship with Peter by declaring Peter to be a sinner and demanding he repent. Instead he asking him to come along, to be with him as he lived out his divine purpose. As clergy, I cultivate relationship long before I can speak into the heart to evoke change. I have to build trust, earn respect, and model what I preach and teach. Only then do I stand a chance of being a vessel of God’s transformative love and grace. Even then I am a part of a larger narrative of other faithful followers, disciples who bear Christ’s name and love in this world.
Jesus never modeled a love them and leave them ministry. He entered into conversation, went to people where they were in their daily lives, and invited them to experience something wholly and holy other. Some listened, some ignored, but those who chose to continue the dialogue stood the best chance of being truly and lastingly transformed. But even we who have been a part of the Church for so long should be mindful that we have had instances of rejection of the Gospel, refusal to follow, and backsliding. We are not perfect disciples either. While I do not think we claim to be, sometimes our manner of interacting with those outside of the Church communicates a sense of superiority and exasperation with those who have not entered into our fellowship as full members. We cannot expect everyone to immediately become Christians much less disciples, and we should be quick to engage rather than condemn. Transformation is the goal of the Gospel and that takes time. Are we willing to practice patience and invest it in the very people to whom Christ sends us?