Friday, May 13, 2011

And Teach Them

We're grandparents! Well…kinda…sorta. We've been raising bluebirds at our house. We watched the mom and dad bluebird build the nest in our bluebird box, and then waited with excitement and anticipation for the eggs to hatch. Daddy Blue dutifully fed Mom Blue on the nest each day. When the eggs hatched, she joined him as they scurried back and forth to the box feeding the littles one. Life was good. Then, the unthinkable happened. We woke one morning to find Daddy Blue belly up on our drive - victim of some terrible fate, natural or otherwise we do not know, though we suspect “foul play.” In any case, now we had a crisis on our hands - a single mom trying to raise three little blueies on her own. We sprang into action. To Wild Birds Unlimited to buy meal worms. We fed her as she fed them. I'd call her every morning, and she dutifully answered and appeared at the feeder for breakfast. Same ritual at night. Then, yesterday morning when I went out to feed her, I noticed that she was not as friendly as she had been. Soon I found out why. The baby blues had fledged and she was trying to get them into the trees to safety. I went in and told Cheryl, and we congratulated ourselves on the successful “birth” of our new “grandbabies.” Little did we know that while our job was nearly over, hers was just beginning. Now Momma Blue had to teach them all the things they would need to know to succeed as bluebirds - flying, perching safely, roosting at night, and, of course, hunting food. In many ways, she's busier now than she was when they were in the bluebird box. Every day we see her shuttling back and forth from this branch to the next tending and teaching and training her little “pupils.” It's really something to watch. And it occurred to me: It never was her job to produce hatchlings or fledglings. It was her job to produce bluebirds, and for that she must teach them, not just birth them.

So, what does all that have to do with theology? Let me go out on a limb. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) According to Matthew's Gospel, virtually the last thing Jesus said to the church was, “Now as you go, make disciples of all nations” (28:19). The mission of the Church is clear and compelling: We are in the disciple-making business.

But the question is, “How?” How are we to make disciples? Well, the obvious answer is to continue reading in Matthew 28:19, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And so, making disciples for Jesus involves a birthing process of sorts, setting out on the life-changing, transformational journey best symbolized in the beautiful and powerful symbol of baptism that signifies death to an old way of life and birth to a new.

Unfortunately, however, too many quit reading at that point, even though Jesus isn't finished talking! The rest of what Jesus has to say to the Church is this: “and teaching them to keep everything I have commanded you.” That is, making disciples involves not one thing (baptizing) but two - baptizing and teaching.

Too often, however, we Baptists (I'm a Baptist, so I'll address our idiosyncrasies) act as though disciple-making were finished in the baptistery. What if we treated our biological birth the same way we treat our spiritual birth? What if Blue Mom had abandoned the hatchlings as soon as they were liberated from the eggs? Imagine a couple finding out they were going to have a baby, going through the nine-month pregnancy with all the attendant excitement and expectation. Then, the big day comes and the baby is born. Pats on the back, balloons on the ceiling, birth announcements sent to friends and family; and then, incredibly, the couple goes home and leaves the baby in the hospital nursery! How absurd. Of course, birth is only the beginning of the journey not the end.

And so it is with spiritual birth. Baptism is the beginning, not the end. Disciples are made by two things, not just one: baptizing them and teaching them.

We celebrate the beginning of a new life in Christ in the waters of baptism. That's as it should be. But our work with the wet little converts, and indeed with us all, is far from finished. Becoming a disciple, like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, or an ugly little bald hatchling becoming a beautiful bluebird, involves the total transformation of one into a completely new kind of person called “Christian,” and that will take of a lifetime of journeying with Jesus.

And so, lest we forget, the business of the Church is to make disciples…by baptizing them and teaching them. And in case you're wondering, there is homework.

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