Discipleship is messy. It’s been that way from the start. The original twelve disciples argued among themselves about who was the greatest: Peter and Paul conflicted over the outreach to the gentiles. I am sorry that these conflicts, and others arose between the disciples, but I am happy that the writers of the New Testament did not edit them out. I would like to say that everything was done decently and in order when it came to the disciples and their relationships. But saying this would simply not be true. It was a messy business. The problem is, I simply do not prefer messy, and have to admit my natural inclination is to sweep conflictive issues under the rug, tidy it up as soon as possible. Like spilling milk, I quickly get the “quicker picker upper” to absorb it all up. However, over the years I have come to realize that, how I would take care of spilled milk, isn’t the best strategy for dealing with the messiness of discipleship.
Discipleship is a relational activity which means, there will be occasions, like Peter and Paul, when we will be bumping up against each other. Our Lord was well aware of this, and he often talked about the bumpiness of discipleship during His ministry; most famously, in Matthew 18. I don’t have the space in this post to quote the whole chapter, so I encourage you to take some time to read it. Hopefully, you will read it today. When you do, note how Jesus’ teaching nicely breaks into five progressive rubrics.
First, he begins with the mess (18: 1-6), which has the disciples arguing about how every one of us will be ranked in heaven. This is a must read, because the Lord’s answer is direct and humorous, and he gets the point across. Second, Jesus follows up with why we need to be direct when things get messy (18: 7-11). If we don’t deal with the messiness of discipleship, we become a stumbling block to, those both within and outside, the church. Third, there will be less of a mess when we focus on what’s important to our Lord (18: 12-14). The focus should be reaching the lost! Fourth, as I noted earlier, and has always been the Lord’s way, conflict needs to be dealt with head on (18: 15-20). It also must be dealt with in prayer. It’s not easy, one must discipline oneself to do it. I know, because as one of Jesus’ disciples I have been, at times in my life and ministry, part of the mess. This is why we need the fifth rubric (18: 21 – 35), most notably the longest section. To forgive, and to be open to asking for forgiveness, is the key that makes us more like Christ. It opens the door to growing as disciples.
It’s true we often see the mess as a problem, something to avoid at all cost, to deny, or pretend it isn’t happening, or to clean up ASAP. The fact is, conflict, relational issues, and problems, have always been, and will always be, a part of the Church. But Jesus taught us that when discipleship gets messy, it’s not the time to hide, to complain, or decide to leave the church. It is the time to apply what He taught us, to look at the mess as an opportunity “to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.”