Jesus came to make us real. That’s what happens to his disciples over time. We become real.
In her classic children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams gives a winsome definition of “real” in a conversation between two toys: the young Velveteen Rabbit and the older, wiser Skin Horse:
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit.… “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
[Williams, Margery; Nicholson, William (2013-07-16). The Velveteen Rabbit (Kindle Locations 40-50). HarperCollins Canada. Kindle Edition.)]
Jesus embodies the love that makes us real. Paradoxically, once we’ve been thoroughly saturated by that love, some people think we look a bit raggedy and threadbare. And well we might to those who don’t understand. Who don’t understand the true nature of love.
You see, once we’re infused by Jesus’s love, we are able to love like he loves. We are able to love with the love that he has given us. We are real when we love. And sometimes that hurts. But when you are real, you don’t mind.
Jesus personally called his first disciples. And then, after his death and resurrection and just before his ascension, he gave those same disciples a clear commission. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:19)
In other words, “Join me in making people real. Everybody you meet. No matter how unlikely they may seem to you. Love them with my love. I’ll do the rest.”
Now this is quite a tall order. Set aside for just a moment the challenges we face in connecting with people who are different from us. After all, that’s what Jesus was getting at with that “all nations” crack. Don’t just cozy up to people like you and make them club members. He means for the Church to be a diverse, motley crew of redeemed sinners and cranky saints.
Instead, turn to an even more unlikely prospect. Jesus wants us to join him in making people into disciples. Disciples are not perfect, but we have some impossibly high aspirations. Jesus outlines those aspirations for us in the Sermon on the Mount.
Disciples forgive unrepentant jerks and refuse to think of them as jerks.
Disciples love enemy combatants, terrorists, and devious coworkers.
Disciples give the shirt off their backs just for the asking, and they throw in their pants and socks and shoes for good measure.
Disciples feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and nurture the imprisoned just because they need it. It doesn’t matter how they happened to get that way.
Disciples take nothing for granted and receive everything as a holy gift meant to be given away.
Disciples cannot abide injury or degradation visited upon any other person.
Disciples look for the dignity in every human being, even when that means asking Jesus to show it to us since we find ourselves at a complete loss.
To sum it all up, disciples aim to be God-saturated, love-besotted people. We yearn to be real.
And Jesus means to make other people real through the likes of us. Disciples, you see, make disciples. We do that by loving others and inviting them to join us in being instruments of Christ’s love.
People commonly refer to Jesus’s command to make disciples as the Great Commission. All too frequently some translate this Great Commission into the Membership Recruitment Commission.
The Membership Recruitment Commission goes something like this:
Invite people to come to your church for a worship service. Use one of a variety of methods to get them to join the congregation, to become a member. Make sure that they understand that members are also pledging units.
Some recruiters have higher demands for prospective members. They require intellectual and moral conformity. You are in the fold once you assent to a list of theological concepts and assume the correct standpoint about the big moral issues of the day.
Jesus didn’t actually say, “Go make members and achieve conformity.” He told us to go make disciples. He told us to go love people, to invite everyone we meet to join us in loving people, and to set an example of loving people for those that don’t quite have the hang of it yet.
Evangelism and Christian Formation can be important congregational programs, but first and foremost they are the habitual practices of each and every disciple. Sometimes, we treat Evangelism and Christian Formation as methods for filling our pews, increasing our budgets, and achieving theological and moral conformity.
What a shame!
In worship, study, prayer, and service we discover ourselves and each other as Christ’s beloved. That is Christian Formation. By listening, by caring, and by showing up when we’re needed we help others recognize themselves as Christ’s beloved. That is Evangelism.
When Evangelism and Christian Formation are personal practices first, they can become effective congregational practices.
Jesus came to make us real, and he is sending us into the world to engage that mission. To make disciples by loving everyone we meet, especially the ones we find hard to love.
Over time, most of our hair may have been loved off, and our eyes may drop out, and we may get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things won’t matter at all, because once we are Real we can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.
Bishop Jake Owensby preached this sermon at the Holy Eucharist for the 36th Diocesan Convention of Western Louisiana.