Passing The Baton of Discipleship

Dear Disciples of Jesus,

During my oral report at our Convocation, I compared our journey as followers of Christ Jesus to a relay race in which the runners are required to both receive the baton from one teammate and pass it on to the next runner.

St. Paul uses the image of an athlete to describe the discipline of faithfully following Jesus several times in his letters. He describes the relay of faith being passed on from one generation to the next as he encourages Timothy. Paul reminds Timothy that the faith he received started with his grandmother, Lois. She passed this faith on to his mother, Eunice. Eunice passed it on to her son. Now it was Timothy’s turn to run the next leg of this race. 

What was true for Timothy is also true for us. The task of Christian parenting is to pass on this faith — to invest the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the lives of our children. They need to see this faith in our lives even as Paul demonstrated it for Timothy. It must be apparent in our teaching, way of life, sense of purpose, faith, patience, love and endurance, even in the midst of facing suffering, pain and grief.

Beyond our immediate family, we are also called to invest our lives in the lives of many others Christ has given us to love and care for as we encourage them to join us in following Jesus as his faithful disciples.

We understand investing when it comes to our finances. We either spend it or we invest it. Investing it wisely will ensure that it multiples. As disciples of Christ Jesus, we do the same thing with our lives. A life that is spent selfishly is gone, but a life of investing in others will bear fruit that will multiply.

While Paul acknowledges the faith passed on to Timothy through his family, Paul invests his life in Timothy and encourages him to begin to run the next leg of this race, to invest his life in the next generation of disciples, to pass on what he has learned from both Paul’s words and Paul’s way of living. Paul writes:

The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others. Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules. (2 Timothy 2:2-5)

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings — what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. (2 Timothy 3:10-11)

The baton is a symbol of what we are doing in the pursuit of Jesus’ mission to make disciples. Passing on the baton of discipleship is our commitment to every relationship in our life. In any relay race we must depend on others. We trust in the gifts of others. We watch those who ran the race before us and are assured that others will follow us. This is life in the Body of Christ.

A good relay team develops a strategy to make it effective in competing and winning the race. When we are running we remember that others are watching us. They may be rooting us on or criticizing our form, but they are watching and learning. They care less about our perfection and more about our faith, authenticity, commitment and perseverance. Do you really love? Really worship? Really believe and trust in Jesus Christ?

Many teens and parents with young children admit they have no role models in their lives, according to recent reports from George Barna. The pursuit of discipleship helps us to take seriously our responsibility to become role models for teens, young families and all those searching for guidance and direction for living.

We are called to show them how the race is run. We can give them a head start on their spiritual journey simply by taking an interest in them, by sharing some of our time and energy with them, by living a vibrant faith in front of them, by opening the Word of God and discussing it with them, and by connecting them with a community of faith — the Body of Christ, the Church — where they can be nurtured and grow in their relationships with Jesus Christ. They need more than information and advice. They need to see us living the faith, running the race alongside of them.

People will experience the power of the Gospel as they see faith both articulated and demonstrated in word and deed. We offer Christlike love that is not trying to take something from them but puts their best interest ahead of our own lives, love that is an investment in their lives. We offer this love simply because we want them to know Jesus and his sacrificial and life-giving love for them. He is the way, the truth and the life. There is no life apart from him. We are called to run this race, setting the pace for those who follow.

Running the race and passing on this baton of discipleship is not easy. The American women’s 4×100-meter relay race during the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, is a classic example. The American team, favored to win the event, featured Marion Jones, a sprinter who had won four gold medals at the previous games in Sydney, Australia. The American team was already off to a strong start when Jones took the baton for the second leg of the race. She gained ground as she ran her 100 and approached Lauryn Williams, a young speedster who would run the third leg.

Williams began running as Jones drew near, but when she reached back to receive the baton, they couldn’t seem to complete the handoff. Once, twice, three times Jones thrust the baton forward, but each time it missed William’s hand, or she couldn’t seem to wrap her fingers around it. Finally, on the fourth try, they made the connection, but by that time they had crossed out of the 20-meter exchange zone and were disqualified. Everyone knew they were the fastest team on the track. The night before, they’d had the fastest qualifying time. But when they couldn’t complete the handoff, their race was over.

As important as it is for the previous generation to set the pace by living authentically as disciples of Jesus Christ, at a certain point a handoff must be made in which the next generation of disciples receives the baton of discipleship and begins to run with it. That handoff isn’t as easy as it looks. It isn’t automatic. It’s the result of thousands and thousands of practice runs.

Truth is, there will likely be several exchanges made before the baton is fully passed. But whenever it happens, it will be the result of hours and hours of practice, years and years of teaching the faith, living the faith and engaging in healthy accountable and responsible relationships within the Body of Christ.

There will be times when you wonder if it’s worth all the effort and times when there seem to be no remarkable insights or deep conversations. There will be times when it feels like you are just going through the motions. And that’s exactly what you are doing — you’re going through the motions. That is what practice is all about. You go through the motions so that when it’s time for the real handoff to take place, those motions will come naturally. You talk about faith and learn about spiritual things, so, when an important conversation needs to happen, it can happen and will happen.

Investing in another person’s life, you are imparting values so that when a decision needs to be made, it will be made quickly and correctly. That person you are investing in is getting used to the feel of the baton in his or her hand, so that at some later point in life, when they reach for it, their fingers will easily grasp it. At the same time, they are learning how important it is to practice passing it on to others.

In watching relay races, one thing you will not see is a runner, after completing their leg of the race and passing off the baton, simply pick up their sweats and head to the locker room without watching the end of the race. What you will see is every runner watching, cheering, encouraging and continuing to invest themselves for the sake of the others in the race. The race isn’t over after the baton is passed; there is still important work to be done.

In his letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul writes, “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12).

As I reach this last year in my term serving as your Bishop, I see myself passing the baton of discipleship.

Our relay team is growing. It started with our staff. We picked up many of our Deans. We recruited a Life-to-Life Discipleship Team. Many other pastors and members of the Executive Council are on board. Theologians and seminarians alike are on the team. We are talking with ecumenical partners, as well as international partners, about starting their own teams. Laity are now asking for opportunities to be involved even if their pastor is resistant or the congregation is in transition. We have not only developed many new Discipleship Guides but now we have our own group of Discipleship Trainers who can train others to become Discipleship Guides. Mission District newsletters are teeming with articles about the difference the pursuit of discipleship has made in their lives and in the lives of others with whom they are sharing their faith, investing in their lives.

In increasing numbers people are coming to introductory events like the one we had at this year’s Lutheran Week, experiencing what it might be like to be in the race — learning what it might be like to have someone invest in their life and how they could be equipped to invest their lives in the lives of others. They are discovering the critical nature of Jesus’ mission, to run this race and to pass on this baton to others.

We are in this together and I take great delight in watching how others are picking up the baton and running with it.

While my ministry will change in a year, my focus will never change. I will keep cheering you on, encouraging you and passing on the baton to others who will lead the way in running this race, following Christ Jesus — “entrusting to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” I will continue to invest my life in the lives of others, passing on the faith we share. For me this is all that matters and all there is in life, to be a laborer for the sake of Christ’s mission to “make disciples of all nations.”

Even as this chapter in my ministry draws to a close, it will always be an honor to be with you following Christ Jesus.


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