Monday, July 07, 2014

What Does It Mean to Follow Jesus

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
--Matthew 4:18-20 NIV

The phrase Jesus uses most often to call people to become his disciples is the familiar phrase, "Follow me." Most people are reasonably clear on what that meant in Jesus' day, at least for Peter, Andrew, and the rest of the twelve. They left their occupations and traveled with Jesus, being taught by him and being commissioned to do the things he was doing: preach the good news of the kingdom, drive out demons, and heal sicknesses (Matt. 10). Their "following" was quite literal: Jesus was an itinerant preacher and they went with him wherever he went. Following Jesus involved sacrifice: Peter once said to Jesus that his disciples had "left everything" to follow him, and Jesus didn't contradict Peter, but rather held out to him promises of reward (Mark 10:28-31).

It's difficult to say in what sense other people also followed Jesus. Crowds followed Jesus from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other, and Jesus rebuked them for having wrong motives (John 6:24-26). However, it's clear that at least some people outside the circle of the Twelve were also disciples, or at least true believers who followed Jesus' teachings: Mary and Martha, along with their brother Lazarus, Mary Magdalene and the other women who went to anoint Jesus' body and found the tomb empty. Joseph of Arimathea is also identified as a disciple of Jesus, albeit secretly, along with Nicodemus (John 19:38-39). So to be a disciple or follower of Jesus did not necessarily mean to be one of those who actually went around with him physically.

These questions become relevant for us in the present day because there are some current teachings relating to discipleship that make assumptions regarding what following Jesus is all about, largely based on the biblical example of Jesus and the Twelve. These teachings also relate to how we understand the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), because Jesus' command was to "make disciples," not merely to make converts. What it means to be a disciple, what it means to follow Jesus, is thus very important.

Some have made Jesus' discipleship to be strictly modeled on rabbinic discipleship, in which the rabbi, or discipler, invites a group of people into a discipling relationship, and by a combination of verbal teaching, watching and emulating, and shared life experiences, the disciple learns to be as much as possible like the teacher. Those who espouse this discipling model view Jesus' command to disciple as a command to replicate the discipleship relationship he had had with the Twelve. The disciples, in a sense, become disciples not of Jesus directly, but of the person who is discipling them. This is moderated, however, by the understanding, "Follow me as I follow Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1). So we're not to follow the leader's example strictly in order to become like that leader (else we have an "I follow Paul, I follow Apollos" situation, a la 1 Cor. 1:12), but rather to follow that leader's example only insofar as the leader is demonstrating Christlikeness. Of course, what "Christlikeness" actually is is something most of us assume we know but is actually subject to quite a bit of debate.

Even among those who don't follow the process of discipling outlined above, there is a growing view of following Jesus as a matter of imitation. In other words, following Jesus is thought to be imitating his life--doing the things that Jesus did and taught. Certainly there are scriptures that imply exactly this sort of relationship: for example, John 14:12, "Whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do," and 1 John 2:6 "Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked." Certainly Jesus' life and teachings form an excellent example of what our lives should look like, and yet there can be reasonable differences of opinion regarding what the content of that imitation should be. Jesus says in Mark 8:34, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Does this mean that all true followers of Jesus will be literally crucified? Does it mean that they will be martyred in some form? What do we do with Luke's version, in which the believer is enjoined to "take up his cross daily?" (Luke 9:23). Does this mean accepting and embracing hardships and persecutions that arise as a result of being followers of Jesus? Or do we take it in the popular sense that any difficulty that we face for any reason is our cross to bear?

All believers would acknowledge that Jesus provides a perfect moral example for us to follow. What becomes more problematic is when we move beyond moral aspects. I've heard church leaders remark upon how strategic Jesus was in his ministry, and that we need to imitate his methods in order to reproduce his success. I've heard people assert that since Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15), this means that we are obligated to do everything that Jesus said to his disciples in the imperative mood. Perhaps we should all pay our taxes by looking for coins in fishes' mouths (Matthew 17:27). I've heard that we can learn to do the miraculous if we simply study Jesus' methodology and apply it correctly. I've heard that we shouldn't really move on from the Sermon on the Mount until we've mastered what it teaches us--the implication being that since that's a lifelong process, we never really need to move on from that Sermon.

Even when dealing with Jesus' moral example, we sometimes read our own biases into our view of Jesus. Is he "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild," who let children come to him when his disciples didn't want him to be bothered? Or is he a macho, tough guy Jesus, flipping over the tables of money changers and driving them out of the Temple with a whip? One of my professors once acknowledged something that few of us want to face: "The problem with What Would Jesus Do is that we can only assume we know what he would do in a given situation; all we know for sure is what he actually did."

What I'm trying to do here is to disentangle the ways in which we should indeed be imitating Jesus from the aspects of his life that were unique to his own person and mission in this world. Not to do this is to reduce Jesus to merely "good teacher and life example" status. There is a movement that I've written about elsewhere toward a renewed focus on the Gospels, as opposed to a supposed previous overemphasis on the Pauline epistles. While most in this movement would strongly affirm Jesus' divinity and physical resurrection, they still often go around and around in the Gospels, looking for teachings to implement and examples to follow, seldom getting around to the crucifixion and resurrection, and even more rarely taking into account how the Passion event changes the picture of what following Jesus is all about. Even if they don't take the liberal line that Jesus was just a good teacher, that is the practical implication of this type of teaching.

What happens, in this scenario, is that Jesus is viewed as the founder of a movement. Following Jesus in this sense becomes no different than following Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Absorb the teachings, learn from the example, enlist others to do the same, propel the movement forward. When we follow this pattern, we're not looking to see people transformed by the power of the Spirit from the inside out. Rather, we're looking to modify people's behavior through instruction, group pressure, and accountability. This is true regardless of whether or not we give lip service to change happening by the power of the Spirit as opposed to striving in our own effort. The methods we use guarantee that personal effort is the focal point.

Of course, what all this is is a reaction to the kind of theology that reduces salvation by faith to a formula of repeating the words to a prayer and assenting to certain elements of Christian doctrine. It's also a response to the objection that Christianity is about Jesus, after all, and not about Paul, so why are we spending so much time studying Paul? Surely Paul himself would agree that Jesus, not Paul, should be our focus. And what are all the Gospels' teachings and stories of Jesus' life doing there if we're to pass over them on our way to the Roman Road?

While I heartily agree that the Christian life is much more than repeating a prayer and assenting to some propositions, I disagree that the Gospels exist mainly as a road map to pattern our lives after, and to propel the movement that Jesus got started. The Gospels, first and foremost, attest to who Jesus is. The point is not to tell us what to do, but to tell us what he did. They bridge the gap, from the Old Testament world of God's covenant of Law with a hopelessly rebellious and disobedient Israel, to the New Testament world of the good news of grace and kingdom fulfillment through Jesus' person and work on the cross, extended to all nations throughout the world.

The question raised by the Gospels is not, "How do we do what he did?" but rather, "Who is this man?" To read the Gospels as a selection of moral anecdotes and teachings that tell us how to live ignores the fact that each gospel builds inexorably toward the event of his crucifixion and resurrection. It's a product of preaching sermons and conducting Bible studies focused on discrete events and teachings, ignoring the way books of the Bible--like almost all other forms of literature--were intended to be read: straight through. Any Bible student knows that compared to ordinary biographies, the Gospels give an inordinate focus on the last days of Jesus' life and to the events surrounding his death. His death and resurrection are the key to the meaning of his life; to miss that is to miss the entire point of all of the Gospels.

So knowing what it means to follow Jesus is indeed found more completely and explicitly in Acts and in the Epistles than it is in the Gospels. That's where you find The Rest of the Story. It's where you see how the earliest generations of what became known as Christianity understood their faith and lived their lives. Every sermon in the book of Acts focuses, not on the events of Jesus' life and ministry, but on the fact and implications of his death and resurrection. Every epistle fleshes out in a different way what the implications of living in the light of his resurrection is all about. Following Jesus is different for different people, because God created us each to be different but to be united into one body of Christ. How you follow Jesus will be different from how I follow Jesus, because our personalities and missions are different. But both of us will be transformed by the power of the resurrected and living Christ.

To follow Jesus like we would follow the human leader of a great movement is to miss completely the unique life and purpose of Jesus. To read the gospels as a road map for moral or strategic ministry development is to miss their primary message. To try to imitate Jesus by working and trying harder, getting more accountability, and doing things with the rationale that "That's what Jesus would do"--regardless of whether he actually did anything like that or not--is to miss the radically transformative nature of the Resurrection. Salvation by faith, rather than works, is not an escape hatch into a vapid, "fire insurance" sort of Christianity. It's rather the entrance into the transforming power that Jesus died and rose again for us to have.

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