Come Follow Me

All the Gospels portray the calling of the disciples in one way or another. All the Biblical records have this in common: Jesus called the disciples into a personal relationship with God through him. Matthew describes it like this:

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. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him (Matthew 4:18-22).

Jesus found Peter, Andrew, James and John amid their ordinary day-to-day lives. He did not say, “Stop what you are doing for a few moments and accept me as your Lord and Savior.” He did not ask for a mere intellectual commitment, “Recognize I am the Son of God.” He said, “Come, follow me.” In other words, he asked for a commitment that would involve mind, heart, body, and soul. He might as well have said, “Stop what you are doing. Leave your old accustomed way of life. Leave the books you are reading right where they are. Stop going to your therapist. Make your hobbies, families, and work secondary. Then, follow me.” He even offered them a new occupation: From now on they would not fish for fish; they would fish for people.

Too often modern people think of our commitment to follow Christ is purely intellectual terms, as if recognizing who Jesus was and is makes a person a Christian. Too often in our evangelism and discipleship we simply ask people to make a verbal statement of faith. We ask them to confess with their lips, remembering that they must also believe in their heart—the center of their very being. Christians believe in and trust Jesus for all of life.

Jesus wanted the disciples to know who he was. More importantly, he wanted them to spend time with him, follow him, and become more like him. He wanted them to make a deep commitment to God through him. He knew that this would take time, a lot of time. He knew it would take personal commitment on their part and on his part. He even knew it would require a cross.

Sometimes, we think it must have been easier for the disciples than for us to follow Jesus. We think that if we physically saw Jesus, if came and personally asked us to follow him, we would find it easier to follow than after hearing a pastor, evangelist, or friend share what God has done in their lives and ask us if we are ready to follow Jesus. This is a mistake.

The disciples had it just as hard as we do. They had families. They had friendships. They had hobbies. They had occupations. They already had a religion. They probably went to synagogue in Capernaum if there was one. They had homes and responsibilities. They did not have the gospels or the records of Jesus’ life death and resurrection. They had even less information than we have. One day, when they were out fishing or getting ready to fish, a man came up to them and asked them to follow him and become fishers of human beings..

Deciding to Follow Jesus

The gospels tell us that the disciples heard the invitation, left what they were doing, and followed. Somehow, amidst the hustle and bustle of earning a living, caring for spouses, parents, and children, the disciples saw something important in Jesus and decided it was worth the risk of following. They did not have it easier than we do. In fact, they may have had it harder. We can look back at the generations of lives changed, of people healed, of ministries and missions of compassion and care.

We have the examples of people like St. Francis of Assisi, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and hosts of others. We have reason to know what God can do with one ordinary life. When Jesus called the disciples the cross, resurrection, and spreading of the gospel, the birth of the church, the example of the martyrs, the evangelization of the world, had not occurred. It was all to come. They had to look in the traveling Rabbi’s eyes and answer the question, “Will I follow Him or not?” So do we.

We are called to answer the same question the disciples answered: “Am I going to respond to the call to follow Jesus?” As we ponder that question, we must ask ourselves the same questions the disciples must have asked. We must ask if are we willing to be committed to follow Jesus. When we ask another person if they are ready to become a Christian, we need to be careful not to make it sound too easy. We probably should not say, “Are you ready to believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” We should say, “Are you willing to be follow Jesus?” Eternal life, the forgiveness of sins, membership in the family of God, citizenship in the kingdom of God depend upon our being willing to follow Jesus, not tell people we believe in Jesus.

The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard puts it this way, “Jesus does not need admirers. He needs imitators.” In the ancient world a disciple was more than just a learner. A disciple followed his master and imitated his master. While learning is a large part of the life of a disciple, it is not the end or goal. Jesus asks us to follow him because he intends to have us become little Christ’s living as he lived and doing the same kind of things he did. A follower of Jesus will have certain characteristics, the most important of which is that followers of Jesus try to become like Jesus and in becoming like Jesus we believe we become more like God. Our goal, as the Eastern orthodox put it is “theosis.” We are Christ’s disciples so that we might become more like God.

Christianity is not just knowing who Jesus is, a few Bible verses, and three or four theological ideas. Christianity is a way of life. Furthermore, it is a specific kind of way of life: it is a way of life patterned after Jesus the Christ and his way of life. It is a life of loving others, of being a servant, of sharing life together, of discovering and using spiritual gifts, of healing our broken world, and speaking truth into the darkness of a world too often governed by lies. Being a Christian is learning to bear a cross now and again. We can only learn these things as we do them. We cannot be a disciple or learn to be a disciple any other way but by following Jesus, watching and listening to Jesus, and acting and living like Jesus. This is what it means to be a disciple.

Counting the Cost

One of the most famous Christian books of the 20th Century is by the Christian teacher, pastor, theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is called, “The Cost of Discipleship.” He begins his book with these words, “Cheap Grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for  costly grace”. [1] If these words were true in Europe in the years leading up to the Second World War, they are even truer today.

Bonhoeffer describes cheap grace in this way:

“Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principal, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception of God.” An intellectual assent to the idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure the remission of sins.”  [2]

He later describes the calling of the disciples in these words, “The call goes forth and is at once followed by the response of obedience.” [3]

One dangerous failure of churches today is a failure to understand that the Gospel is not primarily a system of doctrine, a theology of Grace, or a formula of verbal and mental acceptance to propositions about God, Jesus, and Eternal Life. The word we translate “Faith” could also be translated as “Trust”. Real faith is seen in obedience to Christ and in responding in faith to the pressures of daily life. Real faith is seen in disciples who follows Jesus regardless of the cost, personally, professionally, or otherwise.

At the time of the Reformation, it was unquestionably important to guard against the idea that by doing certain liturgical actions one could be saved as if by magic. The Reformation was a corrective to the excesses of the Middle Ages. Today, among evangelical churches, indeed among all churches, there is a need to correct the notion that faith is merely accepting a proposition about Jesus, getting your admission ticket to heaven punched, and then living as you always lived in reliance on the Cheap Grace of God. If it was a problem in Bonhoeffer’s day, Cheap Grace is a worse problem today.

The call to be a disciple is a call to follow Jesus. It is a call to respond by committing one’s self to God in such a way that we follow Jesus, learn from Jesus, imitate Jesus, and grow to become more like Jesus. This includes cross-bearing. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). We cannot be disciples without becoming like Jesus and being willing to experience what Jesus experienced, for good or for bad. We cannot become like God unless we are willing to give our lives for others in self-giving love.

Crosses are not difficulties. Crosses are not the consequences of our own behavior and choices. Crosses are the decisions we make to suffer for others though we are not required to by law, or compulsion, or some inner brokenness. Jesus went to the cross because God loves us, and Jesus was sent by God to bear our sins and brokenness on the cross. Being a disciple means bearing the sins and brokenness of others, loving them unconditionally.

Years ago, I was a lay leader in a large congregation. A problem arose. As time went by, I came to think that my closest friends, those I was theologically most in sympathy with, and those with whom I wanted to side were not adopting the right strategy, and therefore were behaving improperly. On the other hand, members of my own family were on another side, which I did not believe was acting properly either. It was the first time as a Christian I ever had to go against the very people who were most important in my life and to my Christian walk. It was a time of personal suffering. During this time, God taught me an important lesson: Being a disciple does not exempt us from being misunderstood, misquoted, slandered, and otherwise deeply hurt.

To be a disciple is, from time to time, to bear a cross. I’ve now been a pastor and for over twenty years and a Christian for well over 35 years. Every pastor and every serious Christian leader knows that following Jesus does not exempt you from suffering and carrying a cross in the name of Jesus. In fact, as I sometimes say to leaders, every time God desires to do something really important in this world, someone carries a cross.

The Role of Faith

From the beginning, Jesus warned his disciples what belief in him meant. Think of Abraham. God called Abraham to leave his homeland on the basis of the promise of a son and blessing. Abraham left his homeland because he believed. He trusted God, believed that God would be faithful to his promises, and so Abraham acted on that belief. When Jesus called potential disciples to come and follow him, he was asking them to show the same kind of trust/faith that Abraham had.

Mark begins his gospel with Jesus proclaiming the good news and telling his hearers to “repent and believe” (Mark 1:14). The faith of which Jesus speaks is more than knowing Jesus is right. It is moving out in faith, trusting in the wisdom and love of God. It requires that we give up our self-trust, our sin, our selfish ambition, and follow Jesus. If we believe in Jesus we will trust him, move out, and live like him trusting that a life of loving service to others is the best way of life there is.

In Galatians, Paul speaks of the Gospel that can only be accepted by faith. He teaches the principle that people cannot earn their salvation. He is correct: We cannot be justified by our moral behavior or by following the moral law (Galatians 2:16). However, Paul goes on to say, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Responding to the cross means dying to self and selfish desire (“I have been crucified with Christ”) and then living by the power of Christ (“it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”). Faith means responding by giving our whole selves to God, turning away from our selfish, self-centered ways, and living out of the power of the Holy Spirit.

Faith inevitably results in works. This is why in Ephesians, Paul says: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Our works do not save us, but when we believe we are going to do things we never would otherwise have done. We are going to be more loving, more caring, more truthful, than we were before. God does not save us because of our works; he saves us so that we can become capable of living like Jesus and doing the works Jesus does.

Faith and Works as a Personal Journey

There is a lot of confusion in our society and in our churches about the nature of faith. Is faith merely recognizing who Jesus is and calling upon him so that you can go to heaven when you die? Does faith simply believe Jesus is who Jesus said he was? The answer is, “No.” The Bible is the story of faith lived out by faithful people. The story begins with Abraham, who is told by God that he will be the father of many nations and have an heir if he goes to the land of the promise God will show him (Genesis 12:1-3). The Bible tells us that Abraham believed and went. In other words, he trusted God not just with his mind (“OK, God I know you can to this”) but also with his heart, soul, mind, body and strength. Abraham went and followed God in the wilderness for years because of his faith. As James reminds those who think faith can be divorced from works, Abrahams faith was revealed and completed by his works (James 2:14-26). A faith that does not change the way we think, live, act, and feel is not a faith at all.

When Jesus says, “Come and follow me,” Jesus means just what he says. He wants us to follow him because we believe that he holds the secret to our becoming the people we were created to become. Our faith is shown in our discipleship. The person who believes one thing and does another can never be psychologically or personally whole. To have integrity, to be whole, our hearts, minds, souls and spirits have to be one. Only then can we be a whole person.

The life of faith is a life of transformation. We are slowly being made whole as we gradually become the people we profess to be. As what we believe in our minds becomes imbedded in our hearts, our emotions and how we behave automatically change. This is the work of grace we call sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which what we believe and how we live become one thing in one life.

This is the journey of faith. Just as Abraham went on a journey with God, and the disciples went on a journey with Jesus, when we become Christians we begin a journey of faith. It is journey of following Jesus and therefore God through a process of discipleship and spiritual growth. It means following Jesus where Jesus goes, with companions (other disciples) who are also following Jesus and listening to the Words of Jesus spoken in the Bible in our hearts through prayer. It means doing what Jesus did and is doing in the world. It means making a few mistakes along the way, just as the disciples made mistakes, correcting those mistakes and growing along the way.

As with any journey, there are and will be twists and turns, blind allies, and mistaken paths.
A few years ago, a close friend and I walked five days of a pilgrimage, the El Camino de Santiago. The path of the pilgrimage is marked with the sign of sea shells. Occasionally the path may not be precisely marked or one may miss a marker or a marker may have been obscured. When that happens, it is easy to take the wrong path and then have to retrace your steps. This happened to us on the last day when we were very tired and ready for the journey to be over. We had to walk back a mile or so to where we left the path and begin again.

This happens over and over again on the journey of following Jesus. We cannot always see Jesus. Sometimes the way is obscured. Sometimes the thorns and thistles of our culture make the way hard to see and find. Sometimes we misread the signs God has given us in Scripture. When that happens, we retrace our steps (ask for forgiveness and make amends) find the place we went off the path, and begin again. God in his mercy knows that we will need instruction, examples, and mercy on the journey. At the same time, God because of his steadfast love for us will bring us safely through the journey. This is why Paul could say with confidence to those he was discipling, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1”6).

Copyright 2017, G, Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York, NY: McMillan, 1937), 45

[2] Id.

[3] Id, at 61.

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