“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone,
“It means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
I love it. Someday, I am going to read the whole Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland book. I missed it the first 50 plus years of my life, but one of these days I am going to get to it. And, why, you may ask? Because I am “curiouser and curiouser” about who gets to define words. Now, I’m not worried about who gets to define the word, “Christian.” I think Jesus ought to be the master of that one. Hence, when he says, “a Christian is someone who follows him,” that settles it for me. However, the word I am worried about is the word “follow.” What does it mean to “follow Jesus” and who gets to decide?
Let’s just eliminate some of the more obvious wrong answers. Following Jesus does not mean we are to dress like Jesus, walk to work like Jesus, or do miracles like Jesus. Nor does it mean we should preface everything we say with the words, “Verily, verily.” Doing that qualifies you not so much as a Jesus follower, but as a Jesus stalker. Nor do we follow Jesus by simply aligning ourselves with “his” religion. And even if it did, answer me this: which religion did he start? Warning: just answering “the Christian religion” is not going to get us anywhere, except back to where we first started: What does it mean to follow Jesus? And following Jesus can’t be summed up by the big three: belief, baptism and biblical behaviors (or at least the good biblical behaviors) because there are lots of people who are members of that club who are not following Jesus. And it can’t mean saying a prayer; and it can’t mean rigidly, and with a vengeance, obeying everything Jesus said. Scot McKnight (One Life) typed these words and then slapped me across the face with their honesty and accuracy:
“Every time the single-moment act of accepting Christ becomes the goal and not the portal, we get superficial Christians. And every time personal practices of piety wiggle away from the big picture Jesus sketches before his followers, it becomes legalism.”
I know. I’ve been both. I was a great superficial Christian and an even better legalist (and, yes, that is exactly like being great at body odor and annoying personality syndrome).
So, what does it mean to “follow” Jesus? Jesus gives us three solid hints as to what he means. First, he says in Matthew 16:24 (parallel Mark 8:34): “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Had I been in charge of marketing the Messiah, I would have led with peace, love and joy (“Sign up now and receive all these benefits—plus church potlucks!), but Jesus moves in the opposite direction. Far from making it easy, he emphasizes the cost required, the sacrifice involved and the commitment mandated. In other words, following is hard work because it moves us away from what we want (my will, my status and my kingdom – things I really want!), to what Jesus wants for us. And it is complicated! It is not a single-moment act. It is us continually, day-in and day-out choosing to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus. Worse, this discipleship thing requires us to wake up every day and choose to become less—less self-important, less self-absorbed, less controlling, less demanding—you know, less. Alan Redpath said it perfectly: “Before we can pray, ‘Lord, Thy Kingdom come,’ we must be willing to pray, ‘My Kingdom go.’” And I don’t want to do that. I like being in charge and having my own way (and I like judging others who are trying to set up rival kingdoms to mine). Let me just say it, this deny yourself thing is a real kick in the pants.
The second hint comes at the end of our verse. Jesus says (Mt. 16:24): “Follow me.” Here’s where I drove the bus over the cliff. I was sure Jesus said, “Follow my theology,” or at least, “Follow the Bible.” But he didn’t. He said, “Follow me.” See, my goal in following Jesus is occupied way too heavily with trying to figure out what the Bible is saying. And I like it that way. It is safe. There is a sense in which I am in control throughout that whole process (and I like that, too). But if we are following Jesus and not just the Bible and what it says about Jesus, that must mean there is a real person there; and I can’t control another person (don’t believe me, try parenting sometime and see how far you get). Now, I realize that the access we have to Jesus is through the Bible, but there is a huge difference between coming to Jesus as words on a page and coming to Jesus as the Living Lord who spoke these words on these pages. In the first case, my goal is to fall in love with the Bible. In the second case, my goal is to fall in love with Jesus. Look, I’ve spent decades of my life trying to avoid Jesus while fostering a great, warm, loving, engaged relationship with the Bible. But Jesus calls us to follow him, and that requires an ongoing, living relationship. Jesus came and called us, not so that we could find the Bible, but so that we could have a relationship with him. As strange as it sounds to many of us, Jesus and the Bible are not the same. When Jesus said, “Follow me,” he was calling us into a relationship. Another Scot quote (remember: when in doubt, steal from the best). Scot writes:
“God gave the Bible
not so we can know it,
but so we can know and love God
Had Scot written that 50 years ago, he could have saved me so much pain.
The third hint: If we are to follow Jesus, then it is essential that we know both who Jesus is and what he taught. So, let’s talk about that. How would you answer this question: “What was Jesus’ reason for coming to earth?” Now, before you answer that, let’s complicate things. What if we could beam back in time and ask any of Jesus’ disciples this question: Why has Jesus come to earth? Together now, let’s all predict what they would say: “Jesus came to die on the cross for our sins so that we could be forgiven, be made children of God and receive eternal life” (and yes, that does look eerily similar to our original definition of what a Christian is, which ought to give a little anxiety). Now, that is our answer from 2000 years of church history and theology. But is that really what the disciples would have said? I don’t think so. Instead, they would say, “Jesus came to inaugurate the kingdom of God.” Think about that. It was the first thing he said (Mt. 3:2 – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”). It was the subject of every message (Mt. 4:23). It was the theme of his greatest sermon (Mt. 5-7). It was at the center of all his parables (Mt. 13), and he spoke of his return as the coming of his kingdom (Mt. 16:28). The Kingdom is everywhere! In fact, we could say the most pivotal influence on Jesus’ life and ministry was the Kingdom of God. God’s dream for his world shaped everything Jesus said and did. And that means that if we are going to follow Jesus, we also have to allow God’s Kingdom vision, it’s values and desires, to shape us, as well.
Back to Alice:
“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.
Alice replied, rather shyly, “I, I hardly know, Sir, just at present—
at least, I know who I was when I got up this morning,
but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
Here’s the point: Putting God’s Kingdom vision in the center of our definition of what a Christian is, changes everything. Once upon a time, we were content to say that a Christian was someone who believed in Jesus, but now that won’t do. Instead, a Christian is someone who is following Jesus in living out his kingdom vision in our world today. The proof, they say, is in the pudding; and the pudding, in this case, is seen in how seriously we practice the values, perspectives and directives found in places like the Sermon on the Mount.
Now, that is not to deny that a Christian sees Jesus as Savior and Lord and who died and rose again for us. I do not mean to minimize Jesus down to a mere preacher of the Kingdom. Rather, my goal is to expand our “regular definition” of Christian to include all that Jesus meant when he called us to follow him and to underscore this truth: Jesus didn’t come only to save us, but to recruit us to follow him in advancing his Kingdom. And nothing short of that full, robust definition comes close to capturing what Jesus meant when he said, “Follow me.”
One more quote and comment, and then we are done for today.
“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone: “so I can’t take more.”
“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “It’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
Here’s the point: When Jesus calls us to follow him, you can take too little (too little of him AND too little of the Kingdom), but you can you can never take too much!