Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Leaving and Following

Is there a difference between being a Christian and being a disciple of Jesus? I suppose it depends on who is using those terms. If a Christian is a word used to describe a person, or an organization, church, book, song or bobblehead, then I think there is a very great difference between a Christian and a disciple of Jesus. I have seen many such people and objects who describe themselves as Christian, what they do and what they stand for, and to me the evidence confirms that they have never been disciples of Jesus.

I have discussed before this curious word "Christian," first coined by the citizens of Antioch to give a name to these disciples of Jesus the Christ: "The suffix ('ianos' in Greek) was widely used as the termination of the name of a person belonging as a slave to the household of that name." Whether the crowds meant it kindly or not, neither Paul nor Jesus' own half-brother James were ashamed to call themselves slaves of the household of Christ. If that is what "Christian" means, the term is much closer to what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

A disciple, to put it most plainly, is a follower. The message of Jesus' Gospel was all about this: "Come, follow me."

Jesus' teaching about discipleship always contains two sides of a coin: On the one side, leave everything; on the other, come follow. You can't get away from it. "The time has come, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" Repenting has that same two-sided coin - you leave one path and take another, you sell all and follow, you leave everyone and pursue God. Even the concept of believing demands a change of loyalties, a change of thinking; in order to believe in Jesus there are many things in which you must stop believing. You cannot grasp the one without letting go of the other.

Perhaps that is why people who become followers of Jesus do so at their own pace. In Paul's story, it seems instantaneous: one moment he is killing believers and the next he is one. Others seem to take longer, as God patiently pries their fingers off the things that are killing them and fulfills their longings with the stuff of heaven.

Following isn't natural to most of us. The person ahead of you seldom goes exactly where you want to go. The driver simply will take that right-hand turn while you in the back seat know it should have been a left. This is a struggle for the human heart, which wants control. To follow means letting go of the indignant objection, the "but just a moment, I...," the deep-rooted desire to have our own way.

To follow Jesus requires faith. You don't know where he will take you, if it will be easy or hard or warm or cold or pleasant or painful. No guarantees on those quarters. As Mr Beaver said, "Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe, but he's good. He's the King, I tell you." To follow Jesus requires faith in him; not in what he might do, but in he himself. In his person, his character, his holiness, righteousness, purity, his love.

So you start to let go of your personal values - the list of things that are very important to you - and take up his. Wealth becomes meaningless; stewardship everything. Some, who love their family above all, have to leave their family to follow him; others must let go of their selfish ambitions and be restored to their family. Changing your values can be very disruptive, very confusing to those who knew you before. "They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you." Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

So you find you no longer believe in the principles by which you once made every decision, and you put your full weight on his. Love your enemies, and do good to those who spitefully use you. Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. What God has joined together, let no one separate.

So you begin to give up trying to provide for yourself and you let him provide for you on this journey of following him. Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.

So you change inside so that you love what he loves, and hate what he hates. You feel his compassion, his anger, his indignation. You see your sin the way he sees it, not dressed up and Photoshopped the way the world does it. You think his thoughts after him. You simply let go of all that stuff that once mattered to you and chase after what matters to him, come what may. It is reckless abandon.

And somehow, in all that, you don't lose who you are. You maybe lose who you want to be, or what others want you to be, but not who you really, really are. If I leave all and fully follow Jesus, I become more me than I have ever been in all my fifty years, unique as a snowflake yet so much like the One I am following that I get embarrassingly mistaken for him. Which I am not, but I will be like him. Someday. Someday.

So I guess the question is whether "Christian" is something by which the world describes you, or if you are someone who describes who "Christ" is to the world. Seems to me that this is what it means to be his disciple.


Chris D said...

Wow Jim, after a break from posting, this is a beauty! I particularly like what you said in, I believe paragraph 7... where you have faith IN Jesus, and not in what He might do. Love it! It seems very well-rounded, you've included everything in one post, from grace and repenting, to Jesus changing your life, as some would call it, "the cost of discipleship".

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jim, this is terrific (I've read it many times already). It sort of reminds me of an old Catholic prayer (but before you protest, like I told my grade 1s, a saint is a special person who did things for God, and that is who you, and many of us, are).

The part I like the most is about leaving one path and following another; there is a lot to leave behind and it is hard to imagine what will replace it, but there is nothing like a full life.

Thanks again, and here is one person praying for an old man... praying that he'd write another book.