Sometimes you don’t realize what you’re getting into. I don’t have bad things in mind. Actually, I’m thinking about good things like marriage or parenting. It’s not that we knew nothing at all about these kinds of relationships before we got hitched or before our first child graduated from high school.
It’s just that we had only a dim comprehension of the fears and joys and disappointments and struggles. And perhaps more crucially, we couldn’t really foresee the person that we would become by navigating life with our spouse and by walking our children up to and into adulthood. You can’t really know what you’ve gotten into until you’ve actually lived it.
As it turns out, following Jesus is like that. That’s what he’s getting at with his question to those two disciples who left John the Baptist to follow him. He asked them, “What are you looking for?” (John 1:29-42)
In other words, following Jesus may be more than you bargained for. That’s not a bad thing. Following him is a good thing. It’s just not a safe and predictable thing. He is always more than we had thought. Just being with him stretches us a little more than is comfortable. And we end up being someone we hadn’t quite anticipated.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll explain what I mean by thinking with you about three questions:
Who is Jesus?
What does it mean to follow Jesus?
What happens when we follow Jesus?
Who is Jesus?
John the Baptist provides an answer to the first question. Jesus is the Lamb of God. He is God’s self-offering. God gives himself for our sake in his Son Jesus.
Moreover, he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Please hear this clearly. He takes away the sin of the world. Not the sins of the world. The word is singular, not plural.
In other words, Jesus has not come merely to pay the penalty for each of the individual sins we have committed. His purpose runs deeper. It runs to the very core of the creation. There is a fatal flaw at the heart of things, and Jesus has come to mend it.
There is a willfulness, a self-will, at the heart of things from which all particular sins arise. Every subatomic particle of this universe joins in the chorus of “It’s All About Me.” We humans want it our way.
To put it a slightly different way, we begin this life guided by self-interest, and many of us never move an inch from this position even in our spiritual lives.
Remember Jesus asks those disciples, “What are you looking for?’ In other words, “Are you following me to secure your own eternal enjoyment? Your own infinite security? Your personal health or wealth or status? If so, following me will be a big disappointment to you.”
Jesus has come to transform our self-interest on its head. His mission is to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom where our wills gladly serve God’s purpose. And God’s purpose is always about the well-being of others.
Think ahead in John’s Gospel to Chapter Six. Jesus multiplies the loaves and feeds a multitude. When the crowd seek to make him king, he slips away. Why? Because he will not allow them to crown him as the guarantor of their own personal fulfillment.
Jesus lives the kind of life and dies the kind of death that destroys self-interest and restores us to the image of God we were created to be. That sounds fine, I suppose, until the rubber hits the road. There’s going to be some stretching and letting go involved. Some unlearning of old ways and making odd new friends.
But I’m getting ahead of myself again. Let’s turn to the second question.
What does it mean to follow Jesus?
Some of us are big joiners and subscribers. We join a host of civic organizations and subscribe to so many email lists that our inbox is always so full with newsletters or thoughts of the day that our only recourse is to delete them without reading them.
We organize our busy lives by giving only that portion of ourselves to our various activities that seems appropriate to their importance. We like to call that balance. We give a bit of ourselves here and there, but the trick of this activity is to learn to hold yourself back.
It’s your life, after all. You have to decide how to balance it. This probably sounds wise, and at a superficial level it is. You do have to plan your day and find a way to honor all your commitments.
But here’s what happens if this approach to things goes right to the core. You’ll see your life as yours to give out in bits and pieces—in measured amounts—that you determine. This also means that you always be struggling to hold on to some bit of yourself.
When you follow Jesus, he will ask for nothing less than everything. Remember, he is the Lamb of God who gives his life away as a way of living every day and as a way of dying. Strictly speaking, his death on the cross was essentially the culmination of, the crystallization of, his way of living: Giving his life away for the love of God and for the sake of God’s children.
Following Jesus means making your relationship with God in Christ the ultimate thing. Loving God to love God. And we love our neighbor because he or she is God’s beloved. Anything else would break God’s heart.
That all sounds very holy and desirable. But frankly, when the rubber hits the road, it can be a real pain in the neck and even downright heartbreaking. And yet, that is the road to a joy that cannot be extinguished, a tranquility undiminished even by the most trying circumstances, and a sense of belonging untainted by the fear of rejection.
That’s because of who we become as we follow Jesus, and that brings us to our third question.
What happens when we follow Jesus?
After the first two disciples have hung around with Jesus for a couple of days, we find out that one of them is Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. Andrew brings his brother to meet Jesus, but before Andrew can make the introductions, Jesus calls him by name.
“You are Simon son of John,” he says. It’s remarkable enough that Jesus already knows his name without being told. But the real kicker comes next. “You are to be called Cephas.” Peter. The Rock.
Now think about everything you know about Peter when he first meets Jesus. He’s hot-headed and impulsive. Enthusiastic but not entirely reliable. In fact, even at the end, during the trial of Jesus, Peter denies his friend three times to save his own skin. When Jesus first meets him, there is nothing especially rock-like about Peter. But there will be. Jesus has that kind of effect on people.
We know how being with others over time shapes us. For instance, being married to Joy for nearly forty years has made me more considerate and less impulsive. Each of my children has taught me important lessons:
Meredith has shown me how many different kinds of intelligences there are and how important that is to enjoying the richness of God’s creation.
Patrick has taught me not to take myself so seriously and that laughing good-naturedly at myself is good medicine.
Andrew has taught me that loyalty in the face of even the most harrowing circumstances may be the most loving form of courage.
Just in case you suspect otherwise, these lessons didn’t come all at once. And neither did they come in the form of fun arts and crafts activities. Frankly, I’ve learned most of these lesson by letting myself and others down, facing fear and frustration, and admitting that I’ve been really wrong about a lot of stuff that I was pretty arrogantly certain about.
Walking the roads with Jesus gradually changes Peter. He becomes the rock upon which the Church is built. And he got there by making a fool of himself and even rejecting Jesus right where Jesus could see him doing it. But he stuck with Jesus. And most importantly, Jesus stuck with him. Who he became would have surprised him to no end.
Who we are becoming will surprise us to no end. But here’s the key to who Jesus is and what it really means to follow him. Who we become by walking at his side is not a result of believing in him. What gives us the eternal life that only he can offer is that Jesus believes in us.
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