What’s “Following Jesus” Mean, Anyway?

January 27, 2019

What’s “Following Jesus” Mean, Anyway?


Matthew 4:12-17

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Matthew 4:18-25

As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.  Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread as far as Syria, and soon people started bringing to him all those who were sick, those who were afflicted with severe pain, those possessed by demons, those with epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed - and he healed them. Large crowds followed him - from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

* * * * *

One of the questions I find myself wrestling with these days is what it means to follow Jesus. You’d think I would have figured it out by now, after all these years of ministry. You’d think I would have a set, pat answer ready to roll off my tongue. A clear mission statement. You know, the elevator speech. But the longer I do this work, the more hesitant I am about clear-cut, forever answers.

I find myself asking that question more and more, not only as a pastor, but being a follower of Jesus myself. I was baptized as an infant. I was confirmed in my home church in eighth grade. I was even ordained as a ruling elder at the ripe old age of seventeen. I started seminary at the age of 22 and was ordained as a pastor five years later. Which is all to say, I’ve been doing this my whole life. Trying to be a follower of Jesus.

And I find myself curious… how do other people answer that question? I mean, what would you say? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? What difference does it make if you are, or you aren’t? I don’t mean globally, as if you have to come up with an answer for the whole wide world, or eternally, for all of Christendom, or for anyone else but you. But for you, what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?

And I ask because I’m also getting clearer and clearer that as hard as it is to come up with an answer, we need to take it seriously. Purposefully. What are we doing here?

I’ll be honest, I’ve always been a little intimidated by the passage we heard today about the call of the disciples. All of these call stories from the Gospels make me feel like a second-class disciple, if that’s what I am at all. I mean, James and John and Peter and Andrew left everything – everything – to follow Jesus. Set down their nets. Said goodbye to their father. Just walked away from it all. I don’t even know what that looks like in today’s world. It almost sounds like a cult.

If that’s what it means to follow Jesus, none of us would cut it. Not even we ‘professionals’ who ostensibly have a ‘call.’ For heaven’s sake, at the annual meeting today you’re voting on our ‘terms of call,’ which is church-speak for our salary packages. Unlike the first disciples, we didn’t walk away from our professions, we walked into them. We have houses and families and settle into communities just like anybody else. We even have pensions and health benefits, thanks to you.

We’re ordaining Elders and Deacons today to their ministries, but we didn’t vote on terms of call for them; for them, their service is voluntary. If you think about it, maybe we ‘Ministers of Word and Sacrament’ are farther away from being like the disciples than you are because we’re paid to do this!  Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I like getting a paycheck. I like it a lot.

But it raises the question, what does ‘call’ even mean?

One writer puts the question this way:

To what does Jesus call us? Too often… we answer that question in terms that do not require enough of us. Some Christians would say we are called to belief; others would say, to church membership; others would say, to service. Others would say it is all those things and more. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the call to “follow me” was a call “to absolute discipleship,” and that only in surrendering ourselves to Jesus’ command could we… know our greatest joy.[i]

Only in surrendering ourselves do we know our greatest joy.

I’m more and more convinced that Bonhoeffer was right. That following Jesus has a lot to do with both surrender and joy.

Now I’ll tell you that “surrender” is not a word I have been enamored with. It’s a loaded word. It’s loaded. Surrender is what you do in a war when you lose. Surrender is when you’re fighting with someone and you just give up. Surrender is what people do when they have no other choice. It reeks of defeat and powerlessness. It is not a noble word, and most people would never associate it with joy. Just the opposite. You associate “surrender” with pain and despair.

But I think Bonhoeffer is right. “Only in surrendering ourselves do we know our greatest joy.” And that “surrender” is exactly what Jesus is calling us to do when he cries out, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is drawing near!” Repentance is nothing less than surrender, surrendering to a new way of life. And the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of heaven is where we find our deepest joy.

Which I know may sound like nonsense – or just more church-speak – to most people. But I think there is truth here. The deepest kind of truth. The kind that challenges the way we usually think about our lives.

I read this interesting article a couple of weeks ago that my friend Jeff Gill posted on Facebook. It was by a theologian named Stanley Hauerwas – a quirky man who used to teach at Duke Divinity School where I went my first two years of seminary. Hauerwas was writing about life in our advanced industrial societies, in which the highest good seems to be unimpeded choice. “Freedom,” we call it. Freedom to make endless decisions based on nothing but our own desires…

The problem is, that’s thin material for trying to construct meaning out of life. “What we thought we did in freedom,” he writes, “turns out to be but another name for being fated by what can only appear retrospectively as our arbitrary choices.”  We are fated by our arbitrary choices.

If I have infinite options, how will I ever know if I’ve chosen the right one, the perfect one? The pressure of making up our own life, inventing ourselves from scratch, always leaves us wondering, “Is this all there is?”

At the end of the day, “I did it my way” is small consolation. There’s got to be something more. An identity with more meaning than ‘me, mine, my.’ An identity with belonging and purpose.

An identity that brings us joy.

I think that’s what Jesus offers, when he calls us.

See, I think in our culture it is so much easier to see ourselves as belonging to a church rather than belonging to Christ. And then being a church member becomes just one more thing that we do – one more activity on our calendars, one more possibility, one more choice.

But what if this is something more than that? A community to which we belong, a community that’s not defined by our individual proclivities and preferences but by our shared identity? Where that shared identity is that we are all trying to be followers of Jesus? Part of something sacred? A place where we are surrendering our lives to God?

What if, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, we begin to “recognize that our very existence is a gift that requires the ongoing training that comes by being made a disciple of Christ.” And what if, as he says, “the name of the community which makes discipleship possible is called ‘church’”?

Then maybe, just maybe, we can begin to see our own lives differently.

As people who have been called, and claimed…

As God’s beloved, who have a purpose in this world far beyond our own small lives…

As those who belong, to Christ, and to each other, in this place.

[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1959; reprint, New York: Touchstone, 1995), 37-38; cited by Greg Garrett, “Homiletical Perspective on Matthew 4:12-23,” Preaching on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 289.