The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Following Jesus

Posted by Ron George on January 23, 2011

The preacher said today it was easy to follow Jesus. It’s not, but it’s hard to say that among contemporary Christians, especially those who’ve made significant commitments that nonetheless fall short of Jesus’ radical call to discipleship. As Jesus said, many are called but few are chosen. He might have added, many are called but few respond in full.

Jesus Calls the Disciples, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-11

Jesus Calls the Disciples, by Duccio di Buoninsegna

We contemporary Christians are accustomed to responding to Jesus’ radical call in conventional ways: We join a church, pay our dues and receive the joys and privileges of fellowship with like-minded people. We hire someone to manage the congregation, lead the services and oversee the property. We cloak it all with an aura of spirituality, but in essence, we’ve simply organized a society. The preacher’s text for today — Matthew’s account of the calling of Peter, Andrew, James and John — didn’t seem to rhyme with a clubby understanding of Christian discipleship.

The preacher’s theme was “ASAP,” the familiar acronym for the phrase, “as soon as possible.” Fair enough. It covers the urgent sense that Jesus’ disciples are called to drop what they’re doing and change the direction of their lives, but the hard part comes, as disciples then and now discover, with the matter of degree. If we follow the Jesus story to its historic conclusion, we learn that discipleship means following Jesus to the Cross and dying to self that we may live for others, even our enemies. Jesus calls us to radical love that knows no bounds — and if that doesn’t give you the willies, you’re not paying attention.

One conventional answer to the problem posed by radical love is yes, we do fall short of total commitment, but in Christ we are redeemed from our shortcomings while what we do manage to accomplish in his name is multiplied beyond measure, just as he said, shaken down and overflowing. Imagine, though, what radical discipleship might truly make of the church. Whoa! I’m not sure I can, given what we know of the self-indulgent institution that has evolved since the first Christian century. One thing is certain, though: It would not look like 99.99 percent of Christian congregations in the world today.

Today’s preacher called us to change, not radical change but a change of heart, and that’s a good thing, probably better than most programs abroad in the land today. A little change is better than slavishly following whatever script by which we may be living unhappy lives. We will be happier at least trying to follow Jesus in discipleship, at least moving toward whatever boundary we may ultimately place on our vocations as members of his body. Being willing to change at least opens the door to God’s word in Christ Jesus that we let ourselves be healed by love, which in turn — if we let it — just might become healing grace in the lives of others, even those we despise.

The Church at Auvers 1890, by Vincent van Gogh

The Church at Auvers 1890, by Vincent van Gogh

It all sounds so good; then why isn’t it easy? Well, it’s just not. We’d rather bet on a sure thing, and betting on Jesus is never a sure thing, at least not by most standards of success. Betting on Jesus, historically, has led many Christians to extremities of pain, hardship and self-sacrifice most of us can scarcely imagine. It may be where true joys are to be found, but betting on Jesus is most often a journey into thankless obscurity and the kind of loneliness that led even Mother Theresa to wonder at the apparent absence of God in her life. We love to contemplate the glory, but who doesn’t quail before an authentic dark night of the soul?

It seems as though the more we’re willing to risk the more likely our path will be rocky, steep and treacherous. We’re told from time to time that adversity is actually a sign of God’s favor because Satan’s strongest attack comes to those whose faith is great, whose mission is most likely to succeed. OK, whatever. I’ve been given to understand that Satan has been overthrown by Christ’s victory over death; but in any case, blaming “Satan” for our fear of radical commitment is a cop out. I hear Jesus saying to me, as he was wont to say to the hangers-on of in his own day, Look, if you don’t have the guts for this, stay home. Jesus’ first disciples were called to live as though they had nothing to lose. Most American Christians have too much to lose; and let’s not forget that even Jesus’ original disciples, who had given up everything, abandoned him on Good Friday. Following Jesus, finally, seems to lead nowhere if not to uncertainty, fear and loneliness.

Do we have the courage and conviction for that kind of joy? Not if it’s just me or just you, but it might be possible for a community of disciples empowered by the Holy Spirit — and so, damn it, now we’re back to the church, the body of Christ, the people of God gathered in the name of Jesus in the power of the Spirit to the greater glory of God. That may be what the church is called to be, but I certainly don’t know what it looks like. Does anyone? By way of example?

I think everyone knows it’s hard to follow Jesus, but we’re content with what we’ve developed in place of his call to radical discipleship. It’s unspoken and woven so deeply into the fabric of our Christian “walk,” as we like to say, that we can hear the gospels read clearly on any given Sunday without blinking an eye.

And then the preacher asks, “What is Jesus calling you to do?” and somewhere deep in our souls an elemental anxiety arises, perhaps with visible tears; and we hear an echo deep within that sounds like the voice of God in Christ Jesus. It’s indistinct. It quickly fades, but we know without doubt what it is. Do we have the courage to listen more closely, to unstop our ears? Perhaps or, more likely, perhaps not, but it is simply God’s truth that we will not become the church Christ has called into Being until we answer the preacher’s question with that voice from within — in fear and trembling and, finally, in faith.

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5 Responses to “Following Jesus”

  1. Patsy Durham said

    I’ve been reading a lovely little book by Carole Ann Camp containing short meditations for walking the labyrinth, each series of 7 based on a particular theme. The set I’m working with right now is about following the path of Jesus, which Carole says is actually a “braided path” of several intertwining paths: the Path of Love, the Path of Peace, the Path of Forgiveness (a hard one), the Path of Thankfulness, the Path of Faithfulness, the Path of Healing (which ends with a prayer that Christ’s healing power flow through us to others in need of healing). I think it must be awfully hard to accurately follow ALL of the Paths, ALL of the time. But we are called, I think, to just put one foot in front of the other, one at a time, poco a poco.

  2. Tom said

    Dear Ron, This is spot on. Perhaps the “Church” is part of the problem-or, even, the problem. It is simply too comfortable a place. All if the challenges seem to be about the Church (as institution, as building). Perhaps this is why I have found it difficult to reenter a church here i Houston. At bottom-like the Rich Young Man in the Gospel-I have actually seen the invitation given by Jesus and have turned sadly away.

  3. Ralph Willis said

    There are good times, not so good times and there are terrible times in the life of everybody and that includes Christians as well as non-Christians. It includes spiritual seekers of all traditions as well as those who “seem” to have no spiritual influence or direction in their lives at all. It is necessary to use the qualifier “seems” in this evaluation (or is it a judgment) of our fellow travelers because our view and understanding of their spiritual condition is limited to that which we can see. The outside!
    Like all of life, spiritual or otherwise, a dedicated Christian one is difficult. Speaking from the standpoint of one who was raised in a (dare I say radical) fundamentalist tradition; as one who has sat through innumerable verses of “Just as I am” while our dear brother deacons and church fathers tried to “pray through” an errant soul, I must say that it seemed at the time, as it does now, that simply asking Christ to take control of my life was easy.
    Please don’t read this response as casting dispersion on deacons and church fathers. That is not its intention, rather to demonstrate that some of us had more difficulty overcoming our resistance to the call of Christ than others. Speaking for myself only, I must say that it was easier, finally, to accept Christ than reject Him.
    Loved your posting my friend!

  4. Bob Horner said

    Thanx for laying out the challenges of HOLY LIVING, Ron..it seems to me you had an earlier conviction that this was pretty difficult if not impossible and you now clearly describe the opportunities/barriers in truly following CHRIST but there are possibilities and I am so strongly convinced that its in the motive and effort, tho so feeble at times..Merton said that the desire to pray was in fact praying..and wanting to serve Christ is certainly a step on the way..further, the institutional church seems to be the best place to do this, tho it’s greatly flawed..I’mlaying Greek word on you..metanoia..changing direction and other variations..listening to the GOSPELS..where else than church??? certainly helps..another subject:: I’m Reading “The Reason for God” by TimKeller..an apologist of the like of CSLewis..happynewyear..

    • Ron George said

      The church is certainly the most likely place for Christians to practice their faith, to let themselves be formed into disciples. The problem seems to be that we’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that it’s a conventional form of behavior. We’ve watered down the church into a civic club of sorts; or, lately, I’ve found that it can be a form of Sunday-morning entertainment. We’ve sugar-coated the gospel, in other words. Well, most of us have, anyway, and maybe that’s just the way things are and always have been. I’ve wondered whether it was all a mistake after all: The world didn’t come to an end in that first generation, as expected, so something else had to happen, and now we’re stuck with it. Much ado about nothing? Well, not nothing. Jesus was certainly something, but what? Who? Our historic theology has grown out of the need for institutional preservation, the creeds, the Trinity, the New Testament canon itself. I’m thankful that Jesus’ teachings have been preserved, even though they come to us larded with theological agendas. Maybe those teachings are all that matters: Agape is what saves us from ourselves, from the evil that we do to one another. Such witnesses, Christian or not, always move us and make the world a better place. Even if that’s all that matters, then it’s enough to see in Jesus an avatar of the fullness of Being Itself. Maybe it’s enough to live in hope that we, too, can become witnesses to that love that makes the world a better place. As the song says, imagine there’s no heaven or hell. It’s not a bad place to start re-thinking and, perhaps, re-believing our faith.

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