As I found myself moving away from church, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of the label of Christianity – for some reason, it seemed too closely linked to control and oppression, rather than the freedom and ‘unforced rhythm of grace’ that Jesus seemed to spend most of his ministry talking about. For that purpose, I began to describe myself as a ‘follower of Jesus’ (not the most original idea – the earliest Christ followers were known as followers of the ‘way’), as this seemed to reflect more the intention that I had to allow the Jesus way to infiltrate every element of life.
The post I wrote back in 2012 about this is full of passion and angst, as I wrestled with what it meant to take seriously the teachings of Jesus, moving from purely spiritual matters (how do I get to heaven) to the realisation (as one has put it) that ‘everything is spiritual. That meant economics, politics, relationships, education – every tiny aspect of life needed to be measured against what we glimpsed in the gospel messages.
I look back at the almost naive optimism of that post and wonder if it was ever likely that we could live up to that high standard, or whether the whole point is the process of striving towards that goal?
I think what I was attempting to articulate was a way of following Jesus that bursts out of the Sunday box, where we ‘allow’ him room to do ‘something’ in us to help us ‘grow’ to be ‘more like him’, to a place where we realise that this means every decision we make has to be made through a Jesus lens. Not so much about the ‘golden ticket to heaven’ as active participants in the realisation of kingdom here and now.
What makes this so intensely hard is partially coming to understand which Jesus we’re talking about. Although many would like to make it as simple as saying that the gospels can be read at face value, as I’ve argued previously, we bring to the text our own ‘baggage’ – we all make Jesus in our image, to fit our agenda, to fight for our causes, to say what we want him to say – and yet perhaps ignore the more difficult bits that don’t meet our needs.
For example, alongside the Jesus who says ‘my yoke is light’ is the Jesus who says ‘I’ve come to fulfil every letter of the law’, or ‘you must be even more righteous than these’. We can’t risk domesticating this God-man, remaking him in our image when the whole point of the story is that we should be being remade in this image!
I guess that it’s virtually impossible now to come to a ‘true’ understanding of Jesus – coloured as we are by two millennia of theology, Christology and ecclesiology – but a starting point could be a recognition that we aren’t neutral when we engage with the text.
I still think it might be possible to faithfully follow Jesus in even the smallest ways – although it is deeply costly to begin to do so. It potentially puts at risk those closest and dearest to us, as we deal with questions around finances such as what it really means to ‘not build up treasures on earth’ in the midst of the turmoil created by Trump and Brexit – I want to protect my family, and prepare for my daughter’s future (perhaps I can turn to the parable of the talents here?), but am I missing the point of what Jesus is trying to say to us?
Fundamentally, following Jesus is a question – or perhaps better stated – a challenge thrown at us. Do we choose to put our faith in Jesus and embrace an uncertainty that we have little to no control over, or do we choose to put our faith in ourselves? We can cope, we can plan, we can mitigate, we can control. But are we truly living if we choose the latter?
I don’t have any simple answers on this one, unsurprisingly. Neither to I seek to suggest that in any way am I getting it right. I want to make every decision in the light of what I’ve articulated above, and yet it is implicated when I know there are lives dependent on me getting it right (and yes, I’m aware how hyperbolic that sounds).
Following Jesus is complex and risky – and yet I feel utterly drawn towards it as my purpose. Maybe not in the way that I ever originally believed I would, and certainly not as I would have planned when I originally decided to throw my all in.
To follow is not necessarily the most intuitive of things, as it requires submission and the giving over of the direction of our lives. In a world where we’re encouraged to find our purpose by taking taking control, it’s also deeply counter-cultural.
Follower-ship is, after all, discipleship – submitting ourselves to be shaped and disciplined to become the kind of people we were created to be. That feels like the fulfilment of the person I’m meant to be, not some independent, free spirit trying to do it all on my own, but as one who recognises the deep interdependence and relationship between and through all things.
I don’t know where this will lead us – but I can look back with contentment to where it’s brought us from…and perhaps, for now, that’s sufficient.