“Follow me.” Whether you’re a regular churchgoer, avid reader of the Bible, or have little interest in Christianity, I am sure that you have heard this line before, perhaps ad nauseam. This is for good reason. This is the invitation that Jesus extended to His twelve disciples and just so happens to be the invitation that he has extended to you, no matter your past, present, or future. No matter your current lack of faith, feelings of unworthiness, or years of church involvement, know that He has said to you, "follow me.” This, of course, leaves you with a decision to make, whether you sent your RSVP in long ago or not (luckily Jesus is in no rush), you are left to figure out what it means to "follow" Jesus.
Despite the number of times this phrase has been taught, written, talked, or posted about, it still does not seem to be entirely clear (or agreed upon) what this looks like for you and me. What does "following Jesus" really mean? What does this invitation require, and ask, of me? What do I need to have done beforehand? What do I need to do after I say yes? This confusion, in my opinion, is the result of either the oversimplification or overcomplication, by the Church, of what Jesus is calling each of us into.
Now, before I go further, understand that this is not intended to be an attack on the Church (I just so happen to work at one). Rather, I hope for this to be a clarification of the most critical invitation so that we can be more knowledgeable when we make the most crucial decision. I do not believe that all churches have done this knowingly; in fact, I highly doubt it. However, the Gospel has been muddied. Period.
If you want to understand what following Jesus means, take a look at the lives of those who literally followed Him around for three years. The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John will provide for you a far greater insight into what following Jesus looks like than I ever could. But here is what I hope will be some clarity for all those who are confused, turned off, or disinterested by the invitation.
As I mentioned previously, the first way in which you may have a distorted understanding of what Jesus means when He says to you "follow me" is over-complication. Some of us (teachers of the Word) have made this loving invitation so difficult to understand, so mystical, that it seems to be a near impossibility for someone living a normal life, with a job, family, and a hobby. Following Jesus has been described as a list of “do’s” and “do not’s,” with an expectation that one must begin following this rigid code immediately, no matter the habits, reservations, desires, or doubts. This is a gospel full of challenge and demand, with little room for grace and patience.
To many people, “follow me” sounds like this: “You want to follow Jesus? Great! Here are the terms and policies, make sure you are up to code with the rules and regulations. Yes, I know it is very fine print and it is about 1,300 pages long, but hey, this is it! A couple of more things: questions and doubts may be normal, just don't ask them. Oh, and by the way, don’t mess up! And if you do, definitely don’t let anyone at the church know about it, everyone here already has everything figured out and perfected.”
So many times I have heard from people, of all ages, that Christianity is just a bunch of rules and that Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites. I don’t blame them. That is the result of the overcomplication and rigidifying of the Gospel, which ironically enough, literally means good news. If this has been your experience or understanding, think on these questions:
Do I really believe that Jesus treated his disciples this way?
Do I really believe that the disciples, who were ordinary men, became perfect the instant they started following Jesus, dropping all bad habits, unfruitful desires, and selfish tendencies?
Do I really believe the disciples didn’t have their own doubts, questions and inadequacies for the entirety of the three years with Jesus? Not to mention the remainder of the lives after he left them to build the Church?
You see, the disciples were just like you and me. I always make this joke: “If Peter had been a smoker before Jesus, there was definitely some cross over.” Ridiculous as it may be, it points out that the disciples were not the priests. They were ordinary guys, invited onto a journey. They had bad habits. They messed up, a lot. They had doubts and questions. And they definitely did not have everything figured out. These were your regular, run of the mill fellas, like me and you, who had their curiosity set aflame by a man from Nazareth they called Jesus.
The disciples didn’t know much about Jesus when they started following Him, but they figured it out along the way, day by day. I imagine they watched him closely and tried their best to follow His lead, learning His habits, watching how He interacted with and treated other people, and listening closely to every word He said, wrestling with what they previously thought and believed. There is nothing about what we know of the disciples' experience literally following Jesus that resembles the overcomplicated gospel.
The second distortion is that of oversimplification. This is a gospel that is embarrassingly easy and shallow, with little challenge or responsibility. The oversimplification of the true Gospel has made it unappealing and has defined what it means to “follow Jesus” with simple church attendance and involvement, possibly even tithing. Again, I have spoken to people, many long-term Christians, who think that following Jesus is simply saying you believe in Him, and then going about your life as if nothing changed. Well, if nothing changes, then what is the point? If I don’t change, then why follow Him?
People desire meaning, they want to become better versions of themselves, and to bring some sort of light to a dark world. They want to follow someone worthy to be followed, someone who will build them up, heal their mistakes, and teach them how to live a more meaningful life. Someone who cares about them. Many churches underestimate this. They underestimate the extent to which people will challenge themselves if the challenge is worthy. So, what do they do? They simplify the Gospel to Sunday morning services and the occasional serving project. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with services and serving occasionally, that is terrific! But that isn’t all following Jesus is! It is so much more, so much better.
If we look at the lives of the twelve disciples, they were consistently challenged. This came in the form of hard questions, seemingly impossible roadblocks, and encouragement to go out and try, even if they failed (which they did!). Following Jesus pushed them out of their comfort zones and made them grow up into the men they could be, the men Jesus intended them to be. It wasn't easy, it isn’t easy, but nothing truly meaningful and worthy ever is, is it? It requires us to grow, to strive, to struggle, to fail, and to learn.
Most of all, following Jesus requires a relationship. A relationship between you and Him. One of regular communication, openness, trust, and intimacy. These things are not bestowed on us in an instant; they are obtained over time and through experiences. Jesus has so much more he wants to give you than a captivating message on a Sunday morning. Do not settle for the oversimplified gospel.
For you and me, following Jesus is slightly different than it was for the disciples, as we do not have Jesus physically with us. But what we do have is His Word, which describes to us so much about Him, so much that the disciples witnessed and learned. The very nature of Jesus's heart, character, and personality is described within its pages. We also have His Spirit, which, when desired, will reveal His ways and give understanding to those seek it earnestly. We also have community with those who are also trying to get to the bottom of who Jesus is and what following Him looks like. The twelve disciples had each other, each as clueless as the next. Don’t try to figure it all out by yourself; we were meant to walk this road in a family, learning together, growing together, and failing together. One can be strong while the other is weak, one can be encouraging while the other is discouraged, and one can be accountable while the other is struggling. The Gospel, the good news, is not only good for you alone, but for you and your family and friends. Follow together, and it will be that much better.
Following Jesus is a lifetime of "figuring out" who He is, what He is doing, and what He would have you do. Following Jesus is taking a first step, probably out of curiosity or maybe hope. It is taking a risk and saying, "if you are who you say you are, this will all be worth it." After that, it's just step after step, talking as you walk, learning as you listen, and trusting as you serve alongside.