To Follow Jesus

Scriptures: Mark 3:31-35, Luke 4:16-21

"I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back." This old spiritual came to me last week, out of nowhere. I haven’t sung this in thirty years, but suddenly I was hearing the music in my head and singing along. And wondering . . . What does it mean . . . to follow Jesus?

It all depends, of course, on how we understand Jesus. The New Testament offers various portraits, which represent what it meant to first century Christian communities to follow Jesus. Within gospels these are woven into narratives, and our understanding of these narratives is shaped by other recollections of scripture and by what we have heard about Jesus in the church and perhaps read on our own.

Think for a moment of your image of Jesus . . . Is there a particular story or teaching that is central? Or when you think of Jesus, do you recall a picture from a Children’s Bible, or a painting, or stained glass window, or maybe a statue?

Jaroslav Pelikan’s well-known book Jesus through the Centuries has on its cover a sixth-century ikon of Jesus from the Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai. But the book has chapters on various historical understandings of Jesus as: The Rabbi, The Light to the Gentiles, The King of Kings, The Cosmic Christ, The Son of Man, The Bridegroom of the Soul, The Universal ManThe Prince of Peace, The Liberator, and The Teacher of Common Sense. Pelikan’s book reminds us that Christians in various times have constructed various views of Jesus from the New Testament materials. We, too, have mostly likely done the same.

In his book Christ and Culture H. Richard Niebuhr groups historical understandings of Jesus in five theological categories. Because in the New Testament Jesus often seems to reject the world, the first category is Christ Against Culture. "Do not love the world or the things of the world," we read in 1 John 1:15, because: "The love of the Father is not in those who love the world…its desires are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever." (vs. 15-17)

Of course, there are scripture passages in which Jesus seems to embrace the world, and Niebuhr identifies this perspective as The Christ of Culture. The gospels of Matthew and Luke relate that Jesus enjoyed eating and drinking with others, in contrast to the ascetic John the Baptist, who survived in the wilderness on locusts and wild honey. (Mt. 3:4, 11:16-19 and Lk. 7:31-34)

In between these two poles Niebuhr identifies three other ways of viewing what the New Testament says about the relationship of Jesus to the world. Images that concern the rule of the risen Jesus over the world are characterized as Christ Above Culture. This view of the church, as the reigning body of Christ, is central to the dogma of the Catholic Church. The Church, embodied by the Pope, is seen to mediate between the eternal Lord and the temporal world.

In the sixteenth century Lutherans looked to nation states to protect them from the power of the Pope, and found in the New Testament images of Jesus supporting a dualistic view of church and state. Niebuhr suggests that Martin Luther adapted Augustine’s idea about heavenly and earthly realms into a view of Christ and Culture in Paradox. The state is to rule the corrupted world until the end of time, and until then the church is to rule only the souls of its members. This is one Protestant understanding of the saying, "Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s." (Mt. 22:21, Mk. 12:17, Lk. 20:25)

Niebuhr argues that the Protestant Reformation also offered an alternative view, which he describes as Christ Transforming Culture. In this understanding, Jesus is the key not only to how life is to be lived by Christians in their churches, but to how Christians, as citizens, are able to make laws and governments more just. John Calvin is the mentor of many of these Protestants.

Now, stepping back from theological abstractions, consider once more what your view of Jesus is, and how your understanding is shaped by the Bible and also by our culture. In Mark 3:35 Jesus responds to an appeal from his family by saying, "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." This kind of statement has stirred many men and women to leave their families and their communities of origin in order to join new communities of faith. Such a vision of Jesus, which challenges the authority and claims of the older generation, has been immensely creative and continues to have extraordinary appeal for young people. Yet, among those of us who are older, these words may remind us of painful experiences – of children or grandchildren separating from families to pursue their own sense of calling.

The unique story in Luke 4:14-21 is also about conflict. In the synagogue on the sabbath, Jesus reads from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor." (Is. 61:1-2a) This is good news for the people of Nazareth, but when Jesus identifies himself as the anointed one, who is bringing about the Day of the LORD, he is run out of town.

These may not be the passages from the New Testament that we remember about Jesus, but they are central to the gospel narratives. Consider also the first words attributed to Jesus by the gospel of Mark: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near; repent, and believe in the good news." (Mk. 1:15) This is the topic sentence of the gospel, yet I suspect it is unfamiliar. We tend to ignore the words of Jesus and the stories that concern the end of time and repentance, for we are troubled by the conflict generated by Jesus as he preaches his hopeful but harrowing message to family members and friends.

What does it mean to follow Jesus? Throughout the centuries, there have been many ways of answering this question. Our calling is not to condemn, but to carry on. We have decided to follow Jesus . . . no turning back, no turning back. 

January 26, 2003 © Robert Traer 2016