One of the most radical notions circulating in the Christian church these days is the idea that those who wear Christ’s name ought seriously to devote themselves to following Jesus. This means obeying Jesus’ instructions, adopting his attitudes and values, imitating his example, treating people the way Jesus treated them, trusting the Father as Jesus did. It means becoming Jesus’ pupil/apprentice, which is what the word disciple actually means — a relationship far more at home in a carpenter shop or sculptor’s studio than in a classroom. Indeed, “disciple” is the most common word used to identify those who follow Jesus, not only in the Gospels but also in the book of Acts. (The word “Christian,” by contrast, appears only three times in the entire Bible.) The idea that we should follow Jesus is therefore “radical” in the sense that it takes us back to the “root” (Latin: radix = “radical”) of the matter, as well as in the familiar sense of fomenting startling, upsetting, even revolutionary changes and results.
Yet this radical proposal ought to surprise no one who has read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. There we repeatedly hear Jesus say to inquirers and even to people who have expressed no outward interest in him, “Come, follow me!” The very invitation is charged with excitement, adventure and challenge. So, to my youthful ears was a hymn I remember singing as a child, a hymn with a question for a title: “Who Will Follow Jesus?” It is an old-fashioned hymn written about 1890 by an old-fashioned lady with the old-fashioned name of Eliza Hewitt. I wonder whether it is largely unsung today because it is archaic, or (truth be told) because it is so challenging! The concept of following Jesus is so challenging that the author of a 1961 book titled The People of the Way urging that radical notion published his book anonymously. I was personally stirred in 1983 by Gayle Erwin’s challenge, in his book The Jesus Style to live and think like Jesus. (Speaking of radical, Erwin had the nerve to ask what Jesus, the Servant of all, might think about a choice parking spot at church being “Reserved for Senior Pastor.”
Following Jesus is so difficult that the church through the centuries has spent considerable energy, time and resources finding distractions and alternatives to such a radical agenda. By the second century, some church fathers were focusing on an evolving church structure. By the “conversion” of Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, the church had essentially duplicated the governmental structure of imperial Rome and for the next 1,200 years gaining, maintaining and exercising power occupied the church hierarchy’s thoughts far more than following Jesus. (For that unglamorous and sometimes-dirty task, the hierarchy blessed eccentrics such as St. Francis of Assisi.) The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century preached Jesus as Savior and trust in Jesus as the avenue for experiencing God’s grace. Yet the two most influential reformers, Luther and Calvin, both continued the earlier Catholic practice of combining church and state, a practice not particularly conducive to following Jesus, and within a century or two the churches that sprang from their work had largely bogged down in theoretical theology and academic or scholastic arguments and issues. New reformers arose among the Protestants — Spener (Lutheran), Wesley (Anglican) and others — preaching again the radical idea that those who claimed to be Christians ought first of all to follow Jesus.
And so it has gone with religious movements of all shades through the centuries and across the Christian spectrum. My own heritage, the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement began in 19th century America as an effort to restore “primitive Christianity” as originally practiced. Alexander Campbell focused on restoring details of church ordinances and government. Barton W. Stone emphasized the restoration of a Christ-like heart. Within 50 years after the two leaders merged their efforts, doctrinal theories and external details had captured the minds and efforts of most within the movement. From time to time, lone voices urged the “restorationists” to devote heart and hand to following Jesus. Such voices were largely ignored as they had always been. Yet even today, throughout the Christian church in all its manifestations and expressions, there blows a soft and gentle wind. On this wind from time to time the quieted and listening soul can still hear an invitation, now nearly 2,000 years old: “Follow me!”