For a few weeks in January and February, I explored five meanings of the gospel of Jesus: humanization, worldview reorientation, community building, shalom spreading, and present/future hope. These hold enormous implications for the status quo, but their impact is only really felt once people decide to embrace Jesus' gospel as their own and follow him wherever he may lead. If we desire a world where every human being's value is expressed and treasured, a world ordered around and comprehended through the radically loving example Jesus, a world where the violence and inequities dividing our relationships--with God, self, others and creation--are restored, a world of peace and justice, a world that is transformed for the common good before our eyes even as we await the day when all will be made new...if we desire this kind of world it will require people who are will to follow Jesus as his disciples.
If there is one major stumbling block in the Christian tradition that trips up our journey into discipleship, it is the baggage around the words 'faith' and 'works.' Somehow through the reformation's struggle to undo abuses in the Church of the time, we reduced both of these terms to opposite methods for acquiring eternal salvation. In that process, their fundamentally inseparable natures became divorced from one another and from the everyday life of people trying to be Jesus' disciples. The result is that we have a wide conceptual gap between 'having faith' and 'being faithful.'
"Following" brings these ideas back together in embodied practice. The choice to follow Jesus is based on some fundamental beliefs about who he is. For the original disciples, following emerged from their faith that he was a Rabbi with a new authoritative teaching of hope (Mark 1:27), that he came to enact the long awaited Jubilee--liberation for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-21), and eventually the convictions that he was the chosen Messiah (Mark 8:29), Lord (Phil 2) and God himself (John 1). To focus on "following" also frees us from believing we ever have Jesus figured out--that we have the right and comprehensive faith vs those other people. Just as the disciples set out after Jesus even though they would not comprehend who he was until after his death, our belief in Jesus is always a journey of ongoing discovery. Jesus continues to surprise us day after day!
Following Jesus meant that the disciples had to drop their nets and embark on a new life modeled after Jesus. To drop the nets was to relinquish a way of life, with its securities and familiarities. Whatever our beliefs are, they form the bedrock for how we live our lives. Believing that Jesus is the stuff listed above (among other things) initiates a holistic transformation of ourselves that does not stop with a shift in eternal destination.
One of the best explanations I have read that reconnects the two sides of belief and action comes from a non-Christian named Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator and activist, who wrote the following on the true meaning of knowledge:
Knowing, whatever its level, is not the act by which a subject transformed into an object docilely and passively accepts the contents others give or impose on him or her. Knowledge, on the contrary, necessitates the curious presence of subjects confronted with the world. It requires their transforming action on reality. It demands a constant searching. It implies invention and reinvention...In the learning process the only person who really learns is s/he who appropriates what is learned, who apprehends and thereby re-invents that learning; s/he who is able to apply the appropriate learning to concrete existential situations. On the other hand, the person who is filled by another with 'contents' whose meaning s/he is not aware of, which contradict his or her way of being in the world, cannot learn because s/he is not challenged. (Education for Critical Consciousness)
Unfortunately, there are many self-described Christians who function more like receptacles for information. Though they profess Christian sounding doctrines, they have never genuinely encountered these beliefs as a challenge to their "way of being in the world." Such people claim a faith which has never been allowed to actually transform them. But true knowledge--in the sense that Freire describes--of Jesus as one's Lord and Savior is inherently transformative. It necessitates that a person reformulate their point of view and way of life. It is like learning that the building you are in is on fire, or that the person you have secretly been in love with loves you back. Such knowledge simply has to be acted on by its very nature.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides a famous account of the Christian life of belief and obedience:
But since he is the Christ, he must make it clear from the start that his word is not an abstract doctrine, but the re-creation of the whole life of man. The only right and proper way is quite literally to go with Jesus. The call to follow implies that there is only one way of believing on Jesus Christ, and that is by leaving all and going with the incarnate Son of God...only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Jill Shook provides an example that hits close to home for many of us:
Luke's gospel emphasizes God's passion for justice for the poor. But that passion involves love for the rich as well. The involvement of the rich with those on the margins of society will be part of their own salvation, not a salvation of works, but of repentance, conversion, and forgiveness that results in justice for the poor. Wealth often stands between us and God. We who are privileged--and that includes almost all of [the readers of this blog]--may think we are knowledgeable and free, but we don't realize how we are blinded by greed and imprisoned in our affluent lifestyle, as in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. (Making Housing Happen: Faith-Based Affordable Housing Models)
In the first weeks of this blog, I spent a lot of time talking about contextual awareness. Why? Because we are so deeply enmeshed in our culture that we often cannot figure out where it diverges from the way of Jesus. We assume that because we listen to Christian music, do not say curse words and are opposed to abortion, we are swimming upstream from the culture. But it is almost never that simple. As Shook points out, this is particularly difficult for those in the majority (often called the "dominant") culture. The culture works for us. It is what has provided us with such an enjoyable lifestyle, so to critique it can be excruciating.
There is no faith and works tension. For Christians, there is only following Jesus which automatically implies both. The first Christians saw this clearly. They recognized that to follow Jesus was to testify to truths which had immediate implications for their lifestyle. This is why in the same breath we read in Acts that "those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. and they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need" (Acts 2:41-45). To believe was to inter into a worshipful lifestyle. It was to live in community with the body of Christ. And, often overlooked, the Jubilee Jesus preached about immediately became the socioeconomic lifestyle of the new Christian community as soon as their worldview was transformed through belief in him.
It is true, we will act in accordance with whatever our deepest commitments are. This is why we are reminded that cannot serve two masters. We cannot follow both Jesus and whatever career path will provide the greatest financial stability. We cannot follow both Jesus and the American Dream. We cannot follow both Jesus and a particular political party. We cannot follow both Jesus and whatever it takes to find true love. We cannot follow both Jesus and follow whatever our culture tells us is good. These agendas are not always contrary to one another, but anytime we have a "Jesus + ____" approach to life, the ____ inevitably leads us astray. As a disciple of Jesus, nothing can supersede our allegiance to the true King, there can be no complimentary motivation and no secondary pursuits. We must be willing to follow Jesus alone and trust that that is enough.
Does that sound scary? It's ok. Jesus knew it would as soon as he said it. That's why he offered us encouragement:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither so nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how the grow, they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. ...will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?...But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." (6:25-33ish)
Do we believe that these are the words of God? Then "fear not, for behold, [it is] good new of great joy that will be for all the people!" (Luke 2:1)