One assumes that those who call themselves Christians offer themselves, at some level, to follow Christ. We also can assume there are many “interpretations” of what it means to “follow Christ.”
For me, following Christ means studying and understanding Jesus’ life and many teachings – and committing to following those life teachings. Ah yes! In honestly, I make an additional assumption. I’m less than perfect in trying to live out what Jesus asks of me.
In my continuing study of Jesus’ life and teaching, I see three priorities: 1) He talks only some about our relationship to God, including understanding God’s kingdom. 2) He spends less time dealing with sin or condemning aspects of it. 3) He devotes most of his teaching talking about the demands of discipleship. That is, he lays upon us significant and serious obligations of what it means to be his follower.
What’s especially fascinating about these emphases of Jesus is not just what he asks of his followers, but the relative importance he puts on these distinct areas of his concern. That is, it’s not just what specifics Jesus asks of us. More important is which of the three areas of teaching receive the most “energy” from Jesus as he lays those obligations on us.
An interesting eye opener is that Jesus seems least interested in condemning sin and sinners. That’s surprising because there are some Christians who primarily emphasize what is sinful and how much God despises certain kinds of sin – usually the very behaviors such people find offensive.
Actually, Jesus spends his least time condemning sinners. His most energetic diatribe against any sinnerfulness is his extensive “woes” in Matthew 23 where he excoriates the scribes and Pharisees. Even there, he’s not so concerned about the actions — but about their hypocrisy. In many other situations, such as when the woman caught in adultery was brought to him, Jesus’ compassion takes over. He makes no excuse for the woman’s actions, but he’s obviously ready to send her on her way with the positive words, “Go and sin no more.”
It also may be surprising to learn that Jesus spends little time trying to compel our theology. He really doesn’t tell us specifically what to think. He guides our thinking, without forcing any precise position. For example, even though the “Kingdom of God” is found often in his comments, he doesn’t force any precise views on that matter. Instead we find this refrain in his teaching, “the Kingdom of God is like unto…..” and then he adds some example – like a pearl of great price.
Jesus spends most of his time telling us (in one form or another) how we’re to be disciples by the character, intensity, and integrity of our treatment of others — especially those in need. Jesus makes no bones about it, such a disciple’s life is very challenging.
Jesus says this most clearly when he tells those who would be his disciple must “take up their cross” in order to follow him. That’s in sharp contrast to some popular Christian thinking today. For instance, much currently popular Christian music focuses on how God loves us, how wonderful God thinks we are.
Indeed, God does love us! The cross is the reminder of this! Yes! We find a powerful expression of God’s love for us at the foot of the cross. Nevertheless, the cross also reminds us that discipleship is not an invitation to comfort and security. It is not self-serving!
No, the obvious and powerful thrust of Jesus’ life and death is the command to move out of our comfort zone and into a difficult and demanding world where we’re to be God’s presence to all hurting people in today’s society.
McCartney is a retired minister and professor at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio.