From where do we begin when seeking to follow Jesus? This is a legitimate question for any Christian seeking to break away from the label of “Christian” and wanting to resemble the very ethics of the One they long to follow after. But from where do we begin? Is it by seeking to copy what we see Jesus doing? Is it by measuring up the best we can to the level of perfection and holiness Jesus represented as told to us by Paul or Peter? Where do we begin in “following Jesus?”
These are valid questions. For some they do not make a difference. Others reduce all of Christianity to simply being a “great person.” But that isn’t right either. To be a Christian is to embody the ethics, life, and purpose of this radical 1stcentury reformer who was a poor, homeless, peasant. A wandering cynic perhaps or even millenarian prophet. The question still stands, where do we begin?
For many centuries the church’s launching point in seeking to emulate Jesus was through the study of the risen Christ and reflections of him post Easter. The ethics for many were confined to the teachings of Paul, Peter, James, and John. Of course, the Gospels have always played a large role, however even within those texts it was the aspects of Christ which were emphasized. The challenge is that all of these reflect the person of Jesus post-Easter. They reflect the collective consciousness which was being formed around the risen Christ and the church’s experience with Him.
Obviously, we cannot argue with the profound impact of the risen Christ and the resurrection. But when we speak of “ethics” we are speaking of the social constructs which govern our actions, thinking, and dispositions. The “risen Christ” tends to make this reality challenging. The “historical Jesus” however brings concrete action to this end. More than that, when studying the historical life of Jesus and how he interacted within the Judaism of his day we are given an image of what true Christian ethics are to look like. For example, Jesus dealt with various religious groups which compromised the ethics and truth of God’s original intent with Judaism. Might we still have same issue today with staunch fundamentalists and radical progressives within the Christian religion? Seeking to respond to this perhaps it would be wise to see how Jesus responded to the polar extremes of his day.
Christian ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas rightly argues that the appropriate place to begin is with the man himself. living in 1stcentury Palestine. He says, “You cannot know who Jesus is after the resurrection unless you have learned to follow Jesus during his life. His life and crucifixion are necessary to purge us of false notions about what kind of Kingdom Jesus brings. In the same way his disciples and adversaries also had to be purged. Only by learning to follow him to Jerusalem, where he becomes subject to the powers of this world, do we learn what the kingdom entails, as well as what kind of messiah this Jesus is.” (The Hauerwas Reader, 120-21)
The key point Hauerwas makes is actually revolutionary to much of modern Christendom: to follow Jesus is to look more so at his life pre-Easter life than post. The purging Hauerwas speaks of is essential if we are to actually become “followers of Jesus.”
For far too long in my own Christian life I have encountered many individuals who claim to follow Jesus and yet only cling to the risen Christ as hope for their salvation. This reduces their life to a mere label and cerebral declaration—which according to Matthew 25 means nothing.
But trust me. I get it. I too love the soteriological aspects of atonement theory and everything else that goes with the theological “hodge podge” of our Savior. But if following Jesus is what we are focused upon then we must shift our thinking.
The church is long overdue for a renaissance of complete ethical and organizational transformation. To be so transformed to the point where our ethics resemble not Christians following a risen savior but rather an ethical paradigm that reflects a revolutionary rabbi from the 1stcentury fit into the 21st. Given a healthy hermeneutic, passion for people, and steadfast focus upon emulating the life of Jesus—it can be done.
My wife and I have this radical idea that the church we are building/planting at the present moment could mature so much so that each member—each ministry—each action might resemble the person of Jesus. To do so we would have to buck the common trends of modern evangelicalism and its infatuation with “sexy” trends. We would have to say no to helicopters dropping Easter eggs. We would have to say no to franchising our church plants as though they were Jimmy John’s cookie cutouts with 8 ft high holograms of myself. Trust me, I am not the best preacher. We would have to say not to the attractional model where it’s all about us and lucky you! —you get to come and reap the benefits and consumption of our product. Below sample what I believe when happens when we follow the “its all about the risen Christ and not the Jewish man living in 1st century” model.
Now, no. None of that. Rather a church that takes seriously the human side of this man. A Church that is radical in its giving. Offensive with its mercy. Abundant in its grace. Intentional in its work with poverty. Messy in its love. Firm in its orthodoxy. A church that doesn’t just say, “We are the hands and feet of Christ” but rather demonstrates “Join us in doing, seeing, thinking, loving, lifting, forgiving, mending, healing—as Jesus does.”There’s a big difference. Below represents what I believe, priorities and focuses of a heart longing to emulate Jesus of Nazareth. There could of course be many more images to represent the cares and concerns of Jesus as seen in Scripture.
Now, am I being unfairly broad? Perhaps. However, because of the top set of images, there are so many who loathe Christianity and Jesus. The least we can do as the church is reframe our efforts and work hard to establish an ethos that looks more like Jesus and less like American/ Western pop Christianity. To resmeble a group of people passionate about Jesus so that we can care more about the bottom set of images. It can be done but it will be difficult. The world is dying for a true expression—not of Christianity—but of Jesus. There is a difference.
To be clear, does all of this indicate that I hold a low Christology? No. I affirm the creeds in their entirety. As much as the next believer. However, I live on this side of the veil. And while on this side of eternity my focus is to live the life Jesus lived. Michelle and I both seek to lead a church movement that will demonstrate to a tired and worn down population what it looks like to resemble Jesus; demonstrating the ethics and life of a 1stcentury radical reformer who didn’t give a crap about religious piety—only the justice, love, and compassion of the Father.
In conclusion, Matthew 5:48 Jesus instructs us to be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The essence of this verse, as well as the Greek etymology of “perfect” does not mean “free of sin or unalloyed.” It refers to a maturity and growth that is uncanny in its state and fully developed. It is a perfection that comes by learning to follow and be like this man whom God has sent to be our forerunner in the kingdom. That is why Christian ethics as a whole is an ethical system of principles, laws, or values, but an ethic that demands we attend to the life of a particular individual: Jesus of Nazareth. It is only from him that we can learn perfection and maturity the way God intends.
And so when you sit down to ponder how you can best follow Jesus perhaps It would be best for you to begin with a gospel or two. After that move right into the theological Christ and the reflections of the Church. While of course the gospels themselves are a reflection of the church’s view on this man named Jesus—they are still our best attempt at understanding the historical person of Jesus.
More musings on this radical person in the near future. Until then—I encourage you: live like Jesus. If you don’t know how please allow me to break it down for you simply: read what Jesus does in Scripture and then “Go and Do Likewise.”