So, you want to be like Jesus… Seems easy enough, right?
Love. Serve. Give.
Strike that. This being like Jesus thing might read easily enough, but being like Jesus is tough. It costs us something because of what we give up to follow. But sometimes, we think we’re following when we’re really not. We’re caught up in too much other stuff. Just like the first disciples.
But if they could follow Jesus, then maybe we can, too. It’s just that we have so many people we like and want to be like.
In 1991, there was a Gatorade ad campaign featuring Michael Jordan, the hotshot University of North Carolina grad and Chicago Bull who had just won his first (of six) NBA championships. The campaign was “Be Like Mike,” capitalizing on the desire of nearly every basketball player of any age to be like Mike. They drank the Gatorade, bought the Air Jordans, pumped their shoes up, shot ball after ball after ball in the gym.
How do I know that, you ask? Because I was one of them.
I had the posters, watched the games, treasured the magazine articles, soaking up every word Jordan said. I tried to follow him in an age that was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter.
But even notwithstanding my lack of size (and jumping ability), I wasn’t interested in following through with the regimen I discovered Jordan pursued relentlessly. I wouldn’t make the sacrifices to only eat the healthy stuff he ate, to lift weights the way he did, to run the countless hours and miles he ran. I was willing, in the words of Kyle Idleman, to be a fan but not a follower. I was unwilling to be a disciple of Michael Jordan.
But Jordan is a freak of nature, one-of-a-kind. And Jesus is both fully God and fully man, one-of-a-kind… who proposed that we could and should follow him. Is that even possible? Is that even a reality?
It would not seem to be if we didn’t have the examples of those disciples who came before, both those we’ve known and those we read about in the Biblical record.
For our discussion, discipleship begins one day that must’ve seen normal, just like any other. Jesus is doing his thing, preaching to whoever will listen. This sunny day, he preaches at the Lake of Gennesaret to people who are crowding around him – a crowd so big that he commandeers a nearby fisherman’s boat. A fisherman minding his own business named Simon. And he directs Simon, who moments before was probably repairing nets and resting up from a night of fishing, to go off the shore so that he can be heard by more of the people (Lk 5:1-3).
Jesus preached- no big deal, right? He did that all of the time. But on this day, Jesus goes from run-of-the-mill revivalist with charismatic wordplay to someone with an entourage. First, he proves his power by telling the fishermen how to make a great catch and where to toss their nets – he tells them how to do their job. Second, Simon recognizes that he’s seen something spectacular, confessing “Go away from me Lord, I am a sinful man!” (He takes it from miraculous to holy in that split second.) Third, Simon’s experience is understood by the other fishermen, James and John the sons of Zebedee who Jesus will nickname “Sons of Thunder” for their brashness. Fourth, Jesus presents the challenge: “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people” (5:10). And fifth, these new disciples leave their nets and follow him.
Jesus just went from solo act to leader of the band. Jesus, freshly baptized and tempted, tried and true, is now going to devote his time not only to the masses but also establishing the disciples as the force by which the church-to-be will be established. They’re going to “fish for people” but how do they do that? What do they do once they give up their old lives and go on the road – again, the image of a band following their lead vocalist on a tour bus.
This is no aimless drifting. This is the absolute intentionality of Jesus – again, driven by the Holy Spirit, by the will of God and a movement of obedience. The disciples are caught up in it- how well they understand is open to to interpretation- and they learn at the feet of Jesus. He closes many of his lessons with the phrase “Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Whoever is ready to listen may understand. Whoever will follow will listen. Whoever will listen will have their heart opened.
Sounds sort of like Yoda, doesn’t it? Like the Kung Fu, Zen-like, so backward-it-must-be-forward kind of truth that could take our whole lives to figure out, understand, internalize, … and live out. Ah, the life of a disciple.
In fact, a disciple is one who becomes covered in the dust kicked up by their teacher, their Master’s, feet because they are walking so close behind him. But in the case of Jesus, it’s not just dust – they receive the gift of power and authority “to drive out all demons and cure diseases,” as they are also instructed to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick (Luke 9:1-2). Jesus gives them the ability and the responsibility to handle spiritual matters and health issues, to share the good news that God’s kingdom is here and not yet.
These men took nothing – food or possessions- so that they were fully reliant on the hospitality of others. Jesus tells them to leave the town and shake the dust off their feet if the people there don’t welcome them – remember how disciples became covered in their Master’s dust? Their mission is so laser-focused that they aren’t even supposed to be bothered by an unbelieving, disinterested town’s dust.
Their mission is to care for people’s souls and to fix their bodies, to battle the forces of sin and spiritual brokenness. To share the good news of the kingdom of God like the angels, and the shepherds, to make more disciples.
Of course, just like today, not everyone is ready to follow Jesus, to count the cost of discipleship as worthwhile (Luke 9:57-52). In one vignette, a man says he’ll follow Jesus but Jesus tells him that there’s no security in following Jesus and that’s the last we hear of the man. Another says he’ll follow Jesus after he buries his father and Jesus dismisses him; a third says he’ll follow after he says goodbye to his family and he gets sent away, too. Like B.A. Baracas, Jesus won’t suffer no fools. But he also isn’t interested in people whose hearts aren’t completely in it.
Jesus knows we are into security (how much is in our 401k? how do we set ourselves up to succeed tomorrow? how well are we taken care of?), that our ties and our relationships often keep us from following Jesus, and that our expectations of what our lives should be like keeps us from seeing what God wants our lives to be. And so he tells those who can’t move past those things that they might as well not worry about being disciples. And then we don’t hear from them again.
Not everyone makes the cut.
Not everyone wants what Jesus offers.
Not everyone is willing to make the sacrifice.
And Jesus doesn’t force it on anyone either.
But Jesus does demand absolute commitment, exceptional devotion. Jesus tells the crowds who come to him that “anyone who comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters- yes, even their own life- such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-27). Brutal, right? Not exactly the thing we’d expect from the guy we thought would help us understand love better, who seems to be always considered kind… and compassionate.
It would be a much easier sell to explain Jesus’ “love God, love others” and edit out all of the parts that seem hard. Thomas Jefferson is famous for having edited out all of the parts of the Bible that he didn’t like or agree with. Jesus talks about the cross before he even gets there, but he knows his listeners would understand about the ways that the cross was an ignoble, terrible way to die. And they wouldn’t have been hyper-interested in carrying a cross, just for kicks. But Jesus said… “take up your cross to be my disciple”?
Seriously, Jesus isn’t all lollipops and cotton candy. He’s more of a salty than sweet guy: “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor the manure pile; it is thrown out” (Luke 14:34-5). He’s intent on helping his disciples, on helping us understand that we’re either for Jesus or we’re against him.
That Jesus doesn’t say “pray for whatever you want and it will automatically be yours.”
That Jesus doesn’t say “oh, go do your own thing and I’ll just wave the cross of forgiveness over you.”
That Jesus doesn’t say “oh, pick and choose which parts you like about what I’m saying and dispose of the rest.”
That loving God and following Jesus is an all-or-nothing venture.
We either get to being about loving and serving and forgiving and following absolutely or we don’t. A half-baked, half-painted, half-completed discipleship isn’t worth anything to Jesus.
In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that the salvation of Jesus discussed without the cross is only cheap grace, grace that doesn’t understand how much God loves or how much Jesus gave up by dying on the cross. “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate… [Real] grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
If we’re going to be disciples, if we’re going to follow Jesus, then we must move away from a life of sin, repent(!), and take up our cross. Sure, we’re forgiven before we even know we need to be forgiven, thanks be to God Jesus died on the cross! Sure, it’s freely given for all who would believe. But that forgiveness, that grace, asks our repentance, our actual remorse, and our actually living out what it means to love God and love others on a real-life basis.
Being a disciple is hard work. Harder than coughing out a prayer over a meal, harder than flipping through our Bibles once a month, harder than dropping whatever is left over in our wallets into the offering plate. Being a disciple requires sacrifice, requires the willingness to follow.
The Message’s translation of Mark 8:34-38 is a modernized reminder of what the cost of discipleship looks like, what Jesus is calling us to, what it means to actually follow Jesus. Here, he says,
“Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?
“If any of you are embarrassed over me and the way I’m leading you when you get around your fickle and unfocused friends, know that you’ll be an even greater embarrassment to the Son of Man when he arrives in all the splendor of God, his Father, with an army of the holy angels.”
We’ve been warned, challenged, encouraged, inspired, and commanded.
But I want to stop here for a second and say this: discipleship doesn’t mean perfection; discipleship means devotion and followthrough.
There’s a story I heard lately about a woman and her husband who had just bought a brand new car. They got home from the car dealership, freshly off of the lot, and he sat down on the steps to their house. She went into the garage and returned with a sledgehammer. “Do you want to do it? Or me?” she asked him. “Go ahead,” he said, holding out his hand in permission. As a neighbor watched, she took the sledgehammer and brought into the body of the car above the wheel well. The pristine car now had a dent the size of a fist in it. She turned back to the garage and returned the sledgehammer to its spot.
“Why did she do that?” the neighbor asked, incredulously.
With a mixture of understanding (and pain!) the husband replied, “Now we can just drive it- we don’t have to worry about it’s first ding.”
That’s our expectation. We are dinged up. We do sin. But we’ve been forgiven and we’re called to follow the one who forgave us, by living the life of a disciple.
We must decide if we’re willing to take up our cross and follow, if we’re willing to sacrifice to be more like Jesus, if we really want to be all in with Jesus.
The way we’ll know for sure? When we can recognize that the dust of Jesus’ feet is all over us, in the way others recognize our lifestyle as being like Jesus, in the way we live and in the way we love.
Let those who have ears, let them hear.