I grew up in a faith tradition where following Jesus meant obeying the cultural rules associated with Jesus. We would hear that preached all the time. One of our pastors always spoke about the evils of cigarette smoking, and would openly question how anyone could be a smoker and be a Christian at the same time.
I don’t think any of our church leaders ever intended to do this because they were all really good people, but the message many of us received was that following Jesus was defined by the list of sins a person doesn’t commit.
FOLLOWING JESUS ALWAYS HAS THE POTENTIAL TO BE DEFINED BY THE SINS A PERSON DOESN’T COMMIT.
If following Jesus meant obeying the rules, then obeying the rules was defined as saying no to cultural temptations and worldly evils. So for me, following Jesus meant that I didn’t smoke, or chew, or drink Miller Lite, or kiss a girl for longer than three seconds without pulling away for air, or lust, or use real cuss words, or dance provocatively.
I hate dancing. I’m 6’4”, so I feel like everyone is staring at me dance poorly. My feet want to mimic whatever my arms are doing, and everyone knows that you can’t be a winning dancer without some differentiation between what your top does, and what your bottom does. The joke in my Christian circles went something like this…
Why can’t a Christian have premarital sex? Because it might lead to dancing.
And then we’d all just crack up.
Following Jesus was defined as those temptations I was able to say “no” to. The whole of Christianity came down to the choices I made that stood opposed to the choices the alcoholic dancing smokers were making. As I’ve said already, the leaders of my church didn’t mean to leave that message with me, because that would just be evil, and they weren’t evil people. They were just good people who had fallen into their own temptation of replacing the mystery of an intimate Jesus relationship with rules they could quantify and feel somewhat good about. And we all do a little of that, if we’re honest.
For me, there was no Gospel in following Jesus, mostly because there’s no good news in the “following” I was being invited into. Think about it. Following Jesus was equal to obeying the cultural rules associated with my church. Obeying Jesus was equal to saying no.
And where’s the good news in that?
Because following Jesus is the most amazing thing any of us can ever be invited into. I mean, the great God of the whole big deal is beckoning us to follow Him. It’s just too crazy to believe, and too magnificent to gloss over.
But it simply must be something more than stuff I abstain from. It must be the most beautiful and life-changing invitation ever. For the early disciples, they smiled when they were invited to follow Jesus. Or they walked away. Many of them died as a result of saying yes to Christ’s invitation. But that doesn’t change the beauty associated with the Ask.
The classic invitation to follow Jesus started when Jesus was inviting His initial group of disciples to band together and do something significant, something He would later call “the Kingdom of Heaven” or “the reign of God”. If Jesus was a little obsessed about any single thing, it was the Kingdom. He never really defined exactly what it was, but He talked about it all the time.
As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.
The Ask from Christ’s lips to “follow me” is beyond significant. People who read or heard this narrative read aloud in the first century would have been blown away. Here’s why…
Bible scholars who are way smarter than me believe that this was an official, formal, rabbinical ask. In other words, the invitation that the Rabbis made to potential students was to follow them. They would look at them and simply say, “Follow me”.
Rabbi’s wouldn’t just accept anyone to be their disciple. They wanted elite young men. Men who had it together. Men whose i’s were dotted, and t’s were crossed. These guys were already living exemplary lives according to the Talmud.
Furthermore, these young men would have CHOSEN a Rabbi to pursue and follow. It wasn’t the job of the Rabbi to search out qualified young men. It worked the other way around.
You know that part of the baseball season when guys get called up to play in the Majors? As August ends and September rolls in, the players who have earned the right to play at the top level get a chance to do so for a month. A few guys who’ve proven themselves, and in whom the managers have good reason to trust with great potential, get called up to play in the biggest dream of their lives.
I think the young men who the Rabbis invited to follow them probably felt like it was September call-up time. They were the best of the best, being invited to follow their hero.
And if the Rabbi accepted the student, from that moment forward, the student was told to “powder himself with the dust of the Rabbi’s feet”. That’s such a beautiful metaphor. These newbies were told to walk so closely with the Rabbi that the dust that his feet kicked up landed on them.
DISCIPLES WERE TOLD TO WALK SO CLOSELY WITH THEIR RABBI THAT THE DUST HIS FEET KICKED UP WOULD LAND ON THEM. THAT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL IMAGE OF DISCIPLESHIP.
And this, friends, is where it gets really interesting.
In Matthew 4:18-20, Jesus – speaking the popular Rabbinical language of the day – walks up to Peter and Andrew, and issues the formal ask.
But there are two astounding differences.
First, Peter and Andrew are most definitely not elite. They didn’t have it all together. I think it’s extremely significant that Matthew adds the phrase, “..for they were fishermen.” We read that and think, “Duh”. But I think it’s Matthew’s way of highlighting that indeed, these men were most definitely not the elite, or the best of the best, or even the middle of the middle.
They had trout breath.
Their i’s weren’t dotted, Their t’s weren’t crossed. Peter belonged to a band of Zealots who met in secret places all over the city, planning to overthrow Rome by the sword. Peter had no intention of fulfilling the law. He was too busy breaking it.
Secondly, Jesus comes to where they are, and pursues them. He’s already made a pattern of this with the entirety of His life, but He walks into their world, seeks them out, and invites them in. Whenever I get insecure about anything, I remember this single truth. It’s usually a game-changer in a heartbeat. Jesus is creating an upside-down kingdom, and He’s coming into our world to see if we’re interested in following Him wherever He leads. That’s pretty cool.
JESUS IS CREATING AN UPSIDE-DOWN KINGDOM, AND HE’S COMING INTO OUR WORLD EVERY DAY TO SEE IF WE’RE INTERESTED IN FOLLOWING HIM WHEREVER HE LEADS.
So Jesus looks at Peter and Andrew, His eyes piercing their hearts, and says, “You. Both of you. Don’t go home. Don’t try to get it all together. Don’t run away. Just follow me. Right now.”
And they do.
They follow Jesus.
They follow Him from that day forward. Do they get the rules right every time? Not so much. Do they obey Him in every word He commanded them? Nope. But do they follow Him, and powder themselves with the dust of His feet?
You bet they do.
There are two extremely significant acts that Jesus models in this story. First, He doesn’t make people ask to follow Him. Instead, He initiates the Ask with them. Second, He doesn’t make them get their crap together before the following begins. Instead, He invites them to follow Him before they get it together.
I’m so sorry that many of us have been raised spiritually to believe that following Jesus is all about following rules. It’s just so not true. Obeying the rules and principles of Jesus is actually incredibly important, but rules are always designed to be a byproduct of another pursuit. Because when we make following Jesus primarily about following the rules of cultural Christianity, I think we miss out on the primary reason Christ invites us to follow Him.
Do we really believe that He left the glory of heaven, came to earth to die a cruel death pinned to a cross by professional executioners, and was raised again on the third day… all so that we could get the rules right? I can’t think of anything more absurd than that belief. And still, we’re tempted to believe it.
I think you and I are far more like Peter and Andrew than we care to admit. We are so not the young men who already have our lives together, and who are being vetted by some spiritual authority figure. The vetting has already been done by the Creator of the universe, and it’s been universally agreed that we have no business following anyone, let alone the Son of God.
But we’re invited to anyway.
Not as a scrappy second. Not as a Plan B. But as a person who Jesus WANTS to walk the journey with. Biblically speaking, Jesus is changing the world by inviting folks into a Kingdom that’s the most unique thing ever. And He’s doing it with us, through us, and in spite of us.
JESUS IS CHANGING THE WORLD, AND HE’S DOING IT WITH US, THROUGH US, AND MANY TIMES IN SPITE OF US.
Could it be that Jesus wants us to follow closely to Him because He deeply desires the “closely” part? I mean, could is possibly be true that Jesus actually enjoys having us in the room with Him? Most of us may believe in our heads that we are indeed friends of God, but very few people actually believe in the core of their hearts that Jesus DESIRES us to be with Him, every day, every hour, every step.
Make no mistake about it – Jesus is taking something that the religious leaders of the day created as a well-intentioned two-dimensional ask, and He’s turning it into a three-dimensional relationally-driven experience that’s full of fulfillment and fear, light and darkness, intimacy and hiddenness. Questions may be answered along the way, and they may not. But that’s not the point.
Every day we live, I think Jesus whispers into our hearts the most intimate invitation possible. “Today”, He says. “Follow me. Powder yourself with the dust of my feet. Walk so closely with me that the dust I kick up lands all over you.”
And it’s funny how we can’t seem to fixate on the stresses and challenges of our lives when our eyes are too filled with His dust to see any of those lesser things.