Following Who?

In the digital world, it’s all about being connected. We can be connected with our smart devices and computers to over 900 social media apps. We’re familiar with Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Vine. There are others we may not be so familiar with, but in this digital age, the worst thing we can be is disconnected. Here’s the interesting thing, though. The more connected we become digitally, the more disconnected we become literally. Here’s an example: Last Sunday, I’m sitting at my mother’s house watching the Saints (no comments please), and my brother, my brother’s son-in-law and my son are all sitting on the couch—not talking to each other, but all checking their smart phones for the latest update on their “fantasy” football teams. We can’t even watch real football for checking out our fantasy teams! We’re disconnected in a connected world.

alltwitter-twitter-bird-logo-white-on-blueOne of the most popular social media platforms is Twitter. Twitter is a free social networking service that allows registered members to broadcast short posts called tweets. Twitter members can broadcast tweets (limited to 140 characters) and “follow” other users’ tweets. There are 974 million people with Twitter accounts worldwide, and 52.7 million in the U. S. That’s a pretty hefty number.

Twitter is about followers and following. You “follow” someone, and someone “follows” you. That means every time I post a “tweet” it goes out into the “Twitterverse” for all the world to see, but especially to those who have chosen to “follow” me. And, every time someone I’m following “tweets,” it shows up on my Twitter page. In case you’re interested, here are the top three Twitter accounts:

  1. Katy Perry 76 million followers
  2. Justin Bieber 67 million followers
  3. Barack Obama 64 million followers

Personally, I tweet @revlynnmalone, and I have 125 followers. Followers and following—it’s what Twitter is all about.

Following on Twitter is easy. Simply click a button on the app. Yes, following is easy, but it has no real impact on our lives. The fact that Katy Perry posts photos of her in the mountains of Machu Picchu makes no difference in the grand scheme of my life. The danger for us is that we too often see following Jesus with the same philosophy. We think it’s great to follow Jesus, but we don’t give much thought to what it means. What difference does it make to say we’re following Jesus?

It really wasn’t much different in Jesus’ day. Jesus had many followers who were simply catching the latest fad. We read in John’s Gospel in chapter 6 about a group who, John says, “went back and walked with him no more” (6:66). He offered those followers some challenging words, and they decided it just wasn’t for them. They weren’t willing to go the distance. They left and Jesus looked at Peter and asked, “Will you go away, too?” It was then that Peter said, “To whom would we go…and we’ve come to believe you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Interestingly, in Luke 9, Peter makes the same confession about Jesus and when he does, Jesus says, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross daily, and follow me.”

Being a disciple is not simply saying we will follow Christ. It is believing something specific about Jesus that changes our lives. We must know who Christ is before we will even consider following him because if we don’t believe who he is, we won’t be willing to do what he asks us to do. Our love for Christ is directly related to our understanding of who he is. If we understand who Christ is, we will run to him and leave everything else behind. He is faithful and loving and he cares for us more than we can ever know. But we must never forget that he is our Creator and that we are dependent upon him for our next breath and heartbeat. He is God and we are not, and if we will follow him, he asks only two things: 1) self-denial, and 2) self-sacrifice.

Jesus didn’t want any misunderstanding about what discipleship costs. He said, “Deny yourself.” The call to follow Christ is a call to a transformed life. It’s like Paul said to the Corinthian Christians: “What this means is that those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun” (2 Cor. 5:17). But the call to self-denial is such a radical call. That’s the thing about most social media…including Twitter…it’s so self-centered. Most of the posts we post are focused on the events and attitudes of our lives. We live in a selfie world where one of the top selling gifts last Christmas was the “selfie stick.” Even our President was seen with his new selfie stick! Denying ourselves mean we give up the selfie stick…get the focus off ourselves…and put the focus on Christ, and on others.

Denying self is seldom a dramatic or high profile act, but it is often demanding. It demands we understand that our faith is about far more than our own personal well-being. It is about obeying God and loving humanity.

Secondly, there’s this whole thing about “taking up our cross.” That’s about self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice and self-denial are close cousins. Jesus knew what it meant to take up the cross. He was headed toward Jerusalem and knew what awaited him there. He told his disciples as much. William Barclay tells us that when Jesus was about eleven, Judas the Galilaean led a rebellion against Rome. He had raided the royal armory at Sepphoris, which was only four miles from Nazareth. The Roman vengeance was swift and sudden. Sepphoris was burned to the ground; its inhabitants were sold into slavery; and two thousand of the rebels were crucified on crosses which were set in lines along the road as a warning to others tempted to rebel. To take up our cross means to be prepared to face things like that for loyalty to Jesus; it means to be ready to endure the worst the world can do to us for the sake of being true to him.

For us today, who don’t have a transformative understanding of the image Jesus paints for his disciples, taking up our cross means walking against the grain of cultural values, so that our needs take a back seat to God’s call. Bearing a cross means leaving behind dreams we had in our old life, for new dreams in a new life—a world transformed by the power and glory of God in Jesus Christ.

Our biggest problem is we look at self-denial and self-sacrifice from a negative perspective. What do I mean? Imagine a situation where a homeless man is begging on the streets of New York. A well-dressed man in a long limousine pulls up next to him and offers him a job as vice-president of his company. That seems ludicrous; nothing like that would ever happen. But that is exactly what God has done for us. He rescued us from the gutter. We were homeless and he gave us a new home. We were the rejects of the world, but he gave us self-respect. We had nothing, but he gave us everything. He asks us to be a part of his kingdom and work for it.

But, suppose the homeless man sneers at him and rejects the offer for several reasons. First, he will have to give up what is familiar to him. Obviously, it is a terrible life, but it is the only life he knows how to live. Secondly, he has a few possessions which he pushes around in a cart, and the few clothes he owns are on his back. And one of the conditions the man in the limousine makes is that the man must leave everything and get into the limousine. The third reason is that the man will actually have to work and accept responsibility. Life on the street was bad, but at least no one expected anything from him. No one expected him to be any different. So he turns from the man in the expensive suit and shuffles down the street hoping for a warm grate that he can sleep on for the night.

Does the man in the story understand what he has given up? He would have had a home, a job, a purpose, a great bank account, and a high position in an important business. But he passed it up to keep what he had. This is why Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” Dallas Willard reminds us that if we are going to talk about the cost of discipleship, we ought to balance it by talking about the cost of non-discipleship.

We are like the homeless man. When Christ comes to ask us to die to ourselves and give up our old life, we refuse. We think about all the stuff in our cart that you will have to give up. We may be miserable, but at least we are used to it, and we know how to get by. We are not sure we would know what to do if we really died to your old life. Besides, change is hard work. We don’t want the responsibility of following Christ fully. We fail to understand that you we’re in line to inherit the business. We’re not merely a partner, we’re an heir. The reason we were selected was that the man in the limousine, unknown to us, was really our father who searched until he found us. He wanted to call us more than vice-president; he wanted to call us son and daughter.

He calls us to follow him so that he might change us, to make us different in the world than we were before we came to know him. He calls us to follow him where he leads. In his leading, he transform us to be more like him, and he reminds us that discipleship is a full-time job, not a weekend hobby. Following Jesus never takes a holiday. We take up the cross daily…multiple times daily. We must be as diligent following Christ as we are posting those tweets to Twitter. That’s when true transformation takes place.

Until next time, keep looking up…

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