Being a follower is not something we encourage in America. No college commencement speaker has ever congratulated the graduates on becoming the "followers of tomorrow." Nobody makes sweeping biographical history films about great world followers. Nobody gives awards to recognize the contributions of community followers. Nobody frames their résumé to highlight where they exercised strong "followership" in their work. Nobody's heart swells with pride when a fellow parent comes up to them and says, "You know, your kid is a real follower."
For that matter, I don't direct the Center for Christian Followership at Auburn Seminary; seminaries train leaders, not followers. In fact, when "following" comes up at all, it's usually negative. Don't be a follower, be a leader. Don't follow the crowd. Being a follower is weak and passive. It is for people who can't think or act for themselves. Being a follower is for losers.
In fact, there is only one place I can recall being encouraged to become a follower: Twitter. Twitter is all about following. Twitter, of course, is an online social networking service, and you connect with other people by choosing to "follow" them; that's the language it uses. If you're following someone, you receive everything they say through Twitter, so choosing who to follow requires some real thought. Is this person interesting or funny or insightful or are they just going to tell you what breakfast cereal they had this morning? Whose thoughts and activities do you really want to keep up with?
Not long ago I logged into my Twitter account; and as it opened up, I glanced over in the corner of the screen where there's a box entitled "Who to follow." It's always there when you log in; it contains the names and pictures of people that Twitter thinks you might want to follow, and each one of them has a little button marked "follow" that you can just click to start following them. On this particular day, though, Twitter went beyond being a social networking service and became an online evangelist because it said that I should follow Jesus Christ, literally. It was right there. A Twitter feed for Jesus Christ. With his picture and everything. Oh, come on, I'm a minister--what was I going to do: not follow Jesus Christ? So, I clicked the button next to his name marked "follow," and now I regularly get updates from "Jesus Christ," which are sometimes funny, sometimes provocative, and often insightful. Not all that different from the Jesus we encounter in Scripture, when you think about it.
If there had been Twitter in the first century, Jesus (the real Jesus) probably would have been pretty popular. Lots of people wanted to follow him to see what he was doing and hear what he had to say. By the time this story happens, Jesus has made quite a name for himself. He's been barnstorming the countryside on a streak of healings and exorcisms and other miracles; he's been saying a lot of things that are sometimes funny, sometimes provocative, and often insightful, and the crowds follow everything he says and does. And, of course, he's got a closer group of followers, the disciples.
Now the word "disciples" simply means "students." But Jesus' students are not doing too well in class. They've been following him all over; they've seen everything he's done and heard everything he's said, but they can't seem to master the course material. This scene is about halfway through the Gospel of Mark, so I guess you could say this is the midterm exam. Jesus wants to know how much of all this they've been getting so far. "Who do you say that I am?" he asks. And, somehow, something clicks for Peter, and he actually comes up with the right answer. "You are the Messiah," he says simply, and he passes the test.
But you can have the right answer and still not understand anything about it. Just a few verses after he gave Jesus the correct answer, Peter is pulling Jesus aside to tell him he has the wrong one. He begins to rebuke Jesus for saying all this stuff about the Messiah having to suffer and be rejected and killed. "What kind of Messiah is that?" Peter demands. But Jesus cuts him off: "Get behind me, Satan," he says. Now Jesus isn't calling him Satan lightly; remember that Jesus began his ministry with Satan beside him, tempting him to see what kind of Messiah he really would be. It seems that here Jesus, too, has to take a midterm exam, facing that temptation again. And he, too, passes the test. And then he calls the crowd and the disciples around them, and he gives them all the answer to the question of what kind of Messiah he really will be, what kind of Messiah they are following: "If any want to become my followers," he says, "let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it."
Following Jesus requires a lot more than clicking a button and keeping up with him, knowing what he says and does. It means actually going where he goes and doing what he does the way that he does it, which is crucial given how the phrase "take up their cross" has been abused. Usually, when people say something or someone is "my cross to bear," they mean suffering that is imposed on them, but which must nevertheless be accepted and endured without complaint. But that is not what Jesus is saying. We do not take up our cross and follow Jesus by quietly accepting and enduring the violence of a spouse or the manipulations of a drug-addicted child. Suffering that is imposed on us against our will is not redemptive. Suffering on the cross was not imposed on Jesus; he took it up himself willingly, intentionally, to redeem all of us. To take up our cross and follow Jesus means we follow him in refusing to think only about ourselves, but to suffer for the redemption of others even if it risks us losing our lives.
I remember reading the biography of John Lewis, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the American civil rights struggle, and he talked about what redemptive suffering is really like. Now before then, I'd felt like there was a hole in the philosophy of non-violent existence. What do you do when somebody else is being violently attacked? Do you just stand there keeping your hands clean and ask the attacker to stop instead of driving them away? That's hard to accept. Lewis gave a different answer. "If someone is being attacked and beaten," he said, "it is your responsibility to intervene to protect them." But intervening does not mean returning violence with violence to drive the attacker away; intervening means stepping in and shielding your fellow marcher with your own body, accepting the blows yourself in order to save them, even at risk to your own life. "Oh," I thought. "I guess that's an option I hadn't considered." And it was hard to accept. But mostly because I didn't want to. Because there isn't much question that he was talking powerfully about them really taking up their cross and following Jesus; they were just going a lot further than I wanted to have to go.
"Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it." In other words, following Jesus is for losers; the question is what we are willing to lose. Now, to save or to lose our lives as followers of Christ isn't always a dramatic kind of decision like American civil rights activists or first-century Christians faced. In fact, that's a pretty rare opportunity for most of us in the American church in the 21st century. But it is no less real for that; a church that is focused on saving its own life will lose it. A church that spends its energy and resources saving its building rather than empowering its mission is losing its life; a living church makes its building a resource for mission, not an object of it. A church seeking new members to save its budget or its influence is losing its life; a living church receives new members to nurture them as disciples, not so they can nurture the church as an institution.
And losing our lives for the sake of the gospel does not always mean death. But it does mean martyrdom. Now, we think of martyrs as people who died for their faith, who literally lost their lives for the sake of Christ and the gospel, but that's not the original meaning. "Martyr" is a Greek word that simply means "witness." And what does a witness do? A witness tells the truth of what they have seen and heard, no matter what; it's just that, in the first three centuries of the church, telling the truth about how you had seen and heard Jesus' saving grace in your life and in the world was enough to get you killed. But the significance wasn't actually in losing your life for your faith. The significance was in being a witness who gives testimony that you had already lost your life when Christ claimed it and that it is held safely in Christ's hands where no one on earth can reach it.
I have been told that at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, when Christians were literally suffering and dying for justice and redemption there, Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to gather his staff around him in the mornings for prayer. And often as he was closing, he would ask, "If being Christian became a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict us?" Now the first time I heard that story I was horrified: if there's not enough evidence to convict Desmond Tutu of being a Christian, God help us all! But now I think he was asking it to keep himself and his staff focused on who and whose they were, rather than just what they were doing. They were not simply leaders, leading an important social struggle for dignity and freedom; they were followers, following Jesus Christ in insisting that God's reconciling love transcends anything that tries to resist it, which apartheid challenged in insisting that different races could not and should not live together. Without being followers, being leaders was not enough; people had to be able to see and hear them following Christ in their lives and ministry for that leadership to really make sense in the first place.
Maybe we need to have a Center for Christian Followership after all. As much as the church needs leadership development--and it does!--that's not going to count for much if we're not developing our followership. But the truth is, every congregation should be a center for Christian followership, a place where we help each other become losers, losers of anything that keeps us from following Jesus: our fears and anxieties, our pasts or our futures, our status or our schedules, our need to be in control of our lives and our faith, anything that keeps us from losing ourselves in the abundance of the grace that we receive, the love that we share, the ministry that we fulfill.
As it turns out, we have a lot to lose. So let's get going. All we have to do is follow the leader.
Let us pray. Gracious and loving God in Jesus Christ who came to give us abundant life as followers on the way of faith, fill us with the strength to take up our cross and follow Jesus, that we might have the abundance of true life you intend for us and others may see your love and grace at work in us and follow with us as well. Through Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.