To be a follower is not a valued characteristic in our culture, is it? If someone asked us if we wanted our children to grow up to be followers or leaders, I’m guessing most of us would say leaders. When we hire or promote someone at work are we looking for leaders or followers? Businesses and even ministries offer people leadership training. But have you ever heard of a group that offers follower training? When we are giving life lessons to our children we say, “don’t be a follower.” It’s even something we say as sort of an insult: “that person is such a follower.”
I wonder if that’s why we have a hard time following Jesus.
Following requires us to give up control and submit to the leader. Who wants to do that?! I prefer to do things my way, plot my own course and figure it out. Following slows us down. It requires us to proceed at another person’s pace or take the long way if that’s what they prefer.
As I’ve pondered discipleship over the last weeks, the word that keeps floating past is “follow”. Discipleship can be a scary word. It sounds really intense and serious. But it really just means to learn from someone through a process of listening and doing.
About 12 years ago before our kids were born, my husband Chris talked me into taking scuba diving lessons with him. I’m not what you would call an adventurous person. I have no need to bungee jump or sky dive. Riding a bike is about as adventurous as I get. So this was a big stretch for me. But he was excited and wanted us to do this together. So, I agreed.
To learn to scuba dive you have to go through a pretty structured certification process. It starts with a text book, classroom lectures and even tests. That was right up my alley!
The next step is to handle the equipment, put together the gear, the regulator and air tanks. Chris and I were the only students in our class. So, we had a lot of opportunities to ask questions and get really comfortable with how everything worked.
Then one day, we had to actually get in the water.
The dive center had a little pool right in their building. It was the perfect place to practice because it felt contained – you could see the sides and there was no wildlife. The regulator is the thing that is connected to your air tank. When you put it in your mouth you are able to breathe normally. What I discovered pretty quickly, though, is that it is one thing to read in a book about how a regulator works but it’s something altogether different to put it in your mouth and start to breathe as you go under water.
Let’s just say I had a few false starts and sucked down about a half a tank of air before I finally got all the way under. But the instructor was really patient and kept saying things like, “this is really normal.” He stayed close by and that gave me a lot of comfort.
When it was time to do our certification dive, we drove out to an abandoned quarry that had been flooded. We got all of our equipment on and walked into the water. It was a really smooth entry, mainly because we could go at our own pace. We went down to about 25 feet and swam around for a while. When we surfaced, we were certified divers.
A few months later, we went on vacation to Mexico and Chris signed us up to do a drift dive over a coral reef with a group. I was a little nervous – this wasn’t a quarry and there wasn’t an instructor present. We were on our own. We had to get on a boat, ride out into what felt like the middle of the ocean and were then forced out of the boat. As we are getting on the boat, they made the announcement that we would be going to a depth of 80 feet and they asked if everyone had gone to that depth before. I looked at Chris and we began this conversation using our eyes, like married people do. My eyes said “we have not gone to 80 feet before.” And his eyes said, “if you tell them that, they might not let us dive.” I was ok with that; he was not.
Eighty feet sounded like a different planet to me at that point. There is a big difference between 25 and 80 feet, at least for a beginner. At 25 feet, you can see the surface of the water. That is comforting. At 25 feet you can get to the surface quickly if there is a problem with your air supply. At 80 feet you cannot see the surface and you have to ascend in stages or you could hurt your ears. You can’t just panic and pop to the surface.
The other thing that was making me nervous was a movie we had seen called “Open Water.” The plot of this movie revolves around a couple that had gone scuba diving while on vacation in another country, and when they resurfaced, the group and boat had left them on accident. They bobbed around in the water for a few hours and then they got eaten by sharks. Oh yeah – and the movie was based on a true story. So I had all of this running through my non-adventurous mind as we were riding to the dive site.
I have a very strong flight or fight instinct. Except my instinct is always towards flight. Now if there is some sort of emotional crisis, I’m your gal. But if I sense that I am in physical danger, I flee every time. I don’t wait around to take others with me or even warn of danger. I go.
That day we were doing a drift dive, which means that we weren’t diving to look at something and then surfacing all in one spot. Once we got to the bottom, the guy leading the group would find the current and we would ride it for a few miles to another location where the boat would pick us up. I saw all sorts of opportunities for danger in this plan – I could get separated from the group, get disoriented, look around and find myself alone in the ocean – at 80 feet.
As I’m descending to 80 feet I’m frantically strategizing how I’m going to get out of this alive. When you dive, you always dive in pairs. You are supposed to stay close to your buddy and check in periodically to make sure they are doing ok and to offer assistance if they need it. Well, we got to 80 feet and I abandoned my buddy which happened to be Chris. “For better or worse” doesn’t count at 80 feet.
Instead, I found the professional diver master who was leading the group and I stuck to him like glue. I figured if something happened I wanted him to be the one coming to my rescue. And I figured the tour operators wouldn’t leave him in the ocean. They would know he was missing and when they found him, they would find me too. I would have gone anywhere with this guy and nothing or no one was going to get in between us. I was going to follow any instruction he gave me immediately and completely. I really wanted to live. If I could have tethered myself to him, I would have.
And my plan worked! We survived the dive. I had gone from reading a textbook about diving to actually diving at 80 feet!
The Invitation – “Follow”
I was able to get from a book to the ocean through a process.
There are a lot of similarities between that process and the process of discipleship. Through the gospels, we see Jesus leading his disciples through a very similar process.
Jesus didn’t originate the discipleship model. In the New Testament world, if you wanted to learn something – a skill or a subject – you became someone’s disciple. Disciples didn’t attend a course or a seminar; they attached themselves to their teacher and followed them around for as long as it took to learn what they wanted to learn. A disciple went through a series of steps on their way to becoming experts themselves:
- They began by reading, watching and listening.
- They asked questions – why did you do this that way? Or you said this, what does it mean?
- Then they progressed to doing the thing they were learning, under the master’s supervision. If something didn’t go well they could ask for clarification or more teaching.
- Finally, the master sent them out on their own and expected them to operate independently of him or her. It was also understood at this point that they were able to teach others what they had learned.
Before a person began this process, though, they had to accept an invitation to become someone’s disciple. The gospels tell the story of how Jesus gathered and trained his original group of 12 disciples. We learn through their stories what it means to leave the life you know in order to follow.
After Jesus’ baptism and time of temptation in the desert, he begins his formal ministry. His first project is to assemble a group of disciples. He doesn’t ask for applications and pick the people who have the best resumes or credentials. He doesn’t pick the people who everyone else would consider “disciple material.” He picks the guys that didn’t have a chance in the world of becoming anyone else’s disciple. They had jobs like fishing and tax collecting and leading rebellions. Let’s look at Jesus’ invitation to Peter and Andrew in Matthew chapter 4 verses 18-22.
Peter and Andrew and James and John respond to this amazing offer by immediately accepting. They didn’t weigh their options or seek advice. They literally dropped their nets, got out of their boats and walked away with Jesus.
These disciples demonstrated for us the first lesson of becoming a disciple. In order to accept an invitation to follow, we will have to leave something behind. These disciples left behind the tools of their trade – their boats and nets – their profession, their businesses, their investment, their father and their father’s plan for their lives.
Sometimes, the call is to literally walk away from your life as you know it. Other times, we are called to keep living our same lives but in a different way. Sometimes this is the harder call, because the nets we leave behind are the unhealthy things we do to make our lives ok. We leave behind addictions, habits, passive-aggressive responses, temper tantrums, denial and a thousand other things we do to get through our days. To go back to your relationships and your work as someone who follows Jesus can be very challenging. But so can following Jesus while dragging around our old life.
At the end, 12 men accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him. And he proceeds to lead them through the process of teaching them everything they needed to know and do to be like him:
- They follow him from village to village and listen to him preach. They have front row seats as he heals the sick and casts out demons.
- They have lots of opportunities to ask questions – they draw him aside after he speaks in parables and ask what they mean.
- Then Jesus starts to give them jobs to do. He asks them to feed the 5,000 people who’ve gathered to hear him preach. They’ve watched him do miracles and now he wants to see what they’ve learned about how he operates.
- Finally, in Mark chapter six, he gives them authority and sends them out in groups of two to minister in villages. He sends them out to be fishers of men.
This is very much what our journey of discipleship should look like. Learning to be like and act like Jesus should be the primary focus of our lives. He asks us to learn how to do the life we already have like he would. What kind of a spouse would he be to my spouse? How would he parent my children? How would he do my job? What kind of a student would he be? Too many times, though, we don’t let being a disciple sink that deep.
Often our discipleship is focused on steps 1 and 2 – learning about Jesus. Think back to my scuba diving experience. If I told you I was a scuba diver and then you found out I’d only read the book and listened to the lectures but had never been in the water, what would you think? You’d think my statement was a bit of a stretch wouldn’t you? Why? Because reading about something and doing something are two different things.
A discipleship process that stops at listening to sermons or even reading the Bible is not complete.
Those things are very important but we must add the “doing” in steps 3 and 4 if we are to be disciples. We must move through the steps like the disciples did. We need to ask questions and figure out what we believe. We need to start participating in God’s work through service. Once we know enough and have experienced enough we need to get into the water and start doing it.
We can put the brakes on this process at any time. I could have taken all the written tests and decided that was far enough. No one was going to drag me into the pool. And Jesus did not drag any disciples along against their will. At every step we have the opportunity to accept his invitation to go farther.
This is where trust comes in. As we follow him, we learn that we can trust him. He doesn’t ask us to dive in the ocean until we are ready. And when we are ready, he dives down with us and lets us swim right up with him.
Dallas Willard, a Christian philosopher and a pastor for many years, wrote and taught some amazing things about what it means to follow Jesus. He once said in an interview, “the only thing that transforms us spiritually is the action of following Christ.” Knowledge and experiences of feeling God’s presence only transform us if we do something with them.
That kind of talk can make us nervous. We believe in grace, right? We believe we do not earn salvation by works, right? Absolutely. But salvation is not the end; it is the beginning. At the moment of salvation we are saying to Jesus, “yes, we want to follow you.” And then we start following him.
In II Peter chapter one verse five, Peter (who is a graduate of Jesus’ discipleship program) encourages us to “make every effort to add to our faith.” God does not want us to go through life burdened with the thought that we have to earn our salvation. But he does expect us to put some muscle behind our faith. Discipleship happens when we choose to put into practice what we are learning and experiencing.
When we begin to serve and make disciples things get interesting. I was not once nervous sitting in the classroom learning about scuba diving. I said things like “how interesting!” and took notes – sort of like I do on Sunday mornings at church. What requires effort is what happens as I take what I learn on Sunday morning and put it into practice.
A few months ago, I heard a song about following Jesus: “I will go with Jesus where he leads, no matter the roughness of the road. I must go. I must go.”
The person leading worship taught it to us. This is a fun song to sing. It’s catchy! And it caught me all week long. Whenever I was at a crossroads – the moments you decide, am I going to do what I want or go where God is leading – I heard that song in my head. Then the song went from something fun to a matter of obedience.
That’s the roughness of the road. For many of us it is not martyrdom or losing all of our possessions as we flee to the mountains. It is those moments when we have to take what we are learning and choose to obey.
Discipleship sometimes takes us to places that are new and hard and not our normal. And it is in those places that we are compelled to follow Jesus. I dove at 25 feet like a normal sane person. But when I was led to 80 feet, I followed as if my life depended on it. Jesus takes us to places where we are forced to follow as if our lives depend on it. These are the places where our natural skills and abilities just won’t cut it. These are places where we are inexperienced and unsure.
In the book of John we see a great example. In chapter 11 verse 16, Jesus has just gotten word that his friend Lazarus has died and he tells his disciples that the plan is to go to Bethany. The disciples say to Jesus, “normally we’d be all about that, but if you’ll remember, Jesus, the last time you were in Bethany, your enemies tried to kill you.” Jesus insists on going, and that’s when we get to verse 16.
Lots of people will say that Thomas is the Eeyore of the group. “Well, if we’re gonna die, let’s get it over with…” But I think Thomas is courageous. He actually thinks he’s going to die and yet he follows Jesus to Bethany! Why would he do that? Because he realizes that Jesus is Lord and that to follow him is the best thing he can do with his life – even if he loses it.
Not many of us will be asked to follow Jesus into physical death but there are a lot of things that feel like death – fighting addiction feels like death sometimes, and so does walking away from a damaging relationship, and loving someone who has wounded you and choosing peace when all you want to do is fight.
That’s what “no matter the roughness of the road” means.
The Commission – “Go!”
When Jesus invites you to become his disciple his desire is for you to complete this whole process. And he’s really honest about that. Let’s look again at Matthew 4:18.
When Jesus finds Peter and Andrew they are fishing because they are fishermen. What we “do” flows out of who we “are”. Jesus’ invitation to these men is an invitation to change not only what they “do” but who they “are”.
In verse 19, Jesus tells them exactly what he wants to change them into – fishers of men. There is no bait and switch here. From the moment they are called to follow, Jesus is very clear about the purpose – in order that they might reach others with the good news. Every master wanted their teachings or their craft to live on after they were gone. They were deeply invested in the process of teaching others and then setting them loose to teach still more.
So, after three years of being his disciple, when Jesus tells them, “Go! Make new disciples,” they should not have been surprised at all. He was very clear from the beginning.
In Matthew 28:16 Jesus tells his disciples to go to a mountain outside of town and wait for him there. This passage is known as the Great Commission. To commission someone means to grant them authority to accomplish a task. This is the disciples’ graduation and commissioning ceremony.
Jesus says to them, “I have taught you what you need to know, I give you my authority, now go and find your own disciples and teach them to make disciples and through this process we will reach the entire world.” And Jesus’ plan worked. The gospel started with 12 people on a mountain in the Middle East and that same gospel has spread around the world.
And yet, there is still work to be done. Has the good news reached your work place, your neighborhood, your school?
This was a command given first to the 12 disciples, but if we want to be disciples of Christ it is also a command for us today. It is not a suggested add-on for those who are super Christians or for pastors.
The purpose of God calling and forming you is to reach others.
Of course he reaches out to us because he loves us; but he also loves the person you are called to reach out to. His desire is for them too. You are here because someone obeyed God’s call to “Go!” It might have been your parents or a pastor or a friend. But we are all here as a result.
I never got the chance to dive again after that vacation. We started having our family and my certification lapsed. But I wonder if the next time I went to 80 feet it would have been as scary? Or the twentieth time? I’m guessing the more we follow Jesus into the deep water of telling our stories and calling others to follow, the less scary it becomes.
How do we know when we are ready to start making disciples? I would never have considered myself ready to go to 80 feet. I could have read a thousand books about diving, but until I went to 80 feet I wouldn’t have thought I could do it.
We will never feel ready. And that’s ok. When we head out to make disciples we don’t have to know everything or have all the answers. We are called to share our stories and invite people to follow Jesus with us. If you have learned one thing about Jesus or had one experience of him – you are ready. Someone you know may need to hear that one thing that you have learned.
What are we supposed to teach those we are discipling? We are to teach others to follow Jesus. The invitation we give to others is not to believe and observe. It is an invitation to follow and obey.
Let’s go back and look at the Jesus’ discipleship process:
- Listen and watch
- Ask questions
- Make disciples
Here’s where Jesus’ discipleship process and those of other New Testament scholars differ. By the time you got to step 4 it was expected that you would begin to operate independently of your master.
But look again at Matthew 28:20. Jesus tells the disciples “I am with you always.” We always have our instructor with us! Jesus left his disciples on that mountain when he returned to heaven but he sent the Holy Spirit who is the constant presence of God in our lives. Jesus never sends us off on a solo mission. If he sends us to 80 feet, he is right there with us. And he loves the idea of us following him so closely that we can reach out and grab onto him at any moment.
Do you see yourself in this process somewhere? Or maybe you see yourself in a couple of places all at once? It is possible to be at step 3 in one area of your life and back at step 1 in another. I can be making disciples and yet back at the learning and observing step as God deals with me about a specific issue.
This is why the process of discipleship never ends. Our whole lives are to be marked by following. I have made a decision to follow Jesus. But there are parts of me that haven’t gotten the news yet. As soon as God calls me to follow in another area of my life, I must be ready to go.
Are you ready to follow Jesus wherever he leads you? Are you willing to let him take you to the place where you really need him? The place where you have to follow as if your life depends on it?
The song “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” does not say, “I will follow Jesus perfectly” or “I’m not afraid to follow.” We will not follow perfectly and we will often follow Jesus afraid, like Thomas did.
But we must follow Jesus – no matter the roughness of the road.