What Does It Mean to Follow Christ?

This weekend’s Gospel from Mark is a favorite of mine.  It is deceptively simple.  Like most of Mark’s gospel, it is clean, straightforward, and without embellishment.  At one time or another we have all heard a homily or read some theologians reflection on the story of Jesus as a fisher of men.   Usually those reflections expand on the seemingly obvious message of obedience. He calls to Simon-Peter and his brother, Andrew.  They literally drop what they are doing and follow, leaving behind all that they hold dear.

Although I don’t disagree that their unquestioning obedience is admirable, and I absolutely agree that it is essential to follow Christ at all cost, the deeper and much more profound message in this passage has to do with why they follow.

The lesson we can take from the gospel today is one of love.   This story is about the essence of what it means to be a Christian.  It is not that we follow a set of rules or study to achieve scholarly and academic understanding of Scripture.  To be a Christian is to follow an inspiring person.   Jesus inspires us, so we follow him.  It is the characteristic that defines all Christians.

When Jesus begins calling together his disciples, he doesn’t set out for the nearest school of theological study.  He doesn’t seek out the most educated or learned of men.  He finds the simple fishermen.  And they drop everything and follow him because he impressed them.  They follow him for love, not because he has all the answers or for what they can gain from him.

In fact, there is not a single doctor of theology among the apostles.  There are five fishermen (Simon-Peter, Andrew, James the Elder, John, and Philip), a revolutionary (Simon the Zealot), a missionary (Bartholomew), a tax collector (Matthew), and four others whose occupations were not even worth mentioning (Thomas, James the Younger, Thaddeus, and Judas).  Jesus chooses to surround himself with those he loves, even when society tells him he should despise those very same people.

As human beings, we are not moved so much by principles and theories as we are by other human beings.  When others whom we love exhibit great ideals we strive to meet those ideals, as if our becoming better is a gift to them.  We do our best out of love for someone or loyalty to someone.  In this way we are no different than Simon-Peter and Andrew.  We sacrifice many things for those whom we love; those who make our hearts swell with gladness in their presence.  We act out of great love for our families, great friends, and, as Christians, for our God.

The word “love” is repeated over 500 times in the Bible.  Obedience is mentioned only about 200 times.   God sent Jesus to us out of love, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life” John 3:16.   It makes perfect sense, then, that when Jesus begins calling his disciples to him, they respond out of love.  After the death and resurrection of Jesus, John writes to the Christian community and clarifies that knowledge of God and love for one another are inseparable, “If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” 1 John 4:12

Just as Jesus faced the demands of a culture that loathed the very things he sought to achieve, so we are often faced with a world that demands more of our time for individual and secular pursuits.  The definition of success in our daily lives is often at odds with what inspires us in the person of Jesus Christ.  I don’t doubt that the other fishermen in the boat with Simon-Peter and Andrew thought them fools when they cast down their nets.  I’m certain they commented to one another about the utter stupidity of the risk they perceived their friends to be taking.  But Simon-Peter and Andrew knew better.  They knew love.  Love they followed.  We can read today’s gospel and hear Jesus commanding and fishermen obeying.  Or, even better, we can hear Jesus inviting and Simon-Peter and Andrew accepting.

Prayerful study of the Gospels and what they say about Jesus teaches us that our faith is not an academic exercise but a matter of falling in love with and following an inspiring person.    As Christians we are not just believers in a collection of teachings and obligations, but followers of an impressive, entirely loveable, inspiring individual, Jesus Christ.

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