I have long held that two things are needed if we are to feel that our lives are worthwhile: we need a sense of belonging, and we need a sense of purpose. Relationship and task. Without these we tend to wither and die. Our lives lose meaning, they lose shape, they go from living to mere existence.
There are these two aspects to the Christian life: relationship and task. Jesus came primarily to make possible the unthinkable – a relationship with the Creator and Father of the universe. But he also came to show us how to live with him and each other in the way God intended, and to give us a task which would give shape and meaning to our lives. In so doing Jesus satisfies the deep longings of our hearts: the desire to belong, to love and be loved, and the desire for purpose.
As I observe people and the world we live in I realise that for most the purpose of life can be summarised as the seeking after two things: security (safety) and happiness (comfort). The activities and relationships we pursue become means to those ends. Jesus, on the other hand, challenges us to have a different focus. He says that we should “seek the Kingdom of God above all else,” challenging us to a life not focused on our own desires, but on his priorities. He says the activities and relationships we pursue should becomes means to that end. He challenges us to lay aside our goal of happiness and security in order to pursue God’s goal of the Kingdom. This is what Jesus did, and he calls us to do the same. He calls us to follow him.
Chapters 9-14 of Luke’s gospel, which occupy the middle section of the book, are largely about what it means to follow Jesus; they are like a training manual for his disciples. They contain much more of course, but as I read and re-read these chapters I see more and more that in them are contained instructions for life for those who choose to follow Jesus. Luke wrote for first century followers, but he could just as easily have been writing for us who would come after.
Believing and following
It is one thing to believe in Jesus – that he was who he said he was, that he did what it is recorded that he did, and that his life, death and resurrection meant what he said they meant. In the earlier chapters of his gospel Luke presents us with many facts about Jesus’ life and words for us to begin to decide whether we want to believe in Jesus, and trust him with our lives.
It is another thing to “follow” Jesus – to do what he said we should do, and to be the way he said we should be, to make his priorities ours. That is what discipleship is about, and that is what Luke introduces to us in these six chapters in the middle of his gospel. In a sense this whole middle section of Luke’s gospel is about the purpose of life, following Jesus.
We are called first to believe and then to follow. I have heard it said that the main task we are given in this life is to believe in Jesus, to trust in him for our salvation from sin. But Jesus challenged the people he met to much more than this. He challenged them to follow him. We come to believe in Jesus for all sorts of different reasons, and in all sorts of different ways. Usually it is because we encounter Jesus in some way that we can no longer ignore him, no longer push him aside. We come to follow him because we are so overwhelmed with what he has done for us, and how he loves us, that we entrust ourselves to him, becoming not just willing but keen to do what he wants, to be the kind of people he wants, to be like him.
Four aspects of discipleship
These middle chapters of Luke’s gospel speak of four different aspects of discipleship. First, there is the task of discipleship, the work that Jesus gives us to do, “Kingdom work.” Then Luke writes about attitudes of discipleship, how we should be. The Christian life is not just about doing stuff, but about becoming and being a certain kind of person. Thirdly, Luke writes about the experience of being a disciple – what to expect when we choose the life he wants for us. Finally he writes about the cost of discipleship. Jesus was quite upfront about the fact that following him would have painful as well as positive consequences, and Luke honestly records Jesus’ predictions for the aspiring follower. In this area above all, we see the start contrast between the goal of the Kingdom and the common goal of achieving happiness and security. Those who have not responded to the call to follow Jesus see pain as something to be avoided at all cost. The avoidance of pain has become the preoccupation of a world without God.
A trap for believers
The pursuit of personal happiness (feeling good) and security (safety) is so standard in our world, and indeed so applauded, that it is easy for us who call ourselves Christians to fall into the trap of making following Jesus just another means to this end. We follow Jesus because we believe that doing so is the path to happiness and security, freedom from pain and suffering.
In a sense that is true. But the Bible is very clear in explaining that such an existence – “where there is no more crying, pain or tears” – is only ever going to become reality in the “new heavens and new earth” that we will experience at the culmination of history after Jesus returns. Jesus is careful to explain that following him, seeking first the Kingdom rather than our own happiness, will often be uncomfortable, even painful. He clearly says that we need to be willing to lay down our own comfort and gain if we are to follow him.
Why seek the Kingdom?
Why would anyone choose to do such a thing, to lay aside their own comfort and security for the sake of some nebulous “Kingdom?” Isn’t it all a bit fantastical? Isn’t it unnatural? Isn’t it more normal to seek our own kingdom, a place where we are kings, where we have everything we want, where we are happy and comfortable and secure, where we are the centre of our own universe? Why would we lay these down to follow Jesus?
The answer to that question is different for every follower, and every disciple has a story to tell of why they have chosen to trust in Jesus and follow him on his glorious quest. In the Bible we read the stories of the first men and women who answered that call. In history we can read the stories of thousands of others. Every one of us who has chosen to answer the call and take up the challenge of following Jesus is writing his or her own story.
But there are some for whom the things Jesus said were too hard to accept, and they turned way from him. When he started to speak of the cost, they lost interest in him. They abandoned the vision of the Kingdom and went back to the vision of their own happiness and comfort. It is still the same. In one of the other gospels we read of people turning their backs on Jesus because his teachings were too hard. Jesus wondered sadly whether his closest friends would leave him too. It is recorded in John’s gospel:
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. John 6:66-68 NIV
This was Simon Peter’s answer to the question of why he would not abandon Jesus, why he instead turned his back on the “normal” pursuits of this world to follow this amazing man, why he made his passion the Kingdom of God, rather than comfort, or wealth, or reputation. He recognised that Jesus had the words of life, and for that he was prepared to abandon all else. “You have the words of life. Where else would I go?”
Jesus asks each one of us the same question: You do not want to leave too, do you? What is your answer to this question? What is mine?