Discipleship is rarely appealing, and authentic Christianity is increasingly unpopular. To put it another way, the handwriting on the wall spells out persecution. In a now-viral BuzzFeed video, individuals state, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not . . .” and make other similar comments. When asked, “What do you want people to know about Christianity?” responses include: “We’re all kind of not crazy,” and: “At its core it’s really about love and acceptance and being a good neighbor.” When prompted, “What do you want people to know about Christianity?” not one person even mentions Jesus. There is a movement afoot to make Jesus palatable, but what a person can swallow won’t necessarily help them when it matters most.
Following Jesus means identifying with him in life and death. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Christ’s definition of discipleship contains three successive steps, each building on the previous. The final one in the sequence is “Follow me,” and may be accurately translated, “Obey me.” The order of these is critical–if I jump to obey without having first denied myself and accepted a cross, my obedience will be spotty at best. Following Jesus on my own terms is another word for disobedience.
Obedience is both a thought process and a pattern of choosing. If disobedience is the name of the game before we are Christians, then certainly obedience is the name of the game after we become Christians. A great chasm yawns between disciplined believers and spiritual couch potatoes. Grace was never intended to produce sluggish, flabby Christians. Although we rightfully gorge ourselves on an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of mercy, Scripture expects the opposite of spiritual obesity, out-of-shape believers lumbering lethargically through their spiritual journey. Grace results in heightened passion to pursue God, or we misunderstand its divine intent; grace and hunger are not only compatible, they are conjoined at the heart. The Bible unapologetically urges those who are being saved to strive, and those who have been found by grace to stay after the search for greater intimacy with the Grace-giver.In the original Greek, these steps are stated in the present, continuous tense; in other words, “Keep on denying yourself, keep on taking up your cross, keep on following me.” This is not the decision of a moment, but a program for a lifetime, to be repeated again and again, whenever we fall into circumstances which make these choices necessary. This is what it means to be a disciple. Discipleship is denying your right to yourself, and taking up the cross, accepting these incidents and circumstances which expose our pride and conceit, welcoming them, and then following him, doing what he says to do, looking to him for the power.
This is not always a very appealing course, is it? I am sure that it must have struck these disciples and the multitude with very solemn and serious impact. In fact, John tells us that at this point many turned and went back, and followed him no more, because these words seemed to them harsh and demanding. We can always be grateful that our Lord never has invited any to come after him without letting them know what would be involved. He told them straight from the shoulder what they would be getting into. And he does this with us. He is not interested in anybody’s becoming a Christian, or attempting to live as a Christian, on false terms. He wants us to understand that this is going to shatter us, change us, make us into a different kind of people. Following Jesus requires a radically new way of thinking and living.