Part I of the series “I Am a Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Following Jesus.”
One of the great laments of living in the 21st century is that it’s increasingly difficult to find a good bookstore. When I was in Nashville a couple of weeks ago I happened upon a lovely old used bookshop that I could’ve spent days in. Sure, we still have Barnes and Noble, but if you’ve spent much time in that large bookstore you notice that the books are all new and mostly very practical. Next to the fiction section, for example, some of the largest shelving units in the store are devoted to self-help and leadership/management books. We’ve got thousands of books out there on how to manage our lives better, how to get people to do what we want them to do, how to be more efficient and productive, how to live the good life we seem to want. It’s interesting to me how many of these books are written by Christians. You can have a purpose driven life, your best life now, or become the me you want to be.
But have you noticed that despite all this information there’s very little transformation? Plenty of experts and celebrity pastors are out there to tell us how we should live, but our culture is still among the most stressed out, unhealthy, broken down, and medicated up people in the world. Some say better leadership is the answer to the problem, but despite all those leadership books on the shelves, 70% of Americans still hate their jobs and most of their discontent comes from being led by poor managers. We have more information than ever available at our disposal, but it doesn’t seem to be making a difference. We keep grasping at straws to find a way to live that draws life together, and it’s not working.
It reminds me of a story about the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who was a world famous pessimist. He wrote essays like “The Fullness of Nothingness” and “On the Vanity and Suffering of Life,” and saw human existence as “a pendulum between suffering and boredom” and the world itself as a form of hell. As he was sitting on a park bench with that crazy hair one day, looking like a vagrant, a policeman asked him who he was. “I wish I knew,” said Schopenhauer. What we have is not a crisis of knowing what to do, but rather a crisis of identity—we no longer seem to know who we are.
We turn to a lot of ways to being to satisfy that longing, that identity. We can choose the most commonly used highways that many use to try and find life: way of pleasure, the way of consumerism, the way of wealth, the way of security as ways of trying to satisfy our deepest longings, but we see repeated evidence that, ultimately, they don’t work. Those ways are all vulnerable to becoming deadends. The question, then, is this—is there really a way that leads to life? Is there a way that trumps all the other ways? Is there the way and not-the-way? And if there is, how do we find it?
It’s popular today to say that everything is relative. “What’s true for you may not be true for me” is the postmodern mantra. But that doesn’t seem to be the way the world actually works. I mean, is gravity true for you? It is for me. Does water change it’s molecular structure from H2O just because I believe it does? If a pilot refuses to believe the laws of flight are true for him, will he make it safely to his destination? Nature seems to have a way built into it—and when we violate that way, we suffer. There is the way and not-the-way.
The question, then is whether this extends to the realm of the moral, the spiritual, the ethical. Is there the way to live and not-the-way? Well, we can see this played out in human experience as well. Think about it—the right thing morally is always the healthy thing physically, economically, socially. If treat my body as a temple of the Lord, I will be healthy. If I am a good steward of money, I will always have enough for me and enough to share. If I treat others as I want to be treated, I tend to be treated well by most.
This is truth—there is a way and not-the-way. And we know this because Scripture tells us that God has written this way, his way, into us. We were created in the image of God—created to love, created for community, created for stewardship, created for vocation, created for relationship with God. God’s way for us is the natural way for our lives.
Sin, on the other hand, is unnatural which is why it’s so damaging. In Genesis one, God creates humans in his image, which includes the freedom to choose and it only takes two more chapters before they choose poorly. Sin entered the world, the way of not-the-way, and we’ve been struggling to find the right way ever since. How do we find it?
It’s common for us Christians to immediately say that the way is in The Book. Protestants, especially, have been saying that for about 500 years, ever since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, claiming Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide (Scripture alone, faith alone) as the key doctrines of his reformation. We hold these truths today, which are vital to us. But is the way only contained in a book? One of the unintended consequences of Luther’s Sola Scriptura is that people immediately began to focus on their own interpretation of the words of Scripture and, virtually overnight, the Reformation fragmented into hundreds of different sects and denominations based on the different ways they read the words. Their disagreements sometimes became violent and have led to the situation we find ourselves in today—lots of churches and denominations but not the Body of Christ.
We know that the Bible, like those volumes on the bookstore shelves, is full of words and words are subject to scrutiny and interpretation. Words alone often get formed into principles, and principles can be seen as subjective. Words alone can always be twisted to suit our purposes, which happens all the time in our world. Think about it, even Satan knows the Scriptures. In Genesis 3 he twists God’s words (“Did God really say…?) and in the desert he used the Scriptures to tempt Jesus. If we rely on the words alone, it makes it possible for us to know the Scriptures intimately but not have them make any difference whatsoever in our lives, just like those rows of books at Barnes and Noble. When the word of God gets limited to words, however, it’s fairly easy to ignore. As James puts it, we can become good hearers of the word, but not doers of it.
But John tells us in the beginning of his Gospel that the Word of God didn’t become word, it became flesh. The hidden God is revealed not primarily in the words but in the Person. The Word became embodied. We can exegete words but we come into relationship with a Person. Hear me, the Scriptures are, indeed, authoritative and absolutely essential for us—we study them, we take them into ourselves, they are inspired by God and we need them desperately—but they are only important insofar as they point us to the one all those words are about; the Word of God revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ. Imagine how the Reformation might have been different if Luther had made his primary doctrine Sola Christi—Christ Alone.
Which brings us to our Gospel text for today. Jesus is giving his farewell discourse to the disciples. He is going away but will make room for them in “the Father’s house.” Here’s one of those textual problems. We have been trained to think of “the Father’s house” as heaven, but only other place this phrase is used in John’s Gospel is where it refers to the Temple, which was God’s dwelling place with his people—the place where heaven and earth met. In John 2, however, Jesus says that the Temple in Jerusalem was going to be judged and it would be replaced by a new one—the “temple of his body” (2:21). The real Temple, in other words, is found when the risen Christ dwells with his people, when earth and heaven are joined together permanently in him. As John later tells us in Revelation 21:22, that temple won’t be one of stone, but “the Lord almighty and the Lamb” themselves. The Father’s house, then, is less about geography, than it is about relationship—a relationship between God and is people. As Jesus leaves, he tells his disciples that his going to the Father will pave the way for them to have the same kind of relationship with the Father that Jesus himself enjoys as the Son.
The disciples, however, are still thinking about geography. Thomas says, “Lord we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” And how does Jesus answer him? The Scriptures are the way? Here are fourteen principles you can use to find the way? No, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is not a text about going to a future heaven so much as it as a text about how we come into an intimate relationship with Father through a relationship with the Person of Christ. It’s not a geographic statement, but a relational one in the present tense. Verse 7 reinforces this: “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” What is the way to full, abundant, and eternal life? Jesus says, “Follow me.”
That’s the invitation Jesus gave his disciples. The way is not a set of principles to be discussed or words to be pored over, but a life to be imitated. Jesus doesn’t merely give his disciples information, he invites them into a learning relationship where they can imitate him and his relationship with the Father. That’s what the word “disciple” means, actually—mathetes in the Greek—a learner, a follower, an imitator. One of the books I saw on the bookstore shelf was titled, Lead Like Jesus. Great idea—but before we can lead, we have to know the way. We have to become, first and foremost, an imitator, a follower of Jesus!
Jesus lived the life that we were created to live. “I came that they might have life,” he says later in John’s Gospel, “and have [that life] abundantly.” If we want to know how to live that life, that way, we must not only learn about him, but do as he does. Remember a few years ago when everyone was wearing bracelets that said WWJD, which stood for, “What Would Jesus Do?” That was pretty great, right? But if you think about it, it was actually more of a call to study the Scripture than follow Jesus. Hmm, what would Jesus do? Let’s look that up, shall we? Let’s see what he might do and then we’ll decide whether we can do that or not.
What would have happened, however, if someone had printed up a second bracelet to wear on the other wrist that said, to borrow a phrase, “JUST DO IT!” The information we glean from studying Scripture is vitally important to us, but only insofar as it leads us to imitation of Jesus. The Word of God became flesh in him. We imitate him, and then we invite others to imitate us as we imitate him.
It’s no coincidence that in the Book of Acts, the early church was originally called “The Way.” They had a way about them that was strange to the rest of the world—a communal way, a generous way, a devoted way, a self-sacrificing way—the Jesus way. They were a community of followers who, even though they had apostolic leaders, all considered themselves followers first. They had a way about them that was so ingrained that even when they were deprived of all the other ways and things people live for, they were still content. They were followers of Jesus, and they had found the way to life.
In a culture where people are looking everywhere for a way of life that works, do we have a way about us, church? Are we sold out as followers of the one who is the Way? Until we are, until we begin to live compelling lives as follower of Christ, lives that are worth imitating, we, along with our friends and neighbors who watch us, will continue to struggle with ways that are not-the-way.
So how do we follow the Way? Well, here are a few ways we can begin:
Recognize that in your life which is not-the-way
First, recognize what is not-the-way. When Jesus invites us to follow him as the Way, it’s a command to first leave behind everything we’ve relied upon as a way of living. We identify those ways that we have tried to live that are ultimately dead ends—accumulation of things, the pursuit of pleasure, addictions, security, and a host of other ways that are not-the-way. The sins, the grudges, the habits, and the desires that make our lives miserable are not our natural way of living. They are unnatural, which is why they break us down physically, emotionally, and spiritually when we give into them. To follow the way of Jesus, we must first learn to put to death that which is not-the-way and recognize that we can’t do that by willpower alone. We need a community of faith to help us, to hold us accountable, to point out to us what is not-the-way. I am convinced that until the church becomes a place where people can get real with each other in the midst of deep relationships—relationships where we can confess our sins one to another and pray for each other, identifying the dead ways we’ve tried—then we will not have a way about us but continue to look like the way of the rest of the world. Who in your life can speak truth and hold you accountable to the Way? Who has permission to tell you when you are living not-the-way? Jesus’ first disciples left their nets, their businesses, their own hopes and dreams to follow Jesus. What will you need to leave behind in order to follow him on the Way?
Spend time daily abiding with Jesus
The next way we follow the Way is by spending intentional time abiding with Jesus. Jesus says there are many rooms, many opportunities for us to grow deeper in our relationship with him and with the Father. Carving out daily time for abiding with Jesus insures that we are getting to know him and his Way. Daily prayer, daily time to meditate on the words of Scripture that lead us to the Word become flesh, are vitally important if we are going to be people on the Way. Jesus doesn’t invite us to just another obligation on our calendar, he invites us to be with him. How can you alter your day in order to grow deeper in the Way?
Imitate someone who is imitating Jesus
Another way we grow in the Way is by imitating someone who is imitating Christ. Someone you know has the way of Christ about them. I’ve had people like that in my life and I’ve learned more about becoming a follower of Jesus by following them than I could have in a thousand Bible studies. What would happen if you asked that person you know who is on the way to show you how they do it? If it’s true that more is caught than taught, then we need models and examples to see how the way of Christ plays out in our every day life. Invite that person to coffee or to lunch and pick their brain. Ask them, “Can you teach me to follow Christ like you do?”
Imitate Christ for someone else
And then, after you’ve been discipled by a disciple of Jesus, go out and imitate Christ for someone else. When you begin living the life you were meant to live, it can’t help but rub off on someone else. It’s one of the key questions for any would-be Christian disciple: Do I have a life worth imitating? That’s both the goal of the Way and the gift we can give to someone else. Only disciples of Jesus Christ can make other disciples of Jesus Christ. As Paul said to one of his churches, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” He poured his life into people like Timothy, enabling them to pour their lives into others. Who will be your Timothy? Into whom will you pour your life, imitating Christ for them?
This is how the Way of Jesus creates a church—a people with a way about them.
Yeah, I love a good bookstore and a good book. But the book that contains God’s Word is one that begs not just to be read, it contains the life of a person to be followed. In the Roman world, the road to somewhere was called the Via—the way. The only road to the heart of God, the only road to life, is Jesus Christ. Sola Christi.
Jones, E. Stanley. The Way.
Sweet, Leonard. I Am a Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Following Jesus.