Following Jesus in the real world. That’s a phrase that I use a lot on this website, on my podcast, and when I teach and preach. But this phrase begs a ton of questions.
So, what does it mean to follow Jesus in the real world?
Let’s break it down!
FOLLOWING Jesus in the Real World
What does “following” mean in this context? Well, to get a grip on that we have to have a basic understanding of what it meant when people were following Jesus in the first century. What did it mean to follow someone in that day and age?
It’s certainly more than the way we use it when we ask someone who doesn’t know how to get to a destination to follow us. That use implies a limited-time arrangement. And it’s also much more robust than following someone on Twitter!
In the first century when someone would follow a teacher, rabbi, religious figure, or philosopher, that meant total devotion. We see this when Peter, speaking for all the disciples who were following Jesus, said “We have left everything to follow you” (Mark 10.28). Following Jesus caused a major disruption in their lives. They couldn’t follow Jesus AND go about business as usual.
There’s something for us to learn there, isn’t there!? We want to follow Jesus but not give up much to do so. We think that following Jesus can be done while maintaining our selfish lives in more or less the same fashion. This kind of “following” is more akin to Twitter than to what Jesus had in mind when he said “follow me” to the earliest disciples.
Though much more could be said about the notion of following, I want to focus on one more thing, namely that following Jesus is not passive. Following Jesus is an active endeavor. It’s not something that we do once years ago. And it’s not something that only happens in our heads. Nope! Following Jesus is something that we do every single day.
Following in this way is disruptive and demanding. It’s active and it requires all of us.
Following JESUS in the Real World
Who do we follow? That answer’s easy, right? Jesus!
But which Jesus? Let’s be real for a second, we all want Jesus to be the kind of messiah that we want him to be. If there’s something about the Jesus we meet in the Bible that extends beyond our comfortable messiah zone, we tend to ignore it or outright deny it.
And this is nothing new. The disciples who first followed Jesus had this problem too. Here’s Peter serving as a counter example again, this time in Mark 8.31-32:
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
Do you see it? When Jesus said that he was going to suffer, be rejected, and ultimately die, this didn’t fit with Peter’s idea of who the messiah would be. So Peter brashly decided to scold Jesus and tell him to get back into the comfortable messiah zone.
While it’s easy to scoff at Peter for his words here, don’t we all do the same thing today? The Jesus we meet in the Bible doesn’t always line up with what we expect of him.
Maybe he focuses too much on the truth and sound ethical behavior for some of our likings. And for others of us he may care too much about people who are marginalized, poor, and outcast. And still others of us would prefer some vague disembodied notion of Jesus as our savior rather than the Second Person of the Trinity incarnated as a human that we meet in the Bible.
Friends, if we are to follow Jesus, then we are to follow the Jesus of the Bible, not the Jesus of our individual creation, not the Jesus of our church’s or denomination’s creation, not the Jesus of our political bent’s creation, and not the Jesus of anyone else’s creation either. Instead, let’s look to the Gospels to learn about Jesus. That’s who we are to follow!
One of my favorite authors and missional practitioners is Hugh Halter. In his book entitled Flesh: Bringing the Incarnation down to Earth, he famously (at least in my book!) said that being missional means being disciples that live the human life of Jesus in our human lives.
In other words, following Jesus isn’t a game of cherry picking where we choose the parts of Jesus we want to follow.
Following Jesus IN THE REAL WORLD
Equally as important as the words “following” and “Jesus” is the phrase “in the real world.” Here’s why…
All too often those of us who claim to follow Jesus do so in a fantasy world. Let me explain.
Many of us surround ourselves with a Christian bubble. We listen to Christian music, read Christian books, see Christian movies, visit Christian websites, hang out only with Christian friends, and even eat Christian breath mints!
This bubble mentality has gotten so bad that in America today one in five non-Christians do not know a Christian personally. That’s crazy! In a country with 80+% of us identifying as Christians, how is it that 20% of those who aren’t Christians don’t know any of us.
The answer is simple. Those who don’t follow Jesus yet aren’t seeking us out and those of us following Jesus aren’t seeking them out. We’re all okay with this fake bubble world.
Or perhaps more of us than any of us would like to admit are functional agnostics, saying that we follow Jesus but going about our lives as if the reality of God isn’t important enough to make an impact on our lives.
But, friends, Jesus didn’t live in a bubble like this, nor did he not allow the reality of God to impact his life.
He engaged people in his world. He understood the culture of the world well. He didn’t shy away from relationships with less-than-desirable people (like Matthew the tax collector and Simon the zealot). And when he went about his daily life, Jesus regularly engaged in conversation with people of all stripes, including the socially, economically, religiously, etc. outcast.
But it’s important to note that Jesus also personally interacted with people that he disagreed with. He had face-to-face encounters with Pharisees, entering into personal dialogue with them and even eating with them.
Jesus wasn’t scared of the world! In fact, he came to be the light of the world (John 8.12). How could he shine his light into the world unless he entered into it and all its messy reality?
And we’re called to do the same! Jesus has commissioned all of us (not just those who are full-time ministers) to share this light of Jesus with the world too (Matthew 28.19-20; Acts 1.8).
So let’s burst our Christian bubbles and go out there are follow Jesus in the real world!
So what? What are we to do with all of this information?
- If you’ve never begun to follow Jesus, you can do so today! I’d love to chat with you about that. Please contact me by going to my “About” page. Also, you can simply start reading about Jesus in the Gospels. I highly recommend starting with the Gospel of Mark. Here’s a website where you can begin today. Here’s a further suggestion — read a paragraph or two of Mark at a time and then pause. Ask yourself these questions: What did I like about that? What did I not like? What’s weird or confusing? What did I learn about Jesus? And based on what I read, what is something I can do about it in my life? Feel free to contact me and I’ll help in whatever way I can!
- If you’ve been following Jesus for a long time but you’ve cherry picked what to follow about Jesus, then I recommend that you get reconnected with the Jesus of the Bible. Gather a group of friends to read the Gospel of Mark with you and see for yourself the kind of person that Jesus was. In this group, ask the same questions that I outlined in point #1. Then hold each other accountable to living the human life of Jesus in your human lives!
- If you’ve been following Jesus within the Christian bubble, it’s time to burst out! Think about where you work, live, and play. Who do you encounter in those places that doesn’t follow Jesus yet? Maybe it’s time to start up a friendship with someone who is far from God. But do this authentically. Don’t force it. Don’t push Jesus down their throat. Instead, allow Jesus to bubble up through you into their lives. BE the good news in their midst. When the time is right, you can share with words. But in the meantime, live the loving, caring, ethical, and honest life that you see Jesus living in the Gospels in the plain view of those who don’t know Jesus yet!
What do you think? What does it mean to follow Jesus in the real world? How would you recommend that we do that? Let me know in the comments below!