Last Wednesday night, we met with our 6th-12th Grade youth to discuss a topic they suggested: What does the Bible say about following Jesus?
The topic is enormous. We started our discussion by admitting that coming away with a definitive answer wasn’t possible. Following God isn’t something you learn about in an instant and recite. It’s more like being born as a baby (or learning how to be a parent). You never get to the end of learning about those subjects. You just keep evolving as you go and hope you’re getting something right. But today’s right thing might not be tomorrow’s right thing. Playing with letter blocks on the floor is right for a three-year-old. The agenda for a thirteen-year-old is a little different. Just repeating the three-year-old thing doesn’t suffice!
We asked our young folks what they had learned—either in church or from our culture—about following God. What makes a good follower? Their answers varied. Some said coming to church, others said doing good things, others said being honest or kind. All of the responses contained truth. Were they the WHOLE truth, though? Could we point to any one of these things and say, “This is the single thing you always do, no matter what, that makes you a follower of God?” For each answer they had given, we found many valid examples of godliness, but also exceptions. Though they were all good ideas, not one of them sufficed, alone, to make us followers.
Then we read Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 8:
34 [Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[i] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
Jesus says that anyone who wants to become his follower begins by denying themselves. The commonality to all of our grand ideas about following Jesus is that we’re at the center of them! Everything we can idealize or grasp for ends up being not it. We ended up claiming that, on our own, we’re not capable of following Jesus. Even if we take words directly from the Bible, we end up turning them into our own thing. At best, we end up trying to trade our goodness for God’s salvation. We always want to advance the self, even when we claim we’re denying it.
Is following Jesus a hopeless task, then? Only if we think we’re at the center of it. It’s no accident that Jesus follows up, “Deny yourself,” with, “Take up your cross and follow me.” The cross isn’t just a symbol. The cross is death and resurrection. As Jesus died and rose again to new life, so do we, through him. This happens at the end of our lives, but it also happens daily. When we cannot follow correctly—or even deny ourselves correctly—God transforms that old “us” into something new. This new thing cannot be earned, bought, or possessed. We are filled with grace and love even when we have no idea how to create them ourselves.
It doesn’t matter if our criteria for following are cultural, material, or “religious”. Saying, “I’m going to become a follower of Jesus” on our own terms is like a five year-old hopping in the front seat and saying they’re going to drive the car. The better they are at actually achieving their aim, the worse it’s going to turn out for them and everyone around that car! Personally, I’m hoping they can’t reach the pedals or turn on the ignition!
We cannot determine how to follow on our own. In a couple days, we’ll look at Part 2 of our youth lesson, exploring what following actually looks like and how we discover how to do it!