One.Life (8) What does it mean radically to follow Jesus?

The next chapter of Scot McKnight’s book One.Life; Jesus Calls, We Follow is called Committed.Life

I want to ask a question at the top of this post to which I will return below:

Can a life of radical commitment to Jesus be squared with the ‘normal’ expectations of life within Western capitalist culture?

According to Scot, Jesus was an ‘extremist’. And anyone who claims to be a Christian and follower of Jesus is called to a pretty extreme form of commitment, such as;

– Let the dead bury their own dead. Come follow me now.

– Sell your possessions and give to the poor, then come follow me.

– Those of you who do not give up all you have cannot be my disciple

– Why worry about what you are going to wear? Trust God.

– Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees you certainly will not enter the kingdom of God

– Anyone who says ‘You Fool’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

– Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart

– Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

– Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect

McKnight concludes that Jesus is perfectly serious in these sorts of uncompromising demands. Jesus is a ‘moral zealot’. [I’m sure about this language; it makes Jesus sound a bit grim and possibly unhinged]. But the bigger point stands: Jesus asked and expected total commitment from his followers.

And the test, Scot says, of whether someone is a follower of Jesus or not, is, quite simply, whether they are following Jesus or not. And the problem, he says, with big swathes of Christianity is that there are many Christians who are not following Jesus.

The mark of an authentic disciple is a whole-hearted commitment to Jesus. And that looks like a life given over to Jesus’ kingdom vision: a vision committed to love, justice, peace, wisdom, church community …

But is such a life almost impossible to live within a Western capitalist culture?

I was preaching at MCC last Sunday on Luke 6:1-11. One point I tried to make was how Jesus claims extraordinary authority [“the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”] and offers a stark challenge that to obey ‘the Law’ is really to accept and follow him wherever it leads – and that is towards the radical call of life within the kingdom of God.

But in preparing that sermon I found it much easier to say this than spell out what it actually means for everyday life without resorting to ‘extraordinary hero’ examples.

Too often, examples given of a radical commitment to Jesus involve the ‘extraordinary hero’ model that few if any ‘normal’ people in a church can relate to. In older evangelicalism, people like C T Studd and Hudson Taylor, or the martyred missionary Jim Elliott (“He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose”) were such heroes.

I gotta say Scot does a bit of this himself in this chapter – he holds up the example of Richard Stearns of World Vision, an extremely wealthy man who, in reluctant response to the call of God, sold up his mansion, left his business life behind and went to work as Director of World Vision.

‘Radical commitment’ to Jesus is virtually equated with a rejection of life within contemporary Western culture.

But for the vast majority of Christians in the West such rejection is not an option. Most people are working (or looking for work), are married with children, have mortgages or maybe college debts, wider family responsibilities, are plugged into their local communities and friends and so on. People whose lives are already shaped by non-negotiable commitments – working 40, 50, 60 + hour weeks while trying to snatch the occasional hour or day of ‘free’ time.

For most of these people, the evangelical ‘hero’ model is both irrelevant and probably only guilt inducing. It implies that if you don’t leave the Western way of life behind you are ‘compromised’, ‘half-hearted’ or ‘second-best’ in your commitment to Jesus.

This brings back to mind Philip Jenkins’ brilliant book The New Faces of Christianity that I did some posts on last year. One of many fascinating points he made was how the Bible ‘comes alive’ and ‘speaks’ so much more naturally and directly into life within the Global South – in countries suffering from famine, persecution, dictators, war, insecurity, injustice and so on.

Does the Western way of life so stifle, flatten and squash Jesus’ call to radical kingdom living that the only way authentically to follow him is to, like Scot’s example, resign from demands and values and comforts of Western capitalism?

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10 thoughts on “One.Life (8) What does it mean radically to follow Jesus?

  1. I’ve been grappling with this question on and off for a while. The conclusion I came to just last night was that we all need to be willing to make a complete break — like the heroes you mentioned — but we’re not all called to. I don’t know if that’s right, or just a salve for my conscience though.

    On an unrelated note, can you please stop avoiding split infinitives? You really mean “what does it mean to radically follow Jesus?” The way you’ve phrased it is like saying “To follow Jesus: what does this mean radically?” which makes no sense.

    Mags

  2. Will try Mags! 🙂 But I hope you realise that you’re asking me to do something instinctively and scandously wrong, against my better judgement and ruinous to good character – like writing on a book or streaking through St Stephen’s Green, or supporting Man Utd …

  3. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAh!! This question and in particular the way youve framed it has been annoying me for a long time. Years. I love the way you’ve articulated it here. The hero model seems to be the only answer that immediately spring to mind. I read Shane Claibourne and he fits this model too- more power to him like but as you talk about he dont have a wife and kids and a mortgage. Yet i aint no hero. As you point out trying to be that only leads to guilt.. well for me anyway it seems some are able to do it. I have come to Mags’ conclusion aswell from time to time but i disagree with it. All i can say is that in terms of having being obedient to God’s word it seems to me to be harder to do in West. Please for the love of the land and all thats right!! if you have other thoughts on this-PUT THEM ON HERE 🙂

  4. Ps
    Mags I have to laugh at your grammar nazification towards Patrick considering the amount of grief Patrick gave me for my frequently poor grammar, use of colloquialisms, horrible punctuation, portmanteau’s of my own creation topped off with an attitude of dismissal towards the idea of changing said things. 🙂

  5. It’s Patrick, Scot, and their ilk who are the grammar nazis! ;P Avoiding a construction (the split infinitive) because it’s “against the rules” is silly. “To go boldly” doesn’t mean the same thing as “to boldly go”.

  6. I’m half afraid to comment for fear my grammar will offend someone here, but I will brave it. 🙂

    Patrick, this is a fantastic challenge and gave me some real food for thought! In fact, my thoughts quickly outgrew comment size to blog post size. You should get a ping when it publishes.

  7. Great post Crystal. [Click on the link under trackbacks folks]. I noted the SPLIT INFINITIVE (Mags you have a convert)

    Scot has re-posted my post on Jesus Creed and another discussion going on there – http://www.patheos.com/community/jesuscreed/2011/02/28/the-committed-life-in-the-western-world/

    Richard you may like to check that out since you’re asking for more thoughts! {That was a very articulate and imaginative description of your English by the way 🙂 Brings back memories. }

  8. Ha! I wondered if you’d catch that.
    I felt consipicuous when I came to that part and found myself questioning whether that is how I would have phrased it anyway or if I had been influenced. 🙂

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