I've lived most of my life in the Bible Belt. And while Christian leaders like to talk about how various authorities (i.e. media, education and entertainment) deride Christianity, it seems to me that Jesus and church are still alive and well in America. Yes, the stats are gloomy about the growth patterns in the church, but I drive around and I see churches all over the place, and lots of them are full. I go to Target and see all kinds of Christian books being pushed. The best-selling hard-back book of all time is The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. There seems to be an ongoing degree of respect for things connected to Jesus.
After all what's not to like about Jesus. Here is the man who healed the sick, raised the dead, fed thousands and ultimately gave his life for the world. We celebrate him at Christmas and fill churches up on Easter.
It hit me last Christmas as I was driving through a light show with our family. It included a display that celebrated Jesus' birth and another that told of his resurrection. I realized that thousands upon thousands of people were passing these displays and how most people in our culture don't really have that big of a problem with Jesus. Jesus is admirable. It's acceptable to admire Jesus like we admire Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, or Mother Teresa. But following Jesus different.
When we admire Jesus or someone like MLK, we observe their lives and see how great they were as people. We see the impact that they had upon the world, and we celebrate who they were and what they accomplished. In the case of MLK, we name streets after him and set aside a day to remember what he initiated in the U.S. We admire MLK, but don't ask us to take up the mantle that he carried. Don't expect us to follow in his footsteps and embrace things like justice, peace and non-violence. Don't expect us to fight for what is right, even at the expense of our own lives.
Admire, but not follow.
Of course, Jesus is God and therefore different than MLK, but that does not mean that we follow Jesus just because we acknowledge him as God. It's acceptable to admire Jesus and even declare his deity. Sometimes, our insistence on his divinity causes us to admire him in a greater and more annoying ways than what is culturally polite. Then we think that we are being persecuted because people don't like the fact that we are annoying. We pack our schedules full of church activities. We talk about Jesus, read about Jesus, and pay homage to Jesus. Then we try and force our beliefs about his deity on others. Then we complain because people don't agree with us. OH! THE PERSECUTION!
But that does not mean that we are followers of the ways of Jesus. Knowing a lot about Jesus and even having a personal relationship with Jesus does not mean that I am following him.
This is where the beatitudes guide us. Since I have been writing this series on the beatitudes it has become clear to me just how much I've been an admirer of Jesus and how I've assumed that my job as a Jesus admirer is to get other people to admire him. Then if enough people admire Jesus and come to church with me then we are good Christians. Sadly, this is the imagination that has shaped conversations about evangelism and being missional.
The beatitudes challenge all of this. Instead of admiration of Jesus—notice how many people admired Jesus in the stories of the Gospels—we need to think in terms of following Jesus. Which means "taking up our cross daily" (Luke 9:23)—notice how few followed him in the Gospels. This means embracing the ways of Jesus, not just ideas about Jesus.
Eugene Peterson puts it this way:
"To follow Jesus implies that we we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us. To follow Jesus means picking up rhythms and ways of doing things that are often unsaid but always derivative from Jesus, formed by the influence of Jesus. To follow Jesus means that we can't separate what Jesus is saying from what Jesus is doing and the way that he is doing it. To follow Jesus is as much, or maybe even more about feet as it is about ears and eyes." (The Jesus Way, 22).
So in concrete terms, how can we determine whether we are stuck in the admirer camp? I think one good way of testing this is to read through the beatitudes and ask how these are being shaped in our lives. For instance, take "Blessed are the merciful." Is mercy growing in your life? Are you becoming less judgmental and critical of others? Are you finding that you are able to embrace those who don't deserve an embrace?
Admirers can say that they love Jesus. They can devote themselves to tons of church activities. They can stand in passionate worship, say "Amen" and even be a leader in the church. They can do all of this and not grow in mercy. In fact, I've found that mercy is not expected of those who are supposedly advancing on their journey with God. I've found that there is an expectation that the more one grows in their faith the more rigid and critical they will get.
But the way of Jesus is mercy. Many will admire Jesus because he had the ability to rise above the fray and show mercy to others who did not deserve it. But followers go beyond admiring this. They seek after Jesus and allow the Holy Spirit to shape them to be merciful.