“Following Jesus” can seem so mysterious and ethereal that we don’t know where to start, what to do or to who we should do it. Many of you know my theological debt to the work of Bishop Tom Wright. In several places he has written or said something like this:
“We are not to repeat what Jesus did but to implement his achievement.”
That quote helps a great deal to have an imagination for what it means to “follow Jesus” when we cannot die for the sins of the world. But it may raise a further question: just what was Jesus’ achievement? What were his aims? For purposes of this short blog we could start with these thoughts:
- Jesus reconstituted the people of God (now the Gentiles are included!) around him and his preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom. So the follow Jesus means in part to become one his people and work with him to reveal the power and ultimate goodness of the kingdom of God…
- Jesus called people to follow him as a way of learning to be God’s cooperative friends to announce, embody and demonstrate the kingdom of God in their everyday lives…such a life brings the goodness of Jesus’ triumph to the sin-confused, painful and unjust elements of the world…
- God then enabled follower-ship of Jesus by sending the power of the Holy Spirit to the church. This love and power impart capacity (gifts), transformation (fruit) and “sentness” (think of the sending passages in Luke 9 and 10; 24.49; John 20, etc.) that animates the one who chooses to follow Jesus for the sake of others, for the sake of carrying out his once and for all achievement on the cross to forgive, deliver, heal and make new.
There, at least, is a first step or two forward in following Jesus.
Our word Eucharist, sometimes called the Lord’s Supper or Communion, comes from a Greek New Testament word meaning thanksgiving or giving thanks. The thanks involved here is twofold: Christ gave thanks at the meal which instituted the Eucharist, and the church throughout the ages has practiced the Eucharist as the supreme act of Christian thanksgiving . . . The “thanksgiving” is completed when the life we receive overflows to others – and they then give thanks for us, for the good they receive from us.
The Eucharist conveys to those who receive it in faith, the body and blood of Jesus, that is, Christ’s life. It transmits by faith all the benefits of his broken body and shed blood, these being sacramental signs of the totality of his virgin birth, life, teachings, works, death, resurrection and ascension. No matter how we might explain it, the Eucharist is meant to be a real continuation of the life of Christ, just as the Passover was a continuation of God’s deliverance from Egypt for the Jews.
The totality of Jesus’ life and the meal he instituted are eschatological events. In Jesus, and now in his meal, the perfected end of God is inaugurated in our present. This means that in the celebration of the Eucharist we partake of not just the life and death of Jesus. We also partake of the presence of the future; we receive life from Jesus’ current life, the first fruits of the life to come. We receive the wholeness of this future life, inaugurated in us because of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit, as we celebrate the Eucharist. Though “eschatology” may not be a new concept for most of us, it might new in relation to Jesus’ meal. Realizing that in Communion we partake of both the past and the future is the key to repracticing the Eucharist. Doing so provides the vision and power to live in such a manner that others will give thanks for us.
Through participating in the Eucharist we are announcing solidarity with the notion that God’s new world has already broken into this world. N.T. Wright says this would be laughable
if it wasn’t happening. But if a church is . . . actively involved in seeking justice in the world, both globally and locally, and if it’s cheerfully celebrating God’s good creation and rescue from corruption in art and music, and if, in addition, its own internal life gives every sign that new creation is indeed happening, generating a new type of community – then suddenly the announcement makes a lot of sense.
Giving Church Another Chance, Todd Hunter, pp 136-137
Spiritual formation into Christlikeness is by its very nature others-oriented. As we increasingly unite our life with Jesus, we don’t just take on his moral viewpoints—we experience his heart. We come to share God’s immensely compassionate love and his constant solidarity with his broken, wandering and lost creation.
Matthew’s classic summary of Jesus’ work gets right at this: When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest
Spiritual formation does not drive us inward in a negative way. On the contrary, as our inner life is transformed our hearts are filled with love for others. This transformed heart—now aching and praying and desiring the good of others—transforms the practical deeds of our body. This is seen in empathy for the poor, in compassion for the marginalized and in a cry for justice for victims of all kinds.
This twin journey of inward and outward growth is not merely the vision of Holy Trinity Church—it emerges from the life and teachings of Jesus and Jesus’ first followers:
Mt 23:11—(MSG) Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant…your life will count for plenty.
Luke 6:38 — Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way.
Paul wrote to the church is Galatia: (MSG) It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that…you use your freedom to serve one another in love…For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself.
Our Liturgy weekly guides our hearts to this way of being in the world, the way of active compassion and mission as we regularly say prayers such as:
O God, guide the nations of the world into the way of justice and truth, and establish among us peace, that we may honor one another and serve the common good…help us to love our enemies: lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge…that a spirit of respect and forbearance may grow among nations and peoples…
The prayers of the people common to our worship teach us to intercede for the poor and the oppressed, for the unemployed and the destitute, for prisoners, those persecuted, refugees and captives…and for the well-being of all people who are in danger that they may be relieved and protected…
In addition, every person seeking baptism as a follower of Jesus, at the time of being sworn-in, so to speak, answers this question with the whole church listening:
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I know the common criticism: These prayers could be said in dry, rote or insincere ways. Of course. Songs can be sung that way too. Sermons can be “listened to” while nodding off, tweeting, texting, checking Facebook
But these scriptures, these prayers and our baptismal vows have nurtured the faith of millions of Christ-followers over the millennia—with a little focused participation on our part they can be the genuine cry of our heart; they can be means of grace that we employ truthfully and earnestly as one’s who intend to be the cooperative friends of Jesus, seeking, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to live constant lives of creative goodness for the sake of others.
– Todd Hunter