When people ask me as a pastor what gets me excited, most expect me to say, “When somebody gives their lives to Jesus.” In Luke 9 we read that the angels in heaven rejoice when a sinner repents. Therefore, when a person commits their lives to Christ, that should excite us. Although I agree that this is exciting, for me, what gets me most excited is when someone fully grasps what it means to be a child of God. In other words, it is when a person understands what it truly means to be a follower of Christ!
So I thought I would share a few thoughts on what I think it means to follow Jesus? Following Jesus, regardless of when and where you live, will always look the same because it is based on God’s demonstration of love shown best in how Jesus lived His life and how He gave His life on the Cross.
The Cross points to what Jesus did for us and how we are to live in response to His sacrifice. In many ways, how Jesus died provides us with a pattern of how those who follow Him should live their lives. It is like those “Connect the Dots” puzzles we used to do as children. As you used your pencil and went from one dot to another, an image would begin to take shape. In many ways, following Christ follows the same pattern.
The first dot is where this new relationship became a reality and that is found at the Cross of Jesus. Embracing Jesus’ Cross means receiving the salvation He provides. We identify with His death and participate in it by having the same attitude as He did in how we live our lives.
Jesus told a group of people seeking to follow Him that if they wanted to do so they would have to carry their own cross. Jesus says in Luke 14:27, “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” This is about identification and participation. Like baptism, we identify with Jesus in His death and we participate with Him by imitating His attitude and life by living a sacrificial life.
Embracing Jesus’ Cross is more than saying a prayer to have your sins forgiven. To become a follower of Jesus demands not only embracing the salvation He provides but embracing the attitude and mindset in how He died as well. His death not only provides us with salvific benefits but with the blueprint on how we should live our lives for Him.
I read a quote that said, “If we make the cross entirely something Christ does for us instead of a pattern to follow, we will end up with a distorted Christianity.” In other words, if our lives do not model the founder’s pattern (Jesus) or His life, then we are not living Christian lives.
We identify with Jesus by taking up our own cross in solidarity with Him and allow His mind and attitude to centre and define how we live our lives. In doing so we then become complete witnesses for Jesus. We look most like Him and sound most like Him and live most like Him when we take up our cross and follow after Him. In essence, we continue in the discipleship tradition of cross-bearing. Personal identification and participation with Jesus mark the life of every disciple throughout history.
So what does Jesus’ death communicate? It shows us that self-sacrifice and love for our enemies should be our hallmarks. Jesus demonstrated love toward the least deserving, toward those whom He knew would more than likely not reciprocate His love. That is hard for any of us to do.
But the picture of Jesus hanging on a cross needs to become not only the place we go to have our sins forgiven, but the place we go to inform the way we follow Him. Extending love to the least deserving has as its primary goal the good of that person. And it reflects the love God has for us. In a very tangible way, love came to us in the shape of cross.
When we love those who dislike us, even those who may see us as enemies, we intentionally reject the pattern of a world that extends love to others primarily on the basis of who will return it. Instead, we embrace the counter-story of Jesus, who demonstrated love toward those whom He knew would not return it.
When we embrace the Cross as the model for what true love looks like, we are in that moment taking up our own cross and following the example Jesus gave us. Following Jesus is far more than accepting His forgiveness. It also forces us to embrace Jesus’ mindset to love our enemies. Jesus’ story then becomes our story as we express His attitude and teaching with others.
Let us move on to the second dot. That can be found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. For many Christians, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the primary source of how they should live their lives. Much of what is said in these verses I would consider “impossible commands.” The standard is so high for any of us to truly meet it. But that should not be our excuse, especially when we see the connection between His sermon and His death on the cross. It spells out what following Jesus will look like and what it will require from those who choose to follow Him.
Early in His sermon, Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” He then elaborated on what this looks like by using three real-life scenarios. All three scenarios demonstrate that followers of Jesus are to centre their lives on what Jesus says instead of what the teachers of the day were saying.
Jesus’ story is based on love, and while it includes those who love in return, it also includes those who will not. To quote a Chris Tomlin song, “a love like this, the world has never known.”
Jesus not only spoke about this kind of radical love but showcased it throughout His public ministry. This culminated in His death on the cross. This act proved to be the most powerful demonstration of Jesus’ love.
The essence of His teaching, in both life and death, was this: We do not give in the same manner as we have received. It is not karma. It is not reaping what we sow. We live by a different story than the one we have grown so accustomed to. It is a story that presents us with God’s story that as His followers, we are called to embrace and replicate. It is a story that was displayed on the Cross when Jesus forgave the people responsible for putting Him there, which includes you and me.
The last dot is Jesus’ cross is the pattern for discipleship. The cross presents us with not only the means of forgiveness and reconciliation but the pattern for life as well. It is a pattern born out of God’s original plan for humanity. It was a life demonstrated throughout Jesus’ ministry by His attitudes, words and actions, And the culmination of this was Jesus’ words as He hung on the cross, “Father, forgive them.”
Those who embrace Jesus’ cross are also called to continue Christ’s love for the world by how they live their lives. We are called to embrace the Jesus story and to allow it to define us as Jesus’ followers. And, as it defines us, we learn to let go of the old ways and embrace a new way of living.
It is a way born out of our own experience of being forgiven. When we understand how underserving we are of God’s grace, we can then express grace to others by loving others without any strings or expectations. This lifestyle is one of the primary ways people see we are Jesus’ disciples.
God is love. And, God’s love looks like Jesus hanging on a Cross. This sacrificial act combining with forgiving those who put Him there, demonstrate how His followers should live. But the world cannot see Jesus nor His actions. Their only tangible example of God’s love is in those who follow Him. And through living their lives of grace and love, the world catches a glimpse of what true love really looks like.
Jesus says this to His followers: “Take up your cross and follow me,” “Love one another” and “Love your enemies.” These three dots need to be connected if we are to better understand and model the life of Jesus. It is a story that provides forgiveness of sins but also demonstrates an attitude of forgiveness and love for our enemies we all are called to embrace and imitate. Jesus said, “Follow me.” Will you?