Actually, I tend to cringe at the phrase, “Jesus follower.”
I often hear Christians use that phrase to shirk responsibility for all the detestable baggage that Christianity has dumped on the world. They don’t seem to realize that quite a bit of that detestable baggage came from people in earlier times who loved to justify their actions by saying, “I’m just a Jesus follower,” or at least words to that effect. They saw themselves as throwing off the shackles of stifling institutions—only to leave us with yet another stifling institution. (And if you’ve watched the recent Netflix series, “The Family,” you might have noticed that the members of this cult-like right-wing organization—the Fellowship—also use that phrase.)
I’m convinced that there will never be a “Jesus movement,” or any other movement for that matter, that does not spawn institutions. They can be more flexible than a rigid, hierarchical orthodoxy, but no matter how flexible, somebody will always find them stifling. You can rebel against an institution, but if if you have any success at that, you’ll be starting another one. There’s no escaping that.
Besides, all we know about Jesus comes from people who were busy building institutions. Even what we call the Bible is a product of contentious institution building. The Jesus of each Gospel, and even of Paul’s much earlier letters, is already a variously institutionalized Jesus.
Also, I never know which “Jesus” people are claiming to follow. The Jesus of John’s Gospel doesn’t look much like the Jesus of Matthew, Mark and Luke. And those first three Gospels differ significantly among themselves—to harmonize them, you have to ignore a lot. Nobody avoids picking and choosing.
The Jesus of C. S. Lewis looks very different from the Jesus of Marcus Borg or even N. T. Wright. We all tend to see the Jesus we want to see.
So I invite you to cringe along with me at the phrase. “Jesus follower” never absolves us from what’s been done in Jesus’ name—the evil along with the good.
It won’t produce an institution-free movement.
And we need to be more honest about the diversity of ways—always with an agenda—in which Jesus has been portrayed from the very beginning up to now.
Nevertheless, I’m still a sort of Jesus follower:
Without pretending innocence, and without fixating on a single portrait, I’m utterly captivated by and caught up in the ongoing, multifaceted, disconcerting storyline that eventually came to be told of Jesus’ self-emptying, divinely human and humanly divine life, begun long ago, yet somehow happening among us right here and now. (A storyline is not so much a particular story as it is a theme more or less refracted in a variety of stories. But this one is actually among the earliest—Philippians 2:5-11.)
That’s what being a Jesus follower means to me—being caught up in this storyline.
I realize it’s a storyline that has always mingled memory with imagination. (How could a storyline that captivating and that disconcerting NOT mingle them?) But I can’t deny that it’s a storyline that opens me to what is most real in our past, in our present and in our future. And I’m convinced that it’s a storyline that deserves an engaged hearing by everybody, regardless of any of other stories that may also captivate them (and us).
I don’t think we’ll ever get a totally satisfactory agreement on what parts of this storyline are memory and what parts of this storyline are imagination. (Helpful discussion: Dale C. Allison, Jr., The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009].) But I do have vulnerable but plausible opinions about “what really happened.”
While reputable historians will continue to debate all sorts of details, and even the most basic components of this storyline, and while I will continue to listen to their debates, I still have found no serious reason to doubt:
—that Jesus lived,
—that he spoke and lived into the arrival of what he saw as God’s justly peaceable reign (using the popular apocalyptic terminology of his time),
—that he disconcertingly embraced perceived outsiders,
—that his embrace awakened his followers to the all-embracing life they called God,
—that his faithfulness to that life got him executed by the Romans,
—and that afterwords his followers were surprised to experience him, with them, as all-embracingly alive.
That’s the basic storyline his earliest followers, like St. Paul, preached, and that I still preach today.
These are plausible but vulnerable opinions about what really happened. They can’t be proved (history doesn’t offer “proofs”). And they could definitely change. (I have written more about this here.)
But I don’t believe I need to apologize for living by them right now. I believe living by them makes me a better-than-otherwise friend and ally of all sorts of people working for a more just and peaceable world. It’s like living by the conviction that people’s lives matter just as much as mine—I don’t know how to prove that without assuming it, but I won’t apologize for trying to live by it.
So when I call myself a sort of Jesus follower, I mean to continue doing, with Jesus, something like this:
—speaking and living into the arrival of what I too see as God’s justly peaceable reign (it never fully arrives, but approximations of it do),
—disconcertingly embracing perceived outsiders,
—awakening others to the all-embracing life we can rightly still call God,
—getting rejected by some for doing all this,
—and surprisingly experiencing myself with others as all-embracingly alive.
I’m doing this, or at least haphazardly trying to do it, because I’ve heard that Jesus started doing something like this long ago, and I trust that within God’s all-embracing life he is somehow still doing something like this with and in me and others now.
So yes, all cringing aside, I am a sort of Jesus follower.