I adored every opportunity to be the line leader in elementary school. Paving the classroom way to recess, lunch and bathroom breaks was exactly my cup of tea. As official line leader, I was always careful to walk at the appropriate pace, stop when appropriate and give a stern look to my chatty classmates when necessary. It was exhilarating to be the leader of the pack.
But I didn't get to be line leader all that often. We took turns at Dunkerton Elementary School. Week by week. And everyone got to be the leader at least one week per school year. So that means the rest of the time, I had to follow. I liked being a follower, too. It wasn't so bad providing backup for the identified frontman. But if I could've chosen, I would've opted to be the line leader every week of the year.
I guess I took a liking to the illusion of being in control from an early age. And while I am ready and willing to follow as an adult, deep in my heart, I still struggle to fully let go and entrust others to lead me. Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps you, too, secretly hold on tight to the assumption that you know the best way to do just about everything if only God and the rest of the universe would listen to you. (I'm probably only slightly kidding if I'm absolutely honest.)
Maybe you have other reasons you don't like to 100-percent follow. Maybe you don't particularly like authority. Maybe you prefer to have a fair amount of freedom of thought and action. Maybe you had a bad experience when you followed someone else's guidance but they led you astray.
A lot of us struggle to fully follow anyone or anything, and this inner hesitancy is something Jesus understood and called us to address. The definition of being a disciple of Jesus is a willingness to follow him. So I guess that means we can't opt out. And that brings us to Jesus' one-word instruction for this second-to-last-installment of our Lenten series: Today's command is "Follow."
There's really no doubt about it in the Gospels. Jesus makes it very clear: We are directed to follow him. Literally and metaphorically. The disciples were literally invited to follow him as he walked from town to town, and they were also metaphorically invited to follow him by shaping their lives around his ministry and teachings.
Jesus speaks the words "Follow me" many times in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: to his disciples, to women, to men, to crowds, to sick people, to tax collectors, to everyone! And he sometimes adds on other instructions like in Matthew 16:24, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
The Greek word for follow is akoloutheo. This is the form of the word found in the earliest versions of the Gospels. It means to accompany, to join, to become a disciple. Long ago, disciples of religious leaders would often follow them around on lengthy travels by foot.
As followers of Jesus today, we are invited to be his companions on the journey. We are invited to let go of our own agendas, carry our crosses, and trust him with every step.
It sounds like a great idea. I get it. I follow Jesus and will continue to do so, but let us not understate the difficulty of this following business. It's hard! It is a kind of sacrifice! To deny ourselves. To put other people first. To advocate for justice. To love our enemies. To forgive others and ourselves. To trust that Jesus really does have our best interests at heart. Answering Jesus' call to follow him is the hardest work we will ever do, and it will take our entire lives.
But with this work of following (and it IS work) come the most glorious parts of existence: abundance of life (John 10:10), peace (John 16:33), eternal life (John 3:16), forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47), true joy (John 15:11), freedom (John 8:32), rest (Matthew 11:28), and the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Luke 12:12).
Jesus knows what it means to follow, and he knows that it's hard. He had to follow God's guidance even when it cost him everything he had...even his very life.
Learning to follow Jesus … finding ways to trust God … these are real challenges! But we don't do this work alone. We do this work together! And just as Jesus said to his disciples, he also says to us, "I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20).