The word Christian may only be nine letters, but it’s a big ‘ole word.
With the reformation underway in American Christianity, there’s been a lot of talk over what that word actually means and who gets to use it. Some people on both the left and right see themselves as gatekeepers and are busy declaring who is, and who is not, a Christian. This is in part because of our human nature to judge others (the desire to judge others being the original sin from the Garden of Eden) and in part because the term has become fluid. Let’s be honest– there’s a LOT of different people under the umbrella that is “Christianity”.
First, I’m not a fan of saying who is or who is not a Christian– it’s a big religion with lots of different expressions, and I’m the last person qualified to be a gatekeeper of who is allowed to use the term. Secondly, some have suggested we stop using the term altogether, which I’m not a fan of either. “Christian” is a beautiful term from our early days of a faith tradition, and you’re not going to see my name on the list of people who think we just dump it.
However, I do think the term “Jesus follower” is a more helpful term to interject into the conversation. While “Christian” can mean a million different things, “Jesus follower” is a little more definable because by definition, this would be an individual who is living a life that follows the example we find in Jesus.
I’m proud to be a Christian, but I long to be a Jesus follower. It’s what I strive for. It’s what I want to be when I grow up. It’s what this movement was all about.
While it’s not always easy to tell who is or is not a Christian, I think a Jesus follower is observable. One doesn’t need to tell you they’re a Jesus follower, because you’ll be able to see by how they live, whether or not it’s true.
As I look at the Jesus I find in the New Testament, I think there are a few hallmarks of what it looks like to follow him– traits that can be observed to “spot a Jesus follower”:
1. A Jesus follower likes to talk about him, but they do it in such a way that it causes you to want to know more, not less.
Someone who is following Jesus will be passionate about him– and as a result, they’ll talk about him. However, they’ll do it in such a way that attracts people instead of repelling them. In the New Testament, we see the way Jesus communicated his message was appealing to the point that he couldn’t go anywhere without attracting a big crowd. Followers of Jesus talk about him naturally and passionately but in a way that, like him, attract listeners. (The religious elite being the one exception to this rule both for Jesus and his followers).
2. A Jesus follower embraces enemy love.
One of the central teachings of Jesus is nonviolent love of enemies. It’s actually one area where he draws some pretty hard lines– lines that make both the left and right uncomfortable. It is important to understand however, that the life of Jesus is one giant testimony of enemy love– one that culminates with his death on the cross– the precise moment where he nonviolently died for his enemies. It only makes sense that someone who is actually following Jesus would follow his teachings and example. I can still hear Jesus saying, “if you only love those who love you, what reward is there in that?” His followers know this and hold what is still, a very unpopular belief.
3. A Jesus follower is the one who is full of compassion for outsiders and the weak.
Here’s a challenge: re-read the Gospels with a fresh eye, and count the number of times you hear the term “and Jesus was filled with compassion”. I promise, you’ll be shocked (head start: Mark 6:3, Matt 9:36, Mark 8:2). When I first noticed this in the Gospels, it was one of those moments when the words jumped off the page and became a “I can’t believe I didn’t see this before” experience. When Jesus saw people, his first response was that of compassion– his followers, by nature, are the same.
4. A Jesus follower is the one who is quickest to show others mercy.
Jesus once faced off with the religious elite of his time who were colluding with the power of Empire and oppressing the weak. When he did, he dismissed them and famously said: “go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice”.
One of the core aspects of the message of Jesus is one of mercy. He went to the cross on our behalf as an act of mercy. He stopped the execution of a condemned woman and told her “neither do I condemn you”, as an act of mercy. He was busy healing the sick, because he loved to show mercy. Jesus was a man who had mercy at the core of his being. If you want to distinguish a Christian from a Jesus follower, just look for the one who is advocating the position that shows the most mercy (including gratuitous forgiveness)– because that’s the heart of Jesus.
5. A Jesus follower is the one who, when they describe what God is like, describe Jesus.
Jesus followers get what Jesus meant when he said “if you have seen me, you’ve seen the father”, and they believe the author of Hebrews who wrote that Jesus was the “exact representation” of God’s being. This means that if you want to be able to spot a Jesus follower, look for the person who is describing a God who looks EXACTLY like Jesus. If Jesus is the exact representation of God, we know that noting else– including the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament– can be the “exact representation” of God. Jesus followers are sold out on exclusively following Jesus because they realize that in all of human history, the only time God’s exact essence was revealed to us was done through the mirror image of Christ.
So what’s the point of being able to spot a Jesus follower– is it so we can judge who is not? May it never be. Instead, being able to spot a Jesus follower is crucial for our own spiritual vitality. If the Jesus path is the one you wish to travel, the best thing you can do is find others who are already on it, and walk together with them.
Yes, I am a Christian– but I long to be a Jesus follower. I want to walk this path, and I want to do the things that Jesus did. However, I don’t want to walk the path alone.
Perhaps we can find a way together.