Two words. For children they are easy words. Follow the Leader, for instance, is a game in which a child leads and others follow, aping the leaders' movement. Simon Says is another game that children play, and in this game if someone says, "Simon says, 'Follow me,'" all the children do exactly that -- they follow whoever is the leader at that moment.
Adults have a hard time with "Follow me." They have to think and weigh the consequences of the action of following someone else. Questions like "Do I like this person?" "Do I believe what this person believes?" "Will this person want my money?" "Will I have to sacrifice my job?" And so it goes. We adults no longer have the innocent faith of children, who hear the words follow me and accept blindly that it is okay to do so. (As an aside as I wrote this about children, I suddenly realized that children of the late 20th century and the early 21st century have had to be taught that blind faith in strangers is dangerous. What a terrible comment about our world!)
The innocent faith of children prior to the mid-20th century is a metaphor for how the apostles accepted Jesus' call. When Jesus said, "Follow me," that is what they did. It was a little different when an apostle said to a potential disciple, "Follow Jesus." That person -- Nathaniel, for instance -- had to ask, "Why would I want to do that?" Phillip simply says, "Check him out and see what you think." And, we know the rest of the story, or do we?
You and I are parts of the rest of the story, aren't we? A story that has not yet ended. As such, many of us are Nathaniels. We have to check it out first. If we like what we hear and see and if we have faith in what we hear but cannot see, we follow. Then, and only then, do we become people who have made ourselves apprentices to Jesus Christ so that we can become capable of doing what he did.
I can only tell you what this apprenticeship looks like for me. I said, "Yes, I will follow you" only after many years of thinking and reasoning and searching. As a result, I am in New York City, studying to be a priest. I am a long way from home, from friends, from people I love. It was my choice -- God does not coerce people into following Jesus, which, as far as I am concerned, is one of the great things about God. I have a choice! You have a choice! Martin Luther King, Jr., had a choice, as did a man that he admired -- Mahatma Gandhi.
Each of us as Christians decided at some point in our lives that we wanted to be apprentices of Jesus. This does not mean that we are able to be Jesus. This means that what Jesus taught becomes the pattern of our lives. Within the Gospels, we find the teachings of Jesus that show us how to live our lives in relationship to time, place, family, neighbors, talents, and opportunities.
For instance, as a hospital chaplain, I had a real opportunity to serve God and that opportunity caused a real problem. I would walk into a room of a seriously or critically ill person as a representative of Jesus Christ so I was supposed to talk about God. Wrong! I was there to be present to their suffering as Jesus was present to the suffering of his times, friends, family, neighbors. This call to hospital chaplaincy was not about religion or Christian service. It was very secular -- I was there to listen to the suffering around me; and if I could actively help, I was to do so by bringing them myself as an active listener with whom they could share their joy and sorrow and suffering. My opportunity for discipleship led me to a whole new place and gave to me as much as I gave to it. I learned that while discipleship can be a religious affair, it also belongs to the world.
Jesus' mission, doing the will of God by bringing a new view of God and a new way to reach God, was religious, but it was so much more. It changed the way mankind not only views God, but also how people view each other. It brought a new secular pattern of living to the world.
So it was with King and Gandhi. They were called to ministry in the religious sense, but that ministry led to a much greater role than just leading prayers, teaching others about God and living a good life. They both became the hope of their friends, neighbors, families for a new world order that would free them from the oppression of others. Their roles were secularized: Gandhi brought about the independence of his country from Great Britain, and King brought about the end of segregation in the United States.
Martin Luther King, Jr., said:
Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop ... Like anybody, I would like to live a long life -- longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know ... that we, as a people will get to the promised land.Gandhi said:
You have to stand against the whole world although you may have to stand alone. You have to stare the world in the face, although the world may look at you with blood-shot eyes. Do not fear. Trust that little thing in you which resides in the heart and says: 'Forsake friend, wife, all; but testify to that for which you have lived and for which you have to do' ....Jesus could see God and brought a vision of a new way of living to the world, and he was killed as were the apostles and many of the disciples that came after them. Martin Luther King, as an apprentice of Jesus, was assassinated on the balcony of his motel room for wanting a new way of life for Blacks. Gandhi brought down an empire and brought a new way of life to his people. While all of these men were not Christians, they had tremendous faith in God and as such followed Him wherever it took them. They followed God's call.
How are we to live into our individual calls and follow Christ? It is as simple as it is difficult. As apprentices of Jesus, we are to act as he did -- help the poor, the sick, widows, orphans, and the oppressed. We are to treat each person as we would wish to be treated by them, and we are to love and to serve God. How we go about doing this is as individual as we are. We have to ask God and listen to God's response. By doing so, our individual roles will be revealed to us. Even if they are not earth shattering as were the roles of Gandhi and King, they are equally important to achieving God's kingdom on earth.
Gandhi made a statement about himself and his relationship to God that I think applies or should apply to all of us. He said, "I am a man of faith. My reliance is solely on God. One step is enough for me. The next step He will make clear to me when the time for it comes." As I see it, we are to trust God and follow Jesus, knowing that God will make clear to us exactly what form each of our discipleships is to take, how it is to take place, and when it is to take place.