Why Follow Jesus?
Written by Pastor Ryan Ahlgrim
Why follow Jesus?
Two thousand years ago a carpenter from a tiny village traveled to another village and said to a group of fishermen, “Follow me.” They dropped their nets and followed him, and he took them on a journey that amazed them and changed their lives. They even died for him.
But that was long ago and far away, and we’re not a bunch of poor fishermen. Is there a compelling reason to follow Jesus today? Not if you want an easy life. Not if you accept the world the way it already is. But if you want to be part of a movement that is healing the world, and if you’re willing to let your own life be made whole, then consider following Jesus.
The Movement Begins
In the Gospel of Mark (the first book ever written about Jesus), Jesus’ first words are, “The time has come! The kingdom of God is at hand!” (Mark 1:15). What is Jesus talking about? What is the kingdom of God?
The kingdom of God is heaven on earth. It’s making the world the way it ought to be: fair and decent and loving, without violence and hate and corruption. It’s everyone letting go of self-centeredness and instead living by God’s Spirit.
Jesus is saying in effect: “God has decided now is the time, and my job is to start the kingdom of God!” Jesus was announcing the beginning of a new world and inviting people to change the direction of their lives and get on board.
How did Jesus start the kingdom of God? He did it by living a life of radical love for others and trust in God, and by inviting others to join him in this new way of life. Here are some of the surprising ways Jesus lived out God’s new world:
He chose a life of voluntary poverty and a community of sharing.
He welcomed and ate with those who were commonly despised and rejected by society.
He welcomed women to join his movement—shocking for his time and culture.
He crossed ethnic and religious barriers.
He violated religious rules if he considered them at odds with God’s liberating love.
He refused to use violence, even in self-defense.
He brought healing to those who felt helpless and ostracized.
He pronounced forgiveness, freeing people from their guilt and shame.
Jesus’ actions of radical inclusion drew all sorts of people to him. They wanted to know how to become whole, how to live in a God-centered way instead of a self-centered way. So Jesus taught them principles for living out God’s new world. The Gospel of Matthew collected many of these teachings and recorded them in one place as instructions for those who follow Jesus. It is often called the Sermon on the Mount. Its main instructions include these:
Be humble (Matthew 5:3).
Be aware of what you’ve done wrong and express your regret (Matthew 5:4).
Be gentle (Matthew 5:5).
Always strive for what is right (Matthew 5:6).
Be merciful (Matthew 5:7).
Be undivided in your loyalty to God (Matthew 5:8).
Be a peacemaker (Matthew 5:9).
Let go of grudges and seek reconciliation whenever possible (Matthew 5:21-24).
View others with respect, not as sex objects (Matthew 5:27-28).
Be faithful to your commitment to your spouse (Matthew 5:31-32).
Be honest at all times—not just when it’s legally required (Matthew 5:33-37).
Do not retaliate when treated unjustly; instead, respond with surprisingly generous action (Matthew 5:38-41).
Lend and give to anyone in need (Matthew 5:42).
Treat even opponents with care and compassion (Matthew 5:43-49).
Don’t be a religious show-off (Matthew 6:1).
Forgive others (Matthew 6:14).
Don’t accumulate wealth and possessions for yourself (Matthew 6:19-21).
Avoid judging and condemning others (Matthew 7:1-5).
Pray with faith in God’s compassion (Matthew 7:7-11).
Treat others the same way you would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12).
Take the hard road that leads to wholeness, not the easy road that leads to self-destruction (Matthew 7:13-14).
In short, live a life of genuine, unreserved, unconditional love. Why? Because God is love. God is gracious and gives good things to everyone whether they deserve it or not. The whole world is an undeserved gift. So to be a part of God’s new world—the world as it ought to be—we must live out God’s grace-filled character. Being God-centered is the very opposite of being self-centered. It interconnects all of us with equal love and regard.
But our selfishness shrinks from doing these things. We are afraid of what might happen if we were to truly live by love. We want to stick up for ourselves and our own protection first. Jesus’ response to our fear is: Don’t worry about protecting your own life. Trust God. The most important thing in life is not self-protection. The most important thing is to do the right thing: live out God’s goodness and God’s kingdom. When we give this priority, all our other needs fall into their proper place (Matthew 6:25-33).
Does this mean nothing bad will happen to us? No. In fact, it’s possible such a life will lead to hardship (Luke 9:57-58), or rejection by family (Matthew 10:34-37), or even one’s death (Matthew 10:38). But the only life truly worth living—the only life that leads to God’s new world—is a God-centered life. A selfish life is a hollow life, not a real life. It’s a dead-end and dies with us. But a God-centered life never ends (Matthew 10:39).
One time someone asked Jesus, “What must I do to get eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). Jesus answered: Love God with all your being, and love others as you love yourself. “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28). Jesus then went on to illustrate this life-giving love. He told a parable about a despised heretic—a Samaritan—who demonstrated costly love for a stranger while others with the “right” religion failed to act with love. The point of the story is that love—not religious claims—unites us to God. Love saves us.
Execution and Vindication
Announcing the coming of the kingdom of God, and living it out in these radical ways, got Jesus into trouble. Religious leaders did not like the way he presumed to speak and act for God, and they were offended by the way he bent some of the religious rules and included disreputable people. The Roman government, which controlled the area where Jesus lived, was alarmed by his message of a new kingdom, and so they considered him a threat to the establishment. When he and his followers came to Jerusalem for the great annual freedom festival (Passover), the government arrested him. He was put on trial for blasphemy and sedition for presuming to begin a new kingdom.
He was found guilty, tortured, and crucified. It was the most painful and humiliating form of execution the Roman government could devise. Over his head was placed a placard naming his crime—which also mocked him: “King of the Jews.” After several hours of anguish hanging on a cross, and being humiliated by those watching, he died.
If that were the end of the story, Jesus’ claim of God’s new world would surely have died with him. He died an utter failure—weak and foolish. He should have been forgotten by history.
But strangely, that was not the end. Two days later some women followers found his tomb open and empty. That day—and in the days that followed—a substantial number of his followers claimed they saw him. But he was different. He was timeless.
One of those persons—in fact the last to see him—was a man named Paul. He had never followed Jesus. He rejected the claims that Jesus’ followers had seen Jesus alive again. He thought they were dangerous fanatics and tried to stamp out the movement. Then he saw Jesus too—and heard Jesus give him the task to take Jesus’ message beyond the Jewish people to everyone.
In a letter Paul sent to a group of Jesus’ followers in Greece, he recorded a list of the people who saw Jesus alive soon after his death: he names Peter (Jesus’ most prominent follower), the Twelve (the inner circle that always traveled with him), a group of five hundred followers who saw Jesus at the same time (many known to Paul), James (Jesus’ own brother), as well as several others. It’s a surprisingly large list (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
Perhaps they were all deluded? I don’t think so. One thing is certain: they were not lying. They were changed by their experience. They became fearless. They lived out God’s new world, and invited others to join it, regardless of opposition from political and religious authorities. They were beaten for it, imprisoned for it, and died for it.
This event—what Christians call Jesus’ resurrection—changed everything. It meant that Jesus’ crucifixion was not a failure. Instead, Jesus’ cross took on a profound, life-changing meaning for anyone who followed him:
It showed how profoundly messed up, fearful and selfish humans and human systems are. We even crucify an innocent man who is reflecting God’s love.
It showed that God—whose very character and Spirit is embodied in Jesus—joins us in our suffering, our weakness, and in the necessity of facing death. God’s love will go all the way to death for us.
It showed forgiveness. When crucified, Jesus forgave his executioners—and by extension he forgave all of us. His cross is a sign of God offering forgiveness and healing to everyone.
It showed that we can be spiritually and morally transformed. Our self-centeredness can be crucified with Jesus on the cross when we identify with Jesus.
With his resurrection it showed that God’s self-giving love, even when crucified, isn’t defeated. Love triumphs even over death. Love gets the last word.
And his resurrection showed that God’s kingdom cannot be stopped. When we die to ourselves and live for God, we enter a kingdom that is coming and never ends.
The earliest declaration of faith made by Jesus’ followers after his resurrection was: Jesus is Lord. The Romans insisted that Caesar, the emperor, is Lord. It is the emperor who embodies the power and authority of the gods. But Jesus’ followers made the audacious claim that a man armed only with God’s love is the true Lord of all. This is the real and ultimate power and authority in the universe.
The Movement Continues
Followers of Jesus do not act alone. They band together for worship and for mutual encouragement, guidance, and help. They study the Gospels (and the rest of the Bible) together. They plan and carry out ways to break down social barriers, alleviate poverty and disease, resolve conflicts, reconcile races, and help those in need. Together they become a community of hope in the world, a taste of the still-coming kingdom of God.
Will we make the world perfect through our efforts? No, of course not. Human selfishness and fear exist even in the best of us, and even in followers of Jesus. The world will always have diseases and natural disasters, a measure of random tragedy as well as human-caused harm. But we can make it—and are making it—better with every act of kindness. Whether the world progresses in love, or slides back and forth in selfishness and misery, followers of Jesus are still making a difference, always creating outposts of God’s kingdom, always adding God’s transforming love into the mix. We live in the hope that when the human story comes to an end—whenever and however that may be—God and the risen Jesus will be there, and the kingdom will become complete and eternal (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).
Following Jesus is an action, not just a statement of what we believe. As an action, it needs constant tending and nourishment. This is done through several crucial practices:
Prayer. Prayer is the key way in which we nurture an ongoing awareness of God and trust in God’s love. We do this by expressing gratitude to God on a daily basis for every gift of grace around us, by turning our lives over to God daily, and by lifting up others to God’s care. By doing so we cultivate love in ourselves as well as open up space for God’s Spirit to be at work.
Bible reading and contemplation. The Bible is the sacred story of the Jewish and Christian community of faith through many centuries. We nurture our life in God by becoming part of the story and pondering the journey of faith made by those who came before us. This too should be done on a regular basis, both individually and in conversation and reflection with others. The Bible is a very complex book made up of many individual books. Not only is it a long story, it is also a profound dialogue of different voices and experiences expressed through songs, narratives, laws, proverbs, parables, letters, philosophy, and visions. Trying to read the Bible through from beginning to end is often too difficult for most people. I suggest beginning with four crucial books:
Genesis. This is the first book of the Bible. Using stories and metaphors and poetry, it expresses the deepest truths about God, nature, and humanity. It also tells of a family that begins the long and difficult journey of faith to bless the whole world. This story sets the stage for the rest of the Bible, including the story of Jesus.
The Gospel of Luke. The Bible contains four gospels—books that tell the Jesus story. All of them are crucial and make a unique contribution to our understanding of Jesus. But Luke contains more of Jesus’ teachings, is more concerned with historical accuracy, and is written more beautifully than the others. For these reasons, if I had to choose just one gospel to study for following Jesus, it would be this one.
The Acts of the Apostles. Written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, Acts tells the exciting story of the first decades of the Jesus movement and the amazing journeys of Paul as he plants churches all over the Roman Empire.
1 Corinthians. This is Paul’s most engaging letter, written to a church facing serious internal problems that needed to be sorted out. It is perhaps the most helpful letter for nurturing churches.
Corporate worship. We can pray by ourselves, and sing songs to God by ourselves, and read the Bible by ourselves, and do good for others by ourselves. But sooner or later our individual efforts will run out of steam or get undermined by being surrounded by a culture of self-centeredness. We need to be nurtured by meeting regularly with a community of faith—a band of followers of Jesus who have made a commitment to each other as well as to God. By worshiping and studying and sharing and planning and acting together, we are strengthened, guided, and assisted. Together we can do much more good than what any of us can do alone.
When choosing a church to belong to, choose one that is dedicated to following Jesus (not just talking about Jesus): that lives by love, not fear, and by trust, not threats; where leaders are gentle, mature, and self-giving; and where you are welcomed and loved as you are. It won’t be a perfect church, because no church is perfect. Instead, it will be a place to practice love and forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, even as we offer these gifts to the world.
Why follow Jesus?
Because he is the most inspiring embodiment of God’s love. The kingdom he began, and which we can now be a part of, brings healing to the world.
We invite you to join us as we follow Jesus.
First Mennonite Church of Richmond is a community of disciples who are seeking to live out the kingdom of God’s love embodied and begun by Jesus. We are diverse—from different cultures and races and religious backgrounds. We welcome anyone, no matter where they are on life’s journey. We commit ourselves to mutual care, service to others, and a life of peacemaking and reconciliation. Help us make this a better community and bring healing to our world.
We are located at 601 E. Parham Rd, just off of Interstate 95. The parking lot entrance is on St. Charles Rd. We have classes for all ages beginning at 9:30am on Sundays, and a worship service at 11am.
Copies of Pastor Ryan’s text are available to anyone free of charge. If you would like to receive a booklet please contact the church secretary.
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601 E. Parham Rd.
Richmond, VA 23227
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