The first disciples were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. They would have had their own understanding of what that meant, and their own motivations for following him. Maybe they thought he would be the Liberator, and that if they followed him they would be high up in the new kingdom. Maybe they were simply attracted to his personality and teaching. Maybe they believed that he could bring them eternal life with God - when Jesus asked them if they wanted to stop following him, Peter said, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.' (John 6:68,69) Whatever their thoughts, they knew that following Jesus involved a journey - not just a physical journey as they moved from place to place, but a spiritual journey as they took his teachings on board, got to know him better, and learnt how to take part in his work.
In our Lent Course we have been taking another look at God and his love for us, his love for the world around us, what he is doing in the world, and how he love his family of followers, and we have been thinking about how we can respond by loving God and loving what he loves. We can't do any of this apart from Jesus. Jesus shows us God's love, Jesus teaches us to love, Jesus helps us by his Holy Spirit whom he has sent for this purpose. We don't learn all at once; it takes a lifetime. And when we have learnt one lesson, we can't rest on our laurels - there's so much more! Jesus keeps moving, and if we are to follow him we too need to keep moving.
Following Jesus necessarily involves change. We are being changed, as we become more like him. While the result is good, the process can be painful - so Jesus warns his disciples that they have to 'deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.'
We 'deny ourselves'. This does not mean that we wish or pretend we were someone else - we can only follow Jesus as ourselves, with our histories and faults and gifts. What it does mean is that we reject self-centredness, self-seeking and self-direction. We put Jesus at the centre, we seek the things that matter to him, we let his Spirit direct our lives.
We 'take up the cross daily'. This does not mean those everyday afflictions we have to bear. A man carrying a cross was on his way to the most shameful, painful death. To take up the cross is to accept that fate. A criminal did it once, and was forced to do it. Jesus asks us each day to be ready to bear whatever shame or pain following him may involve, even picking up the difficult bits of ourselves and our lives, even accepting death itself if that is required. In this country we do not often experience major humiliation or suffering for the sake of the gospel - other believers elsewhere in the world do. But we can have the same attitude.
We 'follow him'. Jesus suffered, and we can expect to suffer. But suffering is not the end; the purpose is not death, but new life. Jesus doesn't want anyone to 'lose their lives' but to 'save them'. Death is the only way to new life. Accepting the unpleasant realities of our lives is the first step towards transformation - a transformation that begins with the beginning of the journey, but does not end until the journey ends. Jesus has been raised from the dead as the first of a new creation, and is now in the glory of the Father's presence. That is where we are following him to! And that is why we want everyone else to follow him as well. As Diane Patterson says, 'We are born to follow Jesus.'
ISSUES AND QUESTIONS
1. What does it mean to say that Jesus died to save us?
2. 'Take up your cross and follow me'. What does that mean for you in practice?
3. What have you learned from following Jesus?
4. What qualities in Jesus do you want to grow in your life?
IDEAS FOR MEETINGS
Spread out pictures of Jesus. Ask the members to choose the one that appeals most to them, and to say why they chose it. (Pictures can be seen by clicking HERE.)
Keep the pictures of Jesus in view, and add a blank piece of paper. Ask the group to call out words that describe Jesus, and write them on the paper. Then ask them to choose one of the words, and to think about it and Jesus for five minutes - one of the pictures might help. End by listening to or singing an appropriate song.