I’ve been reading through NT Wright’s book, After You Believe. It’s challenging me to think more intentionally about “following Jesus.”
Luke 9:31 states Jesus was speaking to Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration about his “departure.” The Greek word is “exodus.” The fact that Luke chooses this word in conjunction to Jesus’ conversation with Moses is striking. Jesus’ death will enact an event like the Old Testament Exodus. But where Moses’ Exodus led the Israelites out of slavery to Egypt and into the Promised Land of Israel, Jesus’ Exodus will lead humanity out of slavery to sin and death and into the Promised Land of New Creation.
But how does this imagery impact our “discipleship” or “following Jesus”? In Moses’ Exodus, the people followed Moses through the sea on dry ground. Our imaginations have been shaped by the Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments or more recently by Dreamworks The Prince of Egypt. Moses raises his staff, the waters split into towering walls and the people cross safely across the sea.
But Jesus’ Exodus is different. Imagine Jesus standing on the shore of the sea. But rather than splitting the waters, he wades into their midst, ever deeper until finally he is engulfed…. and drowns. We stand on the shore in horror as we watch his lifeless body bob to the surface and float facedown upon the currents. For three days the tides slowly carries his body to the far shore, where it’s washed up onto the sand. As we squint and peer at that lifeless speck on the other side, amazingly it stirs and stands and beckons us to follow.
With this image Jesus’ familiar words “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” are infused with the dread and foreboding they were intended. For most of us, the thought of drowning is terrifying. In Jesus’ day, crucifixion was equally if not more terrifying.
For me, I’ve allowed the idea of “following Jesus” to become a bit sterile, focusing more on “copying Jesus” or “imitating Jesus.” And while that’s an important element, at its core, following Jesus requires nothing less than death and resurrection. That is the only way out of slavery to sin and death and into the Promised Land of New Creation.
St Paul writes, “Thus, if anyone is in the Messiah, there is a new creation! Old things have gone, and look — everything has become new.” (2Corinthians 5:17) A human life that embodies God’s New Creation is only possible by being transformed by death and resurrection — the old is gone and everything has become new.
In another passage he writes, “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, great-heartedness, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. There is no law that opposes things like that! And those who belong to the Messiah, Jesus, crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the spirit, let’s line up with the spirit.” (Galatians 5:22-25) Again, this is the life transformed by death and resurrection. Paul is not telling people to work harder at being loving and joyful, etc. He’s detailing the genuinely human New Creation life, a life transformed and empowered by God’s Spirit and available to those who follow Jesus into his death and resurrection.