Have you ever noticed that when championships roll around for sports here in America that new fans come out of the woodwork? In 2016 I lived in Northwest Indiana, which is basically metro-Chicago and of course Cubs Country. You could feel the excitement in the air as the Cubs rolled over team after team on their way to breaking the curse of the billy goat (or whatever excuse Cubs fans came up with to explain their annual epic collapse).
You could see banners and flags sporting the W. You saw Cubs paraphernalia on lampposts, hanging from trees, decorating porches, cars and desks at work. It didn’t matter where you went, there was excitement and joy as fans watched their lovable losers finally break out and make history.
Now some of these fans are legit. My boss who insisted on a flag ceremony where our plant flew the W after the Cubs won the World Series. My sister who painfully described every agonizing play on Facebook clinging to her chair until the final out was secure. Countless others who watched every game faithfully, cheered and booed and cringed with every up and down in the Cubs dramatic history but passed away before their hopes were finally realized. It is these people who kept the dream alive. They furiously and desperately clung to hope.
Other fans came in late to the party. It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement when a local team is winning. Even my 10-year-old daughter, who is not terribly excited about sports, proudly proclaimed herself a Cubs fan. Since we are a Cardinals family I immediately placed her for adoption, and she is now with another happy family. Just kidding. Her new family is full of Cubs fans, so they’re never happy.
What is the difference between the two? The first group is dedicated, committed to the team’s cause through thick and thin. They agonize over every defeat and cheer at every victory. They are unabashed in their love for their team. They wear the foam fingers in their living rooms. They buy entire outfits emblazoned with their team’s logo. Year in and year out, through all the setbacks and leaps forward no one ever questions their loyalty. I call them followers.
The second isn’t like this. These people get swept up in the emotion of the moment. They are thrilled to be part of the winning team and experience the joy of the crowd around them which is palpable. But when the going gets tough, they split, looking for the next high with the next winner because, really, who wants to cheer for the losers? I call them fans.
Now sometimes fans turn into followers. It’s how I came to love the 49ers while living in the Midwest. I was listening to Joe Montana shred the Dolphins defense to pick up the 9ers’ second ring. I was caught up, but I stayed. Through every dumb trade, every poor coach, every heart-breaking draft pick, I’ve been loyally following the 49ers all my life.
So let me ask you, are you a fan of Jesus or are you a follower? This really gets at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. The word began as a negative term, a way of slandering the new sect of Jews that had sprung up. It means, “little Christs” or “Christ followers”. But today the term “Christian” is loaded with different baggage. How many things have “Christians” done that are evil? How many times have you scratched your head when the office jerk says that he’s a Christian or that the perennially gloomy lady at your office tells you she goes to church?
Jesus gets at the heart of what it means to follow him when he encounters a rich young man asking what it takes to live forever. Jesus tells him that if he wants to truly live forever he must obey the commandments.
20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Isn’t that interesting? Here’s Jesus trying to preach to the masses and convince people that he has a better way. He has spent time healing the sick, performing miracles in town after town for years, and here comes a pretty decent guy who wants to know more. I mean, this guy is actually a pretty solid recruit. He’s rich (every movement needs money), he’s young (every movement needs the vigor of youth) and he’s a ruler, a man of authority (every movement needs influence). But Jesus demurred. Rather than take a young man with credentials from a strong pedigree, Jesus challenges the man’s motivation and in turn loses him.
The first thing I consider with this story is what Jesus’s motivation was. What is God after that it seems as though he’s not looking at the big picture and turning away a potential solid member of a movement? Well, it should be noted that Jesus isn’t turning the man away. In typical Jesus fashion, he knows right where the nerve is, and he cuts right to the bone like a surgeon’s scalpel. Jesus sees the man’s heart, his true motivation, and guess what, he’s not impressed. The man was convinced his resume was enough to earn his spot, but Jesus knew the deeper truth of the matter. If you have any allegiance other than God, you can’t follow him.
Jesus knew that the man was wealthy and deeply dependent on his possessions for security, for meaning. But security and meaning shouldn’t come from possessions or accomplishments; they should only come from God. The man was so trapped in the stone of his own accomplishment, he couldn’t be free to live life under the discipleship of Christ. Jesus challenged the man to let them go, not because wealthy people can’t follow Jesus but because statues can’t walk.
Now that I think of it, am I so different from this man? How many times have I prayed to God using some version of, “I’ve kept all the commandments since I was young”? “God, you know I love you,” or “God, I’m a good person,” or “God, I don’t deserve this trouble I’m going through”. They all amount to the same thing: I believe my resume earns my place with God. I believe that who I think I am and what I’ve done of my own accord are enough to garner favor. Rather than allowing God to make the call with all my things, all my accomplishments, all my gifts, I want to hold onto them and have God too. I’m like a child trying to keep playing with stuffed animals by not setting them down to accept the great new Lego set my Dad just got me. My hands are so occupied with the past I can’t grasp the future he’s offering.
First, Friend, you need to set some stuff down today. It’s not a problem that you’re wealthy or smart or influential or that you’ve done church work before and met so and so or that you’re super musical or anointed or whatever plaque hangs above your door. God gave you these things for his benefit, not yours. And since he gave them to you, he can ask for you to give them up. As long as they have a hold on your allegiance, you’ll never be truly committed to God’s purposes in your life.
Maybe there’s something even deeper here though. Maybe your commitment isn’t to advancing God’s Kingdom but to advancing your own agenda. You like the thought of Jesus. You see that he’s a good guy and teaches about loving people (which is your mantra). You see that he fights for the oppressed (which is where your heart is). But are you willing to follow him? If not, friend, you’re not looking for a savior but for a sage. If Jesus doesn’t have the authority in your life to have you lay down the distractions so that you can get what he has for you, all you’ll ever have are the distractions. But when you lay them down and follow him, you’ll get what is more valuable, true life.
My challenge for you is this: first, are you a follower of Jesus or just a fan? Why is Jesus even on your radar? Is it just some eternal self-preservation to try to live forever? Has Jesus made any difference in your life? I want you to think about what it would look like if you followed Jesus. What would he ask you to do? I bet it’s not as scary as you think. In fact, I bet you’ll feel fuller of joy and life doing that than anything you could think of on your own. Where would he ask you to go? Maybe it’s as simple as going to the cubicle next to yours at work and being an encouragement to your coworker. Maybe it’s more complicated and he’s asking you to move your family to another city so that he can direct you. God is asking you to go somewhere today, this week, this year. Will you follow him?
The second challenge is once you’ve thought and prayed about what Jesus is asking you to do and about where he’s asking you to go, find all the things in your way, not excuses like, “I have no money” but idols. If you want to know whether you have an idol, the things we worship become our focus as if our hearts were outside our bodies. If you take the thing and cut it, do you bleed? If you have an idol, get rid of it by setting it down and walking away. Don’t look back. You are meant to follow the Lord Jesus wherever he goes, and you can’t carry his cross with your arms full of the stuff you’ve collected.
You are called to be a follower of Jesus. He made you, and he loves you. Take time to begin laying down anything that keeps you from running after him.