The people who followed Christ in the early days were said to be known as the people of the way. A recent post elsewhere on the blogosphere said something about ‘the way’ as being preferable to Christian, and Sunrise Sister offered a comment on one of my recent posts using the same phrase. So how exactly might we understand ‘the way’ as a useful descriptor of our faith in our own day.
Maybe we should start by proclaiming that we are followers of Jesus. If we are following him, what does that look like? On the one hand it implies a direction that does not necessarily require that we know exactly where we are going or what the trail ahead might be like. We only have to trust the one who is leading us. I’m reminded of some memorable guided hikes we have had throughout the mountains of Hawaii and a few in the Everglades. We had preliminary promises of wonderful sights and sounds, some warning that the terrain could be a bit rough, and no promise about what the weather might be. Since we had never been that way before, the actual destination was a bit vague and known to us only as a spectacular water fall, a view you can find nowhere else, plants or birds you have never seen before, and so on. Of course, it also involved our own desire to see and experience these new things. On a few of them we agree that, had we been on our own, we would have turned back, but since our guide was pressing on, and because we trusted him/her, we pressed on also.
Following Jesus on the way is a little like that. We have some vague notion of what we will experience at the end of our trek but, as Paul said, it’s as if we see it only through a dark glass. Jesus promised that to walk, as he put it, in the way of the cross, would be the way of life and peace, but he never promised that the trail would be easy or that we would not encounter stormy weather. Whatever it is that we have to endure along the way is worth it because we know that the end will reveal the best of the best of the best, and we will even experience some of it along the way. There are many times we would turn back, or just stop where we are, if it were not for our guide in whom we trust. So, after catching our breath, a quick lunch, and maybe a refreshing swim in a nearby pool, we press on. That’s one way of thinking about what ‘the way’ might look like. It’s the mystical side: the side where we acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
On the other hand we might want to get more practical. It’s the side where we meet Jesus of Nazareth, a man born of woman. I don’t think that following Jesus means to walk around in a bathrobe and sandals, without a home, relying on the generosity of others for our daily needs. I do think it means carefully watching and learning from how he engaged with others, and what he said and taught. The way that Jesus engaged with others should be a pattern for the way in which we engage with others. What he said and taught should be the pattern for the habits of our own hearts and the disciplines of our daily lives.
Perfection in doing that is not ours to achieve, but if we are to be his followers we must make a decent attempt. Set aside everything else and concentrate for a while only on the book of Acts. Consider Peter, who finally came to terms with Jesus the Christ and himself as one to lead the new ‘way’. Yet see how different Peter’s ways of engagement are from those of Jesus as recorded by the evangelists. He’s got the right idea but sort of bumps along often talking when he should be listening, demanding when he should be asking, arguing when he should be reconciling, and vacillating when he should be firm. Is Paul not the same? There are times when he can’t even get along with his closest colleagues, and he tends to hold grudges against those in his church who don’t do things according to his way of doing things. In spite of that, they are the ones laying the foundation for the way in which we have come to express our faith in God through Jesus Christ. Although we are followers of Jesus, we are more like Peter and Paul in our ways of doing it.
In the end, to be a follower of Jesus and to walk in ‘the way’ has got to involve our whole being: our beliefs and attitudes about God and who Jesus is, as well as our beliefs and attitudes about one another; the habits of our hearts that guide our daily lives, especially in the moral decisions we make; and the discipline we commit to as ones who will continue to listen and learn from God in Christ Jesus. I suppose all of that can be attempted without subscribing to religion as such, and most particularly by avoiding church, but I can’t see a lot of success going down that path. I’m more inclined to think that we need the sacraments of the church, the fellowship of others who also want to be followers of Jesus on ‘the way’, and the guidance of those who have been called and trained to teach, presuming, of course, that all of that is actually present in any given church.