Many Christians have been raised on John’s gospel as if it was the only one, and liturgical churches get a big dose of it during Lent. I used to ask adult bible classes to name their favorite bible book; it was almost always John’s gospel. And why not? It’s chock full of pithy sayings easily remembered; who hasn’t seen John 3:16 hanging from stadium railings and known right away how it read? But John also has some weaknesses. Focused as it is on proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God, it places a high value on believing. In fact, John uses the word, at least in the English of my NRSV, 52 times. None of the others comes close (Mark uses it 13 times, Mathew 7 and Luke 8). Mark, Matthew and Luke certainly desire their readers to believe Jesus is the Son of God, but they put a higher emphasis on following him as the way to belief. “Follow me,” says Jesus, and belief will surely come. John’s not against following, but he wants believing above all. And that’s his weakness for contemporary Christians.
Believing has become the catchword, watchword, and lynchpin to what it means to be a Christian, while following Jesus has become a tad suspect, requiring, as it does, behaving toward others, and engaging in public discourse, with words that don’t adhere to the politically conservative ways of many Christian preachers and congregants. Following Jesus will put one at odds with social and political forces of intolerance, injustice, oppression, repression, and barriers that deny the full dignity of others. That’s a problem.
Following Jesus can be difficult because it will often challenge the accepted social order of the day, and always challenge one’s prejudices, whatever they may be. It can create enough cognitive dissonance to subordinate following to believing in order to protect one’s social equilibrium. If believing is the key to the doorway to heaven, then serious following can be set aside for the good of social order, and the preservation of one’s own place in society. Being an adequate disciple by following in moderate good taste, using common sense, not going too far, should be more than enough. With believing firmly in hand, accusations of failing to be a true follower can be denied with self righteous indignation. Better yet, anyone who claims to be a dedicated follower can be closely examined to discover hypocrisy announced with a triumphant “I knew it.”
It’s not a strictly religious question. It gets tangled up with secular politics. Where I live, self identified Jesus followers tend to be politically liberal, and that rubs against the dominant conservative ethos tinged with deep suspicion of anything governmental. For that reason alone, being too much of a Jesus follower is unpalatable. It’s a slippery slope down the path to socialism, so better to play it safe and stick with believing. Be uplifted by the music and message. Be convicted of one’s sinfulness. Accept Jesus as one’s personal lord and savior. Believe one is saved. Believe in capital letters with exclamation points, because it’s one’s vaccination against liberals recruiting others to join them on the pernicious path toward immoral living, surrender of freedom and subjugation by government bureaucracies.
Conservative are not entirely wrong. Progressive Christianity displays a strong bent toward political liberalism that can be given near equality with what it means to follow Jesus. Fueled by genuine emotional sympathy for those in need, there’s a tendency to assume that (only?) committed followers know best what’s good for the neediest. After all, it’s what they’re sure Jesus would do. Unintended as it may be, it’s a move undergirded by a sense of superiority bearing its own brand of prejudice. The result can be, and has been, poorly thought out grandiose plans underwritten by investments in talent and money lacking adequate accountability. In not so subtle ways, it preserves the hierarchy of power and position of benefactors over the less privileged whom they desire to serve. There is a form of conservatism, rarely seen these days, that says, “Wait a minute, let’s think this out before we rush off solving problems we don’t fully understand.” The oppressed and disadvantaged are as capable as others to take care of themselves, given access to opportunity and resources. John’s ‘disciple whom Jesus loved,’ Thomas, and Jesus’ brother James appear to be examples of conservatives who were strong believers, dedicated followers, and served as restraining influences on the impetuousness of others like Peter and Paul. We could us more of that kind of creative push-pull tension in the context of mutual trust and love.
As for me, I’m convinced that following where Jesus has led is essential to making any claim that I am a Christian. Yes, I believe, but I don’t believe that Jesus is my personal lord and savior. Jesus is all of God that can be communicated in human form, and I will follow him trusting that where he has led will lead me into life abundant, now and on the other side of death. In following him, I have no choice but to make choices that work toward loosening the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free, breaking every yoke, sharing bread with the hungry, housing the homeless as neighbors, clothing the naked, and the rest that God has commanded, not suggested but commanded. How I do that continues to involve many blunders and takes many forms. Sometimes it’s been through direct service, sometimes through donations, and for many years through consulting on community development, influencing public policy on national issues with heavy local impact, and teaching in fields related to applied management theory. As a late vocation priest, my passion has been adult Christian education aimed at helping each person gain a deeper understanding of what it means for them to follow Jesus. It’s made me, if there is such a thing, a conservative liberal. When it comes time to give an accounting, the best I will be able to say is, “Well, I got started, but I didn’t get very far.” Oh yeah, one more thing: John is not my favorite gospel.