Have you noticed that how Christians refer to themselves has changed? Maybe not in private conversation, but certainly in more public forums: sermons, books, blog posts. Once upon a time, Christians were called . . . Christians. But also when I was young in the faith, in the 70s and 80s, Christians were called believers. But in our increasingly diverse society, those names probably seemed too exclusive, not appealing enough to others. So a new name was adopted: Christ-followers. Glance through a Christian book, listen to a sermon, go online—Christians everywhere are now referred to as Christ-followers.
I’m not a fan. It’s not that I don’t sympathize with the intent of the phrase. It puts the focus back on Christ, which is good. It’s not as exclusive, which may be more appealing to others. After all, who doesn’t think well of Jesus, and if you are a follower of Jesus. . . . And to the extent people are drawn in, and not turned off, by what we call ourselves, all the better. The problem is this. We are not really called to be followers of Jesus. I know, that sounds heretical, and it’s not entirely true. Clearly Jesus called the disciples to follow him. In the context, of course, that meant, in part, to literally follow him. He was telling them to put on their sandals and start walking with him to the next town.Once you get past the gospels, however, and go through the rest of the New Testament, what is the emphasis? It’s certainly not on following Jesus. Peter, in his first epistle, does instruct his readers to follow the example of Jesus in suffering. Other than that . . . nothing. No other New Testament writer ever tells anyone to follow Jesus. The closest they ever get is Paul instructing the Ephesians to “Be imitators of God, as beloved children” (5:1)—the only time he ever says something like that.Why the dearth of instruction to follow Jesus? I think it’s because the apostles understood something that we have largely lost. As believers in Christ, we are not primarily called to followship. We are called to fellowship. Fellowship (Greek: koinonia) simply means a sharing in, or a participation in. What is it that we share in, and are participants in? The life of Christ. Jesus himself has come to live in us, and through us, to such a degree that Paul declared, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” Followship implies, “This is the way Jesus lived, now you try your best to live that way, too.” But that way of thinking about the Christian life is a dead end, no matter how prevalent it may be. It’s the way of self-effort, self-reliance, and lots of failure. Because we don’t have it within ourselves to live as Jesus lived. God never intended for us to.Instead, Christ has joined himself to us in an eternal one-spirit union (1 Corinthians 6:17). He and we are one (John 17:21,23). He is the life, and he has come to live in us the life that only he can live. We enter into that reality not by striving to be like Jesus, but by faith, trusting that, in this moment, he is living his life in us, through us, as us. As Paul told the Colossians, “As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.” And how had they received him? Entirely by faith! Today, Jesus Christ is the one living through me. I appropriate that by faith. Call me a Christ-participator!