In By the Way, pastor and author Derek Vreeland reframes everything we've been told about Christianity and what it means to follow Jesus. Discipleship isn't an add-on. Jesus didn't say, Go into all the world and get people saved or Get people to ask me into their hearts. Jesus said, Go therefore and make disciples. Reclaiming discipleship as the heart of the Christian faith means seeing anew the gospel, the cross, the resurrection, transformation, and the community of faith. We learn the ways of Jesus by practicing them, Vreeland says, and in By the Way, he introduces us to the ways of Jesus.
Discipleship means joining God's joyful mission of reconciliation on earth, not just saving souls for the afterlife. Following Jesus is more like taking a long walk in the woods than sitting in a classroom. Living by the Way takes practice—and that's the point.
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Disciple: The Way of Jesus
It all starts with baptism. I was baptized on Super Bowl Sunday, January 26, 1986, when Mike Ditka's Chicago Bears destroyed the New England Patriots with a dominating defense. This was the Super Bowl marked by the "Super Bowl Shuffle," Jim McMahon's headbands, William "Refrigerator" Perry, and one of the best NFL defenses of the 1980s. While everyone not living in the Boston area was celebrating the Bears' Super Bowl victory, I was starting a new life in Christ as an eleven-year-old son of the South living in the Midwest. I remember hearing the gospel preached at my Baptist church as I sat with my family on those unforgiving pews. My desire to become a Christian and be baptized wasn't merely to do the right thing; I wanted to follow Jesus. As I entered into the awkward season of early adolescence, I became a "space cadet," lost in my own thoughts as I tried to navigate life amid the wild changes associated with one's middle school years. I had been baptized. I had taken my first steps in following in the footsteps of Jesus. But with adolescence things had changed. Participation in the life of our church slowly began to fall away, as did my pursuit of Jesus. Then, when I was fifteen years old, Jesus met me in the wilderness of my perpetual insecurity. With this surprising encounter with Jesus, everything began to change.
In those three years between baptism and my encounter with Jesus, my church attendance was off and on—by the time I entered high school, it was mostly off. I was well on my way to becoming just another in-name-only Christian. My mom remained the faithful churchgoer of the family. She often asked me to go with her, but I quickly learned the trick of hiding under the covers in my bed, pretending to be asleep, periodically poking my head out to check the clock. I knew if I stayed in bed beyond a certain point of time, there simply would not be enough time to get ready for church. My trick worked most of the time and my mom was never really pushy about it. I do have memories of her consistency in Sunday morning worship. She set an example I was soon to follow.
During my sophomore year of high school my dad decided that the entire family was going back to church. His surge of faith led to my own. My dad grew up in a military home as an Air Force brat. Subsequently he served in the military right out of high school. I grew up knowing that when Dad said the family was doing something, the proper response was to click our heels together, salute, and say, "Yes, sir." Disappointment ran through me like ice cold water when I heard his pronouncement about church. The last thing I wanted to do on Sunday morning was to go to church. Cheerios and MTV had become my Sunday morning liturgy. With the TV remote in one hand and a spoon in the other, I would put my troubled teenage mind to rest with a simple bowl of cereal and pop stars parading around like musicians, lip syncing their songs on television. Those days were over. We were going back to church.
I reluctantly walked with my family from the parking lot to the rear doors of the church on our first Sunday back. The building seemed familiar. But the people gathered around the door looked like strangers. We had arrived early to catch a Sunday school class before the worship service started. My parents introduced my brother and me to the smiling strangers at the door. I stared at my feet as I heard the woman at the door say, "The youth meet for Sunday school right down this hall." I nervously looked up and saw a rather attractive girl near my age walking toward me. Apparently she had been summoned to escort me down the hall to the Sunday school classroom. She had big, permed, 80s-looking blond hair, and she smiled while she talked. She told me about their youth group, the youth pastor, and their Sunday school class as she led me into the nondescript room full of noisy teenagers clustered in rows of metal folding chairs. I found a seat in the back conveniently positioned in an empty row. Outside of my friendly female usher, I remember nothing else about the Sunday school class except for Michael Gaines, a tall, lanky guy a few years older than me who talked to me about basketball. As a fifteen-year-old in the age of Air Jordan, basketball was my life. Michael leaned over the back of his folding chair and introduced himself and surprisingly asked me who I was and what I was interested in. When I mentioned basketball, we talked until the beginning of the class about teams we followed and players we admired. I remember thinking, "Maybe these church kids aren't so bad after all." Looking back, I don't remember the content of the Sunday school lesson. I don't remember the songs we sang in church. I don't remember anything about the service. But I do remember the kindness of Michael Gaines.
I proceeded to go to the weekly youth group meetings on Wednesday nights. One fateful spring day, I attended a youth rally held on a Friday night in the gym of our local regional university. I honestly went to play basketball and possibly — just maybe — have the chance to meet some girls. I came away with so much more. At the close of the event, our youth pastor had us gather on the hardwood gym floor near the volleyball net. There in that seemingly common place, he preached the uncommon gospel of grace. He talked about Jesus' death and resurrection and Jesus' invitation for us to come and follow him. He made no appeals for us to ask Jesus into our hearts or to accept Christ so we could go to heaven when we die. Jesus had died and risen for our salvation. This was God's gift of grace. Our response was to offer God our lives, abandon every other way to life, and follow Jesus. He asked us a pointed and direct question: "If you died tonight would Jesus be happy to see you because he knew you or would he be surprised to see you because you didn't have a relationship with him?" I knew I wasn't following Jesus. As an adult looking back, I can see the unnecessary guilt underneath the surface of our youth pastor's appeal. I have come to discover that God's love for me, and indeed all of us, remains unchanged by human behavior. However, in that moment, as a teenager with little to no knowledge of God, I didn't think Jesus would be happy to see me. Our youth pastor offered to pray with students after the rally, but I was hesitant.
I drove home after the youth event sometime after midnight with my mind jumping from question to question. Was I following Jesus? Did I know Jesus? Did I want to be a Christian? What would it mean to be a follower of Jesus? Was my life pleasing to God? Did I even know who God was? Was I willing to lay down my life to accept a new life with Jesus? What in my life would change? What needed to change? Was I willing to submit every thought, every plan, every desire, over to God? What was I supposed to do now? My heart had been stirred. My youth pastor's question had my mind racing. As I pulled up in the driveway at home, I honestly didn't know what to do next. Walking up the cement steps towards the front door of my house sparked an idea. Once inside I found my dad's big black Bible. I took it upstairs to my bedroom, closed the door, sat down on my bed, and began flipping through the pages.
I hadn't been much of a Bible reader, so I didn't know my way around this sacred and complex book. I did what I now tell people never to do. After turning page after page to no avail, I closed it and took a deep breath. I opened it again and pointed to a verse. I have come to learn that this method only works once in a person's lifetime. As it turns out, this night was my once in a lifetime. The verse I read that night in the quietness of my bedroom changed everything. I read these words: "Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act" (Psalm 37:5). I realized that even though I had been baptized, I hadn't committed my way to the Lord. I hadn't yet taken my baptismal identity seriously. I hadn't become an intentional follower of Jesus. Gripping that Bible in my hands, I prayed a simple prayer, committing my life to the way of Jesus. That night I took my first step as a baptized disciple.
Jesus began his rescue mission with these words: "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17). His punchy one-line sermon would be the central theme of his preaching and teaching. Repent, rethink, and realign your life around this stunning announcement. God's kingdom — God's rule and reign on earth — is coming from heaven. When Jesus began his preaching ministry, God's people were living as exiles in their ancestral land. They were home, but their home was overrun with an unwelcome guest — the most powerful military force in the ancient world, the Roman Empire. The people of Israel were longing for the personal presence of God to come and dwell among them again. They were waiting for the King, the Messiah, to establish God's kingdom and expel the Romans.
Jesus alerted them that the time was now.
Immediately after his audacious announcement, Jesus went walking down the road. The next order of business was to initiate a conversation with two brothers, two ordinary fishermen. He caught them casting their fishing nets into the Sea of Galilee and his conversation was short. He called out to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19). He didn't elaborate or make false promises. He didn't make any promises other than to make them fishers of men. He didn't sell the brothers on the benefits of following him. He simply said, "Follow me."
Jesus went from city to city teaching in the Jewish synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, demonstrating the nature of God's kingdom by healing the sick. But he did more than preaching and healing. Jesus called people to follow him, to become apprentices of sorts by becoming his disciples. Apprentices do not learn from absorbing information from a book, as good and as helpful as books are; they learn by watching and imitating the master artisan they are following. The master-apprentice relationship follows a pattern similar to this:
1. The master does and the apprentice watches.
2. The master does and the apprentice helps. They work together.
3. The apprentice does and the master watches, helping the apprentice make course corrections when necessary.
4. The apprentice does on his or her own, checking in with the master when needed.
As followers of Jesus we are his apprentices, called to watch how he does things and to learn the way of life from him. Jesus launched the kingdom of God and by his words and actions he demonstrated what living as kingdom citizens would look like. He called others to follow him. His rescue mission wasn't going to be a solo project. It would be carried on by his apprentices, his disciples. After Jesus was gone, the kingdom of God would be embodied by all those who said yes to his call to follow him. Some two millennia later, Jesus is still proclaiming and demonstrating the kingdom of God and Jesus is still sliding his invitation across the table to us. His invitation is as simple today as it always was. When we open the envelope and read the white card inside, it only has two words printed in a simple black font: Follow me.
A WAY OF LIFE
The invitation from Jesus is for us to follow him because Christianity is not primarily a set of beliefs, even though what we believe is massively important. It isn't primarily a personal relationship with God, even if personal faith and responsibility are absolutely necessary. It isn't primarily a religion, even though the liturgies that shape the worship and work of the church are indispensable. Christianity is principally a way of living shaped by the Holy Spirit around the death and resurrection of Jesus. It isn't theology, religion, or personal devotion to God that most forms our identity as Christians. Rather, we are most formed by the pattern of our lives in direct reflection of the life of Jesus.
Evangelicals have inherited an allergic reaction from the ghosts of the Reformation to anything that may sound like earning our salvation. The Protestant Reformers of the six-teenth century critiqued the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences (pardons) as a way to purchase the salvation of a long-departed loved one. Salvation cannot be bought and sold; salvation is offered as a free gift of grace. Justification by grace through faith is true, and Protestants react against the residual aftertaste of the resistance to anything that feels like "works" (that is, those activities we do in order to garner God's attention in order to somehow earn our salvation). While salvation is one way to describe Jesus' rescue mission to save the world, we are not saved by works — we are saved for works. Paul emphatically states that it is "by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works" (Ephesians 2:8-9). However, Paul does not stop there. He continues by adding, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works" (Ephesians 2:10). Jesus saves us so that through us he can save the world. Jesus comes to free humanity, forgiving us of our sins, and restoring us as God's image-bearing creatures reflecting his beauty as revealed in Jesus. We reflect the image of Jesus into the world like a mirror. Our mirrored reflection is constructed by the way we live made distinct by the life and work of Jesus and the Spirit.
The earliest name for the group of Jesus-followers was "the Way." As Paul offered a defense to the accusation that he was stirring up riots in Jewish communities, he testified, saying, "I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets" (Acts 24:14). People of the Way were criticized for stirring up trouble, because they proclaimed as King the one whom Jewish leaders rejected as a false prophet. The beliefs of those of the Way remained fuzzy in the minds of both Jews and Gentiles. For Greek-minded Gentiles with their pursuit of wisdom and intellectual sophistication, the preaching of a crucified King was pure silliness. Significance for the Greek and Romans was found in intellectual pursuits, power, and domination. They were likely thinking to themselves, "Who wants to follow a god who became mortal and talked about humility and becoming a servant?" For Jewish people the preaching of the followers of the Way was a stumbling block. They expected God to return to God's people and they expected the reign of Messiah to come and restore the kingdom to Israel, but the Messiah could not be God. That would be blasphemy. Furthermore, Jesus could not be the Messiah because he was crucified, and as all Israel knew, a crucified Messiah was a failed Messiah. The followers of the Way, however, came to discover that their belief in Christ crucified was infused with the power of God, the power to rescue and transform lives.
As the church began to expand and grow, its people were increasingly known not so much for what they believed, but for the way they lived. They were known for their radical hospitality and care for the poor and marginalized. Throughout the Roman Empire, citizens were permitted by law to discard unwanted newborn babies. The practice of exposure was culturally accepted in the Roman world, so if an unwanted child was born, the family could leave the child on the top of a trash heap where the child would die by exposure to the elements or by being eaten by wild animals. Today we shudder at the idea of anyone doing anything like that to a little baby. The reason that Christians and non-Christians in our modern world value the life of children is the great triumph of Christ and those who over the centuries have walked in his ways. Christians in the Roman Empire were known to rescue babies that had been left to die of exposure and adopt them into their homes. Values prevalent in Western culture like adoption, education for all, and care for the sick, the poor, and the aged are all products of a culture influenced by followers of Jesus. The way of Jesus resounds with caring for the weakest and most vulnerable among us.
DUSTING OFF THE ABANDONED WAYS OF GOD
We tend to lose sight of the centrality of the Christian life as a practice, as a distinct way of living. Instead, we focus on getting our theology just right. We want our worship services to challenge us and form us in the Jesus way and still be attractive to our non-Christian friends. We want to know exactly how best to communicate the gospel in a post-Christian culture. All of these are noble and crucial pursuits in following Jesus. But they tend to cause us to overlook the essential nature of the Christian life, which is to live a life walking in the ways of Jesus. When we look back into our history as the people of God, we see this theme shining brightly.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "By the Way"
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Table of Contents
Foreword by Dr. Derwin L. Gray, 13,
1. Disciple: The Way of Jesus, 23,
2. Story: The Way of the Gospel, 43,
3. Cruciform: The Way of the Cross, 61,
4. Life: The Way of Resurrection, 79,
5. Trinity: The Way of Love, 97,
6. Thinking: The Way of the Mind, 117,
7. Change: The Way of Transformation, 137,
8. Gathering: The Way of Community, 155,
9. Habitus: The Way of Liturgy, 175,
10. Justice: The Way of Reconciliation, 195,
The Author, 231,