In the fall of 1992 I took a trip with my parents to Switzerland to visit our dear friend, Anne Marie. Anne Marie and my mother had been pen pals as young girls. They had remained friends their whole lives and that extended to their families when they each married and had children. I grew up exchanging gifts with the Swiss family at Christmas, and remembering each other’s birthdays.
When I was 16, I spent a summer in their home. During my junior year studying abroad, I made many visits and celebrated holidays with the Swiss family. Anne Marie was like a second mother to me.
So the fall of 1992 found me in Switzerland again with my parents and Anne Marie, driving through the countryside. My father was at the wheel. I rode shot-gun, as they say. Anne Marie, always sat in the back seat with my mother and gave us directions. And, as much as I loved them both—my father and Anne Marie—they drove me absolutely nuts.
My dad drove through Switzerland on that trip like a crazy man. He didn’t speak German, so he depended on me to be the navigator with street signs and speed limits and that sort of thing. Anne Marie, of course, always knew the short cuts and back roads. And she was sort of cranky about the speed limits, mumbling the speed limit under her breath if Dad was driving too fast, “fünf und vierzig, fünf und vierzig (55, 55)!”.
Zooming around the lovely Swiss countryside, the four us in this tiny little rental car, it was a crazy, wonderful, hysterical time. But what I’ll always remember most are Anne Marie's words. Instead of saying, “go straight here,” Anne Marie always said, “Follow, follow, follow...!”
“Follow, follow, follow...”
I spend some time this week thinking about the word “follow” with the text we read this morning from the Gospel of Mark. In one of the first chapters of Jesus’ ministry, we hear about the moment when he called the four fishermen, two sets of brothers, from the shores of the Sea of Galilee. And we learn that at his call, they dropped everything—left their work and their families and their homes—to become his disciples and follow him.
That always seems rather breathtaking to me. I mean, the dropping everything to follow. I always wonder about the conversations with their loved ones, about the fishing business they were running...what happened to all of those things? What did their loved ones say? What did they think? How hard was that, do you think?
So this notion of “following,” clearly it was something more than just frantically getting directions on a trip through the countryside. Or even, “do what I say,” like children playing a game of Simon Says. It’s interesting to look at the word “follow” in scripture.
“The Gospels contain many references where Jesus personally invited people to follow him. The Greek word translated as ‘follow’ in most of these references is akoloutheō. This is a common word and is used throughout the Greek New Testament, but especially in the Gospels. While akoloutheō is almost always translated as 'follow' in English translations, it has a broader range of meanings. It also means 'accompany' and 'assist'.
The word 'acolyte; is derived from akoloutheō. An acolyte is an assistant or attendant. It’s a tradition in some Christian settings to have assistants called acolytes who light candles, carry the cross, swing censers or ring bells. In other words, in this context, 'to follow' means getting involved, rolling up your sleeves and joining in. It has the sense of saying, come work with me. As I read in a commentary this week, “If we understand that akoloutheō can have the meanings of 'accompany' and 'assist', as well as 'follow', we can see that when Jesus was calling people to follow him he wasn’t just saying ‘tag along’.
“Jesus didn’t want people to just listen and believe in him from a distance. He was inviting people to come close, to join him, and even help him with his mission. He wanted people to be vitally engaged with him in both learning and doing the work of the gospel. Jesus is still inviting people to be his disciples and to personally join him, learn from him, and help him in gospel ministry. There is nothing passive about being a true follower of Jesus Christ.”(1)
Most of us would say we consider ourselves to be followers of Jesus Christ. How are we following, I wonder? Are we just “tagging along,” listening to the voice in the backseat on this crazy journey through life? That’s good. That’s helpful. Certainly we all need directions, that’s for sure!
But that doesn’t seem to be the kind of inspirational “following” that would lead someone to drop what they are doing and leave their comfortable lives as the fisherman did by the Sea of Galilee. The following of the Gospel message involves not just taking a turn on the road ahead, but making a change in your life’s direction, your heart's commitment, and the actions that result. It involves a transformation, a change in the very shape of your heart and soul that shapes your words and actions in a radically different way.
In this book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, theologian and physician Albert Schweitzer wrote, “(Jesus) comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time.
“He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.” (2)
What does that kind of “following” look like? There are as many ways as there are followers. It could mean a radical change in one’s life, like the disciples by the Sea of Galilee who left their jobs and committed to a new vocation. Or it might be seeing an unmet need and taking action to reach out to help. It might be throwing ourselves into a challenging job as best we can to make a difference to others. It might be discovering new ways to be generous with our time and our treasures. It might be pausing in the midst of a busy day to listening to another person and respond with encouragement and care. It might be caring for an aging parent, a child with special needs, or a stranger who is in need.
Follow, follow, follow. However we choose to follow, it means journeying into radically uncharted territory, having the courage and commitment to move outside our walls and our comfortable familiar ways as we live out our faith. And, as Schweitzer says, "He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings" and we will be changed by the experience as we learn more fully who He is.
(2) Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, London, A. and C. Black, 1911.