The Art of Followship
Editor’s Note: The following illustration came from one of my own (Stu’s) sermons, as I was trying to help the congregation make a paradigm shift from the church as a building, to the people of God:
So, what exactly is a disciple? On one level the answer is simple: a disciple is a follower of Jesus. Now in our culture, the word “follower” is often quite negative: a follower is the opposite of a leader. And we are all called to be leaders, at least according to our culture.
Leadership is an entire genre for books, for conferences, etc… If you can still find a brick and mortar bookstore, you will find a leadership section.
Interestingly enough, I’ve never seen a follower section in a bookstore, have you? Now “followers” as a term has gained some popularity in recent years because of social media. Instagram and Twitter enable people both famous and almost famous to try to build their own brand by gaining “Followers”. But again, the whole point is that you need to be a leader, so that other people can follow you.
So isn’t it interesting that the primary word for people who worship Jesus as Lord and Savior is the word “follower:? (disciple) Now in the context of Jesus’ day, a disciple was a follower not just in a general sense, but also in a particular way. A disciple tended to be either a pupil, someone that would sit at the feet of a master or be an apprentice in some sort of trade.
And I think there is something to this, that even for the first disciples, they never graduated into something else. They always remained disciples, that is followers of Jesus.
And one of the many reasons for this is that a disciple is always in a position of humility, right? They are never the master with all the answers, but always the ones who sit at the feet of Jesus. So being a disciple is to be a follower, but not just in a casual way. An apprentice or a pupil has essentially given up a whole variety of opportunities to follow the one master. We can follow a lot of things, sports teams, musicians, politicians, etc…but to be a disciple of someone is to turn your life over to them and ask that their wisdom might help direct your life. So that’s discipleship…it’s following Jesus every day, becoming more and more like Him.
Stuart Strachan Jr., Sermon: Matt.28: The Art of Followship.
An Attitude of a Servant
What he [Jesus] was attempting to instill in his disciples was the attitude of a servant: humility and a willingness to put others ahead of oneself. In that culture, washing the feet of others would symbolize such an attitude. But in another culture, some other act might more appropriately convey the same truth. Because we find humility taught elsewhere in Scripture without mention of foot-washing (Matt.20:27, 23:10-12; Phil.2:3), we conclude that the attitude of humility, not the particular act of footwashing as such, is the permanent component in Christ’s teaching.
The Christ is a Man as Well
It is true that he [Christ] has awful majesty; he is the great God, and is infinitely high above you; but there is this to encourage and embolden the poor sinner, that Christ is a man as well as God; … and he is the most humble and lowly in heart of any creature in heaven or earth…. You need not hesitate one moment; but may run to him, and cast yourself upon him…. Whatever your circumstances are, you need not be afraid to come to such a Savior as this…. Be you never so poor, and mean, and ignorant a creature, there is no danger of being despised; for though he be so much greater than you, he is also immensely more humbled than you.
Jonathan Edwards, Sermon: “The Excellency of Christ.”
C.S. Lewis on the Incarnation:
We catch sight of a new key principle—the power of the Higher, just in so far as it is truly Higher, to come down, the power of the greater to include the less. . . . Everywhere the great enters the little—its power to do so is almost the test of its greatness. In the Christian story God . . . comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life . . . down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created.
But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. . . . [O]ne may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover.
The Construction of Utopias
One of the seductions that continues to bedevil Christian obedience is the construction of utopias, whether in fact or fantasy, ideal places where we can live the good and blessed and righteous life without inhibition or interference. The imagining and attempted construction of utopias is an old habit of our kind. Sometimes we attempt it politically in communities, sometimes socially in communes, sometimes religiously in churches. It never comes to anything but grief. Meanwhile that place we actually are is dismissed or demeaned as inadequate for serious living to the glory of God. But utopia is literally “no-place.” We can only live our lives in actual place, not imagined or fantasized or artificially fashioned places.
A favorite story of mine, one that has held me fast to my place several times, is of Gregory of Nyssa who lived in Cappadocia (a region in modern Turkey) in the fourth century. His older brother, a bishop, arranged for him to be appointed bishop of the small and obscure and unimportant town of Nyssa (a.d. 371) Gregory objected; he didn’t want to be stuck in such an out-of-the-way place. But his brother told him that he didn’t want Gregory to obtain distinction from his church but rather to confer distinction upon it. Gregory went to where he was placed and stayed there. His lifetime of work in that place, a backwater community, continues to be a major invigorating influence in the Christian church worldwide.
The Definition of a Level 5 Leader (Jim Collins’ Definition of Top Executive Leaders)
It came down to one essential definition. The central dimension for Level 5 is a leader who is ambitious first and foremost for the cause, for the company, for the work, not for himself or herself; and has an absolutely terrifying iron will to make good on that ambition. It is that combination, the fact that is is not about them, it’s not first and foremost for them, it is for the company and its long-term interests, of which they are just a part. But it is not a meekness; it is not a weakness, it is not a wallflower type.
It’s the other side of the coin…they will do whatever it takes to make the company great. No matter how painful, no matter how emotionally stressing the decision has to be, they have the will to do it. It is that very unusual combination, which separates out the Level 5 leaders.
Jim Collins, in Management Issues, January 3, 2006.
Humble. Before Jesus, almost no pagan author had used “humble” as a compliment. Yet the events of Christmas point inescapably to what seems like an oxymoron: a humble God. The God who came to earth came not in a raging whirlwind nor in a devouring fire. Unimaginably, the Maker of all things shrank down, down, down, so small as to become an ovum, a single fertilized egg barely visible to the naked eye, an egg that would divide and redivide until a fetus took shape, enlarging cell by cell inside a nervous teenager.“ Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb, ”marveled the poet John Donne. He “made himself nothing … he humbled himself,” said the apostle Paul more prosaically.
Humility Despised in Paul’s Day
In the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day, humility was a despised trait. They viewed it as a sign of weakness. And our culture today is no different from that world of two thousand years ago. Maybe it’s a little different in our Christian circles. We may even admire humility in someone else, but we have little desire to practice it ourselves.
The Obstinate Lighthouse
“This is the transcript of a radio conversation of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October, 1995. Radio conversation released by the Chief of Naval Operations 10-10-95. (This is an apocryphal story, but still useful for illustration.)
Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.
Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.
Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.
Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.
Americans: THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS LINCOLN, THE SECOND LARGEST SHIP IN THE UNITED STATES’ ATLANTIC FLEET. WE ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THREE DESTROYERS, THREE CRUISERS AND NUMEROUS SUPPORT VESSELS. I DEMAND THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR COURSE 15 DEGREES NORTH, THAT’S ONE FIVE DEGREES NORTH, OR COUNTER-MEASURES WILL BE UNDERTAKEN TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THIS SHIP.
Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.”
Our Moral Superiority
Researchers at the University of London concluded that “a substantial majority of individuals believe themselves to be morally superior to the average person” and that this illusion of ours is “uniquely strong and prevalent.” They write, “Most people strongly believe they are just, virtuous, and moral; yet regard the average person as distinctly less so.”
And among their study participants, “virtually all individuals irrationally inflated their moral qualities, and the absolute and relative magnitude of this irrationality was greater than that in the other domains of positive self-evaluation.”1 And we have a lot of self-delusions. Perhaps you’ve heard that 93 percent of us genuinely believe we’re above-average drivers.
Perhaps you’ve seen studies that show we also think we’re smarter than average. And we’re friendlier too. Plus we’re more ambitious than average. You might think with all of this awesomeness, we might have an ego problem, but good news: we also rate ourselves as more modest than others!
So, yes, we’re better at everything than everybody, but at least we’re humble about it. That’s not surprising because we’re us, and, you know, we’re cool like that. But what about people we assume simply must be less moral than us? Murderers, thieves, and the like—surely they’d have a more reasonable assessment, right?
Why, no, actually. The incarcerated population also thinks they’re more moral than everyone else. Prisoners find themselves to be kinder than the average person. And more generous. The professor who conducted the study of prisoners wrote, “The results showcase how potent the self-enhancement motive is. It is very important for people to consider themselves good, valued, and esteemed, no matter what objective circumstances might be.”
Leaving the Letters up to God
There is a story told about a Jewish farmer, who ended up stuck in his field for the Sabbath. As the sun went down, the farmer realized he would have to remain in the field until sunset the next day, for according to the laws of the Sabbath, travel was prohibited. This resulted in him missing both the synagogue services and the family’s Seder meal.
Arriving home the next evening, he was met by his angry wife and a fuming Rabbi. The Rabbi began to lay into the farmer for not taking the sabbath more seriously. Finally, he asked, What did you do in the field by yourself all day? Did you at least pray?”
“Rabbi,” the farmer answered, “I’m not a very smart man and I don’t know many prayers. All the prayers I knew, I said in five minutes. What I did the rest of the day was simply recite the alphabet. I left it up to God to make some words out of all those letters.”
Stuart Strachan Jr, Source Material from Ronald Rolheiser, The Restless Heart, The Crown Publishing Group. 2004, p.35.
The Monk and the King
Saint Aidan was an Irish monk who later became bishop of Northumbria (Northern England and Parts of Scotland) in 635. He also founded the famous monastery at Lindisfarne. There is a story told of his friend and King, Oswin, who ruled a province in England and who gave the bishop an expensive horse as a gift. Soon after receiving the gift, a beggar approached Aidan and asked for money.
Aidan did one better, dismounted from the steed, and promptly gave the man the horse, along with all its costly trappings. Eventually this reached the king’s attention, who promptly scolded the generous bishop: “Why did you give away the horse that we specially chose for your personal use when we knew that you had need of one for your journeys? We have many less valuable horses that would have been suitable for beggars.” Aidan responded, saying “Is this foal of a mare more valuable to you than a child of God?” The king thought about his friends words and abruptly cast his sword aside, got on his knees at Aidan’s feet, and begged for forgiveness.
Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material provided by Clifton Fadiman, Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes.
Not Interested in Being Meek
A friend of mine who is an entrepreneur was listening to a CD of a series of messages I had given on the Beatitudes. When he came to meekness, he told me, he skipped over it. He wasn’t interested in being meek. Like most Americans, he thought of a meek person as someone who is timid, spineless, unassertive, and easily dominated or intimidated. Some readers will recognize these traits as exemplified in a cartoon character of bygone years, Caspar Milquetoast, who has been described as a man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.
Playing Second Fiddle
An Admirer once asked Leonard Bernstein, celebrated orchestra conductor, what was the hardest instrument to play. He replied without hesitation: “Second fiddle. I can always get plenty of first violinists, but to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm or second French horn or second flute, now that’s a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.” (Source: James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited, Tyndale, 1988, p. 450, Brett Blair, Sermon Illustrations, 1999.)
The Principle to Persuasive Christian Communication
In a statement created by Christian leaders across the world, the Lausanne Willowbank Report calls for church leaders to return to the humility and servanthood that Jesus manifested in His earthly ministry:
We believe that the principal key to persuasive Christian communication is to be found in the communicators themselves and what kind of people they are. . . . We desire to see . . . “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:1). . . . There is the humility to take the trouble to understand and appreciate the culture of those to whom we go.
It is the desire which leads naturally into that true dialogue “whose purpose is to listen sensitively in order to understand.” . . . We repent of the ignorance which assumes that we have all the answers and that our only role is to teach. We have very much to learn. We repent also of judgmental attitudes.
We know that we should never condemn or despise another culture, but rather respect it. We advocate neither the arrogance which imposes our culture on others, nor the syncretism which mixes the gospel with cultural elements incompatible with it, but rather a humble sharing of the good news—made possible by the mutual respect of a genuine friendship.
“Willowbank Report: Gospel and Culture,” Lausanne Occasional Papers 2 (Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 1978), pp. 15-16.
A Walking Sermon
One of the best stories of humility is that of a man who arrived in 1953 at the Chicago railroad station to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He stepped off the train, a tall man with bushy hair and a big moustache. As the cameras flashed and city officials approached with hands outstretched to meet him, he thanked them politely.
Then he asked to be excused for a minute. He walked through the crowd to the side of an elderly black woman struggling with two large suitcases. He picked them up, smiled, and escorted her to the bus, helped her get on, and wished her a safe journey. Then Albert Schweitzer turned to the crowd and apologized for keeping them waiting. It is reported that one member of the reception committee told a reporter, “That’s the first time I ever saw a sermon walking.”
Sermon: Rev Roy T. Lloyd
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Humility. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!