As I browsed through my local Barnes & Noble bookstore recently, thumbing through books that piqued my interest while wondering if it would be too indulgent to get a second Mocha Frappuccino from the attached Starbucks, I found myself lost in an enormous section entitle “Self-Help.”
Perhaps you have found such a section in your local bookstore. Self-help is one of the most popular and fastest-growing areas of interest in our society. You can find how-to books on everything from building a deck for your home to psychoanalyzing your disobedient pet. Volume after volume can be found on leadership, taking control of your life, how to be your own boss, and how to “Swim with the Sharks” and “Awaken the Giant Within.” These designation “self-help” itself speaks to what we value: “No, no I don’t need help, I can handle it all myself—I just need a good book.”
Which One Are You?
Needless to say, I have never located a “Following” section in that same bookstore. I wouldn’t even venture to ask a salesperson where I might find books on following, because I know the only response would be a blank stare. Barnes & Noble bookstores don’t have “Follower” sections because there is little interest from either writers or readers on the subject. However, give us countless biographies on self-made men and women, offer us best-selling rags-to-riches stores, publish books that teach us how to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and we keep pulling out our wallets in hopes of living that life.
I clearly remember a conversation my father had with me countless times when I was a teenager battling peer pressure. (I suspect that many of us have been a part of similar conversations as either a parent or a child.) My father would sit me down, stare intently at me, and say, “Chapin, there are two kinds of people in the world. There are leaders, and there are followers. Which one are you going to be?” In all the times we had that conversation, not once did I ever consider responding, “Dad, I’ve given it some thought, and I think I’d really like to follow the crowd for a while.”
Our desire to lead, to take control of our lives, to navigate our course in life without having to ask for directions, is captured completely in the way products are advertised in our society. Look at the advertising campaign Volkswagen has been using for the past couple of years: “On the road of life there are passengers, and there are drivers.” Who’s wanted? Drivers are wanted!
They’re great commercials; they feed on our desire to take charge, to own the road, to pilot our destiny. Choose to be a passenger? Is that even an option? Passengers are nothing more than luggage with appendages. How dull. How utterly lacking in self-motivation. In our world, drivers are wanted; the message comes through loud and clear.
A More Excellent Way
But that is not the Christian calling. Our calling is radically different. We’re called to be passengers, followers, people who defer to the will of Another. We’re a people who believe that our best intentions aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Our motivations are flawed. Our will is not quite as pure as we would like. We’re a people who know that we cannot navigate our own way to salvation. Self-help will not get us to the place we are called to be. We rely on Jesus Christ, our living Lord, to guide, teach, and lead us. We recognize our need to follow, to take a back seat, and to surrender ourselves to the One who can show us a more excellent way.
There are two stories about Peter in the Gospel of Mark that speak directly to the natural human tendency to value leadership over the ability to follow. In Mark 8:27-33, Jesus asks the disciples who people think he is. What are people saying: The disciples respond, “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets of old.” Then Jesus puts them on the spot: “Who do you say I am?” They’re silent until Peter lays it out there: “You are the Messiah.” Boom! Peter shoots to the head of the class. He said what none of the other disciples had the courage to say. As the story is told in the Gospel of Matthew, this is when Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
But then Jesus goes on to tell the disciples of how he must suffer and die but will rise from the dead. Peter is still feeling pretty good at this moment; he’s the A student. So he decides to take Jesus aside and rebuke him. What does Jesus do? In front of all the disciples, Jesus scolds Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!”
In the space of five verses, Peter went from being star pupil to being called the devil by his teacher. What happened? What did Peter say for Jesus’ reaction to be so severe? The Messiah is the anointed one, the King of Israel. Peter knew that. He was saying, “What do you mean you’re going to suffer, what’s this about dying? Jesus, you’re going to be King. You’re going to rule Israel. See the thousands of people who gather around you wherever you go? This is a movement. We’re going to charge the world.” Peter had plans for Jesus, and when Jesus began to deviate from those plans, Peter leaped in to take the lead, prompting Jesus to respond, “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
In Mark 9:2-8, on the heels of the previous story, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to mountaintop to pray. He is suddenly transfigured before them. His clothes become a dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appear next to him. They begin to have a conversation. Moses and Elijah, two of the most significant figures in the Hebrew faith, are talking with Jesus. What does Peter do? He interrupts them. He says, “Jesus, it’s really a good thing we’re here; we can build dwellings for the three of you.” You can almost see Moses, Elijah, and Jesus turning and looking at Peter as if to say, “Can’t you see we’re busy?” However, that didn’t stop him from opening his mouth.
In both stories, Peter makes the mistake of trying to gain control of the situation. Circumstances have suddenly exceeded his comfort level: Jesus suffering and dying, Moses and Elijah appearing on the mountaintop—that’s not part of Peter’s design.
Peter’s instinct was to take the initiative, and both times it was inappropriate. He would have done better to simply sit down, shut up, and take in the moment. But he couldn’t. He instead took the opportunity to try to guide Jesus. In attempting to manage the situation, he forgot his position. He was seduced by desire and motivations that were far more human than divine. Peter charged in to take the lead, entirely forgetting his call to follow.
A Different Set of Rules
As a Christian community of faith, we are called to do and be something that our world does not endorse or value. We are called to follow. We are followers. What is most prized in our faith—the ability to surrender our will and take on the will of Another—stands in direct conflict with what our society believes is important. The world we live in values leadership—the ability to command, manage, control, influence, and amass power.
The Christian church’s central function is to try to discern the will of God for our lives as individuals and as communities of faith and then to attempt to follow that will. We are disciples who approach the Lord’s table each week, weary of the teachings of our world, longing for other words to live by. Simply put, as Christians, we live by a different set of rules. On the path of faith, there are leaders and there are followers.
This article was adapted from a sermon Rev. Garner delivered at the United Church of Christ in Norwell, Massachusetts, where he serves as senior pastor.