I saw Reza Aslan, author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” on the Daily Show the other day.
At one point, John Oliver (the interviewer) reveals that Aslan is a Muslim (“one of those Muslamic people”). Aslan first responds that he is not out to offend Christianity, saying that his mother and his wife are both Christians and his brother in law is a Christian pastor.
Then he says, “But I do believe firmly that you can be a follower of Jesus and not be a Christian, just as you can be a Christian and not a follower of Jesus, if you know what I mean.” Oliver knowingly responds as the audience erupts into applause, “Yes, I think…I think I know EXACTLY what you mean there.”
I think I know what he means as well. I remember when Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish woman who is a New Testament professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, said to our congregation, “I really, really love the teachings of Jesus. I wish more Christians did as well.”
It would be easy for me to get defensive of my Christian tribe here. I could remind Aslan and Oliver and Levine that it is intellectually dishonest to suggest an easy split between the historical Jesus and the church that sought to preserve his story and preach his message down through the centuries. I could remind them that at its best, Christianity embodies the Spirit of Christ, teaching peace in a world of violence, love in a world of hatred, healing in a world of unbounded brokenness. They might even agree with my defense.
But the reason the audience applauded so heartily and Oliver agreed so readily with Aslan’s statement that you can be a Christian and not a follower of Jesus is because it seems on the surface so very obvious. To the casual observer of the church, it seems that Christianity is more concerned with being on the right side of ideological issues than with feeding the hungry, more infatuated with power than identified with the powerless, occupied more with purity than with the plight of the poor. Those who take even a few moments to read the story of Jesus discover a vast chasm between much of what the church has been and done over the centuries and what in fact Jesus calls us to be and do.
So yes, it is possible to be a Christian and not a follower of Jesus. Sometimes that a description of me. I’m afraid some days I find it easier to go through the motions of religion than answer the radical call of discipleship. Any honest Christian would have to say that we are all a mixed bag of success and failure at living out the demands of Jesus for life in the kingdom.
So I welcome other Jesus-followers, whether they identify themselves as Christian or not, to help me in my journey. I long for companions along the Way who take Jesus as seriously as I try to take him, who are willing to shape their lives by his teachings, who are able to catch me when I fall and put me back on the path. And because, as a Christian, I believe that the life of Jesus reveals the very life of God, I welcome the fellowship of all who celebrate that life.
What an interesting gathering it would be if we all got together – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and anybody else who simply wants to follow Jesus – and encouraged one another to live our lives shaped by the patterns of life Jesus taught and lived. Perhaps then the day would truly dawn that Isaiah spoke of and Jesus affirmed: “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”