Monday, August 19, 2019

Are You a Follower, or Just a Fan?

Even though I was never much of an athlete, for as long as I can remember I’ve been an avid sports fan. As a boy growing up in New Jersey, I became a New York Yankees fan when the likes of Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Bobby Richardson were taking the field. It was a time when Yogi Berra was reminding us, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” And in those days, there was a lot for a Yankee fan to feel excited about.

Then after a year of college in Houston, Texas, I transferred to THE Ohio State University and instantly became a Buckeyes fan. The year after I arrived on campus, some guys named Rex Kern, Jack Tatum, Jim Otis, Jim Stillwagon and others led the Bucks to a national championship under Woody Hayes. Again, a great time to be a fan – if your team was OSU. When I was a blood donor, the phlebotomists were always amazed when it came out scarlet and gray.

In both cases, however, I was just a a fan. I wasn’t a follower. After decades of dominance in Major League Baseball, the Yankees fell on hard times and started losing more than they won. My life was getting busier in those days, so I lost interest and ceased being the fervent fan I once had been. Even with the Buckeyes, I have watched every game that I could and reveled in their victories. But during the week, I discovered life could proceed quite well whether Ohio State won or lost.

It’s kind of like that for some people who profess to be Christians. They go to church, sing, maybe raise a hand or two once in a while, and if the message really moves them, they utter an approving “Amen.” But during the week, whether at work, at school or in their homes, there’s not much evidence of Jesus Christ in how they act or what they say. They might be fans of Jesus, but definitely not His followers.

A few years ago, a pastor named Kyle Idleman wrote a book, Not a Fan, in which he addressed this phenomenon. He proposed a distinctively different slant from the type of response offered by people who are asked, for instance, “Do you like peanut butter?” and respond, “Nope. Not a fan.” Jesus doesn’t want fans, Idleman explained. He wants followers.

The Lord made clear there are no shortcuts to being among His faithful followers. There’s a cost involved, one that requires sacrifice. He said, “If anyone who come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). He wasn’t talking about a mother with a lazy son who comments, “He’s the cross I have to bear.” No, Jesus meant we must be willing to die to ourselves every day – to our own ambitions, goals and desires – and be willing to go and do as He directs instead.

When the apostle Paul wrote, “...I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31), he wasn’t referring to a succession of near-death experiences. He was referring to facing constant opposition and enduring a variety of difficult trials and challenges, all for the sake of Jesus Christ and the gospel. 

In a verse I have cited before, we see that Jesus had lots of fans. Multitudes who eagerly chased after Him and hung on His every word. He was by far the best entertainment available. But when the Lord uttered some very difficult teachings, they suddenly remembered some other things they would rather be doing: “From that time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66). 

They were avid fans, but not true followers.

To me, this is one explanation for why, in a nation where polls show a majority of people professing to be Christians, our society is overwhelmed by immorality, violence, hatred and conflict. Sunday morning fans go home, then turn on the afternoon football game or take part in the family picnic or some other diversion, and when Monday morning arrives, it’s like they left Jesus behind in the sanctuary. “See ya next Sunday, Jesus!”

So the question arises. Can we honestly declare, as Idleman wrote, that we’re “Not a Fan”? That instead, we are genuine, willing-to-take-up-our-cross-daily followers of Jesus Christ?

I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s well-known poem, “The Road Not Taken.” In the final stanza he wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” The same applies for us. We can be fans, cheering for Jesus whenever it’s convenient while taking the more heavily traveled course society and culture have paved, or we can take the one “less traveled by,” as true followers of Christ. That indeed will make all the difference.

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