Chances are, you sat around with a circle of friends yesterday evening watching (or not watching) the Super Bowl. Yeah, the first half was brutal. A first-play safety, two interceptions, the scoreless Broncos, and a couple of awful double commercials (Ford, a-hem). Some of the better commercials were gripping stories, like the Maserati commercial, which opens with gigantic crashing wave, followed by a terrifying twister, and then an ominous shadow eclipsing the grandeur of a rock-hard mountain face, all narrated in nubile innocence, hauntingly announcing “our lumbering giants.” The advertisement is so epic that the moment the car is revealed you feel used, manipulated, flat-out marketed. The story pulls at our fears, stirs our emotions, and even pricks hope for rescue from our giants, only to be offered the salvation of machinery. Many of us have rejected such silly notions, that human ingenuity and leaps in technology can bring about a societal utopia. Truth be told, we’d rather listen to the stories of our friends. At least their stories are true, even if they are mundane. Real community is built on real stories, not pipedream commercials or the failing hope of modernism. Or is it?
Circle of Friends
Today, what’s often passed off as community is nothing more than a circle of friends. A circle of friends is an insular, self-affirming circle of homogeneity where everyone’s alike. We share similar styles, food preferences, and values. We laugh at the same jokes, discuss the same movies, visit the same haunts. All of this is fairly innocent, but also indicting.
Media critic and documentarian Adam Curtis has suggested that since the explosion of information and celebrity culture, we now determine reality based on our own experiences with our circle of friends. Sure, we don’t fall for Maserati ads, but we do fall for our friends. These circles of friends become closed off to other perspectives and see the world through their own cult of connectivity. Today, our peers possess more authority than government, history, reason, or God.
Today, our peers possess more authority than government, history, reason, or God.
For example, what we do on the weekends is often the result of friendship influences, not deep values. Our views on sexuality, politics, and even theology are sometimes shaped more by our circle than by a transcendent authority. If you’re Christian, you may consume immoral media or refuse to sacrifice your time and money for others because, well, your circle of Christian friends has settled for this. Comfort is the norm.
Is our morality, our commitment, our service, our very identity shaped more by our circle of friends than by the kingdom of Christ? We say we follow Jesus, but often hide behind our friends. It’s hard to break free from the circle of friends. There’s a lot of social pressure. And if we don’t have a bigger story to shape our lives, a more universal narrative to reorder our world, then why not go with the ones we trust and admire? Why not fall in line with their mediocre spirituality, their comfortable ethic, and their tolerant morality? So we dig in locally, disbelieving universal stories, and create our own narrow-minded versions of reality. We base our discipleship on our friends' discipleship, our holiness on others’ holiness, our missional boldness on others’ boldness. The circle of friends isn’t as innocent as it seems.
Jesus, on the other hand, doesn’t create a circle of friends; he creates a kingdom community. His disciples are from all kinds of vocations—fishing, accounting, and so on. They come from different places, and have different accents, but the one thing that holds them together is Jesus and his gospel message. He doesn't merely attract a community; he creates a new family. He calls his disciples out of their families and into a new family: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33-35). Jesus creates a new family that conforms to his will, not a circle ensnared in the will and whim of friends.
A circle forms around Jesus, not around one another. Jesus forms not a circle of friends, but a circle of family, who together follow his lead. We must pause to reflect—do we bear the family resemblance? Where are we ensnared? Will we let go and follow Jesus?
When the disciples followed Jesus, they began to take on his characteristics. In the gospel of Luke, they follow his pattern of ministry: 1) Proclaim the kingdom message 2) Perform a healing 3) Perform an exorcism. First, the twelve disciples (Luke 9), and then the seventy (Luke 10). We need to exorcise our cultural demons and receive the healing power of the gospel. Paul repeatedly calls for conformity to Christ, while admonishing us to put off worldly conformity (Rom 12:1-3).
Come After Me
What compelled the early disciples to leave their families and follow Jesus? It is rather odd, radical, that they left everything behind to follow him. What was Jesus’s hook? “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men” (1:17). The translation of “follow” is unfortunate. Jesus doesn’t say, “Follow me”; instead, he says, “Come after me.” There’s another Greek word for follow, which appears in Mark 8:34, where Jesus says: “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself take up his cross and follow me” (8:34). But the word translated “follow” in 1:17 actually means “after, back, or behind.” You see, Jesus isn’t saying follow me; he’s saying, “Get behind me,” “Come after me.”
Jesus isn’t saying follow me; he’s saying, “Get behind me,” “Come after me.”
What’s the difference? When we think of following someone, it puts the emphasis on us. We click the button to follow someone on Twitter. We make the effort to follow an athlete’s career. If you follow a band, you’ll spend effort and money reading their interviews, watching videos, going to shows, and buying their merchandise. We follow. But Jesus says come after ME. Where does he put the emphasis? Not on our following but on his leading. Jesus says come after me, get behind me; I’ll pioneer, go ahead, make a way. Don't start by following Jesus, but by coming after him.
So you see, we need more than a new community, and even more than a new family; we need a new person to come after. We need to follow in the wake of someone who is great enough to chart the course for true humanity, while also able to leave behind waves of grace for our every failure. Instead of leaping out in front of Jesus in our own strength, or encircling our friends in weakness, we need to come after Jesus.
When we encircle Christ, and allow his gospel story to re-narrate our lives, we gain the hope of true purpose and transformation. When we return authority to Jesus, and retrieve it from our circle of friends, we will find flourishing and faith, change and peace, grace and godliness. His death-resurrection narrative delivers on its epic waves to defeat the lumbering giants of sin and even death. Jesus rises from the dead to create a new, countercultural community that bears a family resemblance.
*I am indebted to Mark Sayers for drawing my attention to the work of Adam Curtis.
** View the Maserati commercial.
Jonathan K. Dodson (M.Div, Th.M) is happy husband to Robie, and proud father to Owen, Ellie, and Rosamund. He is also the lead pastor of City Life Church and author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship & Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection. He enjoys listening to M. Ward, watching sci-fi, and following Jesus. He blogs at jonathandodson.org.