Following Jesus

A post from the archives.  This article first appeared June 14, 2010.

“If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do.”

-Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution

Following Jesus.  I think it boils down to that, really.  I have struggled for some time with the realization that when the church fails—as it often does—it fails most egregiously in giving people the resources necessary for the outrageously radical act of following Jesus.  My reading of emerging/ent theology has led me to conclude that there is increasing energy around the simple idea that followers of Jesus ought to embody the revolutionary spirit found in the Gospels.  I sense a growing dissatisfaction with the traditional view of the church as either a clearinghouse for heavenly bus passes, or as a respectable organization whose primary function centers on affirming middle-class American values.  People, especially young people, are having trouble squaring the Jesus they read about in the Gospels with the infinitely malleable Jesus they see placed on offer by popular Christianity—Jesus as personal genie, Jesus as chief security guard at the courthouse of private morality, Jesus as a cheerleader for free-market capitalism, etc.  Jesus, stripped of the layers of religious spackling used to domesticate him, is irremediably subversive.

Subversive.  That appeals to me.  Of course, I’d like to continue writing clinically, about the religious climate shift underway at the hands of restless “young people,” fed up with a tame Jesus.  I’d like to make it sound as though I’m just a disinterested observer of religious trends.  But the truth is that I too find myself growing dissatisfied with that image of Jesus.  After all these years of a Jesus who I thought would help make me _______ (holier? kinder? more spiritual? more self-actualized?), I’ve come to believe that Jesus has a more cosmic, more interesting agenda in mind than super-tuning my soul.  On my way to spiritual superstardom, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to squeeze past Jesus, who stands in the middle of the road pointing to the weak, the homeless, the sick, the widowed, the displaced and un-embraced.

I’ve tried.  I’ve put forth a valiant effort.  But I can no longer envision Jesus the way I once did.  I can’t, for the life of me, picture Jesus saying, “Healthcare isn’t a right; it’s a privilege.”  I can’t figure out a way to get Jesus to say, “Homosexuality is a capital crime; but fleecing the poor is a misdemeanor.”    I’m trying to track down, but as of yet have been unable to find, where Jesus says, “If you fear someone will strike you on one cheek, dial in a Predator drone.”  The church has too often been asked to give religious cover to moralities that were conceived absent the theological reflection provided by the church.  I find that the chasm between the revolutionary Jesus of first century Jerusalem and the domesticated Jesus of twenty-first century America grows more difficult for me to span all the time.

In the final analysis, the good news of the reign of God is not first that the well taken care of will be even more well taken care of in the next life.  The good news of the reign of God is that God’s reign is present wherever the homeless are sheltered, wherever the hungry are fed, wherever the rich give away their money and power in defense of the poor, wherever the forgotten ones gather to be remembered and embraced, to be told that as long as we follow God not one of God’s children will be left to die alone and unloved.

This entry was posted in Christianity, LGBTQ, ministry, Social Justice and tagged , , , , by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity,, and blogs at his own site at

8 thoughts on “Following Jesus

  1. Long-time Disciple layperson here. I am on a personal quest to discover as much as I can about who Jesus was and what he taught, as well, as how and when human concepts about God emerged. I am somewhat conversant with the emerging/emergent/practicing church movements. i appreciate the posts on Dmergemt. While I think that a new theology and practice for the church is overdue, I don’t castigate the “church as it has been” or the “current, transitioning church” in a wholesale manner. I have loved the church as I have experienced it, in spite of its imperfections, and I am prepared to love the “new, better for these times” church, with its yet-to-become evident imperfections.

    It seems to me that some of the authentic teachings of Jesus are difficult. For starters, his emphasis on faith (a child-like faith in a benevolent father/parent God) is very difficult for me. His emphasis on what seems to me to be interior moral rigor (no lustful thoughts, no divorce, nip problems in the bud!) is very difficult! His emphasis on the incoming kingdom of God is clear; however, it seems to me that he was at best enigmatic about the nature of this kingdom. I am very attracted to Jesus, I am in solidarity with Jesus, I want to study about Jesus and try to follow Jesus, but I do not expect to ever totally understand Jesus. This perspective is what I am hoping for in the emerging church. We will be more comfortable with uncertainty, we will be more humble, and we will (I hope) be more spiritual and less pious. I don’t think that we (the church) have ever forgotten our passion for justice, or our ministry to the poor and marginalized. I think that we need to reaffirm these ministries and do them better, especially working for justice for the whole earth, not just for humans. Let’s get rid of what is impeding us, let’s keep what is helpful and let’s pray for each other as we move on.

    • I agree. The church is not an end in itself, but a community dedicated to living out the demands of the gospel faithfully–which, as you point out, are difficult (if not nigh on impossible). But that’s why we do this together, because it’s too important and too demanding to turn people loose to do it on their own. You’ve done a good job of summarizing [D]mergent when you say, “Let’s get rid of what is impeding us, let’s keep what is helpful and let’s pray for each other as we move on.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  2. I love the article. I can so relate to the ..’on my way to spiritual superstardom’ and LOL at the reference to ‘dialing in the Predator drone’. Your wit and delivery is refreshing.

    Now down to brass tax….

    I have difficulty with Church. Frankly it is one of the things that is getting in the way of truly responding to where God is calling me — namely, to Seminary. Weird huh? Nope. I am scheduled to begin this Fall and am still in questions (I will not say ‘discernment’.. the term makes my skin get crawly.)

    Church is too much wrapped up into itself. Frankly I think it has lost touch with where Jesus is at what He is about. It gets so mired in to what its concerns are… Jesus wasn’t in a building and He didn’t have a committee for this and a committee for that. He was busy going about doing good.

    That’s where He was. Out there bringing a sandwich and soda to the nearest homeless person He passed by (and notice I said, ‘passed’ by which implies, yes.., he was passing through)…

    So ……. question is then, HOW do you ‘do’ church out of church?

    • High Hopes,
      You do church out of church by…
      THis is what we hope to achieve together here at [D]mergent. I would love to hear your ideas on what this looks like or what it could look like.

      I imagine that the “church” today looks a lot like you and I as we reach to the margins and bring them to the center where resources, provision and hope are abundant. In my humble opinion this is why the “poor” are with us. That in the presence of suffering that compassion and community shall bloom.

      Blessings, Ryan

  3. Just so I can develop a proper reference; who is Terry Eagleton and what is the context/source of the quote.

    • Doug,

      Terry Eagleton is a literary critic/socialist who wrote the hugely popular book, Literary Theory, that’s been used as a standard textbook on literary criticism in English departments for almost 30 years. He’s also had more than a passing acquaintance with the Socialist workers movement, which is what makes his recent book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution that much more interesting. In it he takes on Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (to whom he refers archly as “Ditchkins”) and their attacks on Christianity. His posture isn’t an insider setting down apologetical arguments against the “dreaded atheists,” but an observer of Christianity who both feels let down by the popular Christian version of following Jesus, as well as (what he considers) the intellectually dishonest attacks on theism in general, and Christianity in particular, made by Ditchkins.

      In the process, he gives, I think, one of the most cogent arguments about what following Jesus ought to look like, and how the church has generally failed to produce people capable of pulling it off. It’s a great read–devastatingly witty, without sacrificing too much on the intellectual rigor. People familiar with postmodern critical theory over the last 40 years will find this book a really odd combination of author and subject. It’s worth your time. Check it out.

      Hope that helps.


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