1. Here we reach the heart of this entire work, for it is now possible to explain clearly what it means to follow the way of the Lord Jesus. The idea of following Jesus seems mysterious. Confronted with it today, many people say to themselves: But Jesus is God and he lived a long time ago in a culture very different from ours. Others have thought that imitating Jesus means trying to discern and adopt his style of outward behavior. Such notions obscure the relevance of Jesus to the serious responsibility of living a Christian life. Moreover, they have no basis in Scripture, which makes it clear not only that we must follow Jesus but what this means.
2. Since God the Father is the font of all holiness, the first principle of Christian living is imitation of the Father. “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’ ” (1 Pt 1.14–16).
3. It follows that one must love one’s neighbor as the Father does (see 1 Jn 4.7–11), be compassionate as he is compassionate (see Lk 6.36), and love enemies as he loves them, forgiving everything (see Mt 5.43–45; Lk 6.35). In a word, one must be perfect, as the Father is perfect (see Mt 5.48).
4. Taken seriously, this is a breathtaking challenge. We are called to give ourselves as unreservedly to God—to be perfect—as he gives himself to us in Christ. It is natural for children to be like their father, but how can we live up to this demand when our Father is God? God shows us the path of life in which we must walk (see Ps 16.10–11; Acts 2.28). It is not easy to find the way of life, but God gives us knowledge of salvation and guides our feet into the way of peace (see Lk 1.79). The way is our Lord Jesus (see Jn 14.6).3
5. Under the law, “the way into the sanctuary [of heaven] had not yet been revealed” (Heb 9.8; NAB). But Jesus himself is at one and the same time the way and also God’s faithfulness and life, by which one is brought along the way and rewarded at its end. He is unique: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn 14.6).4 Since he is the light of the world, no follower of his need walk in darkness; he is for Christians the new pillar of fire, the light of life (see Jn 8.12). If we go on walking in darkness while imagining we are in communion with Jesus, we lie; but if we walk in his light, we are in communion with him and one another (see 1 Jn 1.6–7).
Jesus is the way of love. “And this is love, that we follow his commandments; this is the commandment, as you have heard from the beginning, that you follow love” (2 Jn 6). The way of Jesus is dependable teaching: “Anyone who is so ‘progressive’ that he does not remain rooted in the teaching of Christ does not possess God; while anyone who remains rooted in the teaching possesses both the Father and the Son” (2 Jn 9; NAB).
Jesus is a living lesson to be learned: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (Mt 11.29). St. Paul takes up this idea and points out that pagan lust has no place in Christian life: “You did not so learn Christ!” (Eph 4.20). Jesus is taught and learned; he is proposed as a norm. One must grasp the truth in him “and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4.24).
6. In the book of Acts, Christianity itself is at first distinguished from the traditional faith by the simple title “the way” (Acts 9.2; 18.25; 24.22). The way Jesus’ disciples must follow means self-denial, for it is the way of the cross (see Mk 8.34). This way is not followed for its own sake, but for Jesus’ sake and the gospel’s (see Mk 8.35). The true disciple looks forward to the establishment of God’s kingdom and contributes to the redemption of others by ecclesial service (see Mk 9.1; 10.42–45).5
7. Although the Church and the eternal kingdom are not absolutely identical, the kingdom is already present in mystery in the Church and growing visibly there (see LG 3). We are privileged to live now as members of God’s pilgrim people, for the Church, united with God in the new and everlasting covenant, is the nucleus of the heavenly city of God (see Heb 8.7–13; 11.13–16; Rv 21.1–7; cf. S.t., 3, q. 8, aa. 1, 4).
8. The covenant includes the practical requirements of the communion it establishes. Hence, the way to be sure of one’s relationship with Jesus is to “keep his commandments. He who says ‘I know him’ but disobeys his commandments is a liar” (1 Jn 2.3–4; cf. Jn 15.10). The mandate to the apostles is to make disciples and baptize them, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28.20). What does Jesus command? “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15.12).
9. In sum, Scripture makes it clear that following Jesus means keeping his commandments, particularly his commandment to love one another as he loves us. To keep his commandments is to follow him because his commandments are the stipulations of the new covenant Christians enter by faith in him and celebrate in the Mass. To be a Christian is to be united with Jesus by a love which is not so much a matter of sentiment as of faithfulness to covenant responsibilities. In this respect, a Christian’s relationship with Jesus is very like the love of a husband and wife for one another: To love faithfully is to live a life pleasing to one’s covenant partner.
10. This scriptural teaching can be expressed with precision using theological language. The Christian’s act of faith not only agrees with Jesus’ basic commitment—to do the Father’s will—but also corresponds in two ways to Jesus’ personal vocation. First, by faith the Christian turns from sin and accepts the grace won by Jesus’ redemptive act; second, accepting this grace the Christian shares in the divine life Jesus mediates. As the fundamental option of Christian life, faith is a basic commitment; it requires each Christian to find and accept a personal vocation. In carrying out their personal vocations, Christians cooperate with Jesus by completing his redemptive work in themselves and mediating his truth and love to others. In doing this, Christians fulfill Jesus’ commandment to love others as he loves them.6
11. This analysis enables us to give an exact sense to the expression: “the following of Jesus.” It does not mean doing exactly what Jesus did; that is both impossible and unnecessary. Thus, the fact that Jesus is God and lived a long time ago is no obstacle to following him. Nor does following Jesus mean imitating him in superficial ways. For us Christians, to follow Jesus means to accept and carry out our own personal vocations faithfully. In doing so, we effectively cooperate with Jesus by completing in our own lives the commitment we share with him: to do the will of our heavenly Father.
One who takes up his or her cross and follows Jesus shares in his redemptive work. But often we wish to work with someone less because we want to get a job done than because we love that person and wish to share his or her company. So it can be with Jesus. Gratitude for what he has done for us grows into admiration for him as a man, and admiration for him grows into personal affection. Like a wife who loves her husband or an athlete who loves his coach, one often is more ready to act because of personal loyalty than because one understands the objective in view.
This aspect of the moral motivation of Christian life is essential to its growth toward perfection. It can be observed throughout the writings of St. Paul, who once had other values: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Phil 3.7–9). Paul wants to know how to share in Jesus’ sufferings, for he has been grasped by Jesus, and others should imitate Paul as he imitates Jesus (see Phil 3.10, 12, 17).
3. A treatment of the imitation of Jesus and the apostles as the way of proceeding from one’s natural status of image of God to one’s heavenly destiny: Ceslaus Spicq, O.P., Théologie Morale du Nouveau Testament, vol. 2 (Paris: J. Gabalda, 1965), 688–744.
4. Jesus is not simply a human mediator, pointing the way to God by his law, but the very embodiment of the Torah: J. M. Gibbs, “The Son of Man as the Torah Incarnate in Matthew,” in Studia Evangelica, 4 (1965), ed. F. L. Cross, Texte und Untersuchungen, 102 (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1968), 38–46.
5. See Ernest Best, Following Jesus: Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series, 4 (Sheffield, Eng.: JSOT Press, 1981), 246–50 (summary).
6. In other words, the following of Christ is more than passive participation in the fruit of his redemptive sacrifice; it is sharing in the work of redemption as an active cooperator in the life of his co-redemptive Church. Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., Christ for the World: The Heart of the Lamb: A Treatise on Christology, trans. Malachy Carroll (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1974), 257–312, develops this point very well in the context of his systematic theology of Jesus.