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Following Jesus at a Distance

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Years ago my family moved across the state from one small town to another, and it was necessary to travel through a large city on the way. My mother drove a separate car following behind my father, who carried the only map. She worked hard to keep up, but she lost sight of him in the city’s congested traffic and the two got separated. Not accustomed to driving on streets with lines painted on them, my mother found herself driving aimlessly through an unfamiliar city looking for the right direction.

I learned a valuable lesson from my mother’s frightening experience: When traveling through unfamiliar territory, it is wise to follow closely behind the one who leads us. If too much distance is permitted between ourselves and the one who knows the way, we may wind up drifting off course.

The theme of following Jesus

The theme of following Jesus appears throughout the Gospels, twenty-four times in Matthew alone. This theme certainly suggests more than physical proximity; it signifies a relationship between Jesus and others. Mark discusses following Jesus fifteen times in his short Gospel, no doubt connecting it to his emphasis on discipleship. Furthermore, in Mark 3:14 we read that Jesus appointed the Twelve to be “with Him,” that is, to engage in daily interaction and to follow wherever He led. Jesus sought the allegiance of His followers in exchange for life-giving instruction and daily provision. Simon, Andrew, Levi, a Galilean multitude, large crowds, some disciples, blind Bartimaeus, and certain women all followed Jesus in Mark’s Gospel.

Peter follows at a distance

After establishing the theme of following Jesus, Mark records a story about Peter that signifies a shift in the theme. For three years Peter had followed Jesus. However, in Mark 14:54, shortly after Jesus’ arrest, we read that Peter followed Jesus “at a distance.”

“Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire.”

Just like following Jesus involves more than physical proximity, following Jesus “at a distance” involves more than physical detachment. In an effort to seek safety, Peter had done the most dangerous thing imaginable by permitting distance in his relationship with Jesus. That distance left him vulnerable – like losing sight of the driver who knows the way – and Peter quickly drifted off course. The very next time he appears in the text he denies Jesus three times (Mark 14:66-72).

What creates distance between us and our Lord

You and I claim to be followers of Jesus – not physically but relationally. Jesus still desires our allegiance in exchange for life-giving instruction and daily provision. He requests our fellowship and we agree to follow where He leads. Like Peter, however, we may be following the right Person at the wrong distance. Distance makes us vulnerable. It can leave room for sin and disrupt fellowship, among other things. Here are some common factors that create distance between us and God:

  • Fear of being associated with Jesus. Like Peter, some of us permit distance in our relationship because we prefer the approval of people more than the approval of God. We routinely follow Jesus at a distance and utilize him only when we have needs. Like a teenager embarrassed to shop with her parents, we maintain a safe distance behind Jesus and run to catch up only when we need something.
  • Sin. Sin constructs a natural barrier between us and God, and the weight of unconfessed sin prevents us from keeping pace with Jesus.
  • Busyness and distractions in everyday life. These can cause us to lose our focus and drift far behind Him, robbing us of intimacy.
  • Time. The initial excitement in any relationship can foster nearness, but as the journey turns into a lifelong marathon it is easy to drift apart. Remaining close over time requires diligent work from both parties.

Any of these may be symptomatic of distance in our relationship with God. What can be done about it?

How we can close the gap

During a recent trip to the grocery store my five-year-old was distracted by every item on every eye-level shelf. I felt it was a good time for a lesson and allowed her to fall a little behind without her noticing. I had the pleasure of seeing the moment when she suddenly realized the dangerous distance that had grown between us. She quickly ran to join me, enjoying the safety of proximity when she did. Likewise, when you and I become aware of distance between us and our Lord, we should hurry to join Him. Following closely after Him will enable us to navigate this difficult word and prevent us from drifting off course. He is, after all, the One who knows the way. If you find yourself following Jesus at a distance, here are some suggestions:

    1. Get your bearings. Determine when the distance began to form and how far you’ve drifted from the Lord. As in any relationship, the sooner you recognize the distance the easier it is to adjust your pace or direction and close the gap.

    2. Confess any sin. Sin against another person prevents closeness in that relationship. If a sin is generating distance between you and God, confess it and seek restoration.

    3. Schedule regular time to communicate. Getting to know another person requires communication. It forms the backbone to any relationship, and its absence is a clear indication of distance. All too often, communication with God gets crowded out of schedules that are overloaded with meetings, events, carpools, and kids’ activities. Perhaps you are holding your honest feelings back from God in prayer. Or perhaps you have been doing all of the talking and none of the listening to His Word. Schedule time each morning before a busy agenda distracts you from this priority, or every evening after dinner or after the kids are in bed.

    4. Pledge to go where He leads. A lifelong journey with another person requires agreement on the route and destination. Some believers have diverged from Christ’s leadership, and have decided on a different direction for their life, their kids, their career, their time, and their priorities. As difficult as it may be, tell the Lord that you want to follow Him more closely, wherever He may lead.

Fortunately, Peter’s story has a happy ending. After denying Jesus, the rooster crowed a second time, forcing him to get his bearings and realize that distance existed in his relationship with Jesus. He confessed his sin by weeping bitterly for denying his Lord. Luke and John write that Peter fellowshipped with Jesus following the resurrection, and boldly accepted Jesus’ challenge to take the Gospel to the world. As far as we know from the recorded life of Peter, he never permitted such dangerous distance to form in his relationship with Jesus again.

My mother’s story also has a happy ending. After what seemed like hours of driving aimlessly in an unfamiliar city she finally found the right street and proceeded in the right direction. To her delight, she found my father a few miles away stopped on the side of the road, where he had been waiting for her all along. They greeting one another warmly, and continued on their drive – this time with her front bumper only inches from his back bumper! How refreshing it is to know that the moment we get our bearings and determine to follow Jesus more closely we find him there waiting for us, anxious to lead us again in life’s journey.

Suggested pull quotes:

“When traveling through unfamiliar territory, it is wise to follow closely behind the one who leads us.”

“Like Peter, we may be following the right Person at the wrong distance.”

“A lifelong journey with another person requires agreement on the route and destination.”

Related Topics: Discipleship