— By JOHN PAUL CARTER
One of my faith heroes, Gordon Cosby, died recently at the age of 94. In 1950, he and his wife, Mary, founded the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. He came to the nation’s capital, believing that their mission was to help a relatively small group of believers “to be the church,” uniting blacks and whites in relevant ministries, especially to the poor.
The Church of the Savior based its life on an “inward and outward journey” – an emphasis on deepening the faith of its members and then letting that faith take them out into the world on creative missions. It became an inspiration and model for commitment and ministry during the tumultuous second half of the 20th Century.
Jim Wallis of the Sojourners said of Cosby: “He never wrote a book, went on television, talked to presidents, planted more churches, built national movements, or traveled around the world. He just inspired everybody else to do all those things and much more.” I was privileged to visit the Church of the Savior and meet Gordon Cosby in 1967.
A humble man, Cosby encouraged people to call him by his first name and, instead of saying that he was a “Christian,” preferred to call himself “a follower of Christ.”
Cosby’s preference reminds me of one of my favorite authors, Maya Angelou. She writes, “I’m startled or taken aback when people walk up to me and tell me they are Christians. My first response is the question, ‘Already?’ It seems to me [that it’s] a lifelong endeavor to try to live the life of a Christian. … The idyllic condition cannot be arrived at and held on to eternally.”
Indeed, we often use the name Christian like it was a static trademark – to distinguish ourselves from the devotees of other religions. Sometimes we casually refer to ourselves as Christians in a way that sounds like we’re answering a survey question about our religious preference.
Although Christ’s followers were later called “Christians” in Antioch, Jesus’ original invitation to discipleship throughout his ministry was simply, “Follow me.” Sometimes his disciples followed closely and willingly and other times reluctantly and far off.
According to the Gospels, the disciples’ relationship to Jesus was a work in progress in which he remained faithful to them regardless of the quality of their following.
Writing to the young church at Philippi, the aging Apostle Paul spoke of his own faith, not as a trademark, but as a vibrant, intimate relationship with the living Christ – sharing his Lord’s suffering and experiencing the power of his resurrection. Then Paul added, “Don’t think that I’ve already achieved this faith. Rather, I continue to press on, attempting to grasp even more firmly that purpose for which Christ has grasped me.”
For me, it seems closer to the truth to say that I am part of a company of those attempting to follow Jesus. However, just because I think I’m following Jesus, doesn’t always mean I am. Discipleship is a work in progress, a lifelong process.
This prayer attributed to a long-dead slave captures the spirit of what it means to be a follower of Jesus: “O Lord, I ain’t what I wanna be and I ain’t what I oughta be. And O Lord, I ain’t what I’m gonna be, but thanks to You Lord, I ain’t what I used to be.” Amen.