Come, Follow Me
“Come, Follow Me’ This hymn derives inspiration from the several different accounts in Matthew of Christ calling people to follow Him. In today’s gospel lesson we read the account of Jesus responding to a stranger who proclaims his willingness to follow Jesus. Jesus responds, of course, “Follow me.” This sentiment is echoed in this hymn written by the seventeenth-century poet Johann Scheffler (1624-77).
Scheffler was born in Silesia (Poland/Germany/Prussia) to a father whose adherence to Lutheranism resulted in much persecution. After studying medicine, he accepted a position at a staunchly Lutheran court. Increasingly Scheffler became unhappy with the seemingly rigid dogmatism of the court’s Lutheranism and he became enthralled with the mystical poets of the Middle Ages. He eventually found his way to a Jesuit cloister, converted to Catholicism, changed his name to Angelus Silesius and lived the rest of his days studying and writing, although the majority of his hymnody was written whilst still a Lutheran. According to the hymnal companions, this hymn was originally published in Scheffler’s Heilige Seelenlust oder Geistliche Hirten-Lieder of 1647. (Although, the writer of music notes has a copy of this volume and cannot find this aforementioned hymn anywhere. . .)
This hymn can be analyzed a number of ways, but today we shall consider it in terms of the dichotmy it presents between the life of the world and the life of a Christian. In the words of the first stanza, we implore our “selfishness throw overboard, obey My call and guiding. Oh, bear your crosses and confide in my example as your guide.” It is implied that selfishness is of the world, as will be crosses for those who “follow Him.” The fourth stanza likewise echoes this thought, “I teach you how to shun and flee what harms your soul’s salvation; your heart from ev’ry guile to free, from sin and its temptation. I am the refuge of the soul and lead you to Your heavenly goal.” What harms our souls’ salvation? H Richard Niebuhr, a great 20th-century theologian, writes in his little book Christ and Culture of the relationship different branches of the Church have had to the secular culture throughout history. According to Niebuhr, Christianity is either against culture, within culture, above culture, in paradox with it, or a transformer of it. Scheffler’s thoughts (which later turned to individualistic mysticism), definitely mirror the adversarial relationship Christ has with the culture; ie., Christianity and secular culture are incompatible. The astute reader of music notes (they are all astute, since they are reading music notes) will rejoinder, “That is too simple! Christianity and the culture have a much more complicated relationship than that.” The astute writer of music notes replies, “Certainly, but you also need to read how Niebuhr describes each of these paradigms and analyze your own predilictions and beliefs according to his terms.” The mystical strand of Christianity, exemplified by Teresa of Avilla, Hildegard von Bingen and Thomas a Kempis of the medieval ages, always viewed Christianity as a personal relationship of the soul to God. Everything else was merely ephemeral at best and distractful at worst. When that other great mystical master, Yoda, admonishes Anakin Skywalker to “shun all attachments and relationships” since they merely distract from his quest for wisdom, he is echoing an ancient (earthly) conception of aestheticism which holds that we must “shun and flee what harms your soul’s salvation.”
The mystic, as Scheffler was, holds that everything outside of one’s self can distract from the path of knowledge/enlightenment/salvation, etc. Yet, few of us can cloister ourselves in seclusion, avoiding everything that may harm us. We are called to interact with the culture and, if not exactly to transform it, then to influence it. Our secular culture is rife with sickness. From crime to secular selfishness to the intolerant tolerance of the politically correct, the Christian can quickly determine that our culture does not often reflect the Kingdom of God. Yet, just as Jesus ate with sinners and even called a tax collector such as Matthew, we are called to be “salt and light” to the world. Lutheranism has in various times and places done this well, and Lutheranism likewise has failed miserably at other times and places.
When the early American Lutheran Church steadfastly refused to learn English, instead holding to the “doctrinal purity” of the German language, the Church missed an opportunity to be salt and light. When some modern Lutheran churches hold “worship services” which are indistinguishable from a rock concert or a coffee bar, one wonders what the Church has “sold out” in order to become attractive to secularists. When the traditional Lutheran congregation of the 1950s sent missionaries to the East Indies and Borneo but ignored their own community, an opportunity was lost. When our congregations wish to assimilate the relentless, results-driven culture of the secular business world and apply them to our spiritual lives, the Lutheran church loses a little of what makes it unique to the world.
Jesus calls us in the gospel—and it is echoed in this hymn—to “follow Him.” Then, He proceeds to eat with sinners and tax collectors. Yet, He does not condescend to their level—He does not cheat, steal, or be greedy simply to be accepted by them. He does not scorn them; He interacts with them whilst never compromising His sinless and divine identity. We are not Jesus and our task is much more difficult but, as Jesus states at the beginning of stanza one, we would do well to follow “In my example as your guide.”