One day last week as I left a local business, I noticed an elderly gentleman standing in the parking lot next to his car. As I got closer, someone in another vehicle said something to the first man, indicating that they knew each other and were meeting at this location for some purpose.
As I got into my car and drove away, I noticed the elderly man hurrying into his car and doing likewise. As a matter of fact, he pulled out right behind me.
For the next two or three miles I watched him in my rearview mirror as he remained behind me, in spite of my making several turns. The further along we went, the more agitated he seemed to become and the more uncomfortable I became as he sometimes drove unusually close to my rear bumper.
I finally concluded that for some reason this man was intentionally following me.
After I affirmed with another good look in the mirror that I didn't know the man, my mind raced with questions from a combination of curiosity and caution.
Could there be something wrong with my car that he's trying to warn me about? Did he recognize me and doesn't particularly like preachers? Or does he need my help? Should I find a spot to pull over and confront the man?
However, as I stopped at the next traffic light, the man beeped his horn and exited his vehicle. As I lowered my window I heard him asking in an irritating tone as he approached, "Where in the world are you going?"
Then I saw the look of shock on his face when he saw me. I suggested, "I think you've got the wrong person, don't you?" The man responded, "You're not who I'm supposed to be following."
Jesus spoke about some people who would be surprised one day to discover that they had not been following Him as they thought they had done. "Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (Matthew 7:22-23).
This is a rather sobering thought -- to know that some of us who may have thought we were following Christ will one day realize we weren't.
Some may find they were merely pursuing a pathway of religion and tradition. Others may discover they were following a preacher or some other person they admired as a moral or spiritual example. Others will find they were following their own good works, rather than Jesus Himself.
This story should remind us that following Christ is primarily about a relationship. It's not about following the similar-looking vehicles of religion and moral rules. It's about a relationship of love and obedience to Christ Himself. In that passage of Scripture in Matthew, Jesus was making a distinction between those who merely did good works and those who truly did His will.
Good works are certainly part of Jesus' will for our lives. But those actions should spring from a personal relationship with Christ Himself through faith, not through our efforts to be "good enough" to be acceptable to God or to impress other people with our Christianity.
Let's not become so focused on the outward vehicles of our faith that we lose sight of the Person we're supposed to be following.
It might be momentarily embarrassing to follow the wrong car, as it was for that elderly gentleman. But it would be eternally tragic to come to the end of the road of life and to realize we haven't been following Jesus.
The Rev. Tony W. Elder is pastor of Wesley Community Fellowship Church. He can be reached at 770-483-3405 or by email at RevTElder@aol.com.