ELW 799 – “Come, Follow Me, the Savior Spake” – MACHS MIT MIR, GOTT
Previous hymn studies as part of this blog seemed to form something of a series, beginning with a hymn of Christmas and later, a hymn of Easter — both major festivals in the life of the Church. This post is shared as Christians experience the long “green” season — a time we call “after Pentecost” and a period the Roman Catholic branch of our Lord’s Church labels “ordinary time.”
In contrast to festival seasons and festival days, it is admittedly more difficult to choose an all-purpose summer hymn to study around this time of year. In the rhythm of congregational life, we may also find it difficult to choose hymns, simply because there are fewer people present to sing! For all of the excitement summer brings, it is a time to get away from our routine, and for many, this means taking a break from regular worship. During such a time, it may seem odd to study a hymn which falls in the “Commitment and Discipleship” section of so many hymnals, but throughout these summer months, Scripture heard in worship points us toward what it means to follow Christ.
Sometimes, we hear this in Jesus’ own words: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”. Other texts remind us of Christ calling and sending his followers by name. In either case, the disciples are sent with a purpose — to proclaim the message Christ gives: “the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
Words like these might sound good in the sanctuary, but how do they strike us around the swimming pool during summer vacation? As followers of Christ, it might appear we’re doing a poor job living up to the work our Lord assigns.
Before we cancel flight reservations and fly home to avoid the fires of hell, this hymn can help. At first glance, it seems we’re stuck singing Christ’s words in stanza one, leaving little room for any sort of vacation.
Quoting Jesus, the hymn begins: “Come, follow me…all in my way abiding; deny yourselves, the world forsake, obey my call and guiding. Oh, bear the cross, whate’er betide; take my example for your guide.”
The hymn concludes: “Then let us follow Christ, our Lord, and take the cross appointed, and, firmly clinging to his word, in suff’ring be undaunted. For those who bear the battle’s strain the crown of heav’nly life obtain.”
These stanzas can sound like nothing more than a divine to-do list. It should be a comfort to all Christians the supposedly pious poet who paraphrased Christ in this hymn took a vacation from the Church in his life as well. Johann Scheffler was raised a Lutheran-Christian after his family fled Poland to avoid persecution for the faith. By the time he was 24, Scheffler took a vacation from following Christ — in direct contradiction to the words he writes in this hymn. He no longer attended confession, worship, or communion. When Scheffler resurfaced in church history five years later, he was a confessing member of the Roman Catholic branch of our Lord’s Church, was later ordained a priest, and ended life living at a monastery.
Knowing his followers have enjoyed a break from regular worship across history, Jesus’ words in the second stanza are offered as good news! Jesus says He is our “light” who “keeps [our] feet from straying” and “the way” who shows “how [we] should sojourn here below.” Whether taking a vacation from the faith in 1640 or 2023, Christ is present to be “the way” for us – that our feet do not stray from the promise Christ gives us as His people.
Jesus does this for us because he knows following a crucified and risen Savior in all seasons of life is not easy! The final stanza begins with a puzzling picture of what it means to follow our Lord – it says we “take the cross appointed.” When we sing words like these, we might wonder why anyone would follow Jesus. Even more, we’re easily tempted to list the many crosses we bear in life – even while on vacation. Whether stuck on a family roadtrip with screaming siblings or forced to spend time with cranky Uncle Bob at the family barbeque, it is easy to think we have enough difficulty already! Why would we take one more cross, even if it comes as an appointed, holy calling from Christ?
The hymn tells us taking the cross Christ gives means two things: we “cling to his word” and stand “undaunted in suffering.” At the cross, Jesus speaks a very specific word – “Father, forgive them” – and in this promise, He is our Savior! This forgiveness from Christ’s cross has real power. In the words of the third stanza, all that would harm us is forced to “flee” and take what our hymn-writer describes as something of a permanent vacation! In such good news, we are “free from sin and its temptation” and left only with Christ’s word, to which we cling.
This means wherever summer sends us – “the kingdom of heaven is near” – because we have Jesus’ word to know and give to one another. At a time when we plan for rest and relaxation only to return home equally exhausted, this hymn reminds us of the true “refuge” God promises us in His Son. As baptized Christians, we “bear the battle’s strain” – as the final stanza tells us. We are baptized with the sign of the cross, where Christ won for us eternal life! Marked with Christ’s cross, we follow our Savior through every season, until we hear our Lord speak the same words on the final day: “Come, follow me – the ‘crown of heavenly life’ belongs to you!”