What Does It Mean to Follow Jesus?

Lessons: Matthew 4:12-23

The Bible is full of scary stories. Stories full of violence, intrigue, betrayal, generally despicable behavior; stuff we rarely read in church and with good reason. When I hear someone’s planning to read the entire Bible cover to cover, I often quote Mark Twain. Responding to a letter suggesting that Huckleberry Finn belonged in the children’s section of the library, Twain wrote, “I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave.”

Of all the Bible’s scary stories, perhaps this morning’s text in Matthew’s Gospel is more disturbing, more terrifying, to the average Christian sitting in the pew than any of them. I’ve always wondered what Zebedee said to his wife when he got home from work that day.

Zebedee trudges into the house, shouting his usual, “Honey, I’m home!”

His wife shouts from the kitchen, “Oh, hey, Zeb; dinner’s almost ready.” She looks up and does a double take. “Wait a second. Where are the boys?”

“Um ….” How did he explain to her that they jumped up and left him in the boat to follow Jesus, the carpenter’s son? How did he explain that they seem to have left the family business? How does he explain that they won’t be home for dinner, and he’s not sure when – or if – they’ll be home at all?

There’s a great deal packed into this short passage. Jesus learns John the Baptist’s been thrown in jail, and so he withdraws to the backwaters of Capernaum in Galilee. He makes a home there, and from that place off the beaten path, he proclaims the kingdom of God. The kingdom is “near,” he says. Close by. Close enough, perhaps, that people could reach out and touch it. Or choose to live in it. Which would mean folks would have to turn around – they’d have to repent – repent from living in the other kingdom, the kingdom of fear, scarcity, violence and domination. Turn around and live in God’s creative and humane society; in what Martin Luther King called the beloved community.

Then Jesus begins gathering disciples, and through teaching, preaching and healing, begins to show us what the kingdom looks like.

It’s the gathering disciples part that scares some folks. Peter and Andrew, James and John drop everything and follow. Is that what it means to follow Jesus? Is that what it means to respond to Christ’s call?

Well, yes, and no.

“Vocation” and “calling” are very important in the Christian tradition, and yet a Lilly study a few years ago showed that, other than clergy, most church folks don’t think of themselves as being “called.” They don’t feel “called.” They have a hard time seeing a direct a connection between what they do and what they believe.

Lutheran seminary president David Lose offers an intriguing theory as to why this might be the case and along with the weekend some of us just spent with John Philip Newell, it’s shifted my way of looking at what it means to follow Jesus. Lose wonders whether part of the problem is focusing on the connection between what people do and what they believe. Maybe, he suggests, calling is less about what we do than who we understand we are. “Think about it for a moment: God’s call isn’t simply to do something, but rather to be something, a child of God. Maybe being comes before doing. Maybe being even makes doing possible.” Maybe that’s what summoned such an immediate response from Peter and Andrew, James and John: that they felt called to be more than they had imagined. “They probably have no idea what being ‘fishers of people’ even means at this point in the story, but they do know that Jesus sees something in them, something of value and worth. They have no idea where they will go, or what they will do, but they do know that Jesus is calling them to be his disciples, and they trust that the rest will become clear in time.”[1]

Every Sunday during our announcement time we say something to the effect that we build our community around the truth that we are all beloved children of God. And we don’t mean, “all of us here in this room,” or “all of us connected with this congregation” or “all of us who are Presbyterians or Christians,” but ALL of us, all people. ALL of us are children of God. Even those who don’t quite know what being a child of God exactly means. God values and honors and loves us all. That might sound sweet and cozy in a “Let’s all sing Kumbayah” sort of way, and you might be thinking, “Well, if that’s following Jesus, that’s not too scary.” Some of you might even be thinking, “That can’t be it. That’s just too easy.”

But as Richard Rohr puts it in the quotation on your bulletin covers, following Jesus changes everything.[2] John Philip Newell said Friday night in his talk here that understanding ourselves as God’s beloveds is the key to transformation. Understanding ourselves as God’s beloveds is the key to transformation. If we are all God’s beloveds, if, as Julian of Norwich put it in the 14th century, we are not only from God but of God along with all the rest of God’s creation, then God can’t be domesticated into a God who looks after only our country, our species, our religion, me and mine. And that understanding, that way of being, is radical, life-altering and world-altering. It calls for a response: the response of acting, doing, being with others in a way that honors the sacredness of all of God’s creation and every person in it. It’s not remotely easy – it takes us out of our cozy assumptions about insiders and outsiders and privilege. And it’s exactly what Jesus spent his ministry doing: challenging those cozy assumptions, and doing the hard work of loving people as though we are all God’s beloveds.

That’s hard. What is harder, my friends, than listening with an open heart to someone with whom we disagree? Or don’t like? What is harder than making room for people with needs that are not our own needs? What is harder than seeing the blessings we have as blessings given for the benefit of all God’s children, to be shared for the common good? What is harder than standing up to a culture that tells us to put “me and mine” first, that says being a good father or mother means taking care of your own child’s health and education while not caring about the health and education of other people’s children? What is harder than not only loving our neighbors as ourselves, but loving our enemies?

What is a greater threat to all the other kingdoms that dominate the world today – the kingdoms of greed, power, self-righteousness, privilege – all the kingdoms that thrive on creating barriers between people instead of drawing them into relationship? Barriers of religion, race, income, politics, education, gender, sexuality, nationality, social status, occupation? What is a greater threat to them than seeing each person, each and every person as “of God”? Poet Mary Oliver wrote, “My work is loving the world.” What is harder than loving the world the way God loves it?

Most of us do it in fits and starts and never get it perfectly right, and we keep on working at it; we keep on learning how to do it over the course of a lifetime. That’s why we’re here. This calling to be God’s beloved children isn’t just for individuals. It’s also for congregations – for our congregation. We spend a lot of time here at First Presbyterian Church “doing” and that’s good. Our motto is “Together We Serve,” and serving is in our DNA. Speaking up and acting for the well-being of God’s planet and people is in our DNA. But perhaps before figuring out what we are called to do as a congregation, we can remind each other what we are called to be. Because God is calling our congregation to be the gathering of God’s beloved children. God is calling our congregation to be a place of welcome and acceptance. God is calling our congregation to be a sanctuary where the good news of the kingdom is proclaimed and all find healing; where we are sent forth expecting that, whomever we meet, we will encounter God’s beloveds.

As I mentioned, a number of us spent much of the weekend with John Philip Newell, a spiritual leader, author, scholar and peacemaker who writes about Celtic Christianity and the sacredness of all being – about the saving reality that we are God’s beloveds. In one if his books Dr. Newell tells a story about giving a talk in Ottawa to an interfaith audience. Among the audience was a Canadian Mohawk elder, who had been invited to make observations about the similarities between his First Nations spirituality and Celtic Christianity. At the end of Newell’s talk, the elder stood at the podium with tears in his eyes. He said, “As I have been listening … I’ve been wondering where I would be tonight. I have been wondering where my people would be tonight. And I have wondered where we would be as a Western world tonight if the mission that had come to us from Europe centuries ago had come expecting to find light in us.”[3]

We live in a turbulent time in our country and world. It is time to speak, time to stand up, time to act to protect God’s beloved people and creation. We are here today, and every Sunday, for what is foundational to that, for what makes that possible: to remember what we are called to be – to be God’s beloved children, and let that grace-filled identify seep into the deepest parts of ourselves. I trust that the rest of what we need to do following Jesus will become clear in time.

May it be so for you, and for me.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] David Lose, “Being Before Doing,” January 17, 2017, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/01/epiphany-3-a-being-before-doing/.

[2] “Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything.”  Richard Rohr, “Jesus’ Invitation: Follow Me,” October 18, 2016, https://cac.org/jesus-invitation-follow-2016-10-18/.

[3] John Philip Newell, The Rebirthing of God (Woodstock, VT: Christian Journeys/Skylight Paths, 2014), 47.

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