Mark Twain once commented on the way the bible can challenge and disturb us: “It ain’t those parts of the bible that I can’t understand that bother me,” said Twain, “it is the parts I do understand.
Jesus was a down-to-earth, master communicator. He used words and images and stories that connected easily with his listeners. Two dollar, not ten dollar words. Images from the daily life of the people he hung out with. Stories that drew people in, caught their imaginations, and let them work their way into a deeper understanding of the mystery of eternity entering time, of the spiritual amid the blood and guts reality of human experience.
In today’s reading, Jesus uses words that anyone can understand even though – as Twain also understood – they were words, if taken to heart, that would challenge and change everything for us. “Follow me.” Simple words, concrete words, no room for ambiguity or confusion, little need for explanation. Do it or don’t do it as you choose. But there is no question about what is being asked. As I listen to these simple words of Jesus, I hear them as words that, if taken seriously, are active, imitative, intimate, life-changing, and costly.
First of all then, they are active words. “Follow me,” invites Jesus. A call to action. Words inviting a concrete, practical response. Words requiring a decision followed by an action: either to stay put or to get up and go. Muscles need to be engaged, joints need to bend, legs have to move, a bit of sweat starts to form. These are calling words, uttered for the first time in this early incident in Jesus’ ministry, repeated again and again as his story continues in the rest of the Gospel, and echoing down through the ages to each and every one who hears the story repeated. And when we truly understand and actively respond to these simple words, something quite remarkable happens. We become disciples. Not just believers, or church-goers, or Presbyterians, or even Christians. We become disciples, for we are actively answering the call of Jesus to set aside everything else to follow him.
Simon and Andrew, James and John answered that call to action. In our own way, we have answered that call to action, or we wouldn’t be here today. But it is a call we need to hear again and again, and reconsider and reaffirm our response each morning as we wake up and decide how we are going to live this particular day in our life. It is a call we need to hear particularly as we go through a profound change as a community of faith. How will we actively answer the call to follow Jesus as St. Paul’s closes but our walk with Christ continues?
“Follow me.” First of all, then, these are words that are active.
And, secondly, imitative. “Follow me.” These are words that conjure up children’s games like Follow the Leader or Simon Says. In such games, we try to do whatever the leader does exactly as the leader does it. As disciples of Jesus, he is our leader, and we strive to imitate him, to do as he does in the way he does it. But we are not talking about play here. We are talking about an all-encompassing life-style and a life-commitment. We need to spend serious time in scripture reading and reflection so that we watch Jesus in action and see a pattern to follow. We need to spend serious time in prayer to draw closer to the mind and Spirit of Jesus so that we can not only copy his outward actions but understand his inward motivation. “Follow me.” Active words that lead to imitating the one who speaks them.
And, thirdly, intimate words. “Follow me,” invites Jesus. As I read the Gospel stories, I conjure pictures in my mind of a little band of men and women accompanying Jesus on his travels, sharing his work. Camping together. Making a fire together. Cooking and eating together. Maybe snoring side by side. Talking, listening, laughing, crying, and learning together. Rubbing each other the wrong way sometimes and learning how to make up afterwards in the spirit of grace and mercy Jesus demonstrates and teaches. Learning more and more about Jesus, about each other, and what makes them all tick. When these folks respond to the invitation to follow Jesus, they are transformed from a random bunch of strangers into companions on a journey, a community of intimates. Knowing each other deeply. Dealing with each other’s moods and idiosyncrasies. Discovering each other’s gifts. Finding in each other and in themselves what it is that Jesus sees and loves and treasures and needs in each one. Caring about each other and supporting each other through all the ups and downs, twists and turns, in this rich adventure as followers of Jesus. To answer the call of Jesus is to become part of an intimate community of people, then or now, who are banded together by a common commitment to the one called Lord, and who, even today, remains present in our midst in a mystical and intimate way. “Follow me,” says Jesus. Active, imitative, and intimate words.
And life-changing words. “Follow me.” Some who heard those words then were fishermen, others tax-collectors, some prostitutes, a few might have been prominent persons of the day but mostly they were very common, even outcast persons. But whatever was true about them before and remained true about them afterwards, they were given a new identity: Now they knew themselves as Beloved of God and Disciples of Jesus.
I recall a mentor of mine speaking of a woman he had been counseling. She was a nominal Christian, an occasional church-goer so that, when some things were going haywire in her life, she turned to a minister for some support. He met with her a few times and listened deeply to her. One day, he said, he just told the woman stories that came to mind for him from what he had heard the woman say and what he was hearing behind her words. She left that session, he told me, thinking what a waste of time it had been for her. But as she drove home, those stories were doing their work deep inside her at a level that advice could not reach. There was a river in that town with a bridge over it. As she crossed that bridge, the penny dropped and a new understanding opened up for her. She phoned the minister when she got home, explaining what had happened and thanking him for his insight and gentleness. She had a life-changing experience. She approached that bridge troubled and drove off the bridge free. She approached the bridge as a nominal Christian and drove off the bridge as a follower of Jesus. I don’t know what stories my friend had told her but, in a very real way, Jesus was speaking to that woman through him and inviting her to follow.
The call to follow can come to us in many ways, at any stage and in any circumstance of our lives. A friend of mine speaks of giving his life to Christ when he was 6 years old and, although his understanding of Jesus has changed and matured over the years, that initial decision to follow him has never wavered. Another friend spoke to me of an experience at camp when she was 13; although it didn’t change her life right then and there, it stayed with her until she was a married woman with a couple of young kids and felt the need for Christ in her life in a more dedicated way. I recall an older woman who was a true believer but who was struggling with her faith. She came to a point that she could let go of questions about theology and simply allow herself to be loved by God and to rededicate her life as a follower of Jesus.
The call of Jesus to follow him and our response to that call can come at any time. In the innocence of childhood, in the restlessness of youth, in the rough and tumble of adulthood, in the reflective years of elder-hood. Some of us may have been actors or students, office workers or laborers or health care professionals, single or married or divorced, employed or unemployed or underemployed, in good health or seriously ill, able-bodied or disabled, content with our lives or struggling against depression or addiction or bitterness. But when the call to follow Jesus comes and we answer, everything becomes new and fresh and possible for us. Some things that were true about us on the outside may remain constant but, inside, there will be a profound change that opens up a new spirit and unlimited possibilities ahead for us. Then, we were any number of things but now we are disciples and a new path beckons us forward.
“Follow me,” invites Jesus. Words that are active, imitative, intimate, and life-changing.
And, finally, costly. Simon and Andrew, James and John walked away from their boats of security and their nets of convention. They weren’t sure where they were going or what they might face or how they would support themselves or their families afterwards. But something more beckoned to them and they took the risk. And they paid the price. A hard and uncertain life. A life of second-guessing and disappointment at times. A life of ridicule and persecution and, for many, of martyrdom. Down through the ages, followers of Jesus have been on the frontlines in the struggle for human rights and justice. And no one of their victories and advances came easily or without sacrifice or pain. A few stepped up to the challenge while most played it safe, staying in their boats and mending their nets.
The call to follow Jesus continues to echo down to us today in the issues that face our city and that threaten our world. The cost of answering that call to action could be, probably will be, great. The risks are real. The potential sacrifices and consequences cannot be minimized. The call to Jesus is also a call to let go of our conventional, socially- constructed selves and to dare to be the real person we are deeply inside. It is costly to step out of the herd but maybe more costly to stay and play it safe. The wife of a minister told me of a conversation she had with a visitor to their church one morning. I guess the visitor wasn’t too familiar with churches so she asked how much it cost to attend. Maybe she was thinking there was an admission charge, like going to a movie or a hockey game or something. The minister’s wife’s answer cut right to the chase. “Oh, being here this morning is free. But if you become a follower of Jesus it will cost you your life.”
“Follow me, invites Jesus. Simple words of invitation so easy to understand but so much harder to answer. It is no wonder that Mark Twain and so many of us have trouble with such words. They threaten to take away so much that we cling to for our security. Thank God they also promise something so much more precious: a life of profound meaning and intimate belonging and significant purpose.
The Rev. Ted Hicks