Follow Me (1/19/03)
Rev. Gary Cox Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The text you heard read from the lectern this morning deals with the call of the first disciples. I’ve always liked this passage because it contains the first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John. Up until this point in John’s gospel, we’ve heard about John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. But we haven’t heard from Jesus himself.
And then, as a couple of John’s followers seek out Jesus, he speaks his first words to them: What are you looking for? What are you looking for? That’s a great question, because as each of makes this amazing faith journey through life, that question sort of haunts us from across the two thousand years of time that has passed since Jesus first spoke it: What are you looking for?
But in the very next paragraph of John’s gospel we hear words from Jesus that echo even louder across the ages. Jesus says to Philip, Follow me. Follow me. What amazing words! The first thing that strikes me is what Jesus does not say at this point in John’s telling of the story. Jesus does not say worship me. He does not say bow before me. He does not say live pure and perfect lives while obeying established religious rituals. He says follow me.
When he says those words—follow me—he is asking a lot of Philip. And as his words reverberate through the church today, he is still asking a lot. Jesus taught with his actions as much as with his words. He wasn’t some new-age guru who enjoyed a life of luxury while telling everybody else to live simple and austere lives. He actually showed us how to live. Pray like this. Treat children like this. Forgive your enemies like this. Love everybody like this. Now, do likewise. Follow me.
A few weeks ago eight or ten of us gathered for lunch after Sunday worship, and I asked what it means to follow Jesus. How do we do that? What stories do you have about trying to follow Jesus? My thoughts this morning are a reflection of the conversation we enjoyed over lunch.
We soon discovered that we had to separate our ideas about following Jesus into two broad groups. First, there are those times when we would like to follow Jesus, and we honestly can’t figure out how to do that. Second, there are those times we know exactly what we should do to follow Jesus, and end up in this wrestling match with ourselves as we try to find justifiable excuses for ignoring Jesus and doing what we darn well please.
The Apostle Paul was acquainted with both of these situations. In his letter to the Philippians he tells them, Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. That, it would seem, is an admission that determining the right path from the wrong path is not always the black and white decision we wish it were. On the other hand, in the 7th chapter of Romans, Paul deals with those times when he is fully aware of the right path, and still decides to head off in the other direction. He writes, I do not understand my own actions. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.
Well, it’s nice to know that we’re not alone in our struggle to follow Jesus. We’ve got some good company right there in the Bible. But for those who take the idea of following Jesus seriously, Paul’s words about fear and trembling really strike home. As we discussed this matter over lunch, we came up with example after example of how difficult it is to know the right action in given situations—to follow Jesus.
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How many times have we been driving to an appointment, and happened upon some situation where a person needed help? Some woman with a flat tire stands helplessly behind her car. Perhaps we’re taking our child to a doctor appointment, with no time to spare. Quick—follow Jesus. We start weighing all the possibilities. Our child is ill. Will the doctor be able to see her if we’re late? Won’t somebody else help the woman with her tire? After all, nobody else is going to take my daughter to the doctor.
We find ourselves trying to find a balance between the practical living of our lives and the sold-out 100% totally devoted disciple who cannot see distress without addressing it.
Life, it turns out, seems to be one giant balancing act. And if we were walking the tightrope between right and wrong with right clearly on one side and wrong clearly on the other, we could handle it much easier, because at least we’d know which way to fall. But right and wrong are real fuzzy.
The subject of parenting came up repeatedly as we discussed this balancing act. Parents spend a fair bit of time on the high wire. We want to be honest with our children. I mean, we want to be great role models. We want them to see that we believe in the truth, that we stand on the truth, that we are not afraid of the truth. So Dad, did you ever drink beer before you were 21? Your mind reels in a hundred different directions, and you probably end up saying something really stupid like, Well, yes, I tasted beer a few times—but I didn’t swallow. Then, in a frantic attempt to redeem what appears to be a completely hopeless situation, you once and for all lose any chance of future credibility when you say, Back in those days I didn’t really have time for partying, because I spent most of time studying.
Parenting brings forth some difficult issues when it comes to following Jesus. One person told of how when she was young, her dad was actively involved in her life. He had a mediocre job, and they didn’t have a lot of money. But he was always there for her, even coaching her softball team for several years. A much younger brother came along at about the same time her dad decided to start a business. The business was successful, and the family’s quality of life, at least by the way we usually measure those things, improved considerably. Her dad, however, spent much less time with her younger brother. While his older sister always brought home straight “A’s”, he continually struggled at school. She ended up being the “perfect child,” and he was the kid who was always in trouble.
When the father’s business took a sudden downturn, he really had to question all the time he had devoted to his work, at the expense of his family life. He hadn’t done anything wrong. He had worked hard and provided for his family. Had he turned away from following Jesus? Who’s to say? Who’s to judge? This balancing of work and family life is a problem that confronts us all.
We agreed that retirement is surely one of those times when we’re forced to look at our life and make some judgments about the path we’ve followed. Several people had seen Jack Nicholson’s latest movie, About Schmidt, and said there is a scene in that film that makes this subject really come alive. In that scene, Jack Nicholson’s character, who is retiring after devoting his life to his work, watches as all his files—his life’s work—are thrown in the trash. What was it all for? What had he sacrificed over the years for the sake of work that would one day end up at the dump?
And it’s easy to look back and make judgments about all the wrong turns we’ve taken. Hindsight is 20-20 as they say, although my personal hindsight is a bit fuzzier than that. Do we fail to follow Jesus when we attempt to excel? Aren’t we supposed to make the most out of our lives—to live life abundantly?
We live in an achievement oriented culture. I remember first grade, how we would play the flash card game. A person would stand up beside somebody’s desk, the teacher would reveal a flash card with some simple arithmetic on it—say 2+5—and if you said the answer first, you moved on to stand beside the next desk. The idea was to be faster and smarter than the person sitting at the desk. If they beat you—if they said the answer first—you had to sit down, and they got to start making their way around the room.
It was a very competitive atmosphere. Would Jesus have tried as hard as I did to beat everybody else to the answer? Would Jesus’ face have turned as red as mine did when somebody shouted out the answer a split second ahead of me?
One of the people in our conversation was born and raised overseas. She and her husband spent several years trying to figure out the main difference between Americans and people in their home country. It finally occurred to them. In America, who we are is determined by what we do. Think about it. If I see someone across the room and ask who it is, the likely response is, “That’s Bob—he’s a plumber,” or “That’s Cheryl—she’s an attorney.” One of the first things people ask when they meet somebody new is, So, what do you do?
She said that in her native land, it was not unusual to know somebody for years without ever knowing what they do for a living. It just isn’t considered that important. You will almost certainly know about all their family—brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews—where they live, what their hobbies are—before you would think to ask a person how he or she earns a living. This particular woman has a degree in microbiology. And yet, because when she first moved to America she opted to be a stay-at-home mom, people automatically assumed she must not be very bright. What do you do? Oh, I stay at home with my children. Almost instantly it was assumed she was probably not sharp enough to understand any further questions, unless they were quite simple and spoken slowly and clearly, like How..man..children..do..you..have?
There’s a lot of pressure on us to succeed—financially, professionally—and that doesn’t make it any easier to figure out how to follow Jesus. Back in the 1970’s, I had a friend who was so dedicated to spending time with his three children, he and his wife almost never worked. He was quite intelligent, and he played the welfare system in such a way that he very seldom had to be employed. He loved his kids, but he was a horrible role model, and I doubt if he was following Jesus any more than those who spend all their time at work as if they had no children. Again, that balancing act between work and family is never simple.
Well, we wrestled with this idea for a long time—the notion that it just isn’t that easy to determine right from wrong—that following Jesus isn’t a simple matter of commitment. It’s a struggle. After all, even if we are committed to following Jesus all the way, knowing that Jesus wound up at the Cross, we still have to get there by going through the Garden of Gethsemane. The night before Jesus was crucified, he fell to his knees in the Garden of Gethsemane and he begged God to change his fate. He didn’t have to stay there in prayer. He knew he was soon to be arrested, and killed. Seriously, he could have run. He could have hid in the bushes. The world was changed thanks to the fact he did not hide, but instead took the path that led him to the Cross. But I find comfort in the fact that even Jesus had to struggle with following the will of God. So surely we will struggle with following Jesus.
Walking the high wire between the murky depths of right and wrong is not easy for any of us. But even more troubling, perhaps, are those times when we find our way across the abyss, and we know the difference between right and wrong…and we find ourselves tempted with the forbidden fruit. Remember Paul’s words: I do not understand my own actions. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. I feel confident that if Paul had been in the Garden of Eden, neither Eve nor the serpent would have had much difficulty convincing him to take a nice big bite out of the apple. It’s not easy to follow Jesus, even when we know how. After all, following Jesus would make a lot more sense if we didn’t know where he ended up—on the Cross, saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I hope you will all read the 7th chapter of Romans. I used to call it, much to the dismay of my New Testament professor, Paul’s psychotic breakdown. It always reminds me of the cartoons where you see some troubled guy with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The angel keeps saying, “You know what’s right—do the right thing.” And the devil says into his other ear, “Go ahead—who’s gona know? You only live once.”
Paul seems to have gone through life hearing both of those voices, and much to his dismay, he often wound up ignoring the little fellow with the halo and listening to the little guy in the red suit. Now, there are countless volumes of great theology based on Paul’s struggle. But to make a long and complex story short and simple, Paul ends up saying that his only hope is to give himself completely over to Christ, so that Christ himself lives within Paul—Paul is no longer there.
I imagine most of us have fallen somewhat short of the commitment Paul finally made to Jesus Christ. Most of us are still walking around with the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, and like Paul, we sometimes listen to the wrong voice—even when we know it is the wrong voice.
This would be easier if there were one right voice and one wrong voice vying for our attention. But the negative voices come from all around. Go for the gusto. Grab your piece of the pie. Just do it. Buy the biggest house on the block, buy the most expensive car in the neighborhood, wear the finest clothes, live your life in such a way that screams out how successful you are, that makes other people absolutely green with envy.
We hear those voices everywhere we turn. From the time we are old enough to sit in front of the television we start learning about all the things we desperately need if we want to be happy. And it never ends.
I guess the question is, “Where does the good voice come from?” If our culture is surrounding us with the negative message, where is the angel who keeps whispering, “You know in you heart what is right. Do the right thing.”
I like to think that is what the church is for. No, I’m much too much like Paul to think that voice comes from me. But I still think we can hear that angelic voice in this room, in this sacred place, where we gather in the presence of the one who lived out of love and not out of self-interest; this place where so many have felt his spirit touch their hearts; this place where through the raucous din of the world we hear his voice calling out to us from our very depths, saying, “Follow me.”