Epiphany 3 B: Following Jesus Today

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I’ve always found this passage both inspiring and vexing. I find it inspiring because of the decisiveness and immediacy of the response of the four disciples mentioned in today’s reading. But I also find it a tad vexing because it seems to set the bar so high. Leave everything…to follow an itinerant preacher into an unknown future…immediately. To be honest, I find it hard to imagine doing as these four did, and I wonder if our folks might feel the same.

And that might not be a bad place to start: asking our folks if they can imagine picking up and leaving everything to follow Jesus. If you do that, make sure to start with your own reservations and then invite your folks to be similarly honest. Most of us, truth be told, would find it very hard to leave work and family and friends and all the rest to venture into such an uncertain future. Does that mean we’re more or less failures as Christians? Or at least that we are less faithful than Andrew and Peter, James and John? (Frankly, given the rest of the story Mark will tell, I don’t think we have that much to fear. Yes, they leave to follow Jesus now, but let’s not forget that they also end up disappointing and denying and abandoning him at various points of the story.)

So I wonder, Dear Partner, if this week we might ask the question of whether we think Mark offers this story to set an example for us in the first place. And, if so, what kind of example did he intend?

It’s this second question I find most intriguing. Because I suspect that we are indeed meant to find this story of disciples willing to follow Jesus inspiring. Yet I doubt that Mark imagined people following Jesus in quite the same way. I mean, he obviously knew that it’s no longer possible for people to follow the historical Jesus as did these four. That event had come and gone. So perhaps Mark’s message to those reading back in the first century – as well as to those of us following along in the twenty-first – was more about following Jesus in general than it was about any following him only by leaving everything to proclaim the coming kingdom of God.

Except that we can never follow “in general.” We follow him in particular and distinct ways that may or may not be like the first disciples. And that, I think, is the point. Perhaps we follow by becoming a teacher. Perhaps we follow by volunteering at the senior center. Perhaps we follow by looking out for those in our schools who always seem on the outside and invite them in. Perhaps we follow by doing a job we love as best we can to help others. Perhaps we follow by doing a job we hate but contributes to supporting our family and helping others. Perhaps we follow by being generous with our wealth and with our time. Perhaps we follow by listening to those around us and responding with encouragement and care. Perhaps we follow by caring for an aging parent, or special needs child, or someone else who needs our care. Perhaps we follow by….

Well, you get the idea. There are any number of distinct ways that we can follow Jesus. And, indeed, follow him immediately – here and now, in the world and time in which we live. What seems at the heart of the matter is that we can follow Jesus in all of these different situations and circumstances precisely by trying to imitate him – by trying, that is, to treat others with the same regard, love and patience that he did, including all manner of people but especially those who were overlooked by society. This, I think, is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian: to try to live and treat others as Jesus did, embracing the values of inclusiveness, love, forgiveness, and healing that he radiated in word and deed.

Now I should probably confess that in writing that last statement I got a little worried that you will think I’ve given up on justification by faith, because it sure sounds like I’m interested in the fruits – or even “works”! – of the Christian life. But notice that I said this is the heart of being a Christian, not becoming a Christian. That is, we are invited into and promised a secure place in the Christian community only the grace of God, apart from any effort or merit on our own. And yet at the same time I think the day-to-day benefit we experience from being included in the Christian community is affected dramatically by whether or not we try to live into the identity we have been given. God will always treat us a beloved child, yet whether we act like a beloved child of God – and receive the joy of acting like one – depends greatly on whether we try to follow Jesus and live into the gift of that identity.

Okay, having gotten over my theological insecurity, I’ll simply suggest that we might ask people to look ahead to the coming week and ask them to anticipate times and places and occasions where they might try to follow Jesus by treating others as we see Jesus treating people. We might ask them, that is, to follow Jesus immediately, in their actual lives this very week. Moreover, we might promise that as they try to do so, they will live into and benefit more fully from the identity into which Jesus has already called them. The point isn’t about being “better disciples” but rather it is about knowing and experiencing Jesus more deeply by following him.

In the closing passage of his monumental “The Quest of the Historical Jesus,” Albert Schweitzer – theologian, doctor, Bach scholar – offers a similar insight that I think is still both poignant and relevant. Having concluding that separating the “real” or “historical” Jesus from the “Christ of faith,” Schweitzer nevertheless discovers that we can come to know Christ Jesus Christ fully and authentically only by following Christ. As he writes,

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.

Such is the promise we are authorized to make, Dear Partner, and I am grateful for your commitment to do so. Your echo and announcement of Jesus’ ongoing call to follow him will not just make a difference this week, but actually change someone’s life as they meet Jesus as if for the first time. Thank you.

Yours in Christ,