Follow Me

Lectionary Gospel Text for Jan 25, 2015: Mark 1:14-20

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

The hand-off is made: with John’s arrest the ministry of Jesus begins in earnest.

In his Gospel, Mark often gives very short summaries of the ministry of Jesus and here he summarizes the preaching of Jesus in short snippets:

The time is fulfilled!

The kingdom of God is near!

Repent!

Believe in the Good News!

By this point in the story, Mark has made it clear that the story of Jesus belongs to a much older story. He has cited a few OT passages to root Jesus in that much older story. In the final two verses of Mark’s introduction (vv. 14 and 15 above), Jesus announces an climax in that old story. The Time is Now! The old story has come a turning point, something new, yet old, is at hand. The long awaited arrival of God’s kingdom is here in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, as Mark shows us later, only those with ears to hear and eyes to see will perceive the coming kingdom.

Most who heard this talk of the Kingdom of God would hear Jesus calling for revolt against the Romans and new period of prosperity for the Jewish nation, like under the Maccabees or, better yet, like under Solomon. In short, for  contemporary ears, announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God was nothing short of announcing the rise of a renewed independent and sovereign nation of Israel. However…

As the Gospel of Mark will play out, Jesus is up to a very different kind of revolution. This kind begins with the stinging call to “repent!” Normally we think of “believing” as coming before repenting, but I think Mark has his order right. One must repent before one can deeply believe the Gospel. When we remember that “believe” in the the NT is better translated “trust” sometimes, this order, repent first, and trust second, makes great sense. One must turn, or at least want to turn, before one can see or hear the Good News.

Mark next tells us the story about how Jesus called his first disciples. In a way, the story illustrates the type of response Jesus sought in announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God with its attendant call to repent and believe.

Whatever prior history Jesus had with these fishermen, Mark decided not to tell us that information. The impression made is that Jesus walks by, calls them to follow him, and they do … immediately! And this seems to be the perception  Mark is evoking. The call to discipleship is decisive, immediate, and costly.

The answer to the call requires a full body type of response to Jesus. One is either for him or against him, as Jesus will say in another place. But the call is not for the sake of self-improvement, self-aggrandizement, or self-promotion. Instead the call is to be of service to others. In the story of the call of the fishermen, fishers of fish become fishers of people. Disciples become conduits through which others become disciples.

But to become a disciple of Jesus is costly. It means leaving things behind–always–or it is not following Jesus. Simon and Andrew were casting a net into the sea when Jesus came upon them. They leave the net!

The other brothers, James and John, were mending their nets when Jesus came upon them. They leave their net-mending where they are. Yet they leave much more, they leave their father and his fishing business. In leaving, the disciples embody what Jesus will explain later:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? (Mark 8:34–37 NRSV)

So for us who resist leaving things behind for the sake of the Kingdom of God,  hear again the call of the Gospel

The time is fulfilled!

The kingdom of God is near!

Repent!

Believe in the Good News!

Follow me!

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Finding Jesus

Lectionary Gospel Text for Jan 18, 2015: John 1:43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”  44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”  47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”  48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”  50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.”  51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

John in his Gospel tells some stories we don’t get from the other Gospels. In this unique story, we hear of Jesus calling Nathanael. It’s a great story about how Jesus first called Philip and Philip could not keep Jesus to himself. The story moves like this: Jesus found Philip > Philip found Nathanael > We have found him! (The word “find” occurs five times in John 1:41, 43, and 45).

In addition to this movement of finding, the dynamic dialogue moves the story along. The first words are Jesus’.

Jesus (to Philip): Follow me.

 

Philip: We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.

Nathanael: Can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Philip: Come and see.

 

Jesus: Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!

Nathanael: Where did you get to know me?

Jesus: I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.

Nathanael: Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!

Earlier in the first chapter of his good news, the author has sought to clarify for his hearers the identity of Jesus. John’s view of Jesus is very high: He was God (1:1); he became Human (1:14). He is  the Lamb of God (1:36) and the Son of God (1:43). John is clear from the beginning that he is a believer. Throughout his story, consequently, John seeks to help us experience our own self-discovery of Jesus; in short, he seeks to help us find Jesus.

However, the flip side of us finding Jesus is that Jesus is also seeking us. In the story prior to this one, Jesus found Philip, who in our story, now finds Nathanael. Philip exclaims, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Philip is certain that Jesus is the one that Moses promised. Almost certainly Philip has in mind Deuteronomy 18:15

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

or 18:18

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.

But not just Moses, according to Philip, but also the prophets spoke of this Jesus, this son of Joseph, this one from Nazareth. Philip does not tell us which prophetic texts he is recalling, but they may have well included this text:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1–4 NRSV)

Many other texts could have informed Philip’s view of the coming Messiah—yet there is no doubt that he believed that all of these texts pointed to the very man that he had found.

When Jesus encountered Nathanael, he declared Nathanael to be a good man. Nathanael wanted to know how Jesus knew him. To this, Jesus responded that he had as seen Nathanael when Philip called him, that is, while Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree. While John does not spell out how this “knowing” took place—was it a miracle, insight on the part of Jesus, etc.?—One aspect is clear before Nathanael found Jesus, Jesus had already found Nathanael. That Nathanael understood that Jesus had actually found him first is implicit in his response,

Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!

For those of us who believe, it is deeply humbling to remember that God found us first.

Disciples are Learners

Disciples are, or should be, by definition learners. Beyond the denominational tag, Disciples should be disciples. When Jesus gave what we call the Great Commission, his marching orders to the church was to “make disciples” (Matt 28:19-20) Trying to find the right English word to translate the word mathētēs is not easy. Some attempts include student, pupil, trainee, or the like. Each of these fall short because these words tend to stress book-learning over character formation. They are good translations, but like many translations, none of them can catch the full nuance of the original word. A word I think comes closer is apprentice.

Once a common practice for a young person wanting to learn a trade or craft, an apprenticeship was very serious internship. As an apprentice, a young person would attach herself to a master artisan to become, in terms of that skill, just like the master. At one time, ministers were trained much in this way. A young person would attach himself to an accomplished minister to learn from that minister. In both of these previous examples, the young person would often live with the master and his family. In a similar way Jesus trained his first followers who lived, ate, slept and traveled with him. At the heart of being a disciple, then, is being close enough to the master teacher to become like that person.

Learning however was never limited to information. Rather learning was about transformation. The goal of being a disciples of Jesus is not just to learn what he can teach us about God and good living but to become more like him. Jesus once said to his followers, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”(John 13:35). Loving one another goes way beyond mere information. The pivotal question for disciples of Jesus is not “What do we know?” but “What kind of people are we?

One can hear this concern in the apostle Paul as he was working Christians in Galatia: “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you”(Gal 4:19). Or again, in his letter to the Colossians: “It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ”(Col 1:28). Or perhaps, what Paul tells the Christians in Rome:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect(Romans 12:1–2).

Many other texts could be cited but these show how discipleship is about the kind of people we are becoming because of God’s work on our lives. Genuine discipleship is about spiritual formation. Robert Mulholland in Invitation to the Journey (1993) defines Christian spiritual formation this way: the process of being conformed to the image of Christ by the gracious working of God’s spirit, for the transformation of the world.” And Dallas Willard adds,“spiritual formation in Christ is the process leading to that ideal end, and its result is love of God with all of the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and of the neighbor as oneself. The human self is then fully integrated under God.

Disciples then are transforming learners, that is, attentive apprentices learning the way of Jesus. I’m grateful to be part of a church family committed to learning the way of Jesus.

Copied from my article at http://www.fcchammond.org/APROUTLOOK2013.aspx.

Don’t Be Afraid!

Of all human emotions, fear is the most debilitating, the most immobilizing, and the most detrimental to faith and our life together. In the Bible the opposite of faith is not unbelief, but fear. In the garden, Adam confessed his fear as God approached him:  “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (Gen. 3.10). From the beginning then fear has been a reality in our lives.

So God reminds his children frequently not to be afraid.

With Egyptian soldiers pressing behind and the sea blocking the path in front, Moses calls to the people:

Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today… The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still. (Ex. 14.13, 14).

After the giving of the Ten Commandments, Moses narrates:

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” The people remained at a dis­tance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was. (Ex. 20.18-21)

Despite God’s admonition, fear dominates the people of God throughout the Bible, “Don’t be afraid.”  Unhealthy fear of God, as opposed to respect, increases the distance we feel be­tween God and us.  Notice in the passage above how the people “stayed at a distance.”  This is not merely a reference of physical distance; it refers to a spiritual reality as well.

In the Gospel of Mark, people who witnessed Jesus will either respond to him with awe and amazement (1.22, 27; 2.12; 5.20, et. al.) or in fear (4.40; 5.15, 33, 36; et. al.).  Very often it is Jesus’ disciples who are afraid.  In fear they all aban­doned Jesus (14.50).  Both Peter and later the women, who show more courage then the men, view Jesus “from a distance” (14.54; 15.40), just as the Israelites had done years before when they found the pres­ence of God too much for them.

Yet, God continues to invite us to come near to him and not be afraid. So let’s approach our God with confidence.

Learning Jesus

Dallas Willard in his amazing book The Divine Conspiracy seeks to tease believers once again to accept their calling as apprentices of Jesus. To become an apprentice of Jesus means that one will need to learn the ways of Jesus. However, as Willard points out, learning to follow Jesus also involves a certain amount of unlearning.

In calling the readers of Ephesians to the ways of Jesus (in Ephesians 4:17-5:21), Paul will remind them first what they needed to unlearn. Formerly, they were alienated from God’s life because of their “ignorance and hardness of heart” and had “abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity” (Eph 4:18-19).

Not only were this way of living self-destructive, but more importantly, they are contrary to what it means to follow Jesus. “This is not,” says Paul, “the way you learned Christ!” (Eph 4:20).

Then, what does it mean to follow Jesus exactly? For Paul, in this text, it means three things: putting off vices, putting on virtues, and seeing this process as the transformation of becoming like Jesus.

In Ephesians 4:17-32, Christians are to live no longer like the world around them and are to put away their former way of life. This involves a laundry list of things such as falsehood, anger, stealing, bitterness, and slander, to name a few.

In contrast, Christian are to take on certain virtues, such as speaking truthfully, but only what is beneficial to one’s hearers. Other virtues include being “kind to one another, tenderhearted, and forgiving one another (Eph 4:32).

So how is this related to becoming like Jesus? First, Paul begins by insisting “in the Lord” that believers do not live like the world and this because we did not “learn” Christ this way!

This putting-off and putting-on process is described in resurrection/creation language: we put off the old self so that our minds can be renewed and we put on the new self which God is (re)creating in His image.

We are not to grieve the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is God’s promise to us that he will finish this work in us. The call to forgive one another is based on how God “in Christ” has forgiven us (Eph 4:32). While we participate with God in our transformation, it is still God who accomplishes it; it is God who can make us more like Jesus.

So, then, how have you learned Jesus? Only your life can tell.

Leaving Something Behind

Following Jesus always require that we leave something behind. Some things to be left behind are obvious such as sins, bad attitudes, and selfish ways; some are less obvious like dispositions, privilege, or the need for power.

Last week I was with a small country church that was reflecting on the Gospel of Mark’s version of the “Rich, Young Ruler.” At the climatic turn in the story, Jesus calls for the man to sell all of his possessions, give them to the poor and then follow him.

Jesus did not require every disciple to sell their possessions so it seems that Jesus could tell that this particular man’s possession had a strangle-hold on him. The man’s response to Jesus validates this, as Mark narrates, “… he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22 NRSV).

Later, Peter will respond to Jesus’ teaching about the difficulty the rich have in entering the kingdom of God with “Look, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28). While, somewhat self-serving, Peter did leave something behind to follow Jesus. In fact, in the Gospel of Mark several people left things behind to follow Jesus.

At the beginning of the Gospel when Jesus called his first disciples, Peter and Andrew, they responded by “leaving their nets and following Jesus.” Likewise, when the next set of brothers, James and John, were summoned, they “left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired hands, and followed him” (Mark 1:16-20). The cost of following Jesus, it appears, means leaving something behind.

This does not appear to be an isolated theme in the Gospel of Mark. When Mark tells of the calling of Levi, a tax collector (Mark 2:13-14), Mark notices that Levi “got up and followed Jesus,” even though at the time he was on the job. Levi left working for the imperial government to serve the kingdom of God.

The healed demoniac was willing to leave his home and friends to follow Jesus. Here, against the normal flow of things, Jesus refused to let the man follow him personally, but calls on him to tell “what the Lord has done for you” among his own family and friends (Mark 5:1-20). This is how most of us will follow Jesus today.

Later in the Markan narrative, the blind man named Bartimaeus will seek healing from Jesus (10:46-52). In coming to Jesus, he will throw off his cloak, leaving it behind. Once Bartimaeus had received his sight, he “followed Jesus on the way.”

In a turning point moment in the Passion Narrative (Mark 11-16), when Jesus is arrested, Mark, sadly, no doubt, notes that the remaining eleven disciples deserted Jesus and fled (14:50). Almost ironically, the word deserted in the Greek is the same word for leaving something behind used in the stories about the calling of the disciples mentioned above. The left all to follow Jesus and now the left all to abandon Jesus.

Immediately following this announcement of desertion on the part of Jesus’ disciples, Mark tells the curious story of a young man who was following Jesus at the time of Jesus’ arrest (14:51-52). Oddly, it seems, the young man was wearing nothing but a linen cloth. The soldiers grabbed him but “he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” This story, whatever its meaning, serves as an anti-discipleship story: here is how not to follow Jesus, so to speak.

So, consistently, throughout the Gospel, Mark illustrates that to follow Jesus one must leave something behind. Mark’s story of Jesus then raises two pertinent questions:

  • What are you willing to leave behind for Jesus?
  • What are not unwilling to give up for Jesus?

Discipleship is lived out between those two questions, don’t you think?

On Being a Disciple of Jesus

Often we describe being a disciple of Jesus in terms of what “Christendom” has taught us about what it means be a good Christian. Show up for church. Read our Bibles. Say our prayers. Etc. Occasionally we get deeper, seeking to do what Jesus did (remember WWJD bracelets). So we move out a bit more to do a kind deed for those who don’t have what we do. And all of these we should perhaps do, but it seems to me that being a disciple of Jesus is more than just what we do but what we are (or, at least, hope to become).

The path to becoming a “real” disciple of Jesus is to focus on those things which Jesus was passionate about. If you begin this quest, you will be surprised to discover that most of what we take as the trapping of being a good Christian concerned Jesus little. What did, in fact, concern Jesus? For one, Jesus was passionate about the kingdom of God. Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God with urgency and with a sense that everything else would make sense if you get this one concept right: Seek first his kingdom…

So take a few moments, and make a list of what you believe Jesus was passionate about. How would your life change if you were passionate about the same things?