Epiphany 2, January 15, 2006
WHAT IT MEANS: TO FOLLOW JESUS
What do you know about Jesus? (Ask for responses from audience.) Good answers! Some of them better than I expected! Good for you! From your answers it would appear that there is little more for some of us to know about Jesus. He is surely God's Son, his one and only Son. Jesus is God. He is Savior. He died to forgive us of our sins. He will come again to take us to heaven.
What else could we learn about this person we call Jesus? Well, it's part of the reason we have this season of the church year called Epiphany. This is the season when the spotlight is on Jesus, to show him more fully, to reveal perhaps if possible aspects of who he is which we have not seen before, or which perhaps we have forgotten.
The incident of the life of Jesus we read in the Gospel writer, St. John's version of the life of Jesus read for you today, reveals some surprising aspect of this Jesus and a person's relationship with him. We will learn: what it means to follow Jesus.
Jesus is about to leave the northern area of Palestine called Galilee (also the name of the prominent sea in that area) to go other places. Then he finds a person named Philip and says to him: "Follow me." Philip apparently "follows" Jesus because from that time on he is connected to Jesus as one of the 12 persons Jesus called to be his special followers, his disciples.
Here is the first important part of what it means to follow Jesus. Jesus finds the person he wants to follow him. Philip doesn't go looking for a guru. He isn't sifting through all kinds of possible prominent teachers and what they taught in order to "find" which one suits him best. He is "found" by Jesus. Found, discovered, I guess, called, we might say, to be a follower of Jesus.
Jesus finds; Jesus discovers; Jesus calls. Some years ago in Austin, TX (and in other cities in the USA) there was an evangelistic campaign with the title: I FOUND IT!
The implication of that campaign was that you could "find" Jesus if you looked for or recognized him as the person (God? Lord? Boss?)to whom you wanted all along.
That's not the way it is. Jesus finds you. Without Jesus, Christians have always said a person was "lost," not found at all, wandering aimlessly, rudderless in the chaotic sea called life.
Jesus finds Philip and he finds us. He finds us by issuing us a call. That call is to "follow him."
What does it mean, to follow Jesus? It means to leave all other pursuits in life and put him front and center. It means that from now on, this Jesus will be 1 in life, above all other aspects of life. Not one among many in second, third and fourth place, but all other aspects of life we would like to get into, are under, subjected to our following this Jesus.
You may have heard how this plays out: God in first place, family second, church third, self fourth and from there you can pick what is the next. No, no, no! There is no second place in the line up that follows Jesus. He alone, is it!
I do wonder some times whether we "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." I wonder if we believe, that then "all [other] things will be added" that we need to our life. We could well have been lulled, seduced by this world's pleasures and passions to consider ourselves "Christians," followers of Jesus when what we really follow is the agenda set by advertising, portrayal of the "good" life on TV, listened to on the IPODs of our lives streaming their message to our ears and, possibly, hearts?
We are never perfect in following, but even if I have a good road under my auto, I wander some from side to side. But have we gone into the right of way, the oncoming lane, the ditch or taken across the open fields when it comes to "following" Jesus?
A second dramatic aspect of what it means: to follow Jesus, is what Philip did. He did not go to class. He did not get himself baptized. He did not "join" a church. And he certainly did not sign any kind of commitment card.
He found his brother, Nathaniel, and told him about Jesus. In other words, he told what had happened to him to someone he deeply cared for. I want to remind you all that this is the first action of a "follower" of Jesus.
That just blows my mind; does it yours? What do you consider the first action of a follower of Jesus? Go to Church, worship? Teach a class? Make contributions to the church? Try to lead a moral life? Or is it that euphemism, "to spread the Word"?
Usually when we say that, we don't know what we mean and it generally doesn't involve us. "Spreading the Word" usually involves some committee or group or slightly weird group of people who talk Jesus talk all the time! But me? Me tell others about Jesus?
If, and I say, if the standard for following Jesus is precisely this, to tell those we love of Jesus, could you or I or this group of persons even come close to being considered: followers of Jesus?
An important aspect of Philip's telling about Jesus to Nathaniel is that he, Philip, "found" him, just as Jesus had found him. He tells his brother Nate some interesting stuff. He give him the whole philosophic reasons why he, Nate ought to check this Jesus person out. No, Philip tells us what has happened to him.
He (catch this) has "found" the One, Moses and the prophets wrote about. What's that mean? Well, to Philip there was a searching for and a longing to "find" (there's that word again) the One, the promised One these guys long ago wrote about. This Promised One would rescue them from the sterility that worship of God had become. This One would dramatically lead people in new paths. This One would give Philip and all persons hope, joy, real reasons for existence and dealing with other people that wasn't tit for tat and went beyond the "I got this gift for Christmas; I better give a like or better gift to that person."
He had "found" that One in the Person of Jesus who had first of all "found" him!
Terrific news for Philip. He, as a follower of Jesus has to share that life-changing, mind-transforming news with someone, and who better than his brother?
He shared what was good news for him with someone else. That is what it means: to follow Jesus! Is the good news of Jesus "good" enough to share with someone else?
A third aspect of what it means: to follow Jesus is Nate's reaction. The news that Jesus is from that town which had no distinction except that their was only road and it led out of there, brought a reply that Philip is no doubt wrong about this Jesus. Nothing good could come from that backward place.
A real jab, I believe, to Philip and his message. Was Philip for a moment discouraged? Was he tempted to enlarge his message to Nate? Was he tempted to put Nate down for being such a dimwitted person?
No, he does what we should do when we have spoken of what Jesus means to us (he does mean something, doesn't he? Can you put that into words?) and get a neutral or negative reply: Well, come on and see. Don't take my word for it. Make your own judgment. Expose yourself to what I have been exposed to (what I "found" when I was "found"). Make your own decision, but make it on the basis of what you see and hear.
We could well learn from this novice follower of Jesus. What following Jesus means and how to speak to those we care about and love.
Certainly we must remember that what we present to those we want to come and see is something that is worth while coming to see. Just how exciting, encouraging, life-changing is our worship, our friendliness to those who do come at our invitation? Check out the message I present to people. Is Jesus as our gracious Lord and Savior front and center of the message and could this Jesus be a part of the life of the people present?
A final aspect of what it means: to follow Jesus is Nate's meeting with Jesus, an absolutely fascinating and intriguing dialogue.
Nate goes to see Jesus, check him out, check whether Philip's got something here or is he and this Jesus full of beans.
When Jesus sees him, his comment is: "You are a true Israelite. You tell it like it is." What does Jesus mean by this "true Israelite," "nothing false in him?"
Jesus sees in Nate a person who thinks things through. That may be the meaning of Jesus' seeing him under the fig tree, a place to meditate, think things through, get to the real meaning of things. Jesus sees Nate as a person who tells it like he believes or thinks, even though he may be wrong. No weaseling around. No waiting to see what the reaction to might be to what I think before I say more. He speaks his mind.
He does it here: "How'd you know about me?" Jesus answer is: "I know all about you, Nate. I saw what you were about there in your garden meditating before Philip even got to you."
Now anybody who can do that, well, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that you are dealing with the Son of God, the promised King of God's people Israel! And Nate blurts that out. He tells it like he sees and hear it. You have this experience he is saying and you know you are in the presence of God himself.
To be in the presence of God, is that part of what it means: to follow Jesus? For sure! To have a sense whether we can experientially quantify it or not, that Jesus is the One upon the whole world rests, is to have the true essence of being a follower.
Jesus' statement about what Nate will see in the future is simply that. You are in the presence of God. Long before there was an Israelite in whom there was a lot of deceit, Jacob. He was a sly deceiver and he himself was the victim of many incidences of deceit. After he had deceived his father and as a result his twin brother wanted to kill him, he had to hightail it out of there with only the clothes on his back. On the way to a distant uncle's home, he had a dream. In this dream he saw angels ascending and descending at a place called Bethel. God was in that place. By saying Nate and all of us will see angels doing the same with him, Jesus is saying he is God.
He has come to be Immanuel to us. To bring us the great comfort of knowing that God loves us, will protect us, will guide us and finally bring us back home.
This Jesus asks us to follow him. To follow and see him tell us that disease, sickness, is not what God wants for man, that man cannot please God through some kind of rigorous and meticulous watching for possibilities of stepping over lines drawn by man, that God has to suffer and to die to bring peace between God and man, to give us the assurance that even though he died and was buried and we bury our dead, there is life after dark days of death and there is this Jesus coming for us.
Follow him! Take up your cross and follow him! Go his way of service and love and thus follow him. Know that it will cost you everything, even your life, for finally you will have to commit your life to God, as Jesus did and trust him to wake you up again.
And you will see the angels surrounding him in glory when he comes to take you, his follower, home. Until that time, tell to people you deeply care about to come and see what you have found, after being found by Jesus himself.
That's what it means: to follow Jesus!
Walter W. Harms, retired pastor