3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
“Come, follow Me,” Jesus said. At once—immediately—they follow Him. It is so simple, so straightforward. And yet that call to follow Jesus is anything but simple and straightforward!
Between the church and the world, it is rather difficult these days to be a disciple of Jesus. Although, in truth, it’s always been difficult to be a disciple of Jesus! It’s difficult, because being Jesus’ disciple depends on His call, His invitation, “Come, follow Me.” But the church and the world are all about demands!
Now, when I use the term “world” I don’t mean the planet or the cosmos. I mean “world” as a humanly defined reality. It’s the reality in which we live, defined and ordered and maintained according to the creative prejudices of the human mind. And when I use the term “church” here, I don’t mean the true Church—the fellowship of believers through time and eternity, the faithful who gather to hear the Gospel proclaimed and to receive the Sacraments of Christ, the Church in it’s true sense. No, I mean “church” as another humanly devised reality, the organized, religious entity that has members and conducts its affairs and handles its money and orders its reality according to creative human religious prejudices. And defined this way, doing “church” too often supersedes following Christ!
It is this “church” and “world”, these creations of the human mind and will, which make it difficult to be a disciple of Jesus. Because each of them has its own idiosyncratic demands…demands which often are at odds with each other.
The world demands, “You owe it to yourself!” And with seductive advertising and creative financing, you can easily drop a big chunk of change on yourself. “And you’re worth it!”
Meanwhile, the church demands, “You owe it to God!” And with creative stewardship and religious extortion you can wheedle a big chunk of change out of people. “It’s God’s percentage!”
The world demands, “Time is money!” Multi-tasking, time management, efficiency…and you can do more and more and more in less and less time! And the more you do the greater your purpose in life!
While the church also demands your time. “Deeds, not creeds!” Programs, projects, committees, assignments…ya gotta serve your time! And when you do more and more and more at church then greater is the purpose in the divine drive of your life!
The world insists on separation from the church to keep the world untainted with religion. The church insists on separation from the world to keep the church pure from worldliness. So when the world talks about inclusiveness, it’s an inclusiveness only for those who meet the world’s demands. And the church’s definition of inclusiveness is only for those who meet the church’s demands. Either way it’s all about demands!
And human beings become donkeys, driven by the demands of the world and of the church. Not disciples…donkeys!
Oh…but this is hardly a contemporary issue. It’s been played out since the beginning! In the 1st Century A.D., the world was defined by Rome. If you lived your life according to the Roman demands…well, you received Roman rewards (although one wonders about some of those rewards!). The church was defined by the creative minds of the Pharisees. And if you lived your life according to the Pharisee demands…well, you received a Pharisee’s rewards (although one wonders about some of those rewards!). And between the demands of the church of the Pharisees and the demands of the world of Rome, the people of Judea and Galilee felt the full weight of these mule drivers.
Until one day…“the people who walked in darkness [saw] a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness [and that’s where the demands of church and world take people…into deep, deadly darkness], on them has light shined.” It was Jesus. “Come, follow Me.” No demands, only an invitation: “Come, follow Me.” Jesus does not demand that Peter and Andrew, James and John, leave their boats in order to follow Him. They do…but they weren’t forced to do so! “Come, follow Me,” is all He says. And immediately…at once…they follow Him.
Ooh…but the church of the Pharisees was right there with demands. “Why don’t Your disciples observe the rules properly? They don’t fast. They don’t observe all the rituals. They eat too much. They drink too much. They don’t sacrifice enough of their time, their money, themselves, for the church.” To the Pharisees, Jesus’ disciples were too carnal, too worldly according to the standards of the church of the Pharisees. They would have to go!
Ooh…but then the world was right there to criticize them as well. For the world defined by Rome, these disciples of Jesus were dangerous. “Why, their first loyalty is to this Christ, and only secondly toward Caesar!” The world defined by Rome saw that these disciples did not follow their own will and pleasures, but those of Another. Why, they even put the welfare of others ahead of their own! “Horrors! This is dangerous! They’re even prepared to suffer and die for this Christ!” And Rome decided to accommodate the disciples’ willingness to die in their arenas and coliseums for public entertainment. “Egad! These disciples of Jesus are just too other-worldly for our world!”
“Follow Me,” He says. “Me,” He says. The church of the Pharisees and the world of the Rome, then or now, follows rules and demands. Discipleship according to the Pharisees is all about religious calisthenics: Bible reading? Check. Meatless Fridays? Check. 10% of your income in the offering? Check. Say your prayers? Check. Done a good deed today? Check. And on down the list. Demands. That’s discipleship according to the Pharisees.
And the world? Oh yes, it too has a checklist. Kept your faith private, out of the public square? Check. Rejected moral absolutes? Check. Observed the subtleties of political correctness? Check. Kept your mind so open as to make no conclusions whatsoever? Check. And on and on down that list.
But for the disciples of Christ, it’s not lists of demands and requirements for us to do. It’s all about Christ. It’s only about Christ. “Follow Me,” He says. “Me.” There’s nothing follow apart from Him. Not His teachings. Not His mannerisms. Not His personality. Him. We follow Him!
And it’s in following Christ, then, that discipleship is formed within His followers by Christ, by His Spirit. We’ll see this starting next week as we spend four weeks with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But this discipleship is not an additional thing, like calling Him Lord as well as Savior. That’s a dumb distinction! Where there is faith, there will be the deeds of faith.
There is no mathematical formula for dividing up God’s share and ours, God’s money and ours, God’s time and ours. There’s only Christ. Christ in all the ways we spend our time. Christ in all the uses of our money. Christ in all the actions of our hearts and minds. Christ bringing repentance and forgiveness when our actions are sinful. But Christ enlivening all we do, without measurements or checklists. Christ!
Oh yes…rules and demands and requirement checklists can create quite a following. Although…it’s not so much a following as it is a driven life! And the world does have many disciples who can be so very vocal in their demands…and so very forceful toward those who fall short. And the Pharisee church is still very much with us…and many are the disciples of Phariseeism. They boast in their numbers, in church growth, in zeal, in the reputation for results, in high expectations and high demands…and they too are very forceful towards those who fall short!
But for the disciples of Christ, there’s only Jesus. Always…only…Jesus. “Follow Me,” He says. “Me…follow Me.” And some did…at once: Peter, Andrew, James, John. Even today, some pass from unbelief to faith at once. Others took time: St. Paul, even the members of Jesus’ own family. And today some do not follow at once…but perhaps someday. Yet they cannot be forced, as the world and the Pharisees do.
True discipleship is Christ. So the invitation goes out again and again and again. That’s what disciples do, because that’s what Christ does. “Follow Me,” He says. It’s the only way!