Sermon for Epiphany 3 – Year A – ‘Follow me!’

Sermon for Epiphany 3 – Year A
Sunday January 26th, 2014
Matthew 4:12-23
1 Corinthians 1:10-18

‘Following Jesus’

‘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.’ Mark 8:35

One of my, as yet unrealised, dreams is to teach in a Seminary, a place where men and women are trained for ordained ministry in the Church. Of course dreams are deceptive – they promise much and even should they deliver, the reality never matches the dream. In my imagination I see a community of committed prayer, 100% harmony, and total dedication to the cause of the church. I have in mind of course the Seminary I attended in England – and those of my former tutors who might be reading this may well chuckle at my rose tinted perspective. Yes it was a Good time, a good place to be, but Not a place of total harmony!!

I was alerted to this almost violently one morning as I sat with the rest of my class awaiting our tutor. One of if not the best preacher it was ever my privilege to be challenged by, a man of literally passionate faith, tried in the field of mission, with a quiet but steely desire in all things to follow Jesus Christ, he was, probably unbeknownst to him one of the greatest influences on my life and ministry. In dark and difficult times his memory still inspires Faith, and his occasional messages of prayerful support do more than he can know. He was, unusually late – I think the staff had been in a meeting and obviously it had not been easy. He stormed in – quite clearly far from happy – threw his folder down on the desk and asked rhetorically of us all ‘What is this ‘Spirituality’?? Whatever happened to discipleship?!!’ The question was left to hang – we didn’t explore this, it clearly wasn’t the time, but it has stuck with me these past 17 years.

Another small incident also stuck with me. Sarah and I for many years hosted a church small group. One year our Vicar asked me to write a course on discipleship for all the small groups to follow through. Most everyone in the church belonged to such a group. So I worked hard to come up with a ten week course exploring discipleship – to be met by the oddest comment at our first meeting. Cath, a wonderful Christian lady, who’d been brought up in a rigourous tradition, who knew her bible better than anyone else in the church probably, said ‘Oh I don’t think we should be studying this. We’re not all called to be disciples, you know.’

One has to ask, ‘Why the avoidance of Discipleship?’ Why do we increasingly spend far more of our time and energy studying ‘spirituality’? Why do some think ‘discipleship’ only for the few? Why, when the last words of Jesus to his followers is to make Disciples, is this at best reduced largely to ‘making converts’ – which is not the same thing at all. Perhaps our Gospel reading today confronts us with the answer. Discipleship costs us everything.

John the Baptist has heralded Jesus as the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with Fire. Jesus has been baptised at the Jordan – a baptism which as I have said is our baptism too. He has been declared to be the Beloved of God, and we in Him are also so declared. But then, before any rose tinted dreams are allowed to intrude, he is led, or indeed driven up into the wilderness to be tried, as gold in the furnace – to have Everything called into question in that repeated phrase of the devil ‘If you are the Son of God . . .’

Which is where we come in today. Jesus returns from the wilderness – Luke tells us he is ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ – he hears that John has been arrested (already we see that the gospel is hugely costly) – and he withdraws to Galilee – the place of almost all of his preaching and enters into ministry.
And What an Entry!! Matthew moulds the words of the great prophet Isaiah to declare that God is powerfully at work “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John, the Herald of the gospel, has proclaimed this same message – but now in Jesus, the Good News has taken on flesh and Nothing can be the same. Now Everything is up for grabs – there is No allegiance which can stand up to this gospel proclamation. Jesus walks onto the stage and all of a sudden, all that was fixed, all that was certain is thrown up into the air. Life is Revealed to us – and the call comes to abandon all else.

Imagine if you will, the scene. There on the shores of Galilee, the people had been fishing since time immemorial. From father to son the business had continued, generation to generation – one generation learning from those that went before. It was all they knew, it was their livelihood in the strongest terms it was their security. Jesus walks into the middle of it and they abandon it all.

Like the Servant of the Lord that he is, Jesus’ face set like flint. There is no gentle dialogue – he strides into the midst of the fishermen by the sea and seeing Peter and Andrew casting their nets, he walks up to them and Commands them – it is an order – Follow me! And I will make you fish for men. They abandon their nets – the precious tools of their trade which they had tended, fixed, looked after – the source of what meagre income they could make – just dropped – scattered on the shore.
Jesus casts around, the net of his eye scans the crowd. He breaks in through to another boat – perhaps a larger concern ‘Zebedee and Sons’ – You, James, John!! Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
He became their life.

Why Spirituality – why not discipleship? Why do some think we are not all called to discipleship? To Obey his call to follow Him? Because being a disciple of Jesus will cost us everything we have. We give up our life and follow him. I can think of more than one person of my acquaintance who has seen this quite clearly – who has seen that it is all or nothing – who has found clear descriptions of the life of Discipleship to be utterly terrifying. And Jesus doesn’t as it were ‘sweeten the pill’.
A little later on in the journey, Peter will declare, Lord we have left everything to follow you – homes, husbands wives, parents, – and Jesus doesn’t suddenly stop and say ‘hmmmm . . . I think I may have overdone this . . .’ He doesn’t suddenly turn round and say ‘Hey I didn’t mean you to take this stuff literally!! It’s all metaphorical!!’ Put another way, Jesus doesn’t say – ‘you don’t need to follow me, just sign up to read a few books on Spirituality and do some daily spiritual exercises . . .’ The first disciples set the pattern for those who will follow. They find their Life in him alone . . .

SO we can of course think of a thousand reasons why we should ignore the call of Jesus – Family and work commitments being right there at the front of the queue – and indeed the world is full of those who claim to follow Jesus and at the same time have devised clever schemes and rationales for avoiding following Jesus disguised as obedience to His call. Ways of making it Jesus AND . . . But it cannot be thus. His call is Everything. Something we have lost sight of. But this was not always so.

For the first three hundred or so years of the life of the church – followers of Jesus were terribly persecuted, not least because their way of life together was seen to be so destructive of all that the world held dear. The early Christian apologists found it an almost full time task to rebut suggestions that their way of life in following Christ was not sending the world ‘to hell in a basket’, but actually was the way God was using to save the world from itself. St Augustine’s City of God is in part a significant part of that rebuttal.
But nowadays who would accuse Christians of this? Who would look at Christians now and see anything but a reflection of their own lives? Where is the critique of family or work or indeed a way of living together that those first disciples obedience created?
No-one now can accuse Christians of the foolishness of leaving everything to follow Jesus, as following Jesus has been reduced to some ‘inner journey’, in opposition to simple obedience to his command.

For Christian faith became the religion of Empire – and whenever the Gospel is accommodated to the World it is no longer the Gospel. The Roman Empire and every power since required stability if its goals were to be met. ‘Family values’ were and are often trotted out in defence of the status quo. As we are all taught to fear that God ‘Economy’ – then there are those who will write and speak at length of the value of ‘Work’.     But all such speech and writing, almost entirely coming from those with most invested in the world as it is – the rich and intelligent and powerful – can only do its work by avoiding the words of Jesus; by making a special case of those first disciples; by making out that only a few are called to this path; by turning concrete obedience to Jesus into an inward journey or ‘spirituality’.; By avoiding the Word made flesh, and the Cross which is obedience to his Command. We have all largely grown up in a church which is much more to do with the preservation of the things we have been taught to hold dear, rather than a church committed to taking Jesus at his word. And so much of so called spiritual writing takes this as its starting point. God as chaplain to the world and the hope of heaven at the end, as opposed to God as Saviour of the World in Jesus Christ, calling men and women to follow him, that Light might shine in the darkness. This is very clear when we consider Jesus definitions of family and work.

For the disciple of Jesus, ‘family’ is the community of brothers and sisters who have been called by Him. Work is what we do to put bread on the table – to support the community in its desire to follow Jesus. Of course for those with nothing, then family is whoever you find yourself with and work is what you do to feed. The poor, those who are blessed by Jesus have neither the time nor often the deceitful sophistication, or ‘eloquent wisdom’ to impute more meaning to them than Jesus did . . .

A couple of brief reflections to conclude. This call of Jesus will persist until he returns – the Risen Christ still calls men and women to follow him, and as a model of Church largely founded on accommodation of the Rich and powerful with Empire turns to dust, his voice is once more heard. The call to follow – the call to the church to once more become what it truly is, a community of disciples of Jesus, who live for him and through him alone.

Yes, Seminary wasn’t perfect – the church never has been – but there was amongst us a very real sense that we knew what we were about. In the early days of the current obsession with ‘Spirituality’, my tutor’s anger rang a lot of bells. We were part of a community called to follow Jesus in costly discipleship, recognising that to those who clung to the things of this world the way of the Cross was foolishness, that Jesus meant what he said – that it wasn’t clever metaphors for ‘the spiritual journey’

And secondly, I don’t know if you remember your first Bible? When I was very young I remember reading my fathers old ‘National Service Bible’ – lacking a sense of irony it was stamped with the stamp of Empire – the Insignia of the Royal Air Force. But the first Bible that was given to me was by my godparents at my confirmation. It was unusual in that it was a ‘Red Letter Bible’. That is, all the words of Jesus were in red.
As the church in the West stumbles out of the ashes of Christendom, one of the bright lights are those Christians who have once more heard the call to discipleship, who sometimes are called Red Letter Christians. In other words the focus of their life together is the words of Jesus, as opposed to those who wish to maintain the Status Quo, who can only do so by ignoring Jesus and his words.

As we seek a way forward together as the community of those called by Jesus to follow him in this place, to rediscover what it means to be a community of Disciples, the words of Jesus seem as good a place as any to start. After all, Simon Peter, having left his work, and his family behind discovered, ‘To whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of God’ Jesus Was the Life of those first disciples – and He desires to be Our life also.

Let us together seek to Respond to his Word to us ‘Follow me!’

Through the Bible in a Year – June 21

The scheme for May – June can be found here

1 Ki 3-4; Mat 5; Psalm 68

Yesterday we thought about how the humanity of Jesus is revelaed in his being tempted, but better understood as his being a child of God.

Now we enter the territory of the Sermon on the Mount. Contrary to many, we need to realise, this is meant to be lived. We are to be poor in spirit – humble – mourners (how can we be otherwise as we see the world in which we live?) – to be meek (gentle in the strength that comes from above) – hungry for God’s Life – merciful – pure in heart – peacemakers – and thus persecuted.

The last beatitude is the one which really makes such an impression on our mind. To be frank why would anyone persecute a Christian. Yes we see how our brethren are actively persecuted in so many parts of the world – but in the West as Christians we long ago made our peace with the surrounding culture. And in the West we have largely sought to avoid concrete obedience to the teaching of Jesus. We have separated our lives out – the spiritual, a sort of message, or a set of feelings -and the material, where we live lives that are no different to those amongst whom we live and a thousand miles away from the life revealed to us in the Sermon.

Ultimately this disconnect is an abandonment of Christ. He is our teacher – we are told to follow him. The Sermon is nothing less than the description of the life of a disciple, but we have chosen the easy course and so books abound on how we must not take the Sermon seriously. It is we are told ‘about the age to come’. BUT in Christ the age to come has dawned. The call to truly repentant lives has been proclaimed – the highway has been made straight. It is not complicated, obedience to Jesus. It is tough, but not complicated. We have created a false gospel, which requires no response on our part, it is a thing that is almost impossible to communicate to others, for it is so complex. But it is much much easier than obedience to Jesus.

From Ghandi, to many indigenous people’s to whom the gospel came – the disconnect between our lives and the teaching of Jesus is plain. We struggle to know how to communicate the gospel?? The answer Jesus gives us is plain – Live it. Of course then that final Beatitude may well become true for you also – but as Jesus says, that is a matter for rejoicing, no?

Through the Bible in a Year – June 20

The scheme for May – June can be found here

1 Ki 2; Mat 4; Psalm 67

In the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus is revealed in his full humanity to us. Tempted as we are in every way. What holds him through all that he endures is his understanding of who he is. Whilst we rightly make much of how Jesus responds to the Satan with words of Scripture – we perhaps miss the significance of his baptism – that his identity is secure in God his Father and he is enlivened by the Holy Spirit.

Each of the temptations is in essence to deny who he is, and each challenges us about our apprehension of our identity in Christ as sons and daughters of God.

First he is tempted to provide for himself. Of course much of bourgeois Christianity does exactly this. ‘God helps those who help themselves’ we are told and a thousand and other little lies. We are taught to take our lives into our own hands. In many ways it is the greatest failing of the western church, that throughout 1700 years of Christendom, we have become entwined in the world’s way of thinking about material things. How are our lives any different from those around us in regard to the physical provision of God. Do we know His provision of the stuff of life?

Next Jesus is called upon to deny his Father in terms of trusting him to work his good purposes out. Again the temptation is ‘to take his life into his own hands’, ironically in a way by risking his life. In an age where more than ever before we vaunt the spectacular, the large scale [think how much effort we put into ‘good communication’ re ‘EVENTS’ coming up in our churches] – in our own way we throw ourselves down from the temple many many times . . . to no effect. God reveals his Glory in His way. Ultimately, the ‘spectacle’ of God’s glory is revealed not in pyrotechinics but in the dead body of Jesus on the cross. That is His way of manifesting himself. We need to allow That to influence our efforts at what is effectively ‘self’ promotion.

Finally it all comes to a head – ‘Bow down and worship me and you will have everything you desire’. It is perhaps barely necessary that we have perhaps unwittingly, but certainly in culpable ignorance sold out to Satan in our worship of Mammon in the contemporary church.

Again, I say we see Jesus here in his humanity. In his overcoming temptation he sets a path for us to follow. Being His entails learning from Him (being his disciple). It is not primarily learning the Scriptures, although they have their not insignificant place. Primarily it is coming to our senses as Children of the most high God, realising that these temptations assail our very being, and learning like Jesus to refute them – secure in our identity as those he is not ashamed to call brothers and sisters – following Him.

Through the Bible in a Year – April 2

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 33; Eph 4; Psalm 114-115

Paul here is leading us in what is for most if not all of us, foreign territory. that is that the Primary arena for the working out of the Christian life is within the community of faith. The Risen Christ says ‘By this shall they know that you are my disciples, that you have love one for another’.

I have written and spoken elsewhere on the marginalization of the church in almost all Western traditions – read almost any contemporary book on ‘spirituality’ and abracadabra, the Body of Christ disappears . . . We have by and large reduced the Church at ‘best’ ‘to a man-made society for promoting and developing ideas’  and at worse to a social club for the religiously inclined, or organising place for ‘social justice issues’ We have forgotten who we are. We have forgotten our Calling, to ‘grow [as a body of people] into the full stature of Christ’ that the Wisdom of God may be made known to the rulers of this dark age, as we are built up in love. THIS is what the church must give herself to. Yes we must teach, but the goal of the teaching is te building up of the whole body. Why, Why, Why is much if not all of our teaching directed at our individual lives, when in truth these are something of which the Scriptures know little if anything?

Paul has not lost sight of this vocation – have we?

Through the Bible in a Year – March 19

The Scheme for March – April can be found here

Num 7; 2 Cor 1-2; Psalm 99-101

Paul opens his ‘second’ letter to the Corinthians, following the opening address, with these words

 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.

These are words of great comfort and consolation  – and immensely rich and powerful – but I think a word needs to be said about the ‘affliction’ of which Paul speaks, for as becomes apparent he understands it in terms of affliction encountered in the basic Christian condition, discipleship.

There is much affliction that is common to the human condition, but Paul’s words are not addressed to these circumstances, rather he speaks of ‘the sufferings of Christ [being] abundant for us‘. In other words that in the life of faithful discipleship, the community of faith can expect no better than their Lord and Master. The scorn of the world.

Over the years however, as faith has become radically individualised and cerebral – such an emphasis is lost. After all, in a pluralist society who suffers for holding a different set of opinions? When we make friends with the world, rather than with the one who has reconciled himself with the world, we avoid the costly call to discipleship and no little if anything of what it is to enter into Christ’s sufferings.

Furthermore, in two different ways we as Sin directs us, turn the meaning of the story back on ourselves, making ourselves the centre of the story.

One we might understand as the liberal error. We interpret Paul’s words in terms of that general suffering which is common to all, and indeed we so also interpret the Cross of Christ, that it is God entering into the suffering human plight. This is the exact opposite of what Paul has in view here – that we enter into Christ’s sufferings, that we take up our Cross and follow him into a world which is hostile to the Good News.

The other is the Conservative error, which distances the body of Christ from Christ, that denies that we can be involved in Redemptive suffering. It leaves the church as onlookers in the business of Salvation. We are left just called to follow Jesus by holding the ‘right’ set of opinions about him

The Only Christian Faith is enacted faith, performed faith – Faith taking on flesh in the life of the Church.

The Only Christian Life is the Life of Christ, present amongst his people so enacting this costly faith and knowing in their flesh the abundance of Christ’s sufferings.

You need to lose your mind

‘When Jesus bids us come, he bids is come and die’ Bonhoeffer

In our world where faith has been reduced to no more than a set of ideas, and ‘The Truth’ to a rational, usually Scientific, understanding of the world, this means that Christianity in almost all forms, Conservative and Liberal alike, equates to changing our mind, or dying to old ways of thinking.

Never for a moment does it seem that Jesus actually meant saying no to our life and our plans, and following him.

Of course ‘a change of mind’ is needed, but only the realisation that we don’t know anything, and they only in laying down our lives, and following ‘The Truth’, will we find it.

Through the Bible in a Year – March 4

The Scheme for March and April can be found here

Lev 6-7; Romans 12-13; Psalm 79

We move from the Sacrifice of Leviticus – to the response to God’s mercy – that we present our bodies as living Sacrifices – holy and acceptable to God – which is your ‘Reasonable’ or ‘Spiritual’ act of worship.

The Greek word here can be translated either way. Of course in view of God’s mercy – it is Entirely reasonable – were it not for the fact that sacrificing ourselves goes against everything the world tells us to do. In the twisted understanding of wider culture – self sacrifice is at times pathologised – we feel sorry for those who live their lives for others and not for themselves.

We say they have missed out on so much – and the siren voices warn us against such ‘reasonable’ acts of worship. Thus our churches are by and large comfortable clubs for the religiously inclined – rather than communities which in their mutual love and service one for the other cause the passer by to shake their heads and pity us for such ‘sad behaviour’

The Risen Christ says ‘unless you deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple’. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it – when Christ bids a man come, he bids him come and die.’ It is that dying, that is not the end of our discipleship – but its beginning. the Christian Life begins with the surrender of our lives – this is our reasonable act of worship. It is only then that we begin the long hard work of the battle with sin – indeed, without that response to Christ, to die and so live, we will not embark on that battle.

Unfortunately . . . no, that is far to weak . . . Tragically, we have substituted religious formulas, intellectual assents to doctrines for the obedience to Christ’s call. The New Life is Christ is unknown to us, for we are content with a religious version of our old life.

Paul towards the end of chapter 12 of Romans unpacks what such a life looks like. There is no ‘sitting around’ enjoying the presence of ‘god’ about it. There is nothing about having the correct doctrines – rather it is embodied obedience – the Body has been offered to God – so Love is the hallmark, indeed we are to compete with one another in this – challenging one another to love more and more – we give and give – contributing to the needs of our brothers and sisters, giving hospitality, not to our friends, but to strangers – we feed our hungry enemies, we overcome evil with Good. Thus in our Living we enter into the Triumph of the one who by laying down his life overcame the final enemy, death, itself.

The Christian walk has not begun until this sacrifice has been made.

Of course, it is hard to stomach in an age so full of itself, but our forebears knew and lived better . . .