Mark 1: 14-20
I read the following discussion on Facebook last month:
Monday: One sister writes to another and says, “Find a friend for Saturday night U-2 concert.”
Reply: I’d love to go hear U2. But I can’t afford the ticket.
Her niece then weighed in: The tickets have already been bought for you. You’re going!
Reply: You’re kidding.
Sister: Your family has chipped in so you can go to the U-2 concert.
Reply: But I heard it was all sold out.
Sister: They’re selling them on E-Bay and Craigslist.
Reply: How am I going to find someone this late to go with me?
Niece: Who wouldn’t want to go to a U-2 concert, for crying out loud?
Reply: I’m floored! Thank you!
Seventeen people like this.
Twenty-one hundred years ago, an invitation even more earth-shaking and unexpected than this happened. A man walked up to four fishermen along the Sea of Galilee and said, “Follow me and I shall make you fishers of men.” What’s almost as earth-shaking and surprising is that they said Okay. And they dropped their nets and left. Even more surprising and shocking is that the Man who issued this invitation was clear, from the outset, that he was issuing an invitation to be re-made, recreated. Still, they accepted.
And so began the church, as a small group: no more than twelve people relating intentionally and intensively to Jesus; twelve people relating intentionally and intensively with each other.
As long as we’re into surprises, here’s one more. This all happened after John the Baptist was put in prison. According to the Gospel of John, two of these four fishermen, Simon and Andrew, had been his disciples. So they were likely nursing a serious heartache. John the Baptist was Israel’s first bona fide prophet since Malachi. For anyone with a heart for justice, faith, peace and the kingdom of God, John’s imprisonment would have been a spiritual sucker punch, a brutal body blow to the spirit.
But this is God Almighty with whom we’re dealing here, a God so powerful that he can use even setbacks and opposition to his favor. God used the imprisonment of John to open the door for the ministry of Jesus. That’s the first of four points I wish to walk us through briefly this morning: One, that God can and does turn every defeat into a doorway, every setback into a great leap forward.
We too are in a time of turmoil, trouble, of disappointments, defeats and difficulties, confusion and emptiness, maybe as great as what these four future apostles were facing with the silencing and imprisonment of John the Baptist. Our confusion and disappointments may be personal, or more global, over recent events, whatever our political persuasion, like the deadlock of government, our stuttering economy, the famine in East Africa, riots in the otherwise staid and dignified United Kingdom, and some strange changes in our climate. A number of people have told me of late that they feel disoriented and even frightened, since things that always seemed to be stable and reliable are looking less so all the time. I know the feeling.
I say this not to frighten us. I say this in order to name feelings and experience we may be having, in common with each other. We also have them in common with Simon, Andrew, James and John. So if any of us are feeling any fear, confusion or disorientation lately, we’re not alone. That is the situation into which Jesus first came, and still comes, with his invitation: “Follow me.”
And that’s the second point I wish to walk us through. In even the most difficult dark nights of the soul, there is always a gracious, life-affirming invitation coming our way. This invitation comes not because of who and how we are, nor because of how our situation is, but because of who and how God is. Even while doors are slamming shut on some of our hopes, even while the lights are going out in some of the places that used to seem so dependable, the One who “holds the key of David, so that what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open,” is opening new possibilities up for us. In Simon and Andrew’s case, they lost John the Baptist, to get Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
Think about the worst thing that could happen to us, if we dare. Paul the Apostle did. “We are counted as sheep for the slaughter,” he said in Romans 8. But he went on to say that, “Neither life nor death, nor principalities nor powers, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, neither height nor depth, nor any other power, can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:39) Whatever life, time or the world take from us, the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord is always offering us something better. It may take time to see; we may go through times of emptiness, disorientation and deep disappointment before the invitation become clear. But the One who stands at the door and knocks will be there in some form or another, with an invitation to something better than what we have lost. That’s the second thing I wish us to understand.
The third thing I wish to convey is what this invitation is all about. Its not about gaining back all the things we lose whenever the stock market tanks, the government goes into gridlock or our bodies start acting as if they have wills of their own. A lot of junk emails and junk snail mail may come our ways promising us insider leads on killer stocks or cheap medicines for the latest revolt of our aging bodies. They don’t come from Jesus, however.
The invitation he issues has to do not with things but with relationships. First of all, with a loving, life-giving, peace-making relationship with himself. But secondly, loving, life-giving, peace-making relationships with others. Even, some surprising relationships. “Follow me,” Jesus says to Simon. Later in this Gospel, Jesus will lead him toward the home of a Roman officer whose servant is dying. Simon Peter would never go to such a home, not as an observant, kosher Jew, so you can imagine what kind of turmoil he was in when Jesus said, “Let’s go to his house!” and he was supposed to follow.
Peter got off the hook when the soldier sent word that Jesus didn’t need to come, he only needed to “say the word and his servant would be healed.” But after Jesus’ resurrection, he wouldn’t get off so easily. Another Roman officer, Cornelius called upon him to visit and testify. That time, he went willingly. Eventually.
Jesus still says to each and every one of us, “Come, Follow me.” That is not an invitation to a solo journey, however. Answer that invitation, and we shall find that others have answered it too. So it is an invitation to life together.
Nor does Jesus come with an invitation to a program, a crusade nor an ideology, but again, to relationship. I got an image of this kind of relationship when the person who received those U2 tickets later posted reports on her concert experience on her Facebook page. Yes, it rained on them during the concert, but that only heightened the sense of solidarity and togetherness, because the band got wet, too,. Still, they kept on playing. Otherwise perfect strangers were dancing and singing together, to songs about Martin Luther King, Jr., or peace in Northern Ireland, at least to the riffs that go “Oooooh.”
I won’t bother you with trying to sing them.
The point is, that people were experiencing community, celebration, art, freedom and security together, even in the rain, maybe even more so by going through the rain together.
I got a chance this summer to know another group of people who heard the voice of Jesus inviting them to righteous and reconciled relationships, with each other and with the world. They were the young adults of the PULSE community in Pittsburgh. As I shared in my correspondence this summer, PULSE stands for Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience. Its something like Mennonite Voluntary Service or a Christian version of Americorps. Most of its participants are fresh out of college.
They graciously agreed to let me interview them and ask them questions like, “What has God taught you through your experience of service?” or “What has God taught you through your experience of community with each other?” Much of what I heard was like this:
About service: they said, “I didn’t fix the world nor solve many people’s problems forever; If anything, the people I served gave me or taught me as much as I gave or taught them. But God has strengthened and transformed me through my service, and now I can face future challenges with more wisdom and confidence, both in myself and in God.”
As for living together in a service unit, they often said that living in community is hard; you have to be both honest and humble, assertive and a good listener. But with enough love and patience, you can work through most any problem, and come to love each other even more, even if you end up only agreeing to disagree. It was one of the hardest experiences, but also the most rewarding, they said.
Does any of that interest us? Following Jesus into increasingly righteous and reconciled relationships, with himself, each other and the world? Do you feel your heart strangely warm, as I did when talking to them? If so, that may not only be what we are looking for, that the world cannot give nor keep, its also what the world is looking for. For every time the world runs after some ideology, or some program, or some political party, some personality, or some military campaign, the end result is always a world of hurt and a bad taste in the mouth. What Jesus offers, and invites us to, however, goes beyond programs, parties, politics and personalities, from state and national capitals on down. It starts with our immediate relationships.
Instead of quick fixes and sure-fire solutions to our problems, I see emerging around us new forms of community, relationships and interdependence taking shape. Like Community Supported Agriculture, in which people who grow food and people who buy it and eat it get to know each other and help each other. I see new forms of church emerging, in which people share resources like cars, lawn mowers, even homes. One such church, Watershed, in Kansas City, has adopted a local public school, to address the needs of a mostly poor and transient student population. I see neighbors banding together to turn abandoned lots into gardens and playgrounds, taking turns watching their vegetables, their kids and their streets.
It all sounds new, but its also ancient, going back to Jesus, living and working intensively with the twelve people who answered his invitation, “Follow me.” You could even say it goes back to the Law of Moses. For that Law took identity, power and responsibility out of the hands of Pharoah and gave them back to villages and families. Draw a line connecting Moses to Jesus to a house church like Watershed, and then to your local Community-Supported Agriculture project, and what you find in common are treasures of interdependence, friendship and mutual aid.
When Jesus says to us, “Follow me,” those kinds of mutually beneficial relationships, and more, are what he has in mind. Its what he offered that first church of twelve apostles. Whenever time and the world take from us things we thought were ours to keep, the treasures that Jesus offers in their place always are about love, interdependence and reconciliation. That was my third point.
But what if we’ve already said Yes to this invitation? What if it was years ago that we said, Yes, I will come follow you,” and proved it by baptism? The fourth thing I wish us to remember is that Jesus makes this invitation not once, not twice, but continually, all throughout our lives, every day, until the journey of this life ends in that city where he is the Lamb’s Power and Light company. Make this decision once and for the first time, and he will continue to press it upon us. It is as though he is saying, “Now that you have followed me this far, let me lead you a little farther. Will you come and follow some more?”
That’s what the preacher was trying to tell the man he had just baptized in the river. As he pulled him up out of the water, the man yelled, “Hallelujah, Its finished!” The pastor replied, “No, Brother, its just beginning,” and pushed him back under.
Twenty-one hundred years later, the invitation still stands. The gift has already been purchased for us; its ours to accept or refuse. The gift is one of righteous, reconciled and reconciling relationships, of mutual aid and interdependence, with each other, and with the One who says, “Follow me.” It comes not in response to our own goodness, not because we merited it, nor because the time is right. It comes because of the One who offers it. Often it comes when things seem darkest and most difficult. But the gift always proves better than anything we lose on the way to receiving it. The invitation, and the gift, are there all along, actually, but as Mark-Peter said during his sermons on Ecclesiastes this summer, we’re often most ready to hear this invitation from beyond the sun, when everything under the sun has failed us or fallen flat.
Such a time is now. But the invitation is forever. Wherever we are in our journey, Jesus invites us to come follow him today, tomorrow and forever.