DON’T BE AFRAID TO FOLLOW JESUS
A couple of years ago, the Christian Century asked several Christian leaders to sum up the message of the gospel in no more than seven words. There were all kinds of interesting answers, but the one that stuck in my head came from Will Willimon. His seven word summary of the gospel was this: God refuses to be God without us.
The implication, of course, is that God could have chosen to be God without us, if he’d wanted to. He could have kept entirely to himself, completely focussed on his own divinity. But instead he chose to be a God who exists in relationship. To that end, he created human beings and gave them the opportunity to enter into relationship with him. Unfortunately that didn’t turn out too well, as humans fell into sin and broke the bonds of relationship with God. Once again God could have chosen to carry on without us. He could easily have decided that we humans are more trouble than we’re worth. But he didn’t do that. He refused to be God without us, and because of that he put in motion his plan of salvation. That plan involved sending his Son into the world.
This was a plan that kept a very fine balance. On the one hand it involved the power of God breaking in to human life. But on the other hand it preserved the conditions necessary for an authentic relationship between God and human beings. To have a genuine relationship with human beings, God couldn’t control them or intimidate them. He had to approach them one by one with his love, and invite them to make a free choice to join with him.
This process of invitation was one that Jesus himself would initiate. But as things unfolded, it was a process that would be taken up by those who themselves had responded to this invitation. Those who accepted the invitation would in turn invite others. They would become the vehicles through which God would achieve his purposes. Even in the very process of reconciling human beings to him, God would not act without us.
The very first invitations Jesus made took place at the edge of the Sea of Galilee. It was there that he encountered some fishermen, who had pulled their boats into shore to wash their nets. One of those boats belonged to Simon Peter. When he saw Peter’s boat, Jesus went over and climbed into it. It turned out that Jesus wanted to use the boat as a floating pulpit. He asked Peter to take the boat out from shore a short distance. This made it an ideal spot for Jesus to preach to the crowds that were pressing in at the water’s edge.
After he’d finished preaching, Jesus told Peter to take the boat out into deep water and drop the nets. Peter wasn’t too keen on this. He pointed out that he and the other fishermen had been out on the lake all night working hard and hadn’t caught anything. But Peter didn’t want to offend the preacher, so he agreed to let down the nets. Much to Peter’s surprise, the nets became so full that they began to break, and the weight of the fish was so great that it threatened to sink the boats. Peter knew this was no ordinary catch. Overcome by what he’d witnessed, he fell at Jesus’ feet and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”
Peter had an overpowering sense of his own unworthiness in the presence of Jesus. In that moment, he was just like Isaiah in the temple, confronted with the unutterable holiness of God. When Isaiah had his vision of God, high and exalted, he cried, “Woe to me! I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
Both Peter and Isaiah were acutely aware of the vast gulf between their sinful humanity and the holiness of God. They recognized that even in their best moments they fell far short of the perfection of God. In fact, the pure light of divine holiness just further highlighted their own abject sinfulness. It just served to emphasize how unworthy they were to stand in the presence of God.
It’s not surprising then that their reaction in this situation is fear. Peter falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him to leave him be. Isaiah feels completely undone – how can he look upon the Lord Almighty and live? But even as they’re overwhelmed by fear, both Peter and Isaiah experience the grace of God. For Isaiah, this comes in the form of a seraph, who takes a coal from the altar and touches it to Isaiah’s unclean lips and says, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” For Peter, God’s grace comes in the words of Jesus, who says, “Don’t be afraid.”
For both Peter and Isaiah, this experience of divine grace comes with a reminder that God refuses to be God without us. The gift of divine acceptance is accompanied by a call to action. Isaiah is summoned to go on the Lord’s behalf to proclaim the Lord’s word. Peter is given a similar responsibility. Jesus tells him, “From now on you will fish for people.”
Peter’s response to this call is immediate. Whatever fear he might have been feeling instantly melts away. It seems that hearing Jesus tell him not to be afraid is enough. Peter, together with his partners James and John, immediately pull their boats ashore, leave everything and follow him. With confidence and courage they take up their calling to become Jesus’ disciples. They will join Jesus in spreading the word about a God who refuses to leave sinful human beings to their own devices, and who comes to them in love to invite them into a relationship with him.
Perhaps it’s not just Peter who needs to be told not to be afraid to follow Jesus. Fear may well be the main reason that holds people back from becoming Jesus’ disciples. Fear certainly plays a part in keeping people from living up to the calling God has given them – a calling to follow Jesus out into the world to share with others the invitation he has shared with us.
A few weeks ago the phone rang in my office. When I answered it, there was a momentary pause, and then a voice said, “Can I speak to Mr. Church, please?” This is not an uncommon request when the caller is a telemarketer. I said there was no Mr. Church, because this was in fact a church. The caller sounded momentarily confused, but then said, “What kind of church?” I said, “A Baptist church.” He said, “Oh, a Baptist church. I go to church.” He then told me he was calling from Karachi, Pakistan, and he gave me his name. He said he was interested in knowing more about our church and asked if it would be alright if he phoned me back later. I told him he was free to do so if he liked.
Sure enough, he called me back a few days later. In the meantime he’d checked our website and knew all about the Caregivers ministry and the work Gloria was doing. I wondered where all this was heading, so I asked him why he had called our church of all the churches in the world. He confessed he worked for a telemarketing company, and originally he was calling to sell us air duct cleaning. But when he discovered he’d called a church, he just wanted to talk with someone in another country about what it was like to be a Christian there.
He’s since called me back a third time, this time sharing a little more about his life in Karachi. He makes $150 a month as a telemarketer, and for him that’s a pretty good living. He’s been doing it since he was sixteen. He’s very involved in his church, and would like to become a pastor. He says his church is able to worship freely in Karachi, which I said was good to hear, seeing as Pakistan is an Islamic country. He said, “There’s only one thing we can’t do. We can’t do evangelism. Evangelism is against the law.”
My new friend in Karachi has good reason to be cautious about how he goes about fishing for people in his country. For him, engaging in the most ordinary acts of Christian discipleship could put him in danger.
We’re not used to thinking of discipleship as having these kinds of consequences. But it’s undeniable that there are times when the choice to follow Jesus can be a test of courage.
Clarence Jordan was one of the founders of the Koinonia Farm in the state of Georgia in the 1940’s. In those days segregation was the law of the land, but Koinonia stood apart by being a place where people of different races could live together. At one point Clarence asked his brother, Robert, to be the lawyer for the farm. Robert was well on his way to a career in politics, and he told Clarence, “I can’t do that. You know my aspirations. I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.” Clarence said, “We might lose everything, too.” Robert said, “It’s different for you.” Clarence replied, “Why? You and I joined the church the same Sunday as boys. The preacher asked, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?’ What did you say?” Robert said, “I follow Jesus – up to a point.” Clarence told Robert that he didn’t believe he was really a disciple. He told him he should go back to his church and tell them he was an admirer of Jesus, not a disciple.
Tony Campolo says if we want to put limits on our discipleship, perhaps we should change the name of the hymn to “Up to a Point My Saviour Leads Me”. That would make sense if we’re going to allow fear to hold us back. But that isn’t really the type of discipleship God is calling us to.
We live at a time and in a place where we do not have to worry about our safety or our wellbeing just because we follow Jesus. And yet fear still gets in our way. Being a disciple means following Jesus out into the world. And that may not be something we feel entirely comfortable with. We don’t have any difficulty with being Christians here, within the warm confines of the church, but it’s a little more complicated once we go out through those doors - because we know that outside those doors lies a world that isn’t always friendly to followers of Jesus. We may not be arrested, we may not be attacked, but we may be looked upon with disapproval. We may be seen as weak, or immature, or hypocritical. We may be avoided. We may be made fun of. None of this is pleasant, and it requires courage for us to face up to it.
This might explain why the topic of discipleship often seems to get overlooked in the church. Lutheran pastor Michael Foss says there’s a danger that we can start to think about belonging to a church in much the same way as we might think of belonging to a health club. He says you become a member of a health club by paying your dues, and then you expect the services of the club to be at your disposal – the exercise equipment, the weight room, the aerobics classes, the swimming pool. You might bring a guest to the club from time to time, but you’re aware that the facilities and the staff of the club are really only there for the benefit of the dues-paying members.
Michael Foss says this way of looking at the church can lead us to forget that the whole point of being in the church is to be disciples. We’re set apart by God, not just so that we can belong to a club, but so that we can follow Jesus into the world and take the transforming message of the gospel with us.
It’s comfortable to be members of a club. But that’s not the calling God has given us. Of course it’s more appealing to stay in here where it’s safe and warm. But God calls us to step boldly and courageously into the life of discipleship. He calls us to move past our fear and show ourselves to be people who belong to him.
Of course, overcoming our fear isn’t just a matter of summoning up our own courage. If that’s all we could count on, we’d be in rough shape. We can be grateful that God doesn’t leave us to our own devices to fend for ourselves. He makes sure we don’t go out into the world alone. As someone has put it, “Following Jesus into the world means we travel with the One who has authority over wind and waves and evil spirits, who heals the sick, feeds the hungry, speaks forgiveness to sinners, and raises the dead.”
This in the end is why we don’t need to be afraid to follow Jesus. We don’t need to be afraid to follow Jesus because he goes with us wherever we go.