Sermon 5.21.17 Following Jesus

Scripture Lesson: Matthew 4:12-23
Sermon: Following Jesus
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

When I was a kid my dad and my brother loved to fish. I didn’t like it. All that sitting still in the boat. Being quiet. Waiting. No thanks. And I didn’t like to eat fish either so that sealed the deal. No fishing for me. Now that I am vegetarian, my distaste for the fishing enterprise is confirmed.

So, if I was stuck in a family in the fishing business and Jesus came to me and said, “Come on, I’ve got something for you, and it’s not fishing,” I’d be happy to drop my nets and not look back. But for these fish folk in the story we heard this morning – it was there life. Their heritage. Their identity. Their trade and craft. It was their expertise and their livelihood. Their lifestyle was determined by the seasons and the weather relative to fishing. Fishing is what they know. It is who they are.

We have this story of Jesus coming and inviting these fishers to follow him. And they drop their nets and go to embark on an itinerant life of radical love. It’s a far cry from the familiar fishing trade. Evidently, Jesus had something really compelling to offer: A new life, rich, full, and vibrant with a sense of being part of something more. There was a bond to all of humanity, life, and Creation. There was a sense of the transcendent. In following him, you found you were giving your life to something worth giving your life to. It was not boring or meaningless. It involved going deeper. Acting together for good. There was an intense shared sense of mission, purpose, and belonging. Maybe it was something like people find in the being part of the army today – that shared sense of mission, purpose, and belonging.

Jesus taught that the realm of God was within people and among people. Here and now. Religion was about the present moment not just a cataloguing of what happened in the past, not just a starry-eyed gaze to a distant Edenic future at the end of time. With Jesus it was about the realm of God right here and right now – with this stranger, with this enemy, with this detested tribe, with this beleaguered sinner, with this hungry person, with this tortured soul, with this suffering sick one. Right here. Right now. Offering yourself in service. Reaching across human constructs of separation and division. Being part of the healing of the world through reconciliation, forgiveness, and generosity. Taking delight in the beauty, mystery, and abundance available to all – as pure gift.

Come follow me: Live for others., help heal the world, be awed by this amazing life, live by universal, unconditional love, know your own value as a servant. It’s a beautiful life!

I have a new doctor and at my last appointment when she learned that I as a pastor, she asked, “Are you a Jesus follower?” I thought that was an odd question. I just said I was a pastor. Can you be a pastor and not be a Jesus follower? What could I say but, ‘yes.’ She confirmed this. “So, you are a Jesus follower,?” “I try to be,” I replied. And then we went back to the minor medical matters at hand.

So those simple fisher folk said yes to Jesus. Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, and many others. They said yes to the beautiful life of high commitment devotion to a different reality – a reality where everyone is equally valued as a human being, there is reverence for all life, an on-ramp after any wrong that is done, a life of healing, well-being for everyone never at the expense of others. It’s a reality where there is no place for violence, in any form, from spanking a child to dropping a bomb, to extorting a mortgage. It’s a reality focussed on the good of the whole, the community, the species, the Earth because the good of the whole is the surest way to healing and wholeness for the individual.

Follow me, not down a rabbit hole, but to a beautiful life of love and goodness and joy. Can this life with Jesus hard, challenging, and demanding? Yes. It might even cost you your life. But it is so compelling you will not look back. This life requires creativity, devotion, intellect, character, and self- discipline. It’s not easy though it may be simple.

New life is possible after tragedy, loss, mistakes, regrets, calamity, addiction, abuse, greed, mental or physical illness. There can be new life, healing, and joy in the realm of God, present here and now, that Jesus embodies for us and invites us to be part of.

So here we are, talking about the beauty of the Christian life, reminding ourselves why we’re here in church celebrating what it means to be Christian, and have you noticed, there’s something we haven’t mentioned. Heaven. Life after death. We haven’t spoken of Christianity as following Jesus so that after you die you go to heaven to be with him and with your loved ones and all the saints of light with God in an eternity of paradise. We’ve talked about the Christian life but not heaven.

Just after Easter, Betty, my 93 year old mother in law, came to visit from Cleveland. She’s a life long church goer. Her father was an Episcopal priest and her father in law was a Presbyterian pastor. We got to a talking about life after death. She absolutely believes that when she dies she is going to heaven to be with loved ones. My husband, Jeff, her son, also believes this. I said I believe we don’t know. I’m not saying there is no heaven, no after life, but we don’t know. Maybe this life it is. And that’s more than enough as far as I’m concerned. When I expressed this perspective, Betty replied, “If you don’t believe in heaven then why be a Christian?” Because it’s a beautiful life. Following Jesus and continuing his ministry of compassion, healing, and reconciliation is a beautiful life.

So, maybe for some of you, I’ve “come out of the closet.” No, I don’t believe in heaven as somewhere or a state we go into after we die. Is there something after we die? I don’t know. I’m not saying it’s impossible. Maybe there is some kind of continuing experience after our moral bodies cease. But I don’t know, so I’m not counting on it. This life, trying to follow Jesus, I can believe in and give my life to.

As a pastor, I feel that my responsibility is to help others mobilize their spiritual resources especially at the time of death. So I try to understand the beliefs of those involved. If someone is dying and looking forward to being reunited with a spouse who has died, I offer encouragement and support on that journey. If the person feels the death of our bodies is the end then I encourage comfort and peace on that journey. I take the same approach with a funeral or memorial service. If the person or family has a strong belief in heaven and life after death, we draw upon that in the service. If the person and family are not so sure, we adapt accordingly. Pastoral care is about encouraging people to trust their faith and put it to work for good in their lives.

I believe that Christianity and following Jesus is about much more than heaven in
the next life and that that should not be the main defining characteristic of Christianity.

In Jesus’ day, there were Jews who believed there would be a resurrection to new life in the end times and there were Jews who did not share that belief. That’s how I think it should be with Christianity today.

Now, about Jesus’ resurrection. The Biblical stories tell of Jesus being crucified, dead, buried, and rising on the third day. Coming back. Alive again. This has come to be understood literally by some. For others, even since ancient times, this has been understood as a metaphorical representation of the aftermath of the crucifixion.

With the Bible and ancient literature across cultures, factual reporting and accurate biography were not the order of the day. There were no fact checkers, no Politifact, no paper trail, or confirmation of sources cited. Stories were shared and recorded to convey meaning not fact. It was about conveying something of importance not of literal historical accuracy. There were images and constructs that were used to impute the meaning.

Jesus lives an extraordinary life. So in looking back to his birth, the stories are told incorporating constructs that were associated with a special, important life. Jesus’ death can be viewed in a similar way. Because of his extraordinary life, the importance of that life and its meaning is conveyed by attributing special circumstances to his death. While Jesus’ followers may have continued to experience his presence with intensity after his death, it was common to attribute life after death, resurrection, and eternal life to important figures – like Caesar. This helps us to better understand the stories that are in the New Testament.

The story of Jesus, walking along the lake and inviting Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow him appears in the gospel long before the stories of the crucifixion and resurrection. So the fishers and others agree to follow Jesus, drop everything, leave family, job, home, community, based on Jesus’ presence, persona, teaching, healing, etc.. not based on the promise of eternal life in heaven after they die. They follow based on their experience of Jesus in the here and now, on this Earth, in this life.

The commitment to follow Jesus leads to a beautiful life of meaning and service. It is a life of community and belonging. People are looking for that kind of life today especially younger people.

The insistence on the belief that Jesus himself literally rose from the dead and that we, too, are all going to be with him in heaven can be a barrier to people becoming part of the church. Maybe they want to follow Jesus in terms of values, ethics, and life style, but they can’t accept the supernatural aspects of Christianity so they don’t feel welcome in the church. They miss out on what the church has to offer and the church misses out on their presence and participation.

I would like to see the church offer an extravagant welcome to all people who are interested in exploring the Jesus life: Those who believe in life after death, those who don’t, those who have other views about what happens when our mortal bodies die, and those who don’t know – like me. Views about what happens when we die should not be the defining tenet of Christianity. That should not be a deal breaker.

The focus of the church can be on following Jesus: Experiencing the realm of God with us and among us. Helping to create the commonwealth of God here on this precious Earth.

This Sunday, the World Council of Churches and the United Church of Christ are asking us to call attention to the famine in Africa where 20 million lives are at risk. On Pentecost, June 4, we will receiving the special One Great Hour of Sharing offering which will help respond to the famine. I encourage you to ponder and pray about how you are being called to help as a follower of the one who fed the hungry. Hopefully all the so-called Christians in our government will also advocate for a generous response to this humanitarian crisis. We know that it is our moral and religious imperative as Christians to respond to this need, here and now, on the Earth, in this life, at this present moment. That is what it means to say yes to following Jesus. It is a commitment to a life of radical love and generosity. It is beautiful life of self-giving and belonging.

So my doctor asked if I was a Jesus follower. Well, I’ll write out a check on June 4th. Just don’t ask me to fish! Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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