Rest in Peace: FOLLOWING

04-Following

“Following”
# 4 in Series: Rest in Peace
Sunday, January 18, 2015

John 1:43-51, CEB

Remember playing “Follow the Leader” as kids?  It was great fun; of course, it depended a lot on who was the leader at any given time.  Some kids liked to see how difficult they could make the journey; you might unexpectedly end up in a mud puddle or other hazard.  Even so, it was a fun game that involved as many kids as might be hanging around the neighborhood that day.

As we’ve grown older, being a “follower” hasn’t always been the role we like to play.  We are taught to be more interested in leadership, not “follower-ship”.  There are all sorts of conferences and seminars on how to be a more effective leader.  I don’t think I have ever been invited to attend the “Follower-ship Institute”.  The joys of childhood play are frozen in the memory of time past as we are pulled into adulthood with the idea that being a follower is a bad thing.

Certainly, there are areas of our life where being a leader is advantageous.  In school and in business, leadership skill is something to be nurtured and developed.  Even in church, leadership is a quality sought after as we seek to make disciples.  In the context of church, however, leaders are actually the most faithful followers of Jesus.

Our gospel story today is John’s version of how Jesus came to gather his first disciples to him.  This scene comes just after John and Andrew meet Jesus.  Andrew got his brother Simon Peter to come meet Jesus; of course we know how that worked out.  Then we come to today’s story.  Jesus invites Phillip to follow him and Phillip invites his friend Nathanael to come along.  The followers bring more followers.

There are a couple things about this story that we should notice.  First, depending on what version of the text you are reading, today’s passage begins: “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee…”  We understand and believe that Jesus was completely Spirit-filled and absolutely tuned-in to God’s will.  But, isn’t it interesting to consider that Jesus had to sort his options from time to time and make his own decisions about what to do next?  Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Chosen, the Son of God, and God with us.  Yet, Jesus had choices to make as well as being chosen.  Even in Jesus, God honors the gift of freedom to choose, given to all humanity.

That brings up an interesting way of looking at our condition as children of God.  “On the one hand, in John’s gospel Jesus is chosen by God – like every faithful person is, only more so.  On the other hand, in John’s gospel Jesus chooses God – like every faithful person does, only more so.”[i]  What does that reflect about God’s Chosen People?  On the one hand God chose them, but then they did not all choose God’s Son, Jesus.  What does that also say about us?  God has already chosen us to be God’s children.  Do we also choose God, with all that includes?  We can debate whether or not Jesus fully comprehended what he had signed on for when he agreed to this plan.  What is important is that Jesus chose to do what needed to be done and continued to make choices along the way that led him to the Cross.  We may or may not fully comprehend what it means for us to choose to follow Jesus.  We should at least take a clue from Jesus.

What we need to understand is that, when we make the choice to follow Jesus, we must continue to make choices along the way that keep us going in the right direction.  Whenever we participate in the work of evangelism or outreach, we are always acting from within the tension that exists between these two sides.  We invite others to choose God over culture; we encourage others to come and see what Jesus is all about.  At the same time, we know that God has already chosen all humanity, through Christ, to be heirs and participants in God’s eternal promises.  There is no person who should be missed by our invitation to choose because God has already chosen everyone.  At the same time, each person must make the choice to follow for the promise of God’s choice to be fulfilled.

Another thing we notice is that Jesus found Philip, and Philip finds Nathanael.  The best evangelists are often the most recent converts.  Philip didn’t have a long speech prepared to try to convince Nathanael, either.  He didn’t try to “prove” Jesus or otherwise “sell the product”.  He used what is still the best possible invitation for evangelism F“Come and see.”  I wonder if that is why so many of us think that “evangelism” is so difficult.  We imagine that we must know the Bible so well that we can answer any question that might come up.  We think that it is our job to convince people of who Jesus is and why they need to change their lives so dramatically.  We look in the mirror and think that our own life is far from perfect and we should not be the one to set the example for another person.  We take-on way too much responsibility and miss opportunities to open the door for God to do the heavy lifting.  We need to be more like those first followers of Jesus and simply invite others to come and see what we see; come and meet this guy we know.

When we follow Jesus we really are on the ultimate adventure.  There is a lot of uncertainty, but there is so much promise and opportunity.  We can’t be prepared for everything, but we learn what we need to know along the way.  The thrill of the adventure is to keep going and see each new thing that God reveals to us.  It is an adventure we ought to want to share“Come and see for yourself what Jesus is doing.”  I think that is a point we need to see in this story, and all the other stories of Jesus gathering his disciples.  His approach is simple, warm, and inviting.  “Come follow me; see for yourself what this is all about; don’t take my word, come and see.”  Jesus’ first meeting with Nathanael demonstrates how wonderful being called to follow can be.  They had never met, yet Jesus knew Nathanael’s heart; he knew this was a man of integrity.  This was not a case where Jesus took a miserable sinner and turned him into a saint.  Nathanael demonstrated honesty, integrity, genuine-ness, and open mindedness in his life.  This was a man other people respected and Jesus took him and turned him into something even more – a faithful disciple.

Throughout John’s Gospel we learn of a Jesus who can read people’s hearts.  “He is the light that illumines every person – he not only gives each person light; he sees each person in his or her true light.”[ii]  This insight, this truth is what attracts Nathanael to Jesus.  “Rabbi,” Nathanael says, “You are God’s Son. You are the king of Israel.”  Clearly, the invitation to “come and see” results in Nathanael’s belief.

The last thing I want us to look at in this story is that now famous comment: “Can anything good come from out of Nazareth?”  Jesus’ hometown is an insignificant little village where nothing worth talking about ever happens.  Nobody famous lives there or is from there.  It is the “Bowlegs of Galilee”.  The insignificance of Nazareth portrayed in this story suggests two things.  First, God can accomplish great things in unlikely places.  There is obvious irony in Nathanael’s question for us as we look back at who he is asking about.  But there is also a mandate that we consider no place as insignificant to God’s plan.  Second, God is perfectly capable of honoring and using ordinary people in these seemingly insignificant places.  We have only to look at the first disciples Jesus called to see the variety of people he was able to use to spread the Gospel.  Surely there is a place for each one of us in this eternal “follow the leader” procession of disciples.

Throughout this series we have talked about what it means to us that Jesus came to us as a baby and remains with us in the Holy Spirit.  We looked at how people waited for the Messiah for so long and then many of them missed arrival completely.  We talked about how waiting should be a process of growing, planning, learning, and preparing for whatever God will do so we are ready for God.  Then we talked about having the courage to go based on we have learned during our time of waiting.  Be willing to risk being wrong or making mistakes as we search for what God has in mind for us.  Be open to whatever new thing God will reveal to us today.  And last week we talked about confession and reconciliation with God.  Confession is good for the soul because it is the first step toward healing our broken relationship with God by turning back to him.

Today we come to the idea of following Jesus.  And we realize what this commitment really means; we must follow him, even to the cross.  Resting in peace…Being at peace with Jesus in our midst is a tall order.  Waiting, going, confessing, and following challenge us at every turn and there are always forces that try to send us on a detour.  We find comfort, however, in knowing that our relationship with God is a two-way street.  Both parties are talking and listening and reaching out to each other.  There’s an old spiritual called “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” that includes the line: “There ain’t but one train that’s on this track, It runs to heaven and runs right back.”  Reminiscent of Jacob’s Ladder, this song reminds us that God wants to be in relationship with us.  God reaches out to us in Jesus and through the Holy Spirit.  God invites us to reach back and take hold of the promises.  I guess when you think about it, following Jesus may be challenging but it’s an adventure worth exploring.  Besides, Jesus is really only asking us to go out and have a little fun inviting people to be his friend.  Just hang a sing on the door and follow.  In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[i] Brown, Elton W. “Feasting on the Word” (Year B, Volume 1, Page 260). Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2008, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors

[ii] Ibid., Page 262

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