John 1:43-51 – Follow Me

“Follow Me” by Greg Dampier. Jesus calls Peter and Andrew.

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

“Come and see,” said Philip.

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’the Son of Man.” (New International Version)

I am a follower of Jesus. I have been for decades. I found, and continue to find, in Jesus Christ a compelling person full of grace, truth, and love.

But my early life was not characterized with knowing Christ. I certainly learned about Jesus, that this ancient guy lived an altruistic life, got tortured and killed on a cross, and that Christians believe in his resurrection from death. However, back then it was more like some strange history lesson. That information made no difference to me.

That is, until I heard a voice – not an audible one that others could hear. Yet, it was just a real as any daily conversation with another person. I heard the call of Jesus. The Ancient of Days showed up. I know with every epistemic fiber in my being that it wasn’t an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. I am sure beyond sure that there was more of an empty grave than gravy about my experience of the risen Christ.

I experienced the call of Jesus to “follow me.” And that is really, at its simplest, the call which continually goes out to all humanity. It is a gracious and merciful call. It isn’t a summons to experience a cataclysmic event of total belief in one fell swoop. Rather, it’s a call to belief that is much more an unfolding awareness of the deep spirituality and connection with the divine within.

“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.”

Jesus (John 8:12, NLT)

Important to that faith process is another call to “come and see.” Whereas there are some Christian traditions which focus solely on a singular one-time experience of saving faith in Christ, the Gospel of John displays a drama of faith with multiple layers which people move through.

There is no egalitarian zap in which God grants total and immediate understanding. Instead, faith is an ever-increasing process. It is appropriate and biblical to say that our salvation has happened, is happening, and will happen. We follow, we come and see, and we keep following, keep coming, keep seeing more and more.

Like a muscle, our faith grows, develops, stretches, and strengthens over time. To use another metaphor, we ascend a stairway to heaven, one step at a time, day after day, following Jesus.

Methinks this is likely part of what Jesus was getting at with Nathaniel in today’s Gospel lesson. Nathaniel would have quickly picked up on the reference Jesus was making, way back to the first book of Genesis. The Jewish patriarch, Jacob, had an experience of seeing the angels of God on some celestial stairway, ascending and descending. It was an encounter of God’s presence with Jacob, assuring him of divine intervention into the muck of humanity. (Genesis 28:10-17)

Jesus connected that ancient portrait to himself so that Nathaniel would understand, would believe, that God has again broken into this world with a special divine presence. To look at Jesus and follow him, is to see and follow God.

Christ Jesus is the ultimate example and embodiment of God with us. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus presents himself as:

  • Living water – connecting to Jacob’s well (John 4:5-14)
  • The Temple of God – the place where the Lord dwells in all divine fullness (John 2:18-22)
  • Bread from heaven – linking the giving of manna to the Israelites in the desert (Exodus 16:4-7; John 6:1-59)
  • The good shepherd – fulfilling divine Old Testament imperatives of caring for people (Ezekiel 34:11-16; John 10:1-30)

In all these ways, and more, Jesus intentionally connects himself as fulfilling God’s ancient promises to people.

In whichever way we need to hear the call to follow, Jesus accommodates to us. For some, Christ comes knocking on the front door. For others, he enters the side door, or slips into the backdoor of our lives.

And, if we will come and see, Jesus will also accommodate us by being the authority over us, the teacher to us, or the friend beside us. The Lord Jesus shall shepherd us and woo us to the flock for guidance and protection.

However, Jesus comes to you, it most likely will be in ways we aren’t expecting. Surely, nothing good can come from Nazareth! Yet, it did. Can anything good come from Calcutta, India, or Juarez, Mexico, or Hoboken, New Jersey, or Milwaukee, Wisconsin, or even from a small rural area that doesn’t show up on a map? Yes, it can. Because with Jesus, God has entered this world, and, as it turns out, the Lord’s presence is everywhere.

Follow me. Come and see. Two of the simplest exhortations ever uttered. Yet, two of the most gracious phrases ever said, with profound implications for us beyond what we can fathom or imagine.

Guide us waking O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ and asleep we may rest in peace. May the shape of each day be formed by the pedantic following of my Lord; and may I come and see the wonders you have done, are doing, and will do. Almighty and merciful God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – bless us and keep us. Amen.

1 Corinthians 1:3-17 – Proclaim Good News

Jesus de Greatest, statue in Nigeria

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore, you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (New International Version)

The Apostle Paul clarified the foremost mission of Christianity to the Corinthian church: Preach the gospel. 

Everything else Paul did – from healing people to gathering offerings for others, and from making tents to journeying around the Mediterranean world – he did with the central focus and aim of proclaiming the good news of God’s grace in Christ.

Unfortunately, the Corinthian believers had lost sight of this urgent and needed imperative of proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Instead, they hardened into opinionated groups. Disunity amongst them was rampant and rancid. In short, the church made secondary matters of first importance. So, Paul wrote to correct this situation, which had gotten completely out of hand.

The proclamation of the gospel in Word and Sacrament needs to be at the core of every church and every believer’s life. When it isn’t, there are factions, special-interest groups, and condescending attitudes which fill the vacuum left in the center.

There are some things, maybe most things, we can agree to disagree with. Yet, when it comes to the good news of forgiveness and grace in Christ, we are to be of one mind. It is imperative we agree together that the heart of Christian mission is the gospel.

Unity around the gospel won’t happen if everyone is listening to competing voices.

Some believers have their favorite pet preachers. They follow that person and listen to them. That’s fine – to a degree. Yet, problems will inevitably arise because some practices happening within a particular church or faith community may not sync with the pet preacher or teaching. And if several individuals have different folks they follow, it can get messy in a hurry.

Following one person over another, Paul insists, is not the real issue in Christianity. Rather, it’s proclaiming the gospel – and not some person or their ideas. Believers need to put a whole lot more energy into using their spiritual gifts, rather than putting a crown on some worm of a preacher.

People can disagree on a lot of things, and that’s okay. But, in the church, there ought always be agreement and unity in building ministry around the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Everyone in the church, without exception, has a role to fulfill, a gift to exercise, in proclaiming good news. For me, I enjoy teaching Scripture to unbelievers and answering their questions, as well as mentoring believers in the cardinal doctrines of faith and practice. 

Others proclaim the gospel through hospitality, or partnering with others, or even inviting people to events and bible studies. In all the myriad ways God has gifted us, whether it is in serving or speaking, we are to use that gift not to advance a personal agenda, but to preach the gospel.

In this season of the Epiphany, Christians celebrate that the gospel has come to Gentiles and not only Jews. The light shines on all people, not just some. Therefore, followers of Jesus are to let their light shine, as our Lord exhorted us:

“You are the light that shines for the world to see. You are like a city built on a hill that cannot be hidden. People don’t hide a lamp under a bowl. They put it on a lampstand. Then the light shines for everyone in the house. In the same way, you should be a light for other people. Live so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16, ERV)

Blessed Father, Son, and Spirit, you are One God, perfectly united and in continual harmony. You have loved humanity to such a degree that you orchestrated a great deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Help your entire church to resolve petty differences and fix a gaze firmly and graciously on proclaiming the good news of salvation in Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 36:5-10 – Steadfast Love

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
    your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
    your judgments are like the great deep;
    you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
    All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
    and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
    in your light we see light.

O continue your steadfast love to those who know you,
    and your salvation to the upright of heart! (New Revised Standard Version)

Love suffers. Every parent knows this. Because of a parent’s committed and faithful love toward a child, they feel not only the joys but also the sorrows and pain of their children. I can say that this feeling does not go away, even with adult children. And it is compounded with grandchildren. Just as our love is big enough to hold multiple children and grandchildren, so our capacity for experiencing deep emotion for their welfare is equally large.

True love is sacrificial. It is willing to suffer anything on behalf of the beloved. God’s steadfast love is immensely large, holding both the joy of witnessing our lives as well as the pain of watching us make unhealthy decisions which damage us and each other.

God’s people, walking in the way of love, quickly discover that it is simultaneously walking in the way of suffering. From Old Testament times through the New Testament and into the present day, the faithful have always experienced suffering as a central part of their piety and devotion in showing steadfast love. 

The medieval mystics of the Church understood well the connection between suffering and love. They could not imagine a Christian life without hardship, difficulty, and persecution. Thomas à Kempis, a sort of pastor to pastors, wrote in the fifteenth century these words:

“Sometimes it is to our advantage to endure misfortunes and adversities, for they make us enter into our inner selves and acknowledge that we are in a place of exile and that we ought not to rely on anything in this world.  And sometimes it is good for us to suffer contradictions and know that there are those who think ill and badly of us, even though we do our best and act with every good intention….  When men ridicule and belittle us, we should turn to God, who sees our innermost thoughts, and seek His judgment….  It is when a man of good will is distressed, or tempted, or afflicted with evil that he best understands the overwhelming need he has for God, without whom he can do nothing….  It is in such times of trial that he realizes that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

And yet, it is because of love that suffering is transformed and endured as something wholly other than sheer pain or hurt. Thomas à Kempis went on to say:

“Love is a mighty power, a great and complete good; Love alone lightens every burden and makes the rough places smooth. It bears every hardship as though it were nothing and renders all bitterness sweet and acceptable. The love of Jesus is noble and inspires us to great deeds; it moves us always to desire perfection. Love aspires to high things and is held back by nothing base. Love longs to be free, a stranger to every worldly desire, lest its inner vision become dimmed, and lest worldly self-interest hinder it, or ill-fortune cast it down…. Love knows no limits, but ardently transcends all bounds. Love feels no burden, takes no account of toil, attempts things beyond its strength; love sees nothing as impossible, for it feels able to achieve all things. Love therefore does great things; it is strange and effective; while he who lacks love faints and fails.”

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

In this season of Epiphany, we remember that Jesus is the light of the world. God became flesh and blood to experience the full range of the human condition – both joys and sorrows in a love so committed to us that it led to a cruel cross of suffering.

Salvation has come to all peoples because of God’s steadfast love – a love that never lets go no matter the circumstances.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacrament, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Ephesians 4:17-5:1 – Living into Truth

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” –Jesus (John 14:6)

So, I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children. (New International Version)

Where is truth?

Truth is ultimately not found in a system. It is supremely discovered in a person. At the beginning of this Christian Epiphany season, we are reminded that Christ embodied truth. “I am the truth,” Jesus said. (John 14:6)

Jesus modeled a life of truth. He lived and spoke in love. He had a handle on the appropriate use of anger. He never evidenced a wagging gossipy slanderous tongue. There was no bitterness in his heart. He forgave others and was consistently compassionate.

Following Jesus in this way of life can often be difficult and challenging. Why, despite knowing better, do we have such a doggone hard time following Christ’s example of holy speech, pure words, and radical forgiveness?

If there was a simple answer/solution to the acerbic tongues of others, it would be easy to avoid using our words like a hot knife through butter, toasting others with subtle digs and cranky words. Simply telling ourselves (or others) to stop their bellyaching is only a manifestation of our own belligerent spirit running amok.

Gentle words are a tree of life;
    a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.

Proverbs 15:4, NLT

Rather, we need a solid practical approach to those nagging white lies we keep putting out there and the bending of truth to suit our own selfish purposes. Neither sheer willpower nor hackneyed homebrewed prescriptions will get the job done.

When we go to the doctor, we want them to be honest with us about our true condition and health.  If we have a clean bill of health, we are glad for that truth.  If, however, we have something wrong, we want to know what it is and how to deal with it. Doctors who avoid the truth so to not make us feel bad or hurt our feelings are performing malpractice, not healing. We need a solid diagnosis and prognosis framed in a caring way. Trying to grow spiritually without hearing the truth about ourselves from a spiritual doctor is like trying to do heart surgery on yourself.

The truth will set us free. Yet, it will make us uncomfortable. We all have a real need to hear the truth spoken in love and to wrap our heads and hearts around it. This can only happen if we are open, honest, and real with each other. We are to stop being dishonest, and start being truthful.

What is truth? 

The Christian tradition teaches that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Life together is shaped around the person and work of Christ. Since Christians share a common confession of Jesus, we are to share a common life together. That life revolves around the truth of Jesus.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Colossians 3:12, NRSV

Therefore, we will put off non-Christian ways of relating to each other and put on a Christian way of relating to each other. We will speak truthfully because we belong to each other. Just as Jesus closely identified with us in his life, death, and resurrection, so we are to so closely identify with each other so that we take responsibility for each other. My problems are your problems – your issues are my issues. This is a stance of connection, not division.

We are to put off lying and put on truth. Too often, we are in the habit of pretending and being plastic. Acting as if we are okay when we are not, or even pretending life is hard, when it is not, is an untruthful presentation – it is a lie. Secrecy and deception are tools of Satan, not God. Therefore, we must put off the bad habit of pretention, and put on the good habit of speaking truthfully to each other. 

Why don’t we speak truth? 

Habits of lying come from the enemy of our souls who whispers in our ears that being truthful and transparent is too traumatic – we can’t do it. Buying into that snake oil thinking believes we cannot be open, honest, real, vulnerable, and genuine because it’s not worth the risk.

We might become convinced we’ll be rejected, lose face with others, or be a victim of gossip. Shame then takes the steering wheel instead of speaking truthfully to one another. So, we avoid the truth and, so, end up avoiding others.

Why are we to speak truth? 

Because we are responsible to one another. We are not meant to hide in the shadows but to step into the light and forsake all fakery and be truthful. When Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Apostle Peter, they were judged severely because they betrayed the community (Acts 5:1-11). Lying undermines and erodes true community.

How do we speak truth? 

We speak truthfully by making and keeping promises to each other. That is what God does with us. Communities which love truth will make a safe place for the awkwardness of confession, forgiveness, and healing. There is assurance that members will not abandon one another as they reveal their sins and weaknesses and fumble forward toward maturity and holiness.

Truthful communities are sacred spaces of encouragement and hospitality where we are safe to be real. No one should ever have to suffer in silence, cry alone, or wonder whether they will be forsaken. We must have a refreshing openness with each other since we belong to one another. 

“Yes, somewhere people still make and keep promises. They choose not to quit when the going gets rough because they promised once to see it through. They stick to lost causes. They hold on to a love grown cold. They stay with people who have become pains in the neck. They still dare to make promises and care enough to keep the promises they make. I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God. What a marvelous thing a promise is! When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs her more than she wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.”

Lewis Smedes, The Power of Promises

Where do we go from here with truth?

I harbor no delusions: Being transparent and real is scary. Yet, if we are to be the true humanity we are designed to be by our Creator, we will speak truthfully and not put up a false front.  We will neither hide nor hurl.  We will neither pretend everything is okay when it is not, nor project our problems onto others using untruthful accusations. We will do the hard work of learning to communicate by speaking the truth in love. 

There are two tendencies that may plague us going forward: complacency and mediocrity.

When it comes to relationships, we are too easily satisfied with a minimum amount of effort, words, and commitment. We need to make and keep promises to God and to each other; live into our baptisms; and renew our covenant of care and commitment to each other.  This means we will allow God to invade our hearts; we will let our mouths say what needs to be said; and be open enough to let others in. 

Though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other.

Romans 12:5, CEB

Some folks have putrid spiritual abscesses from either hiding the truth or hurling truth without love. Spiritual healing comes through spiritual surgery. God the Father sent God the Son to die on a cruel cross for all our unhealthy ways of relating to each other – and together sent God the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to form a new community of believers around truth.

Putting off and putting on – that is the prescription for realizing truthful speech and life. It is not easy. It’s hard as hell. And it takes us all as a human community to do it. Sometimes things are messy before there can be order and peace. That is the price of authenticity and truth – and that’s okay.

Creator of all that is good and true, help me so to put aside falsehood and put on truthful living and speaking that love and compassion shine in and through me to the glory of Jesus Christ, your Son, my Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reign forever together in a Holy Trinity of Truth. Amen.