When I planned this series of sermons for the Epiphany season I did not know we would be having baptisms and new members joining today, but that was a providential development. These folks have, as most of the rest of us have at some point, felt called by the Savior to follow him in discipleship. It is both a great privilege and a great responsibility. If one of the ways we are going to identify ourselves in life is as followers of Jesus Christ, it is important to think deeply about what that means and what that looks like. So today we look at the fact that Jesus, the light of the world, calls followers and that he shines his light on the path of discipleship.
The first observation I would like to share is that Jesus is fully in charge in the New Testament call stories. There was nothing unusual about a teacher having disciples, in fact this was the accepted way of doing things. But ordinarily a person would observe the various choices of a great teacher or philosopher that were current and make the decision to approach the one they were most attracted to and ask that person to accept him as a disciple. Jesus, on the other hand, took the initiative to invite, maybe even command, people to become his disciples. “Follow me,” he said, and Peter, James, John, and Andrew left their nets and boats and families and followed. They are not called because they are already trained and good at the tasks he needs them to do. They are called in spite of the fact that they have no training or expertise in those things, and were probably the most unlikely people imaginable to choose.
T.W. Manson says that what Jesus wanted were apprentices, not disciples. He didn’t want them just to learn what he had to teach. He wanted them to “observe carefully and imitate what they saw, just as if they were apprentices of a master carpenter.” (referenced in Westminster Bible Commentary, Mark, Douglas Hare, p. 48) Jesus knew this apprenticing style from having learned the carpentry trade from his father, Joseph. “All Christians are called to be ‘with Jesus’ in this sense – not simply to learn about him but to learn from him how to live as signs of God’s rule by acting compassionately and resisting evil.” (Ibid) So the picture of discipleship to envision is Jesus walking ahead and the called following where he leads and learning to live as he lives.
In other words, it is not an honor for Jesus that we decide to parcel out a part of our busy lives for him. He is not looking for us to set the priorities or make the rules. He is not interested in assembling a group of people who are all alike, or who all move in the same social or economic circles. As is made clear in the second story read today, about the call of Levi the tax collector.
If Jesus wanted to derail his movement early on, this was the perfect way to do it. A big crowd had gathered along the Sea of Galilee to hear him teach. As he walked along he passed Levi in his tax booth and said, “Follow me,” and Levi got up and followed. Tax collectors were despised in Israel because the taxes were for the benefit of the occupiers not Israel, and because the system was intentionally set up in such a way that the tax collectors could become wealthy. The norm would have been to ignore Levi as you walked by his tax booth, or maybe to spit at him. But Jesus calls him to follow.
As with Zacchaeus, another despised tax collector, Jesus goes to the home of Levi and participates in a dinner party there with other “tax collectors and sinners,” people who would have been willing to hang out with another tax collector. The scribes and Pharisees grumble openly about this. What kind of religious leader would lower himself to associate with this kind of crowd? The response of all those who followed Jesus is not recorded, but it is hard to imagine that they would have been thrilled with the addition of these kinds of folks to their number. The response of Jesus was, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” So a second part of the news about being a follower of Jesus is that we don’t get to pick those who follow with us. He didn’t come to collect a gathering of the respectable, the members of one social class whether it be low, middle or high, the members of one political party or nation or race. If we are going to be shocked at the kind of people Jesus recruits then we are frequently going to be disillusioned followers. Jesus serves notice of this right at the beginning by including a tax collector.
How surprising was this? Richard Ward writes, “Levi, son of Alphaeus. How long has it been since someone gave this tax collector his full name instead of calling him a name?… Levi was more likely to be called ‘Liar!’, ‘Thief!’, ‘Traitor!’, than ‘Disciple.’ Until Jesus passes by, Levi sits in the pocket of an oppressive imperial system, an ‘outcast’ among his people, considered to be outside the grace of God.” (Feasting on the Gospels, Mark, p. 65)
Ward goes on to say, “What is missing in this call to Levi is Jesus’ insistence that he ‘repent’ or ‘get right with God’ before he can qualify for effective discipleship. Jesus does not stand in judgment of his occupation any more than he did with Simon and Andrew or James and John. Whether fishermen, whether those who collect taxes or unemployment, whether lawyers, homemakers, or pastors – it does not matter. Any and all, from whatever walk of life, are summoned to walk with Jesus in the direction of human need.” (Ibid)
Another observation to make is about the immediate and complete response of those who were called in these stories. There was no negotiation, no request for a few days to pray about it, no questions about exactly what would be expected of them and for how long. Their response was both risky and countercultural.
Levi, for instance, was under obligation to collect a certain amount of money for the authorities. You think they would just say “so what?” if he disappeared from his tax booth without paying up? And Douglas Hare reminds us of the circumstances of the fishermen. “Simon was a married man, responsible for the support of a wife (and perhaps children) and perhaps his mother in law. His response to Jesus would have been regarded by his family, friends, and community as monumental irresponsibility. Because of the patriarchal structuring of society, the decision of James and John to leave their father’s employment without securing his permission was a heinous violation of the cultural code. For Jesus, the urgency of the kingdom of God meant that normal expectations must be set aside. In response to the hesitation of another disciple who said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father,’ Jesus imperiously replied, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead (Matt. 8:21-22). (Westminster Bible Commentary, Mark, pp. 23-24)
The Gospels also show other people who were not willing to drop everything and follow, such as the rich young ruler and Nicodemus. At one difficult point in his ministry a lot of people who had been following packed up and went home. Jesus looked around at the disciples and said bleakly, “Do you also wish to leave?” Peter answered, “Lord, to whom could we go? You have the words to eternal life.” So the decision to follow is not just made once on a particular day. It is a decision that has to be made every day, and sometimes it has to be made in the face of adversity and discouragement and disappointment.
At another time Jesus said, “Whoever would follow me must deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Imprisoned for his opposition to Hitler, Bonhoeffer clearly saw the cheap, easy grace embraced by Christians, and the unwillingness to stick with it when the going gets tough, and the cost of authentic, faithful discipleship.
There is, of course, a lot of good about this discipleship thing, too. When some of the disciples whined to him about all they had given up to follow him, he reassured them that they would not regret it, that they would find it all worth it. He told them that he no longer called them servants, he called them friends, and that he was willing to lay down his life for his friends. He told them that he was the vine and they were the branches – he gave them life and nurture and strength and the ability to bear fruit. He told them that he would never leave or forsake them, and that he would be with them to the end of time and would send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit to them after he was no longer with them in the body. He promised that he would prepare a place for them in his Father’s house and would come back for them so they could be together always. We are heirs of these and many more promises as followers of Jesus.
So, to summarize. Jesus calls, we follow. We may be appalled at the people he calls to join us in following, but we have to learn to accept it. There is something to be given up and much to be gained, but there is risk. The key to success is to keep our eyes on Jesus, to serve as his apprentices, to watch and learn and emulate a way of life that does not come naturally and is profoundly countercultural.
I’d like to close with another quote from Douglas Hare, who writes, “Although there is a sense in which we choose to follow Jesus by voluntary participation in a congregation where his name is proclaimed and his truth taught, we recognize that in our choosing we have been chosen; in our seeking we have been sought. Jesus said, ‘You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’(John 15:16)” WBC, p. 24)
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
February 1, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church