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“Follow Me!” The Summons and Invitation to Discipleship

 

Mark 1:14-20       Ezekiel 13:1-3    Romans 12:1-2        Matthew 20:29-34

 

I:– I had to see it to believe it. It happened on the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. The Shepherd family was walking down a country road when a flock of sheep appeared walking up the road. The sheep detoured into a field. In order to detour into the field all they had to do was turn into the field. The first sheep, however, the lead sheep, had leapt over a sizeable rock that it could just as easily have trotted alongside; whereupon every last sheep in the entire flock had leapt over the rock too. Leaping over the rock was a wholly unnecessary complication. Still, the sheep who followed seemed incapable of understanding this; they simply did what the animal in front of them was doing. It was a lesson for me in the psychology of animal conformity.

Everyone is aware that there is a psychology of human conformity. People are easily led. People follow without thinking. Or at least what passes for “thinking” is simply an unconscious rationalization of conformity. Or what passes for “thinking” is merely the re-shuffling of the same old half-dozen items of their mental furniture. The utter mindlessness of it all is deadening.

And then Jesus appears with words on his lips that he repeats over and over: “Follow me!” He repeats himself in a hundred different contexts. “Follow me!” What’s he doing, anyway? Is he expecting to find a sheep-mentality in us? Is he trying to foster a sheep-mentality in us? Does he want to exploit it, the way self-serving political mesmerists have exploited a sheep-mentality? Does Christian discipleship reduce us to being a “camp-follower” of Jesus, “camp-follower” being a colloquial expression for someone who couldn’t think his way out of a phone booth and who has a dependency-problem as well?

As a matter of fact when Jesus cries, “Follow me!”, he wants to see none of this. When he cries, “Follow me!”, he is urging us to resist mindless conformity; he is calling us to defy social expectation; he is pressing us to think — genuinely think — rather than re-shuffle meagre intellectual furniture and re-mumble the half-dozen cliches that pass for “thought”. Our Lord’s call to follow him is a call to throw off the sheep-mentality, throw off social dependency, throw off thoughtless conformity.

II: — Let’s look more closely at Christ’s “Follow me!”, his call to discipleship. His call is a summons, a command. He isn’t suggesting that we follow him; not wishing that we might; he’s ordering us! “Follow me!” It’s a command. Coming from the Incarnate one himself, it’s a command weighted with the authority of God. We are summoned to follow him. (Plainly, there’s an urgency to the matter.) At the same time we are summonsed to follow him. (Plainly, there’s judicial authority here.)

Yet our Lord’s “Follow me!” isn’t command only; it is also invitation. Were his “Follow me!” command only, he would appear cold and coercive; on the other hand, were it invitation only, he would appear sentimental and helpless. His summons has the warmth of an invitation; his invitation has the authority of a summons.

There is yet another aspect to Christ’s “Follow me!” So far from the mindlessness of sheep-like conformity, Jesus insists that we think. And not merely think (think, that is, with the “old” mind), but rather that we acquire a new mind, a different mind, a mind shaped by the truth of God; a mind oriented to the kingdom of God. Following Jesus always entails doing the one thing that sheep don’t appear to do: think.

Ponder for a minute the place scripture gives to thinking. Think about the place scripture gives to the mind. We are to love God with our mind (Mark 12:30); we are to have the mind that was in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2:5); we are to have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16); we are to shun the senseless mind, the darkened mind (Rom. 1:21); we are to avoid the hardened mind (2 Cor. 3:14), the veiled mind (2 Cor. 3:15), the corrupted mind (Titus 1:15), the double mind (James 4:8). Just as we are to get rid of the base mind (Rom.1:28), we are to acquire a renewed mind (Eph. 4:23). More than merely acquire a renewed mind, we are to find ourselves transformed — head to toe, through-and-through, every which way — we are to find our entire self transformed, beginning with the renewal of our mind (Rom. 12:2). Discipleship never means sheep-like stupidity, unthinking conformity. Discipleship always includes the most rigorous thinking, thinking infused by the truth of God and oriented to the kingdom of God.

Whenever our Lord cries, “Follow me!”, he is ordering us to abandon ourselves to him; at the same time he is inviting us to join him in an exhilarating venture. And in all of this he’s insisting that we think with that renewed mind which scorns “dark” thoughts and “base” thoughts and “senseless” thoughts.

III: — How important is it to follow Jesus? It’s very important; in fact there’s nothing more important. Over and over in the written gospels we come upon our Lord summoning people, inviting people, to follow him. They do. Matthew stood up, left behind whatever it was that was preoccupying him, and followed. So did James and John, Peter and Andrew. The text tells us that these fellows “left everything behind and followed him.” Left everything? It means they threw in their lot with him; they held back nothing of themselves. They didn’t test the water with their big toe; instead they dived in. They didn’t negotiate a “trial discipleship”. (Not that our Lord would have negotiated any such thing.) Unlike Lot’s wife, who looked back, half-wistfully, at what she had left behind, only to find herself petrified; unlike Lot’s wife, they don’t look back. Instead they hear and heed the master when he says, “Anyone who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back is someone not fit for the kingdom of God.”

If you and I are resolute in our following then we can only keep looking at Jesus. But because we are followers he is always ahead of us. Then to keep looking at him is always to be looking ahead. (To try to follow someone ahead of us while at the same time looking back behind us is simply to be what James calls “a double-minded person.”)

How important is it to obey the summons, to respond to the invitation? What could be more important in view of what ails us? What ails us is best seen in those who did follow Jesus in the days of his earthly ministry.

(i) Among his followers were tax-collectors. Tax-collectors were the bottom rung of Palestinian society. They were known as traitors, collaborators with the Roman occupiers, and greedy to boot. They were the most isolated people of their society. Those among them who followed Jesus found release from their acquisitiveness and relief from their inner anguish, plus company and camaraderie that they had never known before.

(ii) Among his followers were “sinners”. Isn’t everyone a sinner? Of course. But in first century Palestine “sinner” was the term used for people who weren’t religiously observant. They didn’t go to church on Sunday morning, they drank too much on Saturday night, they got pregnant when they shouldn’t have and got divorced when they felt like it (if they had even bothered to marry). And yet they found in Jesus the bone-deep truth and the undeniable solace that so much religion (let’s be honest) seems to obscure.

(iii) Among his followers were “crowds”. (“Multitudes” is the older word.) They were the people undistinguished in the vast sea of humanity. They weren’t notorious like the tax-collectors; they weren’t flagrant like the “sinners”; they were ordinary folk who suffered in the quiet way that all humankind suffers. Undistinguished in the mass, they were individually precious to the master. In following Jesus they knew something that no clever wordsmith could ever get them to deny: in the company of the master they found life brighter, happier, fruitful, promising.

(iv) Among his followers were two blind men. Blindness, in scripture, is both a distressing physical ailment and a metaphor for a much worse spiritual condition. A few people are physically blind — and this is bad enough; everyone is spiritually blind — and this is horrific. (The two blind men, in other words, represent all of us.) The two blind men hear of the approach of Jesus. They call out to him, “Son of David, have mercy on us.” “Son of David”: it means “Messiah”, the one in whom all of life’s wrongs are to be put right. Jesus stops before them and asks them what they want from him. “Give us our sight; just let us see.” He touches them. And immediately, Matthew tells us, immediately they follow him — out of gratitude.

All of us need to be made to see. How shall we enter the kingdom unless we first see it? How can we follow Jesus unless we first recognize him? Spiritual sight is ours at the master’s touch. Thereafter we follow him forever out of gratitude.

How important is it to follow? There is nothing more important than having what tax-collectors, “sinners”, crowds and blind men came to have from the master himself.

Are we not yet convinced? How important it is to obey the summons and rejoice in the invitation is obvious as soon as we look at what happens when we don’t follow — don’t follow Jesus, that is.

Peter tells us bluntly in his second letter. If we don’t follow Jesus, says Peter, then we “follow cleverly devised myths”. (2 Peter 1:16) “Cleverly devised myths” are the seductive “isms” that sweep up naive people, all the way from New Age pantheism to Old Age paganism to Every Age racism, ageism, classism, sexism, materialism.

In the second place, says Peter, if we don’t follow Jesus then we “follow our own licentiousness”. (2 Peter 2:2) The meaning of this is plain and there is no need to amplify it.

In the third place, Peter insists, if we don’t follow Jesus then we “follow the way of Balaam”. (2 Peter 2:15) Balaam, a figure from the older testament, was noted for his self-absorbing greed.

Not to follow Jesus is always to follow something better not followed at all. Then why not follow Jesus?

IV: — Those who did follow Jesus: what did they come to know? What did they come to have? What did they come to enjoy? In other words, what is the final outcome of discipleship?

(i) They came to know, have, enjoy an intimacy with the master himself that is finally indescribable. We must never undervalue this simple truth. We must never think that the final outcome of discipleship is doctrinal sophistication (important though this is) or a “world-view” that is supposedly better than someone else’s “world-view” or coping mechanisms for life that are better than anything the pharmacist sells. The outcome of our discipleship, the ultimate end of everything we do in church life, is intimacy with the living person of Jesus Christ.

I am moved every time I read Paul’s simple assertion, “I count everything loss (‘nothing’) because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil. 3:8) Paul doesn’t say that he valued everything about himself as nothing; he says that he valued everything about himself as nothing compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ.

Then what is there about the apostle that is otherwise so very valuable?

He is a Roman citizen. Few residents of Rome every got to be citizens of the great city. And non-residents? Fewer still. A non-resident Jew who is a citizen? This was so very rare that Paul belonged to a most exclusive elite. Moreover, in a day when a few people were allowed to purchase their citizenship, Paul reminded a Roman military officer who had purchased his citizenship that he, Paul, hadn’t purchased his: he had been born a citizen. Paul’s father or grandfather had rendered outstanding service to the Roman cause, and had been rewarded with a citizenship that was passed down from father to son. Paul belonged to a very privileged class.

He is also a “Hebrew of the Hebrews”. This means that Aramaic is his mother-tongue. To be sure, he speaks Greek fluently, like anyone born in Tarsus, but he speaks Aramaic as his mother-tongue. Jews born outside of greater Jerusalem tended to speak Greek as their mother tongue. If a Jew born outside of Jerusalem spoke Aramaic as mother-tongue it meant that he belonged to one of the old-money, aristocratic Jewish families. It was like being a Kennedy in Boston or a Molson in Montreal or a Massey in Toronto. Paul belongs to the topmost social class.

He is also a Pharisee; that is, he is faultless in his religious observances.

He never says that all of this is a trifle. (His Roman citizenship certainly wasn’t a trifle the day he called on it to spare himself a lynching!) He says it’s all a trifle compared to the surpassing worth of his intimacy with Jesus Christ.

To follow Jesus is to know, and have, and enjoy as much ourselves.

(ii) In the second place to follow is to be admitted to the kingdom of God, the kingdom of God being the present world, now capsized, turned right side up once again. To follow is to see that “kingdom of God” isn’t just another term for the world around us. Neither is at an aspect of the world, or an extension of the world. The kingdom of God is this world contradicted and corrected.

Think of power. The world looks upon power as the capacity to coerce. But in the kingdom of God, power is the capacity to fulfil God’s purpose — when God’s purpose is characteristically fulfilled by what the world regards as powerlessness (the cross, the foolishness of preaching, the social insignificance of the Christians in Corinth). Plainly, the kingdom of God is the contradiction and correction of the world.

Think of gainful employment. Why do we work? There are many reasons why we work: we need to sustain ourselves materially, non-work is psychologically stressful, work gives expression to education and training. But those with kingdom-understanding hear the apostle Paul when he says (Ephesians 4) that we are to work diligently and honestly in order to help those in need.

Think of vice. When the world mentions “vice” it has in mind the most lurid expressions of sexual irregularity. But subtle dishonesty and “profitable” shortcuts here and there? This is something of which people boast. Scripture, on the other hand groups the most lurid sexual irregularity and simple covetousness together, since in the kingdom of God they are alike, and in the same degree, manifestations of sin.

To follow Jesus is to be admitted to the kingdom of God, which kingdom is our present world contradicted and corrected.

(iii) To follow, lastly, is to gain knowledge of ourselves. Think of Peter. Peter is a fisherman. Jesus tells him he will soon be “fishing” for men and women. Of himself Peter cannot — and knows he cannot — “catch” other human beings for that kingdom which will never be shaken. Yet in time he finds himself doing what he never could do of himself.

He is told that when the heat is turned up he will melt down and deny his Lord over and over. He protests that he will never do this — only to find that he melts down worse than ever he thought he would, so treacherous is he under pressure. Yet when he recovers he’s not left knowing himself to be coward and failure and traitor. The event that acquaints him with the treachery he never thought he had in him is the same event that commissions him the leader of the young church in Jerusalem. Think of what he’s learned about himself now: he can become an enthusiastic disciple, insist naively that he won’t crumble, crumble shamefully, and none the less finally find himself exalted as the leader of Christ’s fellow-followers.

What is there yet for you and me to learn about ourselves? We are going to learn it only as we, like Peter, cry to Jesus, “We have left everything and followed you!”, only to hear Jesus say to us, “There is no follower who won’t get it all back a hundredfold, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10: 28-30)

Myself, I want only to follow, keep on following, keep on following ever more closely.

 

                                                                 (V. Shepherd May 2002)