Following Jesus – September 16, 2018
A man carefully chose a bumper sticker to put on the back of his car as his personal statement of faith. “I follow Jesus” the bold bumper sticker read. One day another driver sped around and then in front of his car, before coming to stop at a light. Much annoyed, when the light turned green the driver sped in front of the offending car, pulled in front and then slowed to a crawl. The driver of the second car honked loudly. Both cars came to a stop at the next stop light and both drivers angrily stepped out of their cars. “Is that how you follow Jesus?” the driver of the second car yelled. (Homiletics Online, 9/16/18, “Taming Your Tweet,” quoting Adam Hamilton, “Is your use of social media undermining your Christian witness?,” Cokesbury Commons, February 8, 2016.)
Whose voice will we follow? The writer of Proverbs asks us. The voice of wisdom and the voice of foolishness both cry out and invite us to commune with them. Which voice will we heed? When we react strongly without thinking, when we act in anger, whose voice are we heeding?
“Keep your servant from presumptuous sins,” and “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight,” the Psalmist prays. We may proclaim, in Church or in a bumper sticker on the back of our car, that we follow Jesus, but how often do we follow a far different direction?
“The tongue is a small member,” the letter of James warns us, and yet the tongue can do grave harm. The same can certainly be said about all our communications: our tweets, our emails our instant-messaging, our social media posts, our bumper stickers and especially our actions. James warns us that we need to be extremely cautious in what we communicate, for we can do grave harm as well as great good by our communications.
In today’s Gospel lesson the disciples learn the ramifications of truly following Jesus. “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus told them, “let them deny themselves and take up their 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 8:34b-35) Jesus offers us two alternative paths. The first way looks like conventional wisdom: Look out for #1. To thine own self be true. Be the first in line. Get ahead. Me first. But Jesus warns us that “those who want to save their life will lose it.” It is only in following the second path, Jesus’ own unconventional way of self-sacrificial love, that one will find true life. One has to die to self (to gain, to power, to worldly victory) in order to discover the life of God that truly is life.
In the latest Christian Century magazine commenting on today’s Gospel lesson, Pastor Bruce Epperly writes that,
Jesus poses a countercultural understanding of divine power as relational and sacrificial. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead asserted that God is the fellow sufferer who understands. A couple decades later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated that only a suffering God can help. Such visions counter our images of God as all powerful and all judging. They also challenge images of a distant and apathetic God, untouched by the pain of the world. (“Living by the Word, September 16” by Bruce Epperly, in The Christian Century, pg. 18, August 29, 2018)
In essence there are two kinds of power: power that is unilateral and power that is relational. Unilateral power “builds walls, silences opposition, decides without consultation, and separates the world into us and them.” “Relational power leads by empathy, inclusion, listening and receptivity. It transforms the world by a dynamic process of call and response, of adjusting…. God saves the world by love and not coercion, by embrace and not alienation.” (ibid) Jesus embraced relational power as his way of love. This is the way in which he invited his disciples to follow.
Jesus not only spoke these challenging words, he lived them. As Paul wrote in Philippians 2:6-8,
though he was in the form of God (he) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
Jesus showed us the path of servanthood and love. He welcomed all people. He taught us that God’s love extends not just to the righteous but to the unrighteous and sinner. He did not turn away anyone in need. He touched and healed the broken and sick. He welcomed the sinner. He forgave sins and even forgave those who crucified him.
“Contrary to the world’s focus on individual success, Jesus asserts that those who hang onto their lives will lose them, while those who are willing to lose their lives will experience God’s blessing.” Losing one’s life isn’t about martyrdom, but the choice of jettisoning one’s ego in favor of serving others not self. “In God’s world, sacrifice brings blessing, and relationship trumps ideology. Losing your isolated, fearful self leads to a world of beloved friends.” (ibid)
Today at St. John’s is Great Welcome Sunday. This is our fall-startup Sunday. It’s the first Sunday of Church School, the first Sunday our choir is back, the day we move back to the high altar, the day we welcome everyone back from whatever plans and activities they had for the summer and start our life as a parish community anew.
The bumper sticker on the back of my car reads, “Welcome to the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.” It builds on a favorite phrase of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry. Today, on Great Welcome Sunday, we welcome everyone to the local Stamford co-op of the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement. This community is where we gather to celebrate, and to learn, and to encourage one another and to practice our faith, and to pray for help… in the life of following Jesus. That, in a nutshell, is what it means to be the local co-op of this Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement. This is where we gather to try to discern and distinguish between the paths of worldly wisdom and loving sacrificial wisdom as practiced and taught by our Lord and Savior, Jesus. This is where we come to receive forgiveness for all the ways we fall short of following Jesus’ path of love. This is where we come to receive acceptance just as we are, with all our faults and brokenness. This is where we come together for inspiration and encouragement in trying to follow our Lord in the challenging and difficult path of love.
So welcome, one another in Jesus’ name. Welcome one another in love. Welcome the love of God that we are blessed to share in this place. Welcome the broken and hurting and needy persons in our midst. Welcome the righteous and welcome the sinner. Welcome the embrace that God gives to all. Be welcomed to this table. Be welcomed into the ongoing movement of love that follows the way that Jesus lived and taught. Amen.