Following Jesus

We find ourselves in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, verses thirty-five through forty-two. It is obviously early in Jesus’s ministry. It is so early in Jesus’s ministry that Jesus doesn’t have a single disciple. That is about to change. According to the text, John the Baptist was with his disciples, when Jesus passes by. John the Baptist, who always was pointing toward Jesus and away from his own earthly success, identified Jesus as the Lamb of God. With his endorsement, two of John’s disciples leave him and follow Jesus. The Bible identifies one of the disciples as Andrew, tradition identifies the other disciple as John, the author of this Gospel. Seconds later, Jesus notices that they are following him and asked them, “Why?” It is an excellent question because no one likes being stocked. They answer Jesus’s question with another question, “Where are you staying?” Jesus answers that question with an invitation, “Come and you will see.” They accepted the invitation and stayed with him. They must have been impressed. They stayed with Jesus until about 4:00 in the afternoon. At that time, the two temporary leave Jesus and told others about him. Andrew told his brother Peter, who decided to follow Jesus too. In this story, three people decided to follow Jesus in a single day. In each case their lives wouldn’t be the same again.

In the scripture lesson for today, following Jesus looks simple. Andrew and John are with John the Baptist. John identifies Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, so they began to follow Jesus. Hours later, Andrew tells his brother, Peter, and he begins to follow Jesus. Their decision to follow Jesus seems easy. I can’t speak for them, and I can’t speak for you. I can only speak for myself. In my opinion, the decision to follow Jesus isn’t easy. It is very complex. Your decision to follow Jesus will affect the rest of your life. I am not wrong. Following Jesus is very complex. That is what I have written about in this blog. I have grouped my thoughts around three questions. This is the first question.

Do you follow Jesus exclusively? On September 11, 2001, our world changed forever. It was a Tuesday and I had taken the day off. My daughters were in school. I was getting ready to stain our deck. My wife Kathryn stuck her head out of the side door of our home and said, “You need to watch this.” I came in and sat down. I saw our world change in front of my eyes. America was attached by terrorists in three places, western Pennsylvania, New York City and Washington DC. Our national innocence was gone, and we entered a new sinister world. The painful truth became common knowledge. America was under attack by extreme members of the Islamic faith. On September 11, those terrorists wanted the world to know that the Muslim faith was the only way. They frustrate us for many reasons. One of the reasons is their narrowness. If you are going to follow Jesus, then you must be narrow too. Are you willing to follow Jesus exclusively because you understand Jesus to be our hope of salvation. Be prepared, some may call us narrow. Look at the story with me.

In the story, Andrew and John begin as disciples of John the Baptist. Don’t forget, John the Baptist was their rabbi or teacher, Andrew and John were his disciples or students. In other words, he gave them spiritual insight and direction. When John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, they listen to him because they trusted him. This story is incredible because Andrew and John turned their backs on John the Baptist to follow Jesus. They were going to follow Jesus exclusively. Are you following Jesus exclusively? Are you willing to tell the other world religions they are wrong? This is the second question.

Do you follow Jesus unconditionally? One of the great stories in the Bible can be found in the Book of Job. Everyone knows the story because everyone has played the part of Job. In the beginning he has everything, wealth, health, and relationships. Satan believes, Job’s loves for God is conditional, so he begins to take things away the good things in Job’s life. His wealth is taken away. His health is taken away. His loved ones are taken away. Job is left with nothing. His friends witness his ordeal and encourage him to curse God and die. Job refuses. He loves God unconditionally.

How many people do you know follow Jesus unconditionally? In my time in the ministry, I witnessed it many times. It is easy to follow Jesus when life is good. It is easy to follow Jesus when you have an enjoyable well-paying job. It is easy to follow Jesus when your health is good and your loved one’s health is good. It is easy to follow Jesus when all your relationships are sound. It is not so easy to follow Jesus when you are unemployed, sick, and alone. It is not easy to follow Jesus when you are overwhelmed with worry. It is not so easy to follow Jesus when your friends tell you to stop following Jesus. After all, we believe in an all-powerful God who resurrected Jesus from the dead. Have you ever wondered why our all-powerful God doesn’t help you? Do you follow Jesus conditionally? Do you follow Jesus unconditionally? This is question number three.

Do you follow Jesus passionately? In the scripture lesson for today, three people decided to follow Jesus. There was Andrew, John, and Peter. They followed Jesus because they wanted to change their lives. You can’t blame them because their lives were hard. Any change seemed to be better. However, they didn’t have a clue how much their lives were going to change. They followed Jesus until the very end of their lives. Only John died of old age. Yet, he experienced the isolation of Patmos because he refused to stop following Jesus. It is there that he had a series of visions. Those visions became the Book of Revelation. Peter followed Jesus to Roman, according to tradition, and was crucified upside down because he wasn’t worthy to die like Jesus. Andrew, according to tradition, was crucified on an x-shaped cross. Each one wanted changed and they got it. No one came question their passion.

How passionate are you about Jesus?  I hope you are open to change. The reason is simple. Once you begin to follow Jesus your agenda your life doesn’t really matter. The only thing that really matters is Jesus’s agenda. In other words, are you willing to let Jesus change you? The faith is not meant to be a Sunday morning experience, the faith is meant to be a life-altering experience. It sounds so easy. Andrew, John, and Peter followed Jesus. The truth is following Jesus is quite complex. Following Jesus will change everything about you. How passionate are you about Jesus?

It is impossible not to know the name C. S. Lewis (1898-1963). As a novelist, poet, lecturer, and Christian apologist, he held academic posts at both Oxford and Cambridge for decades. Yet, he was a blessing to the nonacademic worlds too. His Christian faith can be seen in all his classic literary works. Perhaps, you have read or heard of one of these: The Screwtape Letters, The Chronical of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem with Pain. It is interesting to note that there was a long period in his life when Lewis believed in nothing at all. In his memoir, Surprised by Joy, Lewis told how he was baptized into the Church of Ireland, but the sacrament had no influence on him. He walked away from the faith and didn’t return until he was 32 years old. He thanked his friends, including J. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), for his spiritual wakening. Who do you credit for your spiritual awakening? In other words, who do you credit for saving your soul? Perhaps, this is a more profound question.

When did you first decide to follow Jesus? No two stories are the same. No one’s story is better, or worse, than another story. Your story is just that, your story. Your story may include loving parents who sacrificed for you. They took you to church every week so you could know Jesus as your own. For this reason, Sunday school was not an option, it was a requirement. When your heart was just right, God spoke to you in just the right way. You decided to follow Jesus. The people in your life never saw a great change in your life. For this reason, your story is not exciting. I like those unexciting stories because they sound so much like mine. Or maybe, your story is exciting.

There was a surplus sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. Maybe your story included long periods away from loved ones. To the outside world you were living the dream. However, you knew the truth. You were miserable and your heart was restless. You were afraid to dye, and you didn’t like the person you had become. When you hit the lowest, God spoke to you. It was an incredible experience. You were born again! That was a good thing because you wanted to start your life over again. The people in your life couldn’t believe the change. They had grown tired of the old you, and they wanted to get to know the new you. Can I tell you the truth? It doesn’t really matter how you came to follow Jesus. The only thing that matters is that you decided to follow Jesus. You are not much different than the Bible characters, Andrew, James, and Peter. You know now what they discovered later. Following Jesus will change everything about you.  American Protestant author, teacher, and preacher Francis Chan (born 1967) once said, “You find that the things you let go of while following Jesus were the things that were going to destroy you in the end.”

The New You

We are in the first nine verses of the ninth chapter of Acts. The persecution of the church continues. However, this time the focal point is not Jerusalem, it is Damascus. That point is important because it was in the Roman province of Syria. Like Jerusalem, it boasted a large Jewish population. Saul has been given authority to look for Christians there. If found, they will be arrested and taken back to Jerusalem, where they will be imprisoned. The distance between Jerusalem and Damascus is approximately 180 miles. On foot, it would have taken Saul about a week to travel. That journey was made alone because he had limited contact with his guard. With every step, Saul was thinking. He may have been thinking about his future task, or he may have been thinking about his past regrets. I wonder how much time he spent thinking about the death of Stephen. Perhaps, all that thinking set the stage for what happened next?

As Saul approached Damascus, the unexpected happened. A bright light from heaven was focused on him. Instinctively, he fell to the ground and heard a voice. In the next few moments, two questions were asked. The first was asked by Jesus, himself, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When you persecute or criticize the church, you are persecuting or criticizing Jesus. After all, the church is the bride of Christ. No one has ever seen an ugly bride. The second question came from Saul, “Who are you, Lord?” It was a question that was asked to fill the silence. He knew the answer. The man who ordered commands, suddenly was asking for direction. He was to go into Damascus and wait. He waited in complete darkness because his eyesight was taken away. He was in that state for three days, without food. Just like Jesus was dead for three days. It was the turning point in Saul’s life. Nothing would be the same again.

In this blog, I want to talk about three changes that took place in Saul’s life that day. They are the same changes you must make in your life if you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ. These points are not original. The came from United Methodist preacher James W. Moore (1938-2019). He was a graduate of the Methodist Theological School of Ohio. They are worth examining.

If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you must have a new focus. That is what happened to Saul. In the first chapter of Mark is the story of Jesus calling his first disciples. It is a story of instant obedience. They instantly leave everything and follow Jesus. Mark does not give us any prior history the disciples had with Jesus, they just left. When I was young, it did not seem logical, or responsible. However, as I have grown older, I have grown to understand why they did it. I believe, they accepted Jesus’ invitation because they needed something new in their lives. Their lives had grown stale, and they hungered for change. You can say they wanted an adventure. Time reminded them that life in this world is limited. They wanted to leave this world a better place. Jesus offers his followers a new focus. If you are going to follow Jesus, then be prepared for a new focus. The temporary is no longer vital. Saul no longer was concerned about worldly success. The eternal suddenly becomes all consuming. How important is eternity to you?

It is interesting only John died of old age. Some believe he lived to be 100. The other eleven dyed as martyrs. Tradition tells us, Peter died in Rome. He was crucified upside down at his request. He was not worthy to die as Jesus died. Andrew was also crucified and died in present day Russia. James was stoned and clubbed to death in present day Syria. Thomas was in India where he was pierced through the side by four solders. Philip went to North Africa and was tortured. Bartholomew was martyred in Ethiopia. Simon the Zealot traveled to Persia and was killed for not worshipping the sun god. Just think about it. Eleven of the twelve died of unnatural causes for the Gospel. Not even one complained because their eyes were fixed on eternity. They had a new focus. Their eyes were fixed on eternity. Are you more concerned about the temporary? Are you more concerned about the eternal? Where are your eyes fixed? If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you better be prepared for a new focus. If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you better be prepared for a new future.

If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you must have a new vision. Do you have someone in your life that will not let you forget the past? It may be a mother or a father. It may be a brother or a sister? It may be a friend. Is there someone in your life you hate seeing because they are constantly reminding you of your mistakes or failures? Maybe this is a better question, how much time do you spend resenting your past?

William Glasser (1925-2013) was an American psychiatrist who made his impact on the world of psychiatry. He has developed something called “reality therapy.” His approach is a little blunt, but it sounds good to me. While most of the fields of psychiatry spend a great amount of time untangling your past. For example, why you hate your mother and why you resent your brother. Reality therapy spends time on your future. It says you have the rest of your life to live, get over your past and do something with your future. Do you spend too much time in your past? Do you have someone in your life who spends too much time living in the past? Wouldn’t you like to tell them to get over it and start living today?

Jesus may have been the first reality therapist. He did not care about Saul’s past. He was not worried about what Saul had done. He was more concerned with what Saul could do. This is not an isolated case. Have you ever noticed how little time Jesus spent talking about the past? He is much more interested in his future. It was not just true of Saul. It was true of everyone. When he found the woman in the adulterous relationship, he forgives her and says, “Sin no more.” (John 8:11) When Nicodemus appeared on that dark night with the question Jesus told him to move forward in life. You must be born again. (John 3:3) In the parable of the prodigal son the young brother messed up but they father accepts him back and has a party. (Luke 15:11-31) Jesus is not interested in your past. The same is true for you. He is more interested in what you are going to do in the future then what you did in the past. When you learn to completely follow Jesus you can expect a new future. If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you better be prepared for a new focus. If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you better be prepared for a new future. If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then you better be prepared for a new lifestyle.

If you are going to be a follower of Jesus Christ, then have a new lifestyle. In February of 2016 18-year-old Malachi Love-Robinson was arrested in in West Palm Beach, Florida for pretending to be a doctor. He impersonated an anesthesiologist at the St. Mary’s Medical Center. He was found guilty on 14 charges and served three and a half years in prison. I find that story interesting because the one thing people will not tolerate is a fraud. Our society values people who are genuine. It is especially true of the Christian community. Our society will not tolerate a hypocrite.

Our society is extremely critical of the church and our society is extremely critical of individual Christians. That means your world is watching you to see if you are a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. Four times in the New Testament says we are Christ’s ambassadors in this world. That means you are representing Jesus. What are you teaching your world about Jesus from your behavior? What are you teaching your world about Jesus from your attitudes or opinions? What are you teaching your world about Jesus from your words? Jesus loved everyone unconditionally. Jesus forgave everyone regularly. How are you doing serving as Christ’s ambassador in this world?

Let me ask you these two questions. You can consider them a test of your genuineness. What have you said about our new president in the last few days? What have you said about our former president in the last few days? Remember, you are an ambassador of Jesus Christ? Are you a follower who is embracing a new lifestyle, always forgiving, and always loving, or are you a leader who refuses to change? Jesus loved everyone. Jesus forgave regularly. The great reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) said it best, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.”  On this inauguration week, let me end with this patriotic story.

In 1789, an uncertain George Washington (1732-1799) was urged to seek the presidency of the United States by Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816). Morris was a man of great influence. He was a delegate from New York to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. From 1792-1794, he served as the Ambassador to France. From 1800-1803, he served as a United States Senator. He saw Washington as a natural leader. Morris wrote Washington these words: “No constitution is the same on paper and in life. The exercise of authority depends upon personal character. Your cool steady temper is needed to set the tone for a new government.”

Here is the good news for today! No one is asking you to be the president. (Aren’t you glad?) No one is even asking you to be a leader. The only thing I am going to ask you to do is be a follower. Follow Jesus and experience life as God intended from the very beginning. When you learn to follow Jesus, you will discover a new focus, a new future, and a new lifestyle. How much has the Gospel changed your life? So, let me ask you the question of the day one more time. Are you a leader? Are you a follower? Jesus is looking for followers.