Most Sundays we begin worship with confession and forgiveness. This liturgical rite isn’t meant to make people feel guilty. It’s meant to remind us of our need for God’s mercy and grace. Too many people focus too much on their sinfulness that they forget that God is gracious and merciful and does, on account of Jesus Christ, restore and reconcile us to right relationship with God. That’s the point of confession and forgiveness—nothing more and nothing less, as if there really is anything that could be more or less important than right relationship with God!
Nevertheless, confession in particular is important. It’s an opportunity for us to seriously recognize our need for God’s mercy and grace—to seriously recognize. Not mercy as some resigned restraint from smiting us, but rather mercy as compassion to look upon us as we truly are. And not grace as some cheap eraser that allows us to do whatever we want, but rather grace as a gift given to us that we might recognize God’s deep, abiding love for us. Confession is a time in worship for us to, for a moment, “ponder anew what the Almighty can do if he with his love befriend you,” as the hymnist says. And so today, as we go into the sermon, I challenge you to again “ponder anew” what God can do for you, for us all, when we take a moment to step back and seriously consider how much he loves us. What is possible when we recognize who we are, who God is, what God does for us, and what we can do in light of that?
Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.
When I was in Mrs. Dietz’s third grade class, each week we had a different line leader. It was a big deal to be the line leader. Wherever we went, if you were the line leader, you got to go to the front of the line even if other kids had started to get in line before you got to the front. When recess was over, you could go in front of the other kids and take up your rightful place at the front of the line. Being the line leader had perks because, for instance, if you were the line leader, when we went to the computer lab, you could make sure you got to one of the computers with a color monitor. Since each computer was first-come-first serve, and there weren’t enough computers for everyone to have a computer with a color monitor, being at the head of the line meant you could get one of the better computers. Same for the best seat in the cafeteria. Being the line leader had it perks.
We learn at an early age the fundamental social benefits of being the leader. Leaders make decisions. Leaders embody power. Leaders are important. Leaders are tough. People know who the leader is. It’s good to be the leader because the leader is in charge. Our culture has taught us that there’s something inherently admirable about being in charge. Perhaps it’s because someone who makes decisions, someone who has power, someone who is important and tough—that someone is someone who we should be able to trust and can rely on. And those are admirable qualities, trust and reliance. In order to become a leader, you have to demonstrate that you are trustworthy and reliable—among other things like loyal, kind, cheerful, and helpful. But at the end of the day, a leader is someone strong, and strength is what sees you through difficulty—what gives you the ability to regulate your emotions, thoughts, and behavior and curb temptations and impulses to reach your goals. Leaders summon this strength from within, hone it, and master it. Leaders accomplish whatever goals they set for themselves—and for others. The marker of a true leader is success.
In today’s gospel text, Jesus is walking along Sea of Galilee—really, a big lake, about 30 miles around, give or take depending on the time of year. Jesus is walking around the Sea of Galilee when he sees Simon and his brother Andrew fishing. Now, Simon is who we later come to know as Peter—the so-called “first apostle.” Jesus sees Peter and Andrew and tells them, “Follow me, and I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.” Often we get hung up on this bit about “fishing for people.” It’s an interesting notion, to be sure. What’s Jesus mean? But in our rush to focus on the oddity of Jesus’ offer to fish for people, we often soar right over the first bit of what he says—or at least we only give it passing lip service. It bears serious grappling, though. Before Peter and Andrew, or James and John for that matter, can become fishers of people, they have to do what Jesus says first—“Follow me.” What does it mean to be a follower? And what’s it mean to be a follower of Jesus in particular?
Peter was most likely a successful businessman. He had a fishing business, catching and selling Galilean fish that was considered a delicacy throughout the Roman empire in the first century. He made his livelihood out of fishing, and it likely wasn’t a terrible one at that. We know that Peter had his own house and supported his mother-in-law there, so we also know that he had a wife he supported, and we can likely assume that like any typical Jewish man of his time, he had children he supported as well. Peter was a provider. A leader. It seems that James and John likewise come from similar means. Their fishing business even had other hired hands, as we’re told today. It was successful enough to support the livelihoods of several men—and probably their families as well.
For all intents and purposes, these men Jesus bid “Follow me” were not followers, but they were leaders. And yet we’re told that they “immediately” followed him when he bid them come after him. They immediately gave up everything they knew—all their skills, their source of income, their success—and became disciples of Jesus. What happened?
Jesus message was simple, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The Jewish people, living under Roman occupation, with a history of captivity under the Persians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, knew well that the good news meant well the coming reign of God. But when Peter and Andrew, James and John heard this news—“the kingdom of God has come near”—they still had a narrow view of what it meant. They thought of it in terms of getting rid of the Romans and having their lives back to how it was when Israel was great under David and Solomon. What they never could’ve imagined was the kind of radical change Jesus meant when he said these words.
The kingdom of God doesn’t just mean a change in the way that this world works, but a complete change of all things. Old ways of behavior are turned upside down, turned around, and turned inside out. The shalom of God, the peace of God that surpasses all human understanding pervades all matter of existence in the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God the hungry don’t go hungry, we invite the homeless poor into our own homes, we dress the shivering poorly dressed, no one is shunned or forgotten by families for who they are, the chains of injustice are broken, exploitation in the workplace is no more, the oppressed go free, and debt is no more. This is the kingdom of God Jesus proclaims, and it’s this kingdom that he brings in its fullness to his disciples—to Peter and Andrew, James and John, and to you and to me.
But we must follow Jesus as he enters into his kingdom. We must repent. We must honestly look at our lives and assess them, and realize what it means to be a Christian. For in following Jesus, we must come to realize that we must empty ourselves to achieve the glory of God’s kingdom. In following Jesus, we are not conformed to the ways of this world that would tell us, “Success at all costs,” but rather we are conformed to the same mind that was in Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born a human being like us. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
In following Jesus, we take up our cross, and bear it with love, humility, and obedience as once he did for us. We bear this cross, not for our sakes, but for the sake others—for the sake of those who mourn, for the sake of those who are forgotten, for the sake of those who are sick, for the sake of those who are oppressed. In following Jesus, we lead others to the goodness, mercy, kindness, and love of God that so fundamentally transforms our lives, so that like us, their lives might be turned upside down, around, and inside out from sorrow, despair, and hopelessness into joy, possibility, and purpose.
Mason loved his grandma’s cookies. When he would go to her house to visit, she’d always send him home with a tin full of cookies that his mom would put in a glass cookie jar in the kitchen. When she’d come to visit his house, she’d invariably bring him some along, as grandma’s do. So, it’s no surprise that when he came toddling into the kitchen one day and his mother wasn’t around, he pushed a chair over to the counter, climbed up, and was delighted to see that that there was one last cookie left at the bottom of the jar. He reached down, grabbed the cookie, but realized he had a problem. He couldn’t pull his hand out of the cookie jar as long as he was holding the cookie with his hand fisted. Try though he might, he couldn’t get his hand out of the jar. It was at this point that his mom comes into the kitchen followed directly by his grandma—who naturally was holding a tin of cookies. But instead of letting go of the cookie, hopping down off the chair, and running over to his grandma who had a tin full of cookies, Mason started crying that he couldn’t get the cookie out of the jar. He wanted that cookie he had in his hand and wasn’t about to loosen his grip to give it up, even though he knew Grandma had a tinful of cookies for him in her hands.
Our lives of discipleship, our lives following Jesus are like Mason and the cookie jar. Sometimes we grasp hold of things we think we want or need so tightly that we can’t imagine letting them go for something greater. But life as a disciple of Jesus requires, it demands that we let go of certain habits, patterns, behaviors, and ways of thinking, ways of speaking, and ways of living. It demands a new life of us. “For those who want to save their life,” Jesus says, “will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the good news, will save it.” Life as Jesus’ disciples means putting behind the notion of greatness, notions of success and becoming followers. Old ways of behavior are turned upside down, around, and inside out.
The world teaches that the marker of a true leader is success, but as disciples of Jesus we are not intoxicated by the false spirit of affluence and prosperity. The true marker of a disciple of Jesus is repentance—the willingness to look at our lives and by the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, to understand them as instruments of God’s purpose. By all accounts, a disciple of Jesus is no true leader, rather a failure and weakling by the measure of the world. But to those who are the called as Peter and Andrew, James and John—to you and to me and to all Christians down through the ages, we disciples of Jesus by our lives bear witness to the truth that and God’s failure is more successful than human success and God’s weakness stronger than human strength.
We know who are. We are God’s beloved. And it’s this same love we follow who leads us from darkness to light, from evil to goodness, and from death to life.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.