s115g00 Sunday 3 23/1/2000

"Follow me". Mark 1.17

Following Jesus is one of the central themes of Christianity. It is the essence of the word disciple - this is someone who follows a teacher.

And it is so common in the parlance of the Church that perhaps it might be worthwhile thinking about what this actually means. The disciples whom Jesus called, like Simon and Andrew, James and John, were called to follow Jesus in his travels around Galilee and finally in Jerusalem. They were not, however, to follow Jesus to the Cross. This was to be the fate of Jesus alone, in contrast to the followers of David Karesh of Wako, the followers in the Jonestown massacre, and to a multitude of followers of other sects - over the centuries around the world. The prominence the Church has traditionally given to Christian martyrs is I suppose human, yet I wonder if this accurately reflects what God wants of any of us. If God desires not the death of the wicked, God can hardly want the death of the righteous.

So if the disciples were to follow Jesus up to, but not including his death, where did Jesus take them? Jesus took them to all the places where he accepted the hospitality of people. So we follow Jesus when we accept the hospitality and gifts that others offer.

And we are called to FOLLOW Jesus, so we will never ever go where Jesus has not already been. So as followers of Jesus, we do not take Jesus to people, we go to point out to people where Jesus already has been and has already blessed their lives with his presence, acceptance and love. We follow Jesus to confirm that the acceptance and love of Jesus for one and for all people is not just a personal relationship between Jesus and them, but that relationship of acceptance includes human acceptance too.

We follow Jesus, and in following Jesus, we begin to appreciate the breadth of the love that God has for all people.

The whole point of the book of the prophet Jonah is the love God had for the people of Nineveh, and the lengths organised religion, personified in Jonah, was prepared to go to avoid delivering that message to the people of Nineveh.

This leads me on to a question of hermeneutics. Is the Bible written for those "ungodly" outside the Church who don't come to Church and who don't believe in God? The whole methodology of "missionary work to the heathen", is perhaps consciously or unconsciously based on taking the message of the gospel to those who have not heard it. Or is the Bible written for those inside the Church, to look with love and acceptance towards those outside, ever admitting the possibility that God is at work in them despite their differing faiths or practices?

The testimony of the Bible itself is of how hard it is for those chosen by God (and of course I do not mean here just the ancient people of the Old Covenant) to accept that God's love extended to others too. Both St Paul and St Peter learned this lesson 'the hard way'. Sacraments which were instituted to assure us of the certainty of God's grace can be used to alienate others. So circumcision became, not a sign of a gracious covenant, but a badge of membership. In the history of Christendom, beliefs about the Eucharist have turned a sacrament of fellowship into a cause for division.

Indeed we can look at the Bible in the same way. Is the Bible a historical, rather (indeed perhaps even deliberately?) improbable story to be believed or be damned for all eternity, or is it a sign of the loving kindness of the Lord for all people. So the question of hermeneutics is a vital one for us all.

We are called to follow Jesus, and in following Jesus, we are, like the original disciples, taken and introduced to other people. So in calling us to follow, Jesus creates community, a community of people who inevitably will not see "eye to eye". If even our finger-prints are unique, we can hardly expect our personalities and perceptions of life to ever be the same. Jesus creates the community and then says "love your neighbour". It is up to us to make the best of it. If we try to make the community into only those who think the same as us, have the same colour of skin or whatever, we are essentially destroying the community Jesus has created.

No encounter is "accidental" - every encounter is "of Jesus" - and contains within it the possibility of blessing or cursing - as we accept or as we question the other ...

Were two or three are gathered in my name ...

It was reported in the Internet edition of "Church Times" for January 7th 2000 that:

"Nine faith traditions gathered at the Palace of Westminster on Monday, 3 January for the concluding event in the national Millennium-weekend schedule.

"During an unprecedented act of reflection and commitment, 400 Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Zoroastrian, Jain, Baha'i and Buddhist leaders and laity stood to affirm the shared values of "community, personal integrity, a sense of right and wrong, learning, wisdom and love of truth, care and compassion, justice and peace, and respect for one another, for the earth and its creatures".

I am sure many who would call themselves "atheists" and "humanists" would indeed applaud these sentiments. Indeed many "atheists" and "humanists" would look at the history of the various faiths and denominations and say that in their opinion, those of faith have more often split communities, have inherent lack of respect for others who differ from them, and often whose compassion is restricted to those who call themselves "Christian". In this last point, I am here referring to the issue of Job Search agencies run by the Churches in Australia, funded by the government, who reportedly have preference for "Christian" clients.

The report continued:

"In the gilded Royal Gallery, to the sound of the Band of the Blues and Royals, the Archbishop of Canterbury sat beside the Chief Rabbi, the secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Great Britain and the president of the national council of Hindu temples, to hear Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, call for "people of varying religious backgrounds to be at the very heart of public life".

"The guests, variously sporting orange robes, saris, purple sashes, skull caps and Orthodox kamelavchion, listened to performances from a Jewish choir, a Welsh harpist and a Hindu veena player. They nodded in agreement as Ranja Shukla and her granddaughters recited Hindi prayers of gratitude for "good children" and "good parents", and applauded John Harte and Claire Jackson, representing the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities of Northern Ireland, who gave much of their address in unison.

"Dr Carey spoke about the "common humanity" of the nine faiths, which formed the context for their distinct beliefs. "It is from a secure spiritual base that we can listen to others and show genuine hospitality towards them," he said."

We can be sure that Jesus was there also.

I want to return to my earlier statement, that "we are called to FOLLOW Jesus, so we will never ever go where Jesus has not already been. So as followers of Jesus, we do not take Jesus to people, we go to point out to people where Jesus already has been and has already blessed their lives with his presence, acceptance and love." If we were to go, taking Jesus to others, are we not by definition, HIDING from those we go to the fact that Jesus has already visited and blessed them? It is this (possible) hiding that might be another way organised religion (using all the right words) has of avoiding delivering the message, like Jonah wanted to avoid delivering that message to the people of Nineveh.

For me the greater and more welcome gift would be to be shown where God had been active in my life already, than to accept Him / Her from someone else, assuming someone else had Him / Her to offer ... Indeed of course the good news is precisely this - that God loves us as we are, not loves us if we turn out to be acceptable in the end.


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