This past Sunday, October 11th, 2009, I was blessed to be able to preach at McFarlin United Methodist Church in Norman, Oklahoma. The text of that sermons follows:
Well, this morning there is good new and there is bad news. The bad news is, by my count, since becoming a full-time Ph.D. student, I have not preached a sermon in 68 weeks. Which is the longest amount of time I have gone without preaching, since I preached my first sermon about seven years ago. That means I’m probably a little bit rusty. And it means that you are faced with a preacher with a lot of ideas, who hasn’t had the opportunity to share them with a captive audience in a long time. But there is good news. The good news is that I have now found a captive audience, and you are it!
“Come, follow me.” These three words, it seems to me are at the heart of this morning’s Scripture reading. The difficulty is in deciding how we should understand these words, in light of all the other words that surround them in our passage from Scripture. In other words, the question that faces us is this: Should we hear Jesus’ words – “Come, follow me” – as good news or bad news? Are they an invitation or a command? Do they give us an opportunity, or do they reveal a threat?
If we are honest, many of these words sound like bad news, or a threat of evil things to come:
Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor.
The man’s face fell.
He went away sad…
How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!
With man this is impossible.
But then again, other parts seem like good news, which perhaps reveals the promise of a tremendous opportunity:
Jesus looked at him and loved him.
All things are possible with God.
No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age and in the age to come, eternal life.
So, how should we understand Jesus’ words in this morning’s Scripture reading? Are they good news, or bad news?
It seems to me that if we are honest, people have come to different conclusions about this question.
Many have followed in the footsteps of the man in this story who asked “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” When he heard Jesus’ answer, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” To him, this was received as bad news, like an unfair command. The cost of discipleship was simply too high. So, when he heard Jesus’ words, we are told that his “face fell.” And “he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
In fact, it seems like the majority report may even be that this passage is bad news. In recent Christian history, it seems that most Christians, upon reading passages like this one, have asked, “Can Jesus really mean what he seems to mean?” And the answer is almost always no, he couldn’t have really meant that.
Like the Pharisees so often did when they interacted with Jesus, we look for ways to poke holes in the places where his words threaten us. We look for reasons to relativize or water down his statements. Sometimes the creativeness and ingenuity we bring to this task makes the Pharisees look like amateurs!
And yet throughout the history of the Church, there have also been many men and women who have had a very different reaction. Rather than seeing Jesus’ words as bad news and looking for a way out, they have focused on Jesus’ invitation – “Come, follow me.” For them, this has been such good news that they immediately followed.
In 1771 a 26 year old English traveling preacher heard Jesus’ call – “Come, follow me.” As a result, he said good bye to his mother and father and boarded a ship bound for the British Colonies in America. Over the next 45 years he travel a quarter of a million miles through the American wilderness, visiting nearly every state once a year. He stayed at approximately 10,000 households and preached 17,000 sermons.
At one point he contracted malaria and he was frequently ill as a result of having congestive heart failure and other ailments. His feet were often swollen, making it painful to even stand in order to preach. He may not have expected this, but as it turned out, he never left America. And as a result, he never saw his family again.
This man’s name was Francis Asbury, and with the possible exception of John Wesley, he is widely regarded as the most important figure in American Methodism. So, what could have possibly led him to go to such lengths? To sacrifice so much?
In 1771 on his way to America Asbury reflected in his journal about why he was going to America. He asked himself if he was going to gain honor? He answered, “No, if I know my own heart.” Was it to get money? He answered, “No.” So why was he going? He declared simply that he was going “to live to God, and to bring others so to do.”
As a result of his labors, one scholar has argued that Francis Asbury would have been the most recognized figure in America during his lifetime. In fact, Asbury’s British correspondents could address a letter simply as “Francis Asbury, America” and he would get it.
Asbury’s life was one of dedicated perseverance in his endeavors to follow Christ, wherever it would lead him and to invite others to do the same.
In many ways, Asbury was not remarkable. He was born into a pretty average family, he had a less than impressive education. And historians argue that he wasn’t even that great of a preacher, (which makes me feel a little bit better).
And yet more than 200 years later we are talking about him today. We have named churches and seminaries after him.
One way of understanding Francis Asbury’s importance is to consider the extent to which he faithfully followed Jesus. And, as Asbury revealed in his journal on his way to America, his goal was not just to faithfully follow Jesus, but to bring others to follow Christ as well.
And in many ways, this is the heritage that John Wesley, Francis Asbury, and our spiritual forebears have left to us. And their genius was that they did not just have ideas about how to follow Christ, but they actually had a plan for how they thought they could help bring these ideas into reality. They were certain that Christ’s invitation to “Come, follow me” was good news! They were convinced that there was no better direction that they could go in that in the direction that God was calling them.
And for John Wesley, who was the principle architect of Methodism, the goal was to share the message of Jesus’ invitation to “Come, follow me” with all the world. And so Wesley and the early Methodists preached a powerful message which sought to awaken people to the reality of their sins and their need for the grace of God. Wesley passionately believed that God’s offer of grace was made to all. And so Wesley and the Methodists often talked about the necessity of the new birth. (And in doing this, they were simply repeating Jesus’ words, when he said “you must be born again.”) But Wesley was not content to only lift up part of the message of Scripture. He sought to claim and proclaim the fullness of God’s offer of salvation.
Wesley believed that Christians are born again so that they can be cleansed from sin, so that they can be sanctified or made holy. As Wesley read and studied the Scriptures, he came to the conclusion that the goal of Jesus’ ministry was not just to save people from this life for the next life. Wesley’s study of Scripture led him to conclude that God wanted to forgive us and heal us.
In other words, when God finds us addicted and in chains to sins, Jesus most definitely offers us forgiveness from our sins. But he also offers us freedom from our sins. He wants to not only free us from the consequences of our sins, but he wants to free us for joyful obedience, service, and a life lived in the presence of God.
For some, this can be very hard to believe. We protest that we are not perfect, we all make mistakes. And this is certainly true. We do make mistakes. But Methodists do not believe that we have to do things that separate us from God. In fact, Methodists believe that God’s transforming grace is stronger, more powerful than our tendency to sin.
And if you think about it, the idea that God wants to save us not just from the consequences of our sin, but God also wants to free us from the power of sin, is not as strange as it may at first appear. Imagine if you went through the nightmare of watching your child become enslaved by an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Imagine living in fear that their addiction would cost them their life. Of course you would be willing to forgive your child for all the things that they had done that hurt you.
Now that I am a parent, I can’t imagine being in that situation. But I know if I were ever in that situation I would want to do so much more than to just forgive my child. I would do everything I possibly could to help them find freedom from their addiction. I would do anything and everything to help them to overcome what had them in chains, because for parents who are actually in this situation it can be a matter of life and death. Because forgiving someone who is a drug addict might not save their life, but helping them overcome their addiction could.
We would expect any parent to do whatever they could for their child if he or she were to become stuck in self-destructive lifestyles. If that is what we would expect of mothers and fathers, how much more should we expect this from our heavenly Father? How much more should we expect this of Jesus Christ? In Ephesians, after all, Paul invites us to try to “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”
Methodists believe that God wants to do two things in our lives: God wants to forgive us of our past sins, and God wants to transform and heal us so that we are released from the power of sin. For Methodists God is always bigger and more powerful than sin.
Methodism’s approach to the Christian life did not stop at ideas. One of the driving passions of Francis Asbury’s ministry was to make sure that the Methodist approach to Christian living was kept in place and consistently practiced.
The early Methodists put tremendous time and energy into ensuring that Methodist discipline was preserved and practiced. (I will be talking more about that at this evening’s presentation.) The most important piece of early Methodist discipline was the weekly class meeting, which was a small group that met weekly to watch over one another in love. The key question was “How is it with your soul?” For many years, this institution was a basic requirement for membership. To be a Methodist, you had to be in a class meeting.
The combination of the Methodist belief in the power of God’s amazing grace and their disciplined approach to the Christian life was potent. Largely because of these two qualities Methodism in America went from being a tiny, little known sect in 1776 to the largest denomination, by far, in 1850.
One of the major reasons for this miracle seems to have simply been that people heard Jesus’ call on their lives as good news. To them it was a generous offer, a wonderful invitation. And so they followed. Many early Methodists followed Francis Asbury’s example and traveled throughout the American wilderness, spreading the gospel. Countless others followed Jesus, not out of their communities, but by living as deeply committed disciples right where they were. In every Methodist church women and men responded to Jesus’ invitation. Some became preachers, but many more became lay leaders in their churches, leading small groups where they checked on one another and did everything they could to “watch over one another in love.”
Our spiritual ancestors were men and women who loved each other so much that they refused to accept less than God’s very best for one another. They refused to settle for anything less than the radical, transforming love of God.
But this morning we are given a sobering reminder from the Scriptures that not all who hear the call of Jesus Christ to “come, follow me” respond with joy, or even obedience. Some reject it. Some have decided that they will not give up the joys of this life, no matter the cost. And they leave the presence of Christ with fallen faces and in despair. Some, like the young man in this morning’s Scripture reading, value money and affluence more than the riches and abundance of life with God in Christ. Others may have become apathetic, and it is difficult for them to believe that there can be anything more. These people hear the call of Christ as bad news.
But this is not our heritage as Methodists. Decline, apathy, and resignation are not in our spiritual DNA. I believe we can find hope when we look back and remember our heritage, when we remind ourselves of all those who have gone before us, who have responded to Christ’s call – even when it came at great personal cost.
So, what does God see when God looks at us today? When God examines our hearts? Does God see women and men who would walk away sad because of obstacles that keep them from being willing to follow Christ? Or does God see men and women who are seeking God’s call on their lives, expecting to hear it, and ready to come and follow?
The first Methodists were known to be people who responded to Christ’s call. And we are the ones who have been entrusted with this precious heritage. It is a heritage that provides plenty of examples both of the possibility of following Jesus and of the benefits.
Where are you at this morning?
Sometimes following where God is leading you can be difficult, even terrifying. We may even want to turn and run away. The obstacles may seem too great, too insurmountable, too impossible.
We may be tempted to ask, like the disciples asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” Who, when, when it comes at great cost, can really follow you?
When we ask this question, may Jesus’ words ring in our ears: “With people this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
Jesus is not asking us to first figure everything out and then come and follow. He is asking us to take one step closer. He is not asking us if we can see how the pieces fit together. He is asking us to take another step. He is not asking us to predict the future. He is asking us to move closer to his plan for our lives.
This morning, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, many who spent their lives laying the foundation that we are now standing on. They have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. They know that there is nothing better than living for Christ. They know that Jesus came so that they might have live, and have it abundantly. And they know that Jesus came so that we might have abundant life. They know that it is a blessing, a privilege, and a joy to follow when Christ calls. And they want us to know, feel and experience that too.
Jesus has spoken three words. “Come, follow me.”
We have seen those who have gone before, and have chosen to follow.
And now it is our turn.
It is your turn.
Will you follow?