Choosing to Follow Rev Walt Weiss At another church, at a very different and difficult time in my life, one of my favorite hymns was “I have decided to follow Jesus” – part of the refrain of that song is “I have decided to follow Jesus – no turning back, no turning back.” One of […]
Choosing to Follow
Rev Walt Weiss
At another church, at a very different and difficult time in my life, one of my favorite hymns was “I have decided to follow Jesus” – part of the refrain of that song is “I have decided to follow Jesus – no turning back, no turning back.” One of the choruses of that hymn includes the words “the world behind me, the cross before me.” As I sang those words, they echoed my belief at the time that Jesus had been sent by God to die on the cross not just for the sins of the world, but for my own very “personal sin” of being gay. Over the years, through lots of therapy, self-study, and the influence of the message preached here at Sunshine Cathedral week after week, I am very much at peace with who I am as a gay man, and as I shared in my sermon back in May, very committed to following Jesus – indeed for me there has been no turning back – though my understanding of the one I follow, is very much different.
Most of us who have grown up in the Western hemisphere are well acquainted with Jesus and the stories about him. We may not have all read them from the bible ourselves, but we have been told by people in authority (clergy), or by people we trust, whether family or friends, and for the most part, we have accepted this as truth – as gospel. New Testament scholar, Marcus Borg, in his very insightful book Meeting Jesus AGAIN for the First Time talks about this kind of thinking as “pre-critical naiveté” and the challenge many of us face when through critical thinking we are no longer able to accept some of the myths we have been told as truth. Is it possible to strip away the layers of mis-information that have surrounded the person of Jesus of Nazareth, to see him as he historically was, and still desire to follow him? I believe so.
In our gospel reading today, Matthew has Jesus saying “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” It seems that for many the Christian life is about denying themselves of who they are, or about some “cross they have to bear” in this life, with little attention to what it means to actually following Jesus. In addition, others think that in this verse Jesus was foretelling how he would die with this reference to the cross, but I think it more likely that these words were probably added as the writer looked back on what had already happened to Jesus.
This would also be consistent with the next section of the reading talking about losing one’s life. We need to stop reading the gospels as historical documents, with verbatim quotes from Jesus. What we read came about after years of oral tradition as the followers of Jesus struggled to express the reality of their faith, and how it continued long after Jesus had been executed. With this understanding in mind, however, throughout the gospels, if we take a look at the way Jesus encouraged others to join him, we see a pretty consistent pattern. Whether it was when Jesus met fishermen Simon & Andrew, (Mk 1.17), the rich ruler, (Lk 18.22), Levi, the tax collector (Lk 5.27) or Phillip, (Jn 1.43) he simply said “follow me.” In the earliest gospel accounts, it is this phrase “follow me” that is repeated over and over. It is not until the fourth gospel, written towards the end of the First Century, as the understanding of who and what Jesus was changed into a higher Christology, that read Jesus saying “believe in me.”
In both Greek and Latin, the root of the word “believe” has the understanding of “giving one’s heart” to what is believed in. Unfortunately, when someone today says that they “believe in Jesus” it implies some intellectual assent to certain doctrines or creeds. Putting that aside, I would like to reflect with you today on the simple phrase “Follow me” and what it means to be a follower of Jesus in today’s world, and what it means to us as a community here at Sunshine Cathedral to be disciples of Jesus. The word disciple implies that a person be “a follower after somebody.” Discipleship in the New Testament is of course, a following after Jesus, a journeying with Jesus. The first followers of Jesus were not called Christians, rather, they called themselves “the followers of the way” as if Jesus was himself but a part of the journey. Marcus Borg points out that discipleship involves having companions, a word that means “someone with whom one shares bread” “Discipleship is not an individual path but a journey in a company of disciples. It involves being in a community that remembers and celebrates Jesus.”
It was at an International Mr. Leather competition in Chicago over ten years ago that I first attended a Metropolitan Community Church service. At that service I was moved to tears as I watched gay men in chaps and motorcycle jackets…come forward together to receive communion. I had never witnessed anything like it, nor had ever felt the tremendous closeness I had with each person gathered around that table. To this day, for me, one of most sacred moments of our shared time together each Sunday is when we share communion, when we, as a community, as a family, share bread together “in remembrance of him.”
We are on this journey together and to journey with Jesus means listening to his teachings. It is impossible in one sermon to elaborate on all of the teachings of Jesus, but for today I would like to look at three key areas by which we can identify what it means to follow Jesus.
First of all, to follow Jesus means “TO EXEMPLIFY LOVE AND COMPASSION”
We read in Mt 9.36 “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
For Jesus, the central quality of God is compassion, which literally means “to feel with” to feel as God feels, to act as God acts. This is of great significance. Citing Lk 6.36 from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, Marcus Borg writes “’Be compassionate as God is compassionate’ is the defining mark of the follower of Jesus.” This is consistent with the Torah, the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures, which taught that the ultimate religious duty was showing compassion to those who are in need. This however, was in conflict with the admonition in Leviticus 11.44 “Be holy as God is holy”. Holy meant separate from everything unclean. The central conflict in the ministry of Jesus was between two different social visions. The dominant social vision was centered in holiness, the alternative social vision of Jesus was compassion. Jesus’ religion taught that moral rules were ultimate and that if one violates these rules they must endure a prescribed punishment or the wrath of God would fall on the whole community. That produced a sense of external righteousness and fierce judgment and community enforcers of the rules of God. There are so many examples in the gospels where Jesus sought to close the divide between these conflicting social visions. Let us look at a few and see how “Jesus was an advocate of the politics of compassion in a social world dominated by the politics of purity.” (Marcus Borg)
In his encounters with the Pharisees Jesus tried to push the limits of this religious mentality and called others to follow. With the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8.1-11), the Law required that she be stoned (why the man involved did not deserve the same fate does not seem right, but that is a different topic for a different sermon). Jesus challenged her accusers “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” They walked away one by one.
The Samaritans and the dead were considered unclean. In Lk 10.29-37 we read the parable of the “Good Samaritan” where the person at the side of the road might very well have been dead. This parable describes a priest and a Levite in a situation in which ritual holiness collides with compassion. They chose to keep themselves clean, while the Samaritan, one who was considered unclean, chose to show compassion. In his world, lepers were considered unclean, yet we read in Mk 1.40-44, that moved with compassion he “reached out his hand and touched him” (the leper). Jesus believed that the humanity in one person could touch the humanity in another and empower that other person to step out of fear into healing. In his time, Jesus elevated women to a new level in life. He engaged the Samaritan woman at the well in a theological discussion on the proper way to worship God and poured into her a new respect and dignity, because with Jesus each person he met had the potential to be whole, to be invested with infinite worth.
As a followers of Jesus today, we are called to share with all people the life giving power of love that always enhances human life. We may not look at people as “unclean” but it is easy to discount the person who is different from us. We at Sunshine Cathedral desire to be a welcoming community, and I think we have been blessed as our congregation both in the pews, and with the staff, has evolved into a more diverse fellowship. There is still much to be done and there are so many opportunities for each of us to be involved here at Sunshine Cathedral. No act of love and compassion is too small. Offering a friendly smile to someone new sitting next to you, participating on the visitation team, or in the nursing home ministry. Recently, a new need has arisen as people are calling asking for rides to church. We need people in various parts of town to be willing to step up to fill this need. No act of love is insignificant. Mother Teresa reminds us “Do not think that love in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” What is it that you can do this week to EXEMPLIFY LOVE AND COMPASSION as a follower of Jesus?
Secondly, as a follower of Jesus, we are to ENGAGE IN SOCIAL JUSTICE. For Jesus, “To love is to be just. To be just is to love.” And Love is always an action. As we look at the life and ministry of Jesus we see him engaged in social justice actions at every turn. He feeds the hungry, he defends the oppressed, he stands up for women’s rights. He loves the outcast, the despised, the rejected and he called on the rich and powerful to give their money to the poor and attend to the needs of the helpless. Fixing the world, helping the poor, and defending the oppressed was his job and the job he passed on to those who follow him. Fixing what is wrong in the world means looking not just at people’s spiritual needs, but also the mental, emotional, psychological and physical needs. This also is consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures which were well known to Jesus. Isaiah 58.6-8, 10 “Is not this the [worship] that I choose; to lose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly. . . . if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” Micah 6.8 “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
When we claim to be followers of Jesus we are disciples of justice and we need to get involved. Joan Chittitster writes “We need to live life consciously, to know what is going on around us, to take some responsibility for the welfare of others, for justice in the part of the universe we call home, our country, our world. It calls us to leave the isolation of spiritual narcissism that treats the spiritual life as some sort of personal comfort zone designed to protect us from the world we live in. “We each need to make the prayer of Eusebius our own “”May I, to the extent of my power, give needful help to all who are in want.”
Yet I must admit, that as I look around the world, there seems to be so much that needs to be done. The amount of hunger, poverty, and injustice can and at times feel overwhelming. Individually, we can’t do it all. But collectively, with each of us doing something, we can have an impact. Each of us bringing a few cans of food for the Pantry of Broward can result in a lot of people being fed. We can each do something to further the cause of Marriage Equality here in Florida, showing up at rallies, contacting legislators, supporting the cause financially. Metropolitan Community Churches Global Justice Institute has undertaken projects in Uganda, Zimbawe, Jamaica, Pakistan, and Eastern Europe. Small individual financial contributions from those of us here in this community, when combined, will help to move this work forward around the world. Why should we care about injustice half way around the world? Martin Luther King, Jr. said is so very well, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” What issues really concern you? Identify what it is that you feel strongly about. Then find out what it is that you can do to make a difference as you ENGAGE IN SOCIAL JUSTICE.
Finally, as a follower of Jesus, we are to EXPERIENCE UNITY WITH THE DIVINE
For Jesus, God was an experiential reality rather than an article of faith. His experiential awareness of spirit was foundational for his life. In the way he prayed, in the way he lived he knew that he was one with the Divine. Those who encountered him felt that in Jesus they had met the presence of the holy God, and that is how the language developed into the words recording in the gospel of John, where Jesus says, “I and the [Creator] are one. He who has seen me has seen the [Creator].” Jesus was not the exception, he was the norm. John Shelby Spong in his book Jesus for the Non-Religious writes: “Jesus was not divine because he was a human life into whom the external God had entered, as traditional Christology has claimed; he was and is divine because his humanity and his consciousness were so whole and so complete that the meaning of God could flow through him. He was thus able to open people to that transcendent dimension of life, love and being that we call God.” Marcus Borg writes “Jesus self-understanding did not include thinking and speaking of himself as the Son of God whose historical intention or purpose was to die for the sins of the world, and his message was not about believing in him. Rather, he was a spirit person, subversive sage, social prophet, and movement founder who invited his followers and hearers into a transforming relationship with the same Spirit that he himself knew and into a community whose social vision was shaped by the core value of compassion.” Jesus in his radical humanity lived out the meaning of God and caused those who glimpsed his life or felt his power to exclaim, “God was in Christ.” What are the spiritual practices that you can engage in that can help expand this God consciousness for you and allow others to see God in you?
That same awareness, that same potential, is available to us as we follow Jesus, as we EXEMPLIFY LOVE AND COMPASSION, as we ENGAGE IN SOCIAL JUSTICE, and as we EXPERIENCE UNITY WITH THE DIVINE, we realize that “Jesus opened people’s eyes to see what life could be. We need not pretend that we believe the supernaturally unbelievable in order to be a disciple of Jesus. We need only see all that life can be and in the ability of the human Jesus to open our eyes to the vision, as we do, a new sense of what it means to be divine begins to emerge.” That is the power of the Jesus experience. And that my friends is the Good News!
My heart is filled with love and compassion;
I work to bring justice to all;
I am one with the Divine;
God lives in me and expresses as me.
And so it is. Amen.