It's About Following

We are now about five weeks into Easter, the season of resurrection and new life. Easter, we ought to be reminded, is not simply about Jesus being raised from the dead. Rather the Easter story reminds us that Jesus was raised back to us. He returned, first thing, to the very people who had betrayed and forsaken him.

As the Gospel of John illustrates it, the risen Christ blessed them, forgave them, and gave them peace. Then he entrusted everything that he has to them. Therefore, Easter is really about us. It's about the way the risen Christ returned to us and commissioned us to be his presence in the world.

So this Sunday we take the opportunity to explore the great gift of Easter the gift of Christian discipleship. The risen Christ came back, not just from the dead, but came back to us. And we, and the world, have never been the same. What can we do but to follow him, to love him, to have faith in him, because he has such love and faith in us.

The book of John is the favorite gospel of many people because of the imagery and symbols John uses to convey Jesus message to us. And today is no different, as John shares with us Jesus words about the vine and branches.

In our gospel reading we learn that Christ is the vine, and God is the gardener who cares for the branches to make them fruitful. The branches are those of us who claim to be followers of Christ.

The fruitful branches are the true believers in Christ who by their living become one with Christ, and in turn produce much fruit. Then we have those branches, which become unproductive, those who turn away from following Jesus, after often times making a superficial commitment to following him. Ultimately these branches are separated from the vine, not by an act of God, but by a choice these folks make.

Scripture is rather bold in dealing with folks who become separated from Christ. They are considered dead, and as a dead branch is cut off from the vine and cast aside, so too are those who turn away from following Christ.

You see Christianity is more than a list of great ideas, or a set of religious principles. Christianity means to be in a relationship with Christ. Christ isn't looking for us to simply agree with him. Christ expects us to follow him.

Therefore, today's message is about discipleship, the following, and abiding in Christ.

Unfortunately the church and its pastors sometimes convey the impression that Christianity is a set of ideas or ideals? Something that one ought to think about, get one's head straight about? Well today's sermon, is a simple, direct call to follow Jesus, to take up the habits, the mannerisms, the character and tendencies of this faith.

We don't have to wait until eternity to "abide in Christ." The abiding John speaks of after Easter is right now. The risen Christ calls us to follow him now, not someday, but right now. If we want to express our love for God, we can do it here and now in the love we show to our sisters and brothers. After all being a Christian is primarily about following Jesus, allowing him to abide in us, and we in him, in all that we do.

I'm not aware of any moment in the Bible when Jesus said to his disciples, "Believe the following six things about me." No, what Jesus simply said was, "Follow me." In today's epistle, it's not said that Christians ought to know about love; but rather we are to love. In today's gospel, Christ doesn't say that we're to think about him, so that we might believe in him. He says that we are to abide in him, live in him, and with him. Some translations say "remain in him." But regardless of the translation the point being made is that we are to follow, to do what Jesus did, to live in the world as he lived.

It's more important to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus, then it is to be a Christian. You see Christianity is not a set of beliefs, principles, or church doctrine. It's a matter of discipleship, in other words following. Faith in Jesus is not beliefs about Jesus. It's a willingness to follow Jesus.

When we make following Jesus into some sort of mystery this is a big mistake. Jesus didn't demand that we commit to a dozen philosophical theories in order to be with him. He simply asked us to follow him. I think sometimes we make being a disciple more complex than it really is.

Faith in Jesus is not a matter of having felt something, or having had an experience, it's a simple willingness to walk behind Jesus, a willingness to be behind him allowing him to lead us. It's about following.

Therefore, there is no need for anybody to be baffled by the simple question, "Are you a Christian?" It's a gimme, an easy question to answer.

You see the answer isn't a matter of having your head straight about the meaning of the atonement. The scripture doesn't demand that you cite some deep theological understanding about the resurrection. It's not that knowing these things isn't important because over time it is. Knowledge helps us to mature in our faith, helps to keep us from falling away.

But the answer to the question, "Are you a Christian?" is simply to say, "Yes, I'm trying my best to follow Jesus. I'm his apprentice, his disciple." It's about following.

If you ask someone, "Are you a plumber?" there's no need for hesitation. You may not be the world's best plumber or the most experienced pipe fitter in the world. You may have been a plumber for only two weeks, or for as many as 20 years, but the evidence that you are or are not a plumber is simple and self-evident - are you, or are you not, disciplining your life to the skills, insights, and practices of plumbing.

If you ask, "Are you a really good plumber?" then there might be more hesitation. You are growing as a plumber, but you aren't perfect. But the hesitation doesn't indicate that you're not a real plumber. Rather, your hesitation shows that you are a true disciple of plumbing, in that you are still growing, still on the way, still being perfected in the tools of the trade. A beginning plumber is still a plumber.

We hear often in the gospels Jesus criticizing and chastising his disciples. He's often frustrated that they don't seem to get the point: they fail to follow or they misunderstand. Jesus' criticism of them doesn't mean they're not real disciples; it means that they're still on the journey. They're on the way. If they hadn't committed themselves to follow Jesus, if they were not linked to him and his way, there would be no need for correction. How many of us are still on our way, on that journey to follow Jesus?

I dare say we all are moving on to perfection in love, and being restored to the image of God. Faith doesn't mean we have arrived, it means we're on our way.

A person who wants to be a plumber must apprentice to a plumber, learning the skills, mastering the techniques, being attentive to the principles of the trade, willing to be criticized by the master until the apprentice becomes what the master is and what the master does. That's surely what Jesus means when he says simply, "Follow me." There was a discussion I read about where people were asked to answer the question "When did you become a Christian?" As you would expect people took turns sharing some rather dramatic accounts of how they had been converted into the Christian faith, through what some refer to as a mountaintop experience.

Some recalled heart changing moments when their lives were dramatically changed by an infusion of God's grace, and they decided to follow that leading.

But one man, with more than a bit of hesitation in his voice, said, "I can't remember when I wasn't a Christian. I have been a Christian ever since I can remember." My point is, the means of our initiation into the faith, the skill of our apprenticeship, the way we got on the journey with Jesus, is not the critical issue. The critical issue is that we are on the way. To be on the way means to be, as a disciple, imitating the moves of the master in all we do. Wherever you are, whatever you do, you are a disciple of Jesus. That's one reason why I don't care for the phrase, "Full-time Christian service" as a way of distinguishing between clergy and laity.

Following Jesus is not a matter of learning to do a few religious things and including them with the things we already do. Following Jesus means doing all that we do, not for ourselves, but for Jesus. Whether clergy or laity we all are in "Full-time Christian service" we just have different roles.

At our baptism, each of us is called to be a disciple; to do God's will, to search after God's purpose in our lives. And this is true whether we are baptized as infants or as adults. God is doing the calling, God is doing the initiation.

That's certainly why Jesus' parables are stories about real life and his teaching is about matters like anger, forgiveness, injustice, money, worry, and disappointment - the real and tangible things of life - because Jesus surely meant us to follow him now, in this life, not some other life yet to come.

So in today's gospel, Jesus commands us to "abide" or "remain" in him, to be as much a part of him as a branch is to its vine. We are to live in him, cling to him, be a part of him, and to receive nourishment from him.

And in our epistle for this morning, First John says "By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us his Spirit" (4:13).

You will be able to look at a Christian's life and see evidence of the Spirit. You will be able to know that the love we show is a gift of the Spirit in which we abide. The proof is in the pudding, it's about following.

As First John says (4:20), those who say, "I love God," but then fail to live in a loving way, are deceitful. Who cares about their list of alleged "values"? The true test is in how they live their lives, not what they say about their beliefs and values. It's about practicing what we preach. It's about following.

I read a story about a barber who, after a day of cutting peoples' hair for money goes to a hospital for the mentally ill and cuts hair for free. A friend of his is an accountant who after a long day of serving people's financial interests for money goes out at night to cruise local bars, pick up women for one-night stands, and to enjoy himself as much as possible.

Both men, the barber and the accountant, are apprentices, people attached to some larger vision of what life is about. One is attached to Jesus; the other is attached to American consumerism.

So the most interesting question to ask them is not the abstract, "What do you believe in?" but the more concrete, "Whom are you following?" You know the world is right in judging Jesus on the basis of the sort of lives he produces. The only "proof" we have, the acid test for the validity of the gospel, is whether or not it's capable of producing lives that are a credit to the master to whom we are apprenticed.

Are we a credit to Jesus? Can people look at us and say, "you know what there must be something good about following Jesus."

I've got a friend who set out to learn how to play golf. That was over 20 years ago. He's an engineer by trade, but if you want to describe who he really is, he would want you to say that he's a golfer.

He fell in love with golf years ago. Then one spring he acted upon his interest. He signed up for some private golf instruction. He ate, slept, and lived golf. He set aside time every day to practice swinging and putting.

He watched videos of great golfers from the past. He spent every weekend playing golf looking to perfect his swing and his game. Of course, he's not a perfect golfer. He still misses a shot here and there. He's never been asked to play professionally or to play full time. But he is as much a golfer as one could ever be.

His life has been transformed, changed forever through this sport. His daily routine is formed and trained in accordance with the demands of his golf game. He's a real credit to golf and what it can do for a person who dares to submit to its demands. He hasn't yet fully mastered golf, but the game of golf has gone a long way to nearly mastering him. When asked not long ago by a person at a party, "What do you do for a living?" he answered, "I'm an engineer much of my time, but when I'm at my best, I'm a golfer."

I want you to understand this story as a parable about following Jesus, about being a Christian, about being a disciple. Following Jesus means we are there, but not there yet. Meaning, following Jesus takes commitment, takes time, and is a life long journey that calls us to always improve.

I hope when someone asks us what we do for a living we say with confidence and assurance, "when I'm at my best I am a follower of Christ." Whether by choice or by grace, it's about following. Amen

Read other messages by Pastor Wade