In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus calls us to follow Him. But what does it mean to literally follow Jesus? In reading through Jesus’ edicts to those he calls to follow, it is clear, very little if anything is to get between us and Him. Two of those called offer legitimate reasons for delay. One asks permission to bury his father, the other asks to have time to say good bye to family and friends. Does this indicate the Christ we follow is an egotistical, a self-centered individual who requires our undivided and constant attention? The answer to this is most likely no.
However, Jesus’ command of total commitment to following him is not without precedent. In the Laws of Moses, the first and second commandments state, “ I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before* me.
4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation* of those who love me and keep my commandments” Then Jesus, builds on the tradition of Moses when asked what the greatest law is simply states, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
But what does it really mean to follow Jesus in the twenty-first century? To this question the answers vary a great deal. For our more conservative brothers and sisters, the answer often comes down to living life based on a series of rules as put forth through scripture. However, St. Paul writes that Jesus freed us from the Law. Thus following Jesus is not necessarily about following rules and/or a pre-determined structure, even though these things do provide the guidance we often need to find our way with Christ.
As I hear Jesus call to follow, I hear him calling us to live the Gospel. To love our neighbor as fully as we would God, to be willing to pick up our cross by taking risks on behalf of the Reign of God. When I hear the call of Jesus to follow, I hear the words of St. Francis, to preach the Gospel often, and use words only if necessary.
As I seek examples of those who have heeded to the words of Christ to follow him, I think of people like Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Both men served together as the prophetic voices of the South African people as they sought ad gained international attention to the plight of Native South Africans under the rule of Apartheid. Both men have lived the Gospel while seeking justice for all South Africans. Both men bravely spoke out against Apartheid despite the risks to themselves and their families. And both men, even after Apartheid had fallen, never to my knowledge, preached a gospel of revenge as the oppressed often do after gaining their freedom. No, instead, both men taught the value of loving their enemies and what it means to forgive, even after being unjustly held as a prisoner for twenty-seven years. Both men are loved and admired today, not because of the words they spoke, but how they chose to live their lives in the presence of their enemies.
These men perhaps are no different than Jonathan Merrick Daniels, a New Hampshire seminarian from the mid-sixties who heard the call to follow Jesus through the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When Dr. King asked for volunteers to help secure the right to vote for all citizens, Daniels left seminary with the sponsorship of the national church to assist with the Civil Rights work in Selma, Alabama. While there, he was arrested for participating in picket lines and for assisting African Americans in registering to vote. On the night of August 14th, he lost his life while shielding a 16 year old African American Girl from the bullets of an angry white individual.
Among his more famous writings, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship. In this book he argues that modern Christians seek and enjoy cheap grace. Cheap grace is the grace that comes with no effort or sacrifice. The Church, pre-world war II, was truly an indirect arm of the state, often times supporting the systems of injustice that are most often present in any modern state. In Germany, Bonhoeffer felt the Lutheran Church was no different and was frustrated with its passive support of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Bonhoeffer, like Mandela, Tutu and Daniels found himself at a cross roads in faith. At the start of the war, Bonhoeffer was comfortably ensconced and teaching at Union Theological Seminary, safe from the horrors of World War II happening in Europe. He knew he had a choice, either wait out the war safely in New York, or return to Germany to become part of the resistance movement. Bonhoeffer chose the latter. He returned to run an underground seminary and assisted in a plot to assassinate Hitler. For this he eventually was arrested and just weeks before the liberation of Germany, executed for his actions.
Jesus tells his followers that foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. These eloquent words of Christ not only speak to the itinerate nature of following Jesus, and at times to the sense of being a stranger in our own homes, these words also speak to the hardships of following Christ, the loneliness and yes even at times that sense of fear and uncertainty that can come when answering the call to follow.
Two of or our own understood this reality first hand. Shortly before her death, Tom shared with me the work he and Pat did as Waves and as Hospice Volunteers in the mid-eighties and early nineties. Both Tom and Pat seemed to love being on the cutting edge of volunteerism. When the call came from the community to form WAVES, Tom and Pat were the first to volunteer and to be trained as EMT’s. When the call came to form Hospice in this area, both Tom and Pat trained as Hospice care givers, willing and able to provide support and care to individuals facing the end of life and their families.
Early on in their Hospice work, they wre asked to provide care for a young woman dying of AIDS. This was a time when AIDS was understood as a disease of gay men and drug users. It was also during the time when those with AIDS were treated as lepers. Shunned and feared, many in health care would refuse to treat them. Even after death, they were still feared, many funeral directors would refuse to provide services because they feared contracting the disease.
This I know concerned Tom and Pat. I also know Tom and Pat were clear on what was right and wrong. As parents, they were clear on expectations and did not spare the rod and spoil their children. Pat and Tom knew how this woman contracted AIDS fell within the realm of what they understood to be sinful behavior. Pat and Tom could have refused this assignment for many reasons and no one would have thought the lesser of them. But Pat and Tom did just the opposite and accepted Christ call to follow him into this woman’s home to care for her, to love her and most of all to embrace her with the non-judgmental love of Christ. They demonstrated regularly by taking her laundry home with them to be cleaned. Doing this despite the health risks they perceived to be taking.
Every day we are called by Christ to come and to follow him, and most every day we find legitimate reasons to hold back or to stall in answering the call to follow. The Good News is, Jesus is patient and forgiving of us and willing to invite us to follow him over and over again until we are ready to let go of what is behind us and to walk with him more fully into the Reign of God.