As we continue to walk through Lent 2012 in Crafton Heights, we are looking at what it means to follow Jesus. On March 25, we considered the the story of the Greeks who wanted to see Jesus (John 12) as well as excerpts from the First Letter of John which talk about how we are to love one another.
That Jesus – he was a great guy, wasn’t he? I know, we talk about him quite a bit here, but you just can’t help but admire him for the way that he did so many things in such a powerful way.
The only thing is, well, Jesus didn’t seem to know much about church growth. Take today’s reading from John’s Gospel, for example.
Jesus and his friends are in town for the Passover Festival. The city is abuzz with all sorts of excitement – everybody who is anybody from all over the world has arrived for a religious pilgrimage and holiday. Of course these people want to visit all the familiar destinations, but they have some time, and they want to make sure that they get the full “Jerusalem” experience. So some of these folks – we’re not sure who, exactly, but at least a handful decide that while they’re here they’d like to meet Jesus.
On the surface, it could be a win-win proposition. “The Greeks” is an untapped demographic for Jesus and his movement. With a little face time and positive spin, Jesus could find that his stock would really rise among these folks. And the Greeks themselves could not have been more accommodating. They make a polite request through the official channels – they find one of the twelve, Philip, and he passes it by Andrew and then they take it to Jesus.
Let me ask you this: do you ever get frustrated in prayer? You know, you go to Jesus with a situation – a question, or you’re looking for help or guidance or answers, and you get no apparent answer? You pray, and you ask, and you wait – but nothing? And then you think, “You know, if only I could talk with him face to face! That would be so much easier. Then I’d get a straight answer.”
Yeah, well, don’t get your hopes up. I mean, Philip and Andrew went to him with a pretty specific request, and there is not even any mention of it in the ensuing conversation. Jesus doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of these Greeks, let alone agree to meet them. Instead, he launches into this little sermon about his own death, which is kind of disturbing and then goes on to remind Philip and Andrew of the first call that they ever got from him, which was “Follow me”. And then he goes back to talking about death, which, combined with the “Follow Me” reminder, might have been very disturbing to Philip and Andrew.
While they are still chewing on this, there’s another voice from heaven, an occurrence that I suspect as many times as it’s happened (and according to the Gospels, it had happened a couple of times already), it’s probably still pretty disconcerting. The voice reaffirms that Jesus is chosen for God’s glory. Then Jesus goes back to speaking about his death, and indicates that in that death, “all men” will be drawn to him.
So, just to be straight, we began with a couple of well-meaning tourists who wanted to meet Jesus for a few moments, maybe take a couple of photos and talk religion…and we end up with Jesus ignoring these people and instead predicting his own death and how it is that that death will bring all people to him. You see? Don’t be surprised when your prayers seem to lead you somewhere else…
So one of the questions I have for you this morning is this: was Jesus right? I mean, we know what happened. He was “lifted up” on the cross and he died. Is he drawing all people to himself?
At first glance, I have to say it doesn’t look so good, at least from our vantage point. When I came to Crafton Heights as Pastor in 1993, I was invited to join a group of other churches in the South West part of our city. At that time, there were at least eleven churches in that group who had full-time pastors. Today, including us, there are two or three of those congregations who have full time pastors. Several of those congregations no longer exist.
When I came to Pittsburgh Presbytery, there were more than 55,000 Presbyterians in Allegheny County. Today, there are fewer than 35,000. There were 165 congregations in Pittsburgh Presbytery. Today there are more like 145.
I know, that’s just the Presbyterians. But you know the truth…the Methodists and the Catholics and the Lutherans are discovering the same thing. Maybe people don’t want Jesus after all.
That’s not true.
What all of these statistics are saying is that people don’t seem to be lining up to get to church. In fact, they are leaving the church like nobody’s business.
Rachel Evans is a blogger and author who recently listed Fifteen Reasons why she left the church. Among them were the following:
I left the church because I’m better at planning Bible studies than baby showers…but they only wanted me to plan baby showers.
I left the church because when we talked about sin, we mostly talked about sex.
I left the church because my questions were seen as liabilities.
I left the church because sometimes I doubt, and church can be the worst place to doubt.
I left the church because I didn’t want to be anyone’s “project.”
I left the church because it was often assumed that everyone in the congregation voted for [the same political party].
I left the church because I had learned more from Oprah about addressing poverty and injustice than I had learned from 25 years of Sunday school.
She lists more, of course…but do any of these criticisms ring true in your experience, or in that of your friends and neighbors?
Did you notice something about that list? Each of those reasons for leaving had something to do with the church…but nothing to do with Jesus. Let me say it again. People are leaving the church. But people are hungry for Jesus.
Do you think that the community in Sanford, FL would like to know the peace, the passion, the justice, the hope, the reconciliation of Jesus now? Do you think that Travon Martin’s family – and maybe George Zimmerman’s too, for all I know – is eager to know something of the Prince of Peace and the Wonderful Counselor?
What about everyone involved in the incident two weeks ago where a US Soldier shot and killed more than a dozen women and children in an Afghan village? Do you think that that situation, and those families, and the US military people involved in it now would like to know that hatred and violence are not the last word? Can you believe that everyone involved in that situation – even those who are passionate about their Muslim faith – would not welcome the presence of a God who promises justice and peace?
Look around this room, or down the street, and look at the faces of your neighbors who are concerned about what is going on in the Public Schools. Parents who are afraid of what changes might mean for their children. Teachers who are frustrated by a system that seems perpetually broken. Taxpayers who are angry about increases. And kids who are caught in the middle and apparently slipping…don’t your friends and neighbors want to know that their children, and their jobs, and their homes – that they matter? That there is some way in which the author of the universe is concerned with their own situations?
I’m ninety-nine and 44/100ths percent certain that nobody is going to call me and say, “Reverend Carver, what is the church’s plan as to how to fix these situations?” But I am one hundred percent convinced that each of these situations and a thousand more are inviting people to call out for the gifts that God promises in Jesus Christ: meaning, hope, peace, reconciliation…and a future.
We have had a lot of conversation in recent weeks about church membership. Some of that conversation has been driven by some recent changes in the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) dealing with definitions of membership.
But most of that conversation has come about because the leadership of this congregation wants us to be better at doing what Jesus asked us to do: follow him.
When Jesus looked at Philip and Andrew and the rest of the twelve and said, “Follow me”, it was pretty evident that meant that they were supposed to stop what they were doing and literally go where he was. They came to Jesus and said, “Wow, Lord, there are some people who want to see you.” And Jesus, realizing that he was one person and that this flow of people who would be longing to see him would only increase, said, “If they want to see me, you’re going to have to show them me. They want to see me? You follow me, and they will see you, and in seeing you, they will see me.”
Since we weren’t there then, we have to consider what that means now…we’re not going to walk from Galilee to Jerusalem; we’re not going to leave our nets. How are we going to follow?
Here’s something that is not helpful: now, when you hear someone say “follow me”, they are most likely referring to Twitter. For those of you unfamiliar with this phenomenon, Twitter is a social networking program that allows anyone, like, say, ME, to send out periodic messages about anything I’d like. I can alert the world as to the progress of my haircut, or my dog’s illness, or my thoughts about the 2012 NHL playoffs. If you think I have something to say, then you sign up to “follow” me on Twitter, which means that every now and then you’ll get 140 character updates delivered to your computer or phone. So “Follow me” is an invitation to allow me to send you short messages that you may or may not read, and which you may or may not find useful.
Let me suggest that following Jesus is a whole lot more involved than that. “Follow me” is a way of saying that we will engage all of life on his terms. It’s all fleshed out for us there in I John 4. We, who bear the name of Jesus, are called to reveal the presence of Christ in the ways that we treat each other. That’s it. We are known as followers of his when we love each other.
We’re not his followers because we all vote the same way. We don’t all like the same music, and we have very different ideas on how to fix the economy, or exercise foreign policy, or raise children, or use money.
Fortunately for us, our unity does not depend on any of those things. We are united as we promise to treat each other the way that God, in Christ, has treated us. And if we are able to follow Jesus in love, we will be useful to Jesus. We will, in fact, lift up his name and his presence so that those who are hungry for the gifts that he brings will see him and know him.
Ultimately, the question of membership in this congregation, and in any that is worthy of the name “Christian”, ought to boil down to this: will we follow? Remember what he said, essentially: “You follow me, and they will see you, and in seeing you, the world will see me.” Can we love each other, and the people around us, because God in Jesus has loved us?
If, somehow, by the grace of God, we can do that…then maybe the church can grow after all. Not because it’s a collection of right ideas or nice people, but because it is His body, being raised up in the world. May God bless us as we seek to follow in faithfulness. Amen.