Follow Me

On the liturgical calendar, today is the beginning of what is termed “Ordinary Time” – the stretch of the year in which there are no holy seasons or high holidays. We’ve observed Lent, celebrated Easter, welcomed the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and pondered the mystery of God as three-in-one on Trinity Sunday. There won’t be any other such special occasions until we approach Advent at the end of November.

That’s why this long stretch of the year is dubbed “ordinary.” Nothing special happens. It’s a time set aside for us in the church to (re)focus on our calling as the church. Which, of course, makes “ordinary” quite an unfortunate misnomer.
Because there is nothing the least bit ordinary about our calling as a church.

We’re fuelled by the fires of Pentecost; those flames don’t flicker out. We’re filled with the currents of the Holy Spirit; that rushing wind doesn’t die down. Though many, we are called to be one – as a reflection of the triune God whom we worship, who is three in one. Ordinary is for oatmeal and convenience stores. But not for the church. Especially this year, as we continue to try to find our way forward through this COVID-19 shaped reality.

Perhaps a better way to think about this season within the church is to borrow language from our province’s response to the pandemic. Rather than entering into something “ordinary,” what if we thought about this season as entering into the next stage or phase of our response to the gospel we have heard, to everything we have remembered and celebrated: how God has revealed God’s Self in Christ.

If we have heard, if we have seen; if we believe; if we receive Jesus as the One whom the Gospels declare Him to be, then we cannot help but respond. We, like that first band of fishermen and tax collectors so long ago, cannot help but embrace Him and pursue Him. And the word we use for that response, that pursuit, is discipleship.

But what is a disciple? It’s a churchy word we use a lot without, perhaps, really understanding what it is. The simplest and most straightforward definition of “disciple” is what the word literally means. A disciple is a student. So to become a disciple of Jesus means to become a student of Jesus. Someone who takes on Jesus as their rabbi, as their teacher.

“Teacher” is actually one of the most common titles used of Jesus in the four Gospels. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” “Look, Teacher, what magnificent buildings!” Teacher is how Mary Magdalene addresses the Risen Christ on Easter morning in John’s Gospel. She says, “Rabouni,” which means my Rabbi, my teacher, my master.

So if we are disciples, we are students. But once we understand that, we have to consider what being a student of Jesus’ means. What does it look like? What does it involve? In our 21st century North American world, the word “student” most likely conjures up in our minds images of textbooks and whiteboards; classrooms and libraries: a rather sedentary and intellectual endeavour undertaken for grades and degrees. Which for some of us (like me) is stimulating and enjoyable. For others – perhaps many others of us – it doesn’t sound the least bit exciting, and certainly doesn’t sound anything like “Good News.”

But our modern systems of education bear little resemblance to how Jesus taught or what He taught. Jesus wasn’t on a faculty and never once assigned a paper. He told stories more than He gave lectures. Jesus approached His students-to-be with nothing more and nothing less than two simple but radical words: “Follow Me.”

No syllabus handed out. Not even so much as a course description offered. No promises. No expectations – at least not at the outset. Simply, “Follow Me.”

All of which makes the Gospel call narratives really quite remarkable when we stop to think about them. A man shows up on the shores of the Seas of Galilee, whom (as far as we know) Andrew and Simon Peter have never met or even seen before, utters two words, and the first disciples leave their nets, their families – everything they’ve known – and go with Him. That’s a powerful invitation! A beginning to a course of instruction like none any of them, or any of us, have ever undertaken – ever even heard of.

And of course, that’s because it’s a course of instruction unlike any ever offered. It’s not even a course, really; it’s a journey. A journey of discovery. A journey toward a new Kingdom that has come near, a new possibility, that lies both within Him and within them, within us.

That’s why Jesus gives them nothing when He calls them, and seemingly they take nothing with them when they follow. There’s no need. All they need is the One they’re following…and themselves. Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, is both the instructor and the subject. He is the guide as well as the destination of the journey they are undertaking together, and the disciples’ hearts, minds, souls, and strength are the only materials they will need.

It is a journey of discovery: an awakening to a new Kingdom, a new merger between heaven and earth, that has come near in Him, with Him, and through Him.

It’s a journey of awakening to who Christ is and who we are, who we can become, in Him. A journey into the awareness of a deeper existence, a deeper magic as CS Lewis phrased it; an awareness of the presence of both a brighter light and a more expansive darkness; of powers and principalities at work AND greater, more glorious possibilities on the horizon.

It’s an awakening similar to what some of us are experiencing now in the wake of George Floyd’s murder – an awakening to realities and histories to which we’ve been oblivious, or privileged enough to ignore if not deny. Realities and histories that don’t just exist south of the border but right here in Canada, right here in Toronto.

Receiving Christ, then following Christ, opens our eyes in that very same way – to things we didn’t see before, things we never dreamed we’d see. And not just negative realities.

I remember when I first became a disciple, when I first set off on this journey, when I understood for the first time within my being who Jesus is, when I gave my life over to Him, the world around me practically glowed with a new radiance, a new significance. I saw other people in a different way: as children of God, valued and beloved by God. Not labels or stereotypes or demographic segments, but salt and light, dust and ash infused with God’s breath. People who are flawed but also forgiven.

To see that, though, to have our eyes open to these deeper, heavenly realities, we have to move; we have to be uprooted from where we currently are and allow Jesus to take us on this journey of discovery. To help us learn new values and priorities, new heavenly weights and measures; and to unlearn the former, worldly standards we have grown accustomed to, that have been instilled within us. This is not and cannot just be a kind of spiritual movement; it’s a bodily physical movement. We have to have new experiences and new exposures.

Jesus could not have taught the original disciples all that He taught them if He had left them in Galilee. They had to see the Kingdom breaking into the land of the Gerasenes and the villages of the Samaritans. They not only had to hear Him say that all the magnificent buildings of Jerusalem would one day come tumbling down, they had to see the grandeur of those buildings for themselves.

Likewise, we have to allow Jesus to call us, prod us, sometimes pry us, out of our bubbles, our routines, our comfort zones, our echo chambers. Because the Kingdom is breaking in, in all manner of ways and all manner of places through all manner of people. God has things – amazing things, and groundbreaking, ground-shaking things – to show us through them. And we won’t see any of it if we don’t follow Jesus out there to see it.

It’s a lifelong journey, this journey of discipleship, one that never ends once it begins. That’s why we’ve been gifted the presence of the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Trinity has come to guide us in our continuing education in the way of Jesus, every day, every hour.

That’s also why we need the church, why we need to be the church: walking, studying, learning, experiencing together. None of us have all the insight, all the perspective, all the gifts we need to see all that God is revealing, all that God has to show us. And we need companions, brothers and sisters to walk with us because living in the world while holding to the standards and priorities of heaven can make for some rough road.

Jesus may not have issued promises or expectations at the beginning of the journey; but as we progress / venture further along the way; when we like Peter in Mark 8 grasp who Christ is and really start to understand what the implications of His coming are, there is another stage, another phase we have to face and enter into. We have to take up our crosses as we follow.

Because the cross is the world’s response to the breaking in of God’s Kingdom, to the radical standards and values and priorities of heaven. The powers-that-be will always push back, always resist, because they rightly understand the gospel is a threat to their status. And that includes the powers within us.

Our worldly selves also resist the gospel, even when we – again like Peter – can say all the right things about Jesus. Even when we willingly undertake the journey. Even when we firmly and deeply believe. We can still miss the point. There are aspects, dimensions to Christ’s Kingdom we can still struggle, even refuse, to accept. There are stretches of this road we don’t care to explore.

Peter couldn’t accept that the Messiah would be crucified. Jesus’ response to him (and all the disciples) is: not only do I have to be crucified to the world, so do you. Ultimately, you have to die to your former, worldly self in order to rise and share fully in the new life, in the new Kingdom I bring. That’s why, like Peter, we have to keep walking, keep learning, keep following: keep allowing Jesus through the Holy Spirit to keep teaching us, keep shaping us, keep pushing us. Renewing us. Transforming us.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be exploring various aspects and practices of discipleship that help all of us – individually and corporately – continue on this journey with Jesus, to progress;, to learn what He has to teach us, to see what He has to show us; to have our hearts, minds, souls, and strength shaped to love God fully and love our neighbours fully – for that is what Jesus has taught us to do above all else. Prayer. Practicing the Kingdom as well as proclaiming it. Doing justice. Becoming teachers ourselves. And those are just a few.

This series coincides with a prayerful conversation the elders, the staff, and our ministry team leaders are undertaking to discern how we can become a more discipleship oriented and disciple-making church. How we like Jesus can gather small groups, small bands of willing followers together – like that first dozen disciples – to learn and grow together. That was Jesus’ model. It ought to be ours, too, if we seek to follow Him, to know Him, and make Him known.

Especially in a world where, at least for the short-term, COVID-19 will continue to limit large group gatherings, we need to adapt our modes and methods of ministry to our current context.

For many of us, it will be something new. It will take us out of comfort zones. But as we’ve seen, the willingness to step out of and away from the familiar is a prerequisite for taking on Jesus as our teacher, as our rabbi, and discovering the new Kingdom He brings. A Kingdom He brings not just to show us, but to share with us.

So let us take courage and let us take heart. Let us not be afraid to take up our crosses and follow Jesus into a new day, a new possibility. Because the One who bids us to follow loves us and wants the best for us. And – He isn’t asking us to do anything He Himself hasn’t done.

In fact, Jesus calls us on this journey precisely so that we might see as He sees, do as He does, share in the abundant life of love He enjoys with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and rouse others to the good news of God’s amazing and transformative grace.

That is the anything-but-ordinary calling we have as the church in our time.

May all with ears to hear, hear. Amen.

An Easter to Remember

A Sermon for Easter Sunday 2020.  Text: John 20:1-23


Happy Easter! Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

This is the refrain of congregations around the world today. This is the refrain of all of heaven and earth today. We don’t need to hear or sing or say anything else, really. This is the proclamation that makes Easter, Easter.

Still….it sure doesn’t feel like Easter, does it? It’s certainly an Easter unlike any Easter any of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Years from now, I imagine we’ll remember this day as the Easter “without.” The Easter without the baptisms, without the choir, without the packed sanctuary singing along to every hymn and anthem. The Easter without new dresses, egg hunts, or anticipated large family gatherings around long tables filled with sumptuous food. The Easter without quite as much shared laughter, quite as many shared smiles. All those things make Easter, Easter, for us, too, by convention and expectation. I’m missing all those things this morning, as I’m sure you are. And those absences will leave an impression in our memories, no doubt. But I also hope that at least for today, at least for our time together this morning, we’ll recognise that this Easter is perhaps the closest we’ll ever get in our lifetimes to understanding what that first Easter was like.

There was no choir warming up, no lavish meal in production; no new dress laid out on that first Easter. No celebrations of any kind in the works. The disciples awoke on that first Easter morning much as they had the previous morning – to a void, to a palpable absence. Jesus – the one they had thought to be the Messiah, the anointed Saviour of Israel, the one some of them had left everything (family, possessions, livelihood) to follow – Jesus was dead. And not just dead, executed. He had been betrayed by one of their own, arrested by the religious authorities, and crucified by the Romans like a rebellious slave. And throughout the ordeal, the mighty prophet and healer had appeared helpless.

Think about all they had seen and experienced with Jesus. He had cast out all manner of unclean spirits, including a legion of them in the land of the Gerasenes. He had healed the sick in droves, restored sight to the blind, and fed 5,000 hungry people with five loaves and a couple of fish. He brought Lazarus back to life, and even calmed a storm on the sea of Galilee. Yet, when the soldiers came for Him, He could do nothing to stop or resist them. At least, He didn’t do anything to stop or resist them. In a matter of hours, everything they had hoped, everything they had dreamed, everything they had invested and sacrificed was over. Done. Gone.

That’s how deep the void that greeted the disciples on that first Easter morn was – a morning that found many of them in isolation, too – not for fear of a virus but of the soldiers who might still be looking for them as Jesus’ followers. And even though Mary Magdalene had ventured to the tomb before dawn and found it empty, things don’t instantly get better.

When Mary finds the grave open and Jesus’ body missing, she runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple, who return to the tomb with her. They find it as she had described: the stone rolled away and Jesus’ burial cloths lying inside; but Jesus is nowhere to be found. What did it mean? John says, “they did not yet understand the Scriptures that He must rise from the dead” (John 20:9). After entering the tomb, John says the beloved disciple believes, despite the fact he doesn’t understand the Scriptures; but then he and Peter go home. We’re not told that they say anything to anyone else.

Mary lingers at the Tomb, weeping. Only then does she encounter Jesus. At first she thinks He’s the gardener and implores Him to tell her what has happened to the Lord’s body. She recognises Him by voice, not by sight, when He calls her by name. The risen Christ then asks her to go and tell His “brothers” (not disciples, not servants – brothers) that He is “ascending to My Father and your Father.” True to these instructions, Mary Magdalene returns to the disciples a second time, saying she has seen the Lord. She has seen Jesus: not dead, but alive; not missing, but very much present.

The good news of Easter thus gradual dawns in John, rather than flooding in. And we’re still not done. For the rest of that day, many of the disciples were left to wonder what was going on. Was Jesus alive? Or had His body been stolen? In John’s telling of the Easter story, it won’t be until later that evening that anyone other than Mary Magdalene sees Jesus.

When the Risen Christ does break into the disciples’ sequestered lives, He leaves no doubt. He speaks a blessing upon them: “Peace be with you.” He shows them His hands and His side, where the implements of death found and left their mark – but ultimately lost. He breathes the Holy Spirit upon them and commissions them, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Until that time, however, uncertainty remains. And even then, Jesus’ appearance doesn’t magically or instantly change the disciples’ circumstance. As we will see, they continue to meet behind closed doors. Some of them, including Peter, even go back to doing what they had been doing before they met Jesus. They’re lying low, seeking out something familiar, perhaps something reliable. Much remains unclear to them.

Which is, of course, how things will continue for us, too. When our time of lingering at the tomb with Mary Magdalene’s is over this morning, we’ll return to the same restrictions and limitations to which we awoke. My hope and my prayer, though, is that we’ll return knowing that what may seem like a void really isn’t. Because Christ is risen! Christ is risen and He is radically free and present with us. His abundant, irrepressible Life now fills the chasm that death had hollowed out; and His enduring Presence continues to subvert the machinations of the powers of this world.

Easter changes everything; yet it changes nothing. It doesn’t magically or instantly alter our circumstance. COVID-19 won’t just up and go away later this afternoon because Christ our Lord is risen this morning. But Easter does alter our place in our circumstance because Easter transforms our relationship to God, to ourselves, to each other, and to the world. We aren’t just followers of Christ anymore. We aren’t just disciples of Christ anymore. We are brothers and sisters in Christ because we are brothers and sisters with Christ. “Go and tell my brothers…”, the risen Christ said to Mary. “I am ascending to my Father and your Father…”. Jesus, true to His prayer for us in John 17, has made us one – one family with Him and God the Father: heirs to one and the same Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven. We are brothers and sisters with Christ. Think about that. Really think about that!

That means COVID-19 will not and cannot have the final word. Economic contraction will not and cannot have the final word. Neither will supply shortages or price increases. None of it can or will have the final word because, while those things may define our circumstance, they do not and cannot define our identity or our reality: who we are and whose we are. That prerogative, that power, belongs to Jesus because today He is risen – and He is very much still moving in our midst.

So while a lot of things may be missing from today, let’s try our best not to let those disappointments become the defining feature of this Easter. Or any Easter. Because Easter is about a new reality, a new relationship between heaven and earth, a new relationship between us and God. And that means that in the midst of these absences, there is something – or, more specifically, Someone – newly present and radically free for us to celebrate. We are His, and He is ours forever more. Jesus saved His most amazing and powerful feat for last.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

Alleluia! Alleluia!  Amen.

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