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.

One God. One Body.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day churches around the world celebrate, proclaim, and remember our distinctive Christian witness to the nature of God. We declare with the Israelites that God is one, but one in a particular way. God isn’t just one; God is three in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three persons, one Being. 1 + 1 + 1 = 1. It’s a peculiar form of heavenly math that doesn’t quite add up using earthly equations. At least not on paper, and that’s part of the point. The doctrine of the Trinity renders God at once understandable yet mysterious. It places God within reach but not fully in our grasp.

But just because it doesn’t add up on paper doesn’t mean this equation doesn’t add up anywhere on earth. There is a place where it *is* supposed to add up, where the answer to this odd equation is supposed to become clear. And that place is here: with you and me. In the church. As the church.

The body metaphor that the Apostle Paul uses throughout his letters to describe and define the church is rooted in this same heavenly math, in this same divine nature, because the church is intended to reflect the God we worship and proclaim. Though three distinct persons, God is one Being, one Identity. In the same way, Paul declares, we who are many are one in Christ. One body in many parts. No longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. These earthly labels and distinctions no longer apply in the fellowship of heaven. Which is why Paul places so much emphasis on church unity.

The unity we express in our diversity is an essential part of our faith witness. To be one in Christ is to be one in mind – to share the same mind, in fact, that was in Christ Himself. One mind for one body. One faith, one Lord, one baptism for one people, a new people, who have Christ Jesus as their Lord and King. That doesn’t mean we should strive to be homogeneous or uniform; that we are to be cookie cutter images of one another. No. To be of one mind means to share a singleness of purpose and mission and a commitment to allowing the Holy Spirit to shape us, individually and together, more fully into the image of Christ. This is why the Holy Spirit is among us, according to John’s Gospel: to teach us and remind us of all that Jesus has said.

And it’s why Paul is so utterly exasperated with the church in Corinth and the way they gather together as the church. These words in 1 Corinthians 11 are among the most stringent he has for anyone, anywhere:

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 What! Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this matter I do not praise you!

There is nothing to praise because nothing about their fellowship reflects the lordship of Christ. They’re eating what they call the Lord’s Supper but the label doesn’t make it so. Paul’s point is that how the meal is conducted makes it so. What is in your heart and in your soul and in your mind is what makes it so. It doesn’t particularly matter what words of institution you say, or what prayers you offer; you aren’t remembering Christ if you aren’t eating with regard for anyone other than yourself. Some in the Corinthian church are going hungry while others are getting fat and drunk because the mind of Christ, the unity of the Body, the image of the triune God we worship is not reflected in their life together. That’s the root of the problem. That’s what Paul is concerned about.

Let’s be clear: This isn’t a matter of decorum. Nor is it simply a matter of individual moral failure. What plagues the Corinthian church is a system of worldly hierarchies being allowed to persist where they shouldn’t. Some of His critics denounced Jesus Himself as a glutton and drunkard. But they did so because Jesus was transgressing established social norms, eating with “the wrong people.” That’s not what the Corinthians are doing. Far from challenging worldly social boundaries, they are reinforcing them; and in doing so they are undermining their witness to Christ as Lord.

As we keep reading, we discover In verse 33 that, after the lambasting of verses 17-21 and the words of institution that are so familiar to us in verses 22-26, Paul instructs the Corinthians to “wait for each other” before they eat. Thus it would seem that members of the church arrive for the worship gathering at different times. From what we know of social patterns in the first century Mediterranean world, those who arrived first most likely would have been the wealthier members of the congregation because they could come and go more or less as they pleased. Then, as now, one of the things that affluence and higher social status affords is fuller control over one’s own time. Those arriving later, then, would have been the poorer, working class members of the church, who’s schedules were not as flexible given the demands of their trade or the authority others held over them. This would have been especially true for any enslaved members of the congregation.

The scene that Paul is describing, then, is one in which these poorer members have arrived to find the meal picked over and some of their brothers and sisters intoxicated with excess. No thought, no consideration has been given to them. Within their church, they’re not seen to be as important, just as they are viewed by the wider society. And that means, despite their professions of faith, the Corinthian church has surrendered the table of Christ to the etiquette of Caesar, permitting the ways of the world to define and dictate the relationship of those who profess Christ to be their Lord and Saviour rather than allowing the values and priorities of Christ’s heavenly Kingdom to redefine those relationships.

We celebrate Communion as a church, in part, to enact our unity in diversity, to declare with our bodies and our hospitality as well as our mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord; that His Kingdom has come near; that earthly ideas, structures, and barriers of class and race and wealth and gender do not apply here. Our allegiance isn’t just to a different King, but to a different kind of King; a King who came not to be served but to serve.

And that allegiance doesn’t just hold inside the walls of the church, be they sanctuary walls or living room walls. What we rehearse here is intended to spill out into the world, with us, from this place. The values and priorities of the world shouldn’t come into the church with us; the values and priorities of heaven should go out into the world with us. Because, if we profess Christ to be Lord, He is Lord on Tuesday as well as Sunday. If we are the church, we are the church on Thursday as well as on Sunday. We cannot compartmentalise loving God and loving neighbour – the things Jesus taught us – treating people one way at church and another way outside of church.

If we profess Christ, we are called to live as witnesses to the coming Kingdom of Heaven wherever we find ourselves; witnesses to a new life: a life together with God and in sync with God – the God who is Three in One. This new life is life as God lives – eternal, abundant, and in harmony with one another; in community with one another. A new life in which everyone belongs because everyone is a human being created in God’s image, a human being for whom Christ lived, died, and lives again. And if the mind of Christ comes to dwell in us, it should gaul us anytime, in any place, we see people not receiving the love, grace, and dignity they deserve.

That’s why the silence of many churches and many individual Christians in modern day matters of injustice has been painful. And I’m not talking about this past week; I’ve actually been encouraged to see so many folks I know, both clergy and laity, speaking up online and marching in protests both here in Toronto and back home in the United States. I’m talking about all the weeks prior. We of all people, we who are followers of Christ, part of the Body of Christ – the church – should be grieved by injustice anywhere. And we, of all people, should be committed to countering that injustice – and not just when the headlines focus our attention. This is work, this is witness, we should engage and should have been engaging all along, so that when the headlines do hit the world can take its response cues from us, rather than the other way around.

Sadly, tragically, sinfully, it’s not just that we’ve been slow to pay attention and slow to respond much of the time. In many cases, individuals and churches who profess Christ as Lord have helped perpetuate the injustice, helped perpetuate all manner of social divisions, both actively and passively, because, like the drunks and gluttons in Corinth, it has served our worldly interests to do so. All of us should take a moment to ask ourselves what we’ll be saying and doing to protest discrimination and state violence against people of colour once the marches cease and the headlines move on. For that matter, what are we saying and doing for the homeless, the jobless, and the working poor; the addicted and the mentally ill; the abused and the disowned? How are we living in such a way as to subvert and shrink the margins – the distinctions – of our society?

There’s no better place to begin asking those kinds of questions than at the Table to which Jesus invites us. The Table at which we gather to be fed and be reminded who we are and whose we are; to be reminded of the One whom we profess to be our Lord and why.

The good news is it’s never too late. It’s never too late to accept the invitation, never too late to have our eyes opened; never too late to repent and resolve to move in a different direction with Christ’s help and with His leading. It wasn’t too late for the Corinthians, and it’s not too late for us – any of us – because the Holy Spirit has come to continue teaching us.

Andrei Rublev, The Holy Trinity. Source: Wikimedia Commons

That’s why I love this 15th century Russian icon of the Holy Trinity. It’s a representation attributed to Andrei Rublev, who equates the three persons of the Trinity with the three angels who visited Abraham in Genesis 18. Rublev depicts the Triune God gathered around a table set only with a single, common cup. My wife and I joke that this is the Trinity having breakfast, or perhaps coffee, together. Whatever the cup represents (and it could represent a variety of things) the central figure appears to be offering a blessing over it, suggesting the meal is just getting started. In a sense, we, the viewers, are arriving just in time.

One of my favourite features of the icon is that the side of the table in the foreground is open in the middle, open to the viewer, and the cup is situated toward that end of the table. It’s a signal, I believe, to you and me – to all of us – that we aren’t just welcome to observe what’s happening around the table; we’re invited to pull a chair up to the table. To join in this meal. To share in this cup. To share in this divine, abundant and eternal life. To become one though we are many.

That is the radical invitation and the amazing grace Christ extends to us once again this morning through the Lord’s Supper. What a challenge. What a blessing!  Amen.

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