A couple of years ago I signed up for a Twitter account. Twitter, if you’re unsure, is one of the many social media networks that is, bit by bit, changing the way we receive and react to information in our world. In 140 character messages users, who range from your neighbors to world leaders, send out information to their friends, their acquaintances, their fans, and the world about what they’re doing, what they’re thinking, where they are, and in too many situations what they ate for lunch that’s now giving them indigestion. Personally, I bounce on and off of Twitter. I can only take so much information for so long, so I go through waves of using it and not.
The whole system works by encouraging people to “follow” one another. If you’re familiar with Facebook this is sort of like “friending” someone. Each user of Twitter can customize what tweets they see by choosing whose messages they want to appear in their feed. You can follow your friends and make plans for coffee, talk about your afternoon, or react to that bad call the ref just made at the football game. You can follow acquaintances you have bumped into because of shared interests in politics, sports, or career paths. Do you want to know what life is like after Star Trek? Follow TheRealNimoy. Do you crave a sound byte of wisdom to get you through the day? Follow the DalaiLama. Do you want to know what the soup of the day is? Follow Keys Café.
You can even follow Jesus - - - or at least one of a myriad of funny and not-so-funny jokesters pretending to be Jesus who tweet on his behalf every day. Like one of my favorites “JesusofNaz316” who tweets things from the absurd, like “Blessed are they that have highly unusual names, for they shall likely land jobs at NPR.” To the wise like “Be ye thankful for nurses and nurses aides.” To the occasional thought-provoking and faith challenging like “Grace is not a thing to acquire. Grace is an action to perform.”
Yes I follow Jesus - - - on Twitter. Do you think that’s what he meant?
But sometimes I’m not sure our more conventional and accepted means of following are that much better.
My week from last Saturday Jan 14 until the end of the day on Wednesday Jan 18 consisted of no less than 5 meetings thick in Presbyterianism. In those days I was a part of conversations, meetings, and church business sessions on just about every level of our church organization. There was a presbytery meeting one day, a congregational Nominating Committee another, two straight days of synod business (the organization of the church that covers the upper Midwest), and our session met on Tuesday night. At the same time this week my eyes and attention were turned toward a meeting of some Presbyterians from all over the nation taking place in Orlando. Every level of our denominational structure was before my eyes and thoughts and prayers as some point this week, and if you saw me and you thought I was looking dazed and confused that was probably why.
There is a lot going on in Christ’s church at every single one of these levels. There is a lot that is going on that seems good for Christ’s mission, but at the same time there is also some anxiety about the next step in the life of the church, the future of the church in the 21st century, that is causing some stress in the system. As I was involved in some of these discussions, as I “followed” others on Twitter, I kept coming back to our Scripture passage for today and heard myself asking, “Is this what following is all about?” Put another way, is the institution of the church trying to follow Jesus in best sense of the word, in the way the disciples followed him or is the institution more worried about saving itself?
Don’t misunderstand me here. I am not suggesting that we throw our structure out the window and go it alone. I could ordinarily be accused of being sinfully proud of being Presbyterian. We are in no way perfect, but I believe whole-heartedly that the Holy Spirit is working in and through us. I believe whole-heartedly that most of what we try to do in our life together is in the name and manner of Jesus our Lord. I believe our structure, however complicated and convoluted it may seem sometimes, is a good a faithful way to support disciples of Jesus. However, at some point in each of my gatherings or conversations this last week, I found myself asking “Is this what following is all about? Is this making fishers of people?”
My question led me to look further at what it means to be disciples even just by looking at how the first disciples were called and how they followed. The first thing I noticed right off that bat is that Jesus didn’t call the disciples to build a church. He didn’t call Simon and Andrew, James and John and tell them to go build a building, write a constitution, and organize committees. He didn’t pull them away from their nets and their boats, their families and their co-workers for the purpose of creating an institution. He called them to follow him, and he promised that they would gather people.
That’s it. He didn’t tell the how to ordain, who to ordain, or even TO ordain people at all. He didn’t tell them the kind of building to make or who would own it. He didn’t tell them what committees they would be on or even that there would be committees. He invited them to follow him, to go where he went, to do what he did, and to bring other people along. And he did all of this without even mentioning the church. In fact, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus and his disciples spend precious little time in any sort of house of worship, be it a local synagogue or the temple in Jerusalem. They visit occasionally, but it is not the scene of most of their action. Most of their ministry takes place not among people who are already on board, who already believe in the promises of Jesus, but among those who have yet to hear and experience the good news of God’s love.
This isn’t to say the local church and even our regional, national, and international partnerships are bad. Jesus certainly does NOT deny the importance and the gift of the community. When disciples are sent out in his name to heal and teach and forgive sins, they are sent out in pairs, presumably to support each other, to work together, to hold each other accountable. Jesus pulls his disciples aside as a group in order to spend time with them and build their community, again for mutual support and teaching about the kingdom of God. He entrusts to them the work of building up that kingdom and sets them out to work on that task together, but he doesn’t give exact directions of how their life in community will be and doesn’t make the maintenance of that community the center of everything he teaches.
I think the church can be a very very good and effective tool for supporting ministry, but ultimately the church has got to be about enabling the people of God to be disciples of Jesus, his followers called and sent. Everything we do in the church, locally in our Property, Education, and Membership Committees, regionally as a presbytery supporting pastors and congregations or as a synod building larger partnership, nationally and internationally in denominational structures, everything we do in the institution of the church has got to ultimately be about equipping people to follow Jesus and display his grace in the world.
The church can’t exist simply to maintain itself. We have not been called into being just to add numbers to our rolls and gather together once a week. We are called to follow, not like Twitter by keeping our ears open for the next little thing he says, noting it and then walking away. We are called to follow with our very footsteps, our lives actions and activities, God who is on the loose, moving in this world, healing those who are broken, forgiving those who have fallen short, loving those who are unlovable, touching those who are untouchable, welcoming those who have been excluded, ignored, and shunned by the world and society in which we exist, the world and society which we are tempted to replicate even in our churches. We are called to invite people to join us, not boost our egos by adding to our numbers and get magic credit in the sky or even to ensure our institution lasts forever. But we are called to share what we have experienced in Christ’s grace and include more in our community to learn from each other, to support one another better as we take seriously the call to be disciples, learners, witnesses, and servants of Jesus our Lord, Jesus our God.
Last week we heard the account in John’s gospel of Jesus calling some of his first disciples. In that story, Jesus got his first disciples the way many people find new people to follow on Twitter, they were recommended to him by a friend. John the Baptizer recognized Jesus as the Lamb of God and two of his disciples then became disciples of Jesus. In Mark’s gospel this week the first disciples come to Jesus when he calls to them while they are hard at work, casting a net into the sea. They are fishermen. Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee when he saw Simon and his brother Andrew, apparently standing on the shoreline. With little else to convince them of his importance or divine nature, he simply says to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
It makes a great children’s song, but I often wonder why they bothered to follow. Fishing for people may sound interesting, but it doesn’t put food on the table. Simon and Andrew first and then the brothers James and John after them, walked away from their livelihoods to go be with Jesus. James and John left their father in the boat with the hired men to follow some guy who just called to them on the beach. They risked everything they had - - their source of daily food and income as well as their inheritance down the road. In one moment and with one decision they left stability behind and walked away instead with someone who promised them people over food.
It’s a strong and daunting model of discipleship. Following Jesus is anything BUT just clicking on his name and reading what he has to say every day. It isn’t anywhere as easy as scrolling through his thoughts, retweeting them in our feed if we think they are particularly good on any given day, but virtually forgetting them when the phone is turned off a few minutes later. When Jesus calls disciples to follow him, when Jesus calls US to follow him he expects us to drop everything we’re doing, get out of the lives we might otherwise live, and follow him.
Jesus’ “follow” is a completely different “follow” than we have come to know - - whether we’re talking about following on Twitter or following a news story or following a conversation or a line of thinking. Jesus’ “follow” is about much more than just keeping track of where something is going. Jesus’ “follow” is active. It’s sacrificial and it demands our commitment to Jesus’ mission of wholeness for all people, grace in the face of opposition, and a reversal of the powers of this world. This is what it means to be a disciple. It’s not about building an institution that occupies a building; it’s about participating in the kingdom of God. It’s about following Jesus into the world where he is working and inviting us along. It’s about displaying his presence in the world so boldly that the nets of his love will be full.