Epiphany 2, Year A
Readings: Isaiah 49:1–7; Psalm 40:1–11; 1 Corinthians 1:1–9; John 1:29–42
Being a follower means something very different these days. Now it involves Twitter, a kind of new age telegraph, using very short messages. If you want to see what Rihanna or Justin Bieber is doing or thinking, you “follow” them on Twitter. That means their little messages, their tweets, come in to your phone or other device automatically.
There are something like six hundred and fifty million active Twitter users. They send about fifty-eight million tweets a day, and conduct two billion search engine queries. Big numbers.
Speaking of Rihanna, the singer, she has just under thirty-four million followers. President Obama has her beat, with forty-one million. Stratford’s own Justin Bieber is doing even better—just under fifty million followers. I have a hundred and ninety-one, apparently. So now you know what the word follower has come to mean.
A follower used to mean a disciple, apprentice, helper. Someone who physically followed someone else. Jesus had twelve. Or something. There was a crowd of men and women around him, people breathing in his spirit, being sent out to test their wings. The number twelve, twelve men, came later, it looks like, as people were trying to make the Jesus story match up with what we call the Old Testament. Twelve tribes? Same with Jesus—twelve disciples. The women followers got pushed to one side, almost. Some of their names survive in the gospels: Mary, Salome, Joanna, Mary of Magdala.
Nowadays, Jesus would be startled to learn he had two billion followers. Someone would have to explain the concept of a billion first to a person from the first century. There are followers and followers, of course. For some people, their faith is a bit like following someone on Twitter. Its good to get a short little message, but it doesn’t change the way they live, or behave very much. It’s hard to tell some followers of Jesus from anybody else.
Other people take their discipleship much more seriously. Something happens for them. They hear a voice, they experience a warmth, they get turned on by Jesus’ vision of a kin-dom of fairness, dignity and sharing. They’re never the same again.
This has been going on for two thousand years. Corinth was the first place in what we know as Europe to receive the apostle Paul, and take in his message. When he writes back to them from other places, he is full of good things to say about them. Listen to this again.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Sovereign Jesus Christ.
“The grace of God…has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…” That’s the short way of putting it. Don’t you wish you could know what Paul’s brief few weeks in Corinth were like, that people got seized with such deep faith?
Or that you had been there after Jesus’ baptism. What happened back there with Andrew and Simon and the others who followed? Did anybody else notice what was happening in those days, or were they paying attention to other things? According to John’s gospel, John the Baptist steers his disciples toward Jesus. That’s often the way, isn’t it? Someone we respect says, I tried this diet, I found this exercise program, I read this book, and so we try it, too. Even though our parents tried to stop us from blindly following our young friends. “If they jumped off a cliff, would jump off, too?” The personal connection, the personal testimony still grabs us.
These days we keep hearing about idealistic and disenchanted young men who become radicalized by an extreme form of a religion. Would it be like that? Did the original disciples’ families fret when they left town to follow the rabbi who breezed in and stirred things up? The way it happens these days, young men encounter slightly older men who take them into their confidence and make them into followers, disciples. They point out the profound problems with society and describe the holy struggle needed to defeat evil. These mentors inspire deep conviction, the willingness to go to any extreme for their faith, as they understand it.
We have a radical faith, too. We, too, have a profound critique of the society around us, in line with the thinking of Jesus and the prophets. We get convicted by our faith. The difference is what we are prepared to do and not do in the name of our faith. We believe in peace, in persuasion, in people power, not, say, bullets and bombs. John calls him the Lamb of God, not the Ram of God, the Tiger of God. And how’s that working out for us compared to the holy struggle, the jihad of the people who use violence? Our purpose is to build God’s dream, in non-violent ways. We’re going to need to be very creative, very determined, very persistent to see results. The discussion of how we do that starts after church. I hope everyone can stay.
The prophet Isaiah talks about God’s servant being given to the nations, that God’s salvation may reach the end of the earth. God’s salvation. Salvation for…who exactly? From what? For the millions of people around the world who are slaves, trafficked across borders, fleeing for their lives in war zones, fleeing in dodgy boats to get a new life, terrified by their father or other people in their lives? Salvation from chronic poverty, or depression, or anxiety? Our job is to clarify how we think we can partner with God and others for this transformation.
Salvation is supposed to reach the end of the earth. it’s for everybody. How many followers will that take? Time to celebrate being called together here, now, to hear these stories and accept the invitation once again.
The takeaway today is, How am I as a follower of Jesus? Am I happy with my commitment? Could I do more? Am I doing too much? Am I focusing on the right things in my faith life? Am I lacking any “spiritual gift” as Paul puts it. Would you agree with Andrew that you have found the Messiah, or that the Anointed One has found you?
These are good questions. There is no need to feel panicky about any of them. It’s not a contest. It’s not a race. There’s that grace thing Paul is talking about. That’s the funny thing about faith. It’s a gift. Straining to become a better follower, a better disciple, a better believer is probably counterproductive. The struggle with Christianity is to get self out of the picture, after all, to be centred on other things, sacred stuff.
In a few minutes, we pray for people in North Africa. One of the most well known theologians of the early church, Augustine, came from there, 1700 years ago, from what we call Algeria. He was not helpful on the place of women in Christian faith, but very good on grace. He also argued against biblical literalism, on things like creation, for example, and so he helped create the idea that faith is always something we need to interpret, and grow. Although he didn’t start out a Christian, he became a very devoted follower of Jesus.
Let me conclude with half a joke. How many followers does it take to build God’s dream? That’s the first half. Unfortunately, there isn’t a joke that starts that way, as far as I know. Sorry. If there were, what would the punch line be?