Read John 1:35-42; Matthew 19: 16-30
I grew up in a church – a Presbyterian Church – in Eastbourne. My parents were heavily involved so I went to church from way before I was born and I grew up going to Sunday School. I knew the Bible stories. When I was about 11 or 12, a week-long, children’s after-school programme was advertised to be held in my church. It was run by Open Air Campaigners and led by an Invercargill man, Ken Rout.
I had all the Sunday School background so I knew the answers to the questions and, by the end of the week, I won the prize for having the most clicks on my name tag. More importantly though, on the Thursday, there was an invitation to those who wanted to know more about having a relationship with Jesus to stay behind after the programme. I, and some of my friends, did and we heard that Jesus had died taking our sins on Himself and that we could be forgiven if we put my faith in Him. Each of us had the opportunity to respond (s’il vous plait) to the gospel message. I did. I know that my life changed at that point. I had spent all of my life in the church but, because of that response, I was a different person.
I look back on that now with some sadness and asked, why my church had not told me about that and challenged me to make a response. Why did it take a group from outside the church, Open Air Campaigners?
Furthermore, OAC told my church that I had made a Christian commitment but no one spoke to me about it or attempted to now help me live a Christian life. There was a youth group and, I think, really good leaders, but the group fizzled out until there was only me left (or, at least, that’s how I remember it.) Frankly, church wasn’t very stimulating, so how was my faith nurtured? Who cared for this brand new baby Christian?
I used to travel into Wellington once a month, by bus, to Youth For Christ rally. And I went a few times to a Campus Life group in Lower Hutt. God used those things to keep me going through my high school years but, again, you see, it was a parachurch organisation. Where was my church?
I then went to university in Christchurch. In my hostel there was a group of Christians who became my friends and there was a cell group. They invited me to be part of it but I didn’t join. I felt inadequate alongside these much more mature Christians and I was sure my ignorance would be very apparent. I had not grown; I had not learnt; I had never read a Christian book. I couldn’t answer the questions.
At the end of that year, as exams approached, I started sleeping about 18 to 20 hours a day. I would sleep late, wake up in time for lectures which were all in the morning, have lunch and go back to bed and basically sleep through until the next morning. It was probably my mind playing tricks on me in an attempt to avoid the exams. When you sleep that long, it doesn’t leave much time for study. I remember pounding my fists on my desk because I was too sleepy to concentrate – and then going back to bed.
I sat the exams. This was in the days when exam results were all printed in the newspaper. During that summer I was working on the wharves in Wellington. When the results came out, I went to a news agent on the wharves. The pages with the exam results were all stuck up on the wall. I found my name and discovered that I had passed everything.
I was really disappointed. I just felt that was not right. I did not deserve to pass those exams. I knew that it was only because, in my desperation, I had prayed hard and because my friends in the hostel had faithfully prayed for me during that time when I was not functioning well. I realised then that I could not continue treating God like that. I could not have a relationship with Him only when I was in trouble. I needed to commit myself to Him, not just treat Him like a 111 call centre.
From then on, I did start going to (and soon, leading) cell groups at university; I did start reading and learning. And I went to a really good church in Christchurch where the Bible was preached and honoured.
But this is what makes me sad. Why did it take Open Air Campaigners, Youth For Christ, Campus Life, and university cell groups to do what the church was not doing? Why was the church not challenging people with the gospel? Why had my Sunday School teachers not sat down with me to talk about my response to Jesus? Why did my church not intentionally mentor this baby Christians?
Jesus did do those things. We are called to be like Jesus. Being like Jesus means being like Jesus. Mark 1:15 summarises Jesus’ preaching as “The time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” It was the good news of the Kingdom and a call to repent and believe.
Jesus frequently invited people to follow Him. And people had to decide. The classic example is Peter and Andrew, James and John, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Does it seem strange that, within 20 seconds of meeting Him, they left their boats and their families and they followed Him. It seems like a huge decision to make with so little information. Did it really happen like that?
John 1 shows us that they had actually spent a lot of time with Jesus by that point. They had been followers of John the Baptist. One day, Jesus walked past and John pointed Him out. Some of these disciples followed Him, had an initial conversation and Jesus said to them, “Come and see”. It would seem that they had some time with Jesus just watching Him minister and listening to His teaching. And, in between, they went back fishing. Jesus asked nothing of them. They simply observed.
They were back fishing when Jesus walked along the shore that day. But that day, Jesus invited them into a different relationship. “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” This was a turning point because they were being invited into a much deeper, more intentional relationship. They had been able to just watch with no obligation but “Follow me” was the invitation of the rabbi for them to become His talmidim (his disciples). They would have to leave their occupations and income and families and travel with Him, learning from Him, with the intention of becoming like Him.
That is a really big decision. The whole future course of their lives would change. They did not make that decision with no information about Jesus. They had lots of experience of Jesus already. It is as if Jesus was saying, “Ok, you have watched me. What do you think? This is decision time. Does what you have seen persuade you that you would leave everything for me?”
And, without hesitation, they said “yes”. Clearly, what they had seen of Jesus was so compelling and so inviting, that they did leave everything to follow Him.
There were many other times as well. Jesus frequently called people to follow Him, or to trust Him, or to obey Him. Every time that person faced a major decision. Yes or no? The life Jesus offers or my version of life? And, of course, it is much bigger than that. This decision would determine their eternity. Forgiveness or judgement? Heaven or hell? The narrow road that leads to life or the broad road that leads to destruction?
Jesus regularly appealed to people to make that decision. Every time it was an example of His grace. He wants us to experience life. He wants us to be forgiven. He wants us to know Him. And He regularly emphasised that this was a huge and costly decision. He told people to count the cost before deciding. He invited the rich young ruler “Follow me” but there was a cost – a very considerable cost. To be a follower of Jesus, he would have to love Jesus more than his wealth. Jesus tested that by challenging him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. He could not do it. He had come asking how he might have eternal life but he walked away without eternal life because his possessions were more important.
Many people walk away from eternal life because their possessions are too important. It is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God simply because of the appeal of their riches. What does it benefit a person to gain the whole world and yet lose his/her own soul? Yet that is the choice many people make.
Peter heard the challenge that Jesus put to that young man. He possibly felt quite virtuous. He had left everything. He had responded to the invitation. What reward, he wanted to know, would there be?
Matt 19:28-30 28Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
The decision is massive and costly but the rewards are a hundred times greater, including eternal life. God honours those who honour Him. The first will be last and the last will be first. The rich will come to nothing but the person who has forsaken everything for Jesus’ sake will be first in God’s Kingdom. The gospel is costly but it is good news.
That is the decision we also have to make. Jesus invites us to follow Him. Maybe we said “yes” once upon a time, like I did at that children’s programme, and that is hugely important. My life changed at that point. But I had to make it again when I realised I was using God for my benefit rather than serving Him. In fact, the choice to follow Jesus is a daily choice. Every day, every decision: will I follow Jesus?
When people did choose to follow Jesus, He took them under his wing as His disciples and invested heavily in their growth. But my church did nothing. Why is the church so little like Jesus?
My experience is not unique. Maybe yours has been the same. Jesus asked for huge sacrifice; most churches make membership as painless as possible. The main concern is never to upset anyone. Welcome that rich man. “Yes, yes, you can be a member. It doesn’t matter that you don’t love Jesus! We like the sound of your money!” But Jesus spelled out the cost. Jesus upset people all of the time – not because He was stupid or insensitive or a bully, but because He required really high standards.
Why is the church so little like Jesus? It is not as if we have discovered a strategy that is more effective than Jesus’. Followers of Jesus follow His methods. Some churches do. They talk about the costly, but infinitely rewarding good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Church membership means commitment. And they invest in their members so that they can grow and become Christ-like.
Traditionally, Methodist churches have had an annual covenant renewal service when all members reaffirmed their baptism vows and committed themselves again to follow Jesus that year.
Our mission, as a church, is to help people follow Jesus – to issue that invitation to follow Jesus and to train those who say yes. If you look at the sheet with words about Jesus, the whole right hand column is about calling the crowds to respond to Jesus and training those who rsvp – just like Jesus did.
Next Sunday, we will all have the opportunity to make, or renew, our commitment. It might be a first time for some people. For others, it will be a re-commitment. We are not doubting any past commitment. Not at all. We are hugely grateful for past decisions. My hunch is that those who know they have chosen to follow Jesus will have no trouble saying, “I trust in Jesus as my Saviour and I follow Him as my Lord.”
On the other hand, some people might not want to do that. That is fine. It is your decision.
It might be that you need more time to see more of Jesus and understand more about Him before you can decide whether or not you will follow Him. The first disciples were invited to “Come and see” before there was the invitation “Follow me”.
It is a hugely significant decision. Make no mistake, it is a costly decision. But remember that Jesus promises to repay many times what we might sacrifice. He invites us to have life, life in all its fullness. It is good news – the best news the world can ever know. He says, “Follow me”. In the invitation is a little rsvp slip. We have to decide how we are going to respond. We have to decide as individuals but we also have to decide as a church. Will we trust Jesus and follow Him? Will we do things His way? Will we be a church that challenges more and more people to also respond and will we disciple people to maturity? Is our rsvp going to say “Yes” or “No”? Jesus wants us to say yes. He wants this relationship with us.