We’re continuing to explore today our outline for our intentional discipleship plan. If our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, how will we go about fulfilling the mission? What’s our plan for doing that here in Gouverneur? We’re going to try, as much as we can, to focus everything we do around these three steps: Meet Jesus, Follow Jesus, Serve Jesus. Last week we talked about meeting Jesus, and we asked ourselves what we would do to get someone to Jesus. What would we do to make sure someone had the opportunity to be in the grace-filled, healing, life-changing presence of Jesus? Today, we’re digging deeper into what it means to follow Jesus. Once we’ve met him, once we know who Jesus is, we have to decide what place Jesus will have in our lives. Is he just someone who preaches a good sermon? Someone interesting to listen to? Or is he someone worth following? And if we say we want to follow Jesus, if we say we are Jesus-followers, what does that mean exactly? Lots of people meet Jesus in the scriptures, but not everyone decides to follow him. What about us? What will we decide?
If we, as a congregation, have the intention of helping people become followers of Jesus Christ, how will we help people do that? Answering that question is the next piece of our discipleship plan. Our conversations here have led us to talk about spiritual growth, spiritual formation as one of our main goals. If disciples are students, then disciples need to be continually learning and growing. To follow Jesus, to be his disciples, we need to be committed to growing in faith, to maturing in our relationship with God and our commitment to embodying the ways of Jesus in the world. We can’t just say that we’re following Jesus without actually following him, at least not with any authenticity. So, disciples need to commit to growing and maturing in faith.
You know my insistence that we need to be specific. How then, specifically, are we growing in faith? Hopefully, our time together in worship, this time when we look at scripture together and reflect on it during worship is part of the way you grow in faith. But as fabulous of a preacher as I am, I suspect that following Jesus and growing in faith might need to consist of more than these twenty minute messages. My hope, then, is that you will think seriously about what commitment you will make to intentionally growing in your faith in the months ahead. On the “church side” of things, my commitment is to offering a variety of small group studies, trying to offer short-term studies (like the 4 week study we have starting on Sunday nights next week), offering studies at different times for different schedules, offering some training for folks who’d be willing to start new small groups, and connecting you in with opportunities for spiritual growth beyond the local church, like the lay servant classes that folks like Lisle, Don, Hazel, Cadie, and Richard have taken. Small group studies aren’t the only ways you can grow in faith, of course, but journeying with Jesus and other followers of Jesus in such a purposeful way has always been a key part of discipleship, and it seems to be one of the best ways, the most tested and proven ways for people to develop as mature Christians. So, what is your plan? What will you do to grow in your commitment to following Jesus?
I think choosing to follow Jesus, really follow Jesus, is the best decision, the most rewarding decision we can make for our lives. But I know it isn’t an easy one - maybe not an easy decision to make, and definitely not easy to do. There’s an expression we use that comes from the sport of high-jumping, where athletes run and try to leap over a bar that gets progressively higher until only one contestant is left. If something is really difficult, if the standard for approval for something is strenuous, if a lot is demanded of someone in order to be considered successful, we might say, “Wow, the bar is set really high” for whatever that is. We might say, for example, that to become an astronaut that actually gets to go into space, the bar is set high, as you must be physically fit and well, knowledgeable, experienced, and generally at your peak in order to be chosen for a space mission. We might say the bar is set low if almost everyone and anyone could qualify something. Like if the Olympics handed out medals for participation, just for trying, or if anyone could go and compete at the Olympics if they wanted.
I think it’s pretty clear from the gospels that the bar of discipleship is set very high. What does God want from us? Everything! How hard is discipleship? Why, it’s so hard that you might say it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for us to really enter into and get this kingdom of God and eternal life stuff Jesus talks about. I think we get tempted sometimes to say that what God asks of us as followers is easy. Sometimes churches try to make discipleship sound easy because we really want people to come and be a part of our community, and we’re afraid if discipleship sounds too hard, they won’t join us, join in. We’d like to start the bar out low, maybe even put it on the floor, so we can all get over without any help. Why can’t the bar be set at a level where we all might make it over? We’re selling ourselves, and them, and Jesus short when we try to make choosing to follow Jesus less significant than it is. I don’t want that really, the bar set low.. And I don’t think we’re going to get that. I don’t think we see that in the scriptures. I don’t think Jesus ever suggests following him is easy, or simple. Instead, I think the bar of discipleship is set very high. So high, in fact, that often, we’re going to fall flat on our faces when we try to get over it. So high, that sometimes we’re like a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle when we try to follow Jesus.
So about that camel. Our scripture text for today comes again from Mark’s gospel, now in the midst of a several scenes of Jesus teaching, sometimes in response to questions, sometimes in response to criticism, sometimes just things he wants to teach the disciples. In today’s reading, we find Jesus ready to set out on a journey. But before he departs, a man runs up to him and kneels and asks him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus discourages the man from calling him good, a label Jesus says is meant for God alone. And then he proceeds to tell the man: “You already know the commandments, right?” The man responds that he has kept them since his youth.”
Jesus looks at the man and loves him, Mark tells us. As much as we feel Jesus’ love shining through his actions, we don’t often hear specifically that Jesus loves someone he interacts with. It should catch our attention. It’s important to note that Jesus loves this man, because the words he says next are so challenging to the man that it might not feel like love to him. Jesus says to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Jesus loves this man enough to zoom right in on the thing that he knows is holding this man back from following with his whole heart. Jesus loves him enough to encourage him, to challenge him to let go of what he’s made so important in his life: his money, his stuff, his treasure on earth. And Jesus tells him - get rid of that, that other stuff you’re following, and instead, come follow me. The man was great at keeping all the commandments that had to do with how we treat neighbors. But those ones about our relationship with God: About there being just one God, and about putting nothing else before God – it seems Jesus got to the heart of the matter and pinpointed the very thing that would come between this man and God, between this man’s desire to follow Jesus, and his commitment to actually doing it.
When the man hears Jesus’ response, he’s shocked, and he goes away grieving, because of his many possessions. We don’t find out what happens next. Maybe the man is grieving because he knows he won’t be able to give all that stuff up to follow Jesus, and maybe he’s grieving because he knows he’s going to try and he’s already mourning losing all the stuff he’s carefully accumulated. Either way, the call to follow Jesus seems to be marked with grief. Choosing the path of Jesus would mean giving up some other paths.
After the man leaves, Jesus looks at his disciples and comments, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples are perplexed. Isn’t wealth a blessing? But Jesus continues, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples are astounded, and they turn to each other asking, “Who then can be saved?” If the standards are so high, if entering into the reign of God is so very hard, how can anyone make it in? And Jesus tells them, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
The bar for following Jesus is set high, and Jesus loves us enough to be demanding, and to zero right in on whatever holds us back from giving our whole hearts to God. Part of following Jesus is about following Jesus, but another part of following Jesus is realizing that there are other things we aren’t following if we are following Jesus. Following Jesus is opting for Jesus rather than many other things that want us to follow them instead. Following Jesus is making a conscious decision to choose Jesus instead of other things, other people, other philosophies we might choose to follow. We live in a very both/and culture. We want this and that. We don’t want to have to choose between things. We have a great fear of missing out, and we don’t like being told that choosing one path means the other path is closed to us. But Jesus tells us we have to make a decision to follow Jesus, and we have to support our decision with our actions. What would you be most disappointed to hear from Jesus as the thing he would tell you to do to be a follower? What would make your heart sink? What would shock you, and cause you turn away grieving, knowing that if Jesus asked that of you, then you’d have to really wrestle before saying Yes? I think there is some grieving in our discipleship no matter what choices we make, just as the rich man found himself grieving at Jesus’s challenging words.
But when we choose to follow in the way of Jesus, our grief always gives way to hope, to joy. Jesus tells the disciples that it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than it is for a camel to make it through the eye of a needle – in other words, impossible by our own human efforts to do. But we can’t forget Jesus’ words of hope, “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” Following Jesus isn’t easy. He asks us for everything. He asks us for whatever we love most! He asks us to put following God before everything - and I mean everything - else. He asks us to take up a cross. He asks us to go to the end of the line. He asks us to open ourselves to ridicule and scorn. He asks us to let go of the things we’ve been taught to see as treasures, and instead treasure only what God values. He asks us to reject the ways of the world and to choose him and his path first and always. He asks us to give our lives for others, to spend our days working relentlessly to bring ever nearer the reign of God where all are included, where justice reigns and the systems of oppression have tumbled to the ground. The bar is set so high that it’s hard to see from here on the ground. Making it over that bar? Impossible. But for God? Well, for God, all things are possible. And so we pray not that we might be good enough to get over that high bar, but that we might be wise enough, faithful enough, humble enough to let God lift us up. We pray that we might just give up our whole selves, put our whole lives into God’s hands, so that depending on God, we might be raised up with Christ. The only way I know to get a camel through the eye of the needle is God’s way. Up and over that bar set so high. We can’t do it on our own. But God can. With God, we can. Jesus is looking into your heart. And Jesus loves you. And because of that love, Jesus is setting the bar high, and asking you to follow. With God, it is possible for us to say yes. Amen.