Sunday, January 24, 2021

Phil Kniss: Whole-hearted, whole-bodied, whole-life disciples

Luke: God’s story fulfilled — Jesus invites followers
Luke 5:1-11

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I love these “call stories” that show up
near the beginning of the Gospels—
stories of fisherman, and tax-collectors,
and somebody’s brothers or cousins,
or seemingly random and ordinary Galileans,
being roped into Jesus’ inner circle.
All it seems to take is a few well-chosen words, a look,
a miraculous catch of fish,
or Jesus simply showing up and saying, “Come with me.”
And people DO it!

What makes them do it?
That’s the perplexing question.
How could two words, “Follow me,”
coming from a new itinerant rabbi,
cause otherwise sensible people
to close up shop and walk away?
Who does this?

Simon and Andrew were actually in the act of fishing, for income,
when they heard the words, “Follow me.”
And they immediately—immediately?—
left their nets . . . hanging over the side of the boat, I guess,
and signed on as disciples.
And their friends (and probably competitors) in the fishing business,
James and John, also left their two-generation operation—
Zebedee and Sons Fishery, Inc!
Only the words, “Follow me” and they walked off.
I wonder how Mr. Zebedee felt,
abandoned by his sons,
and left holding the nets.

What does it take to say that kind of yes to Jesus?

Of course, we don’t know the back-story.
This may not have been their first meeting.
Peter and company may have followed Jesus from a distance
for a while—and this was just the final leap of faith.

But still I wonder, from the disciples’ point of view,
what was at stake,
and what tipped the balance toward “yes?”

One of the things that Peter did—in the boat—might be a clue.

Not sure I thought about it before,
but I found Peter’s response to Jesus a bit curious.
After he spent all night fishing, without success,
and after he let Jesus sit in the boat
to preach to the people on shore,
and after he reluctantly followed Jesus’ post-sermon invitation—
I guess you could say, altar call—
to throw the nets in the water again,
and after he and his partners pulled in an astounding number of fish,
in a net that had been empty all night,
Peter did this:
He dropped to his knees right there in the boat,
in front of Jesus,
and begged him to leave.
“Go away from me,” he said, and I believe he meant it.
“For I am a sinful man.”

Why would someone who just saw a marvelous miracle—
a miracle resulting in a huge economic windfall for him—
turn around and tell the miracle-worker to leave?
Wouldn’t a logical response be,
“Hey, that’s cool, Jesus! Can you do that again?”
Give us a minute to dump out the nets,
then tell us where to throw next.

I think I always interpreted Peter’s response to Jesus
as one of just pure spiritual humility.
Jesus, you are powerful, wonderful, holy, good . . .
too good to hang around the likes of me.
I repent.
I bow before you in my sin.

But this is Peter we’re talking about here.
He’s not famous for his humility.

Well, maybe there is some humility here.
But when I think about it more, I see pride.
Huge pride.
In fact, throughout the Gospels,
pride is kind of the main stumbling block for Peter.
And here, his pride is on full display.

A person suffering from the sin of pride,
never wants their shadow side to be seen.
Peter knew his sins, the darker shadows of himself,
and tried to cover them up with bravado.
He was a seaman from Galilee, after all.
Projecting toughness came with the territory.

I wonder if Peter actually had a flash of insight
at that very moment in the boat,
that if he kept associating himself with this kind of rabbi,
who was clearly on the rise,
who spoke golden words that drew huge crowds,
and who had this kind of miracle-working power,
Peter’s shadow side would be found out.
If he followed this kind of man,
he wouldn’t be able to fake it anymore.
Bravado wouldn’t get him very far.
So, in the privacy of his boat, out on the water,
he asked Jesus to leave,
because he was too proud to be weak.

Of course, I don’t know, nor does anyone,
the inner workings of the mind of the disciple Peter.
I only suspect this was the case,
because the feeling seems all too familiar—
being too proud to be weak.

The thing is,
proud people make poor disciples.
The very notion of a being a disciple,
requires I admit I am not what I need or want to be. Yet.
A disciple says, unashamedly, I need a master to help me become.
Being a disciple is being an apprentice.
It is letting someone else direct the journey.

Dear church,
this is what it means to follow Jesus.
Following Jesus is not for the proud and self-sufficient
and self-taught and self-directed.
Following Jesus as a disciple is not weakness.
But it is meekness.
It is being strong enough to admit
our lives need some shaping and reshaping.

We throw around this phrase pretty loosely—“following Jesus.”
We think following Jesus means admiring Jesus—
that we look at Jesus from a distance,
size him up and think we know him,
and then try to act like him.
Nine times out of ten,
the Jesus we think we see,
the Jesus we are willing to imitate,
is the Jesus we created, conveniently, in our own image.

As a white, middle-class, 21st-century American male,
the Jesus I claim to follow, may very well turn out—
(surprise, surprise)
to value the same things I value.
Let’s be honest.
It’s not only right-wing Christian extremists
storming Capitol buildings and planting explosive devices,
who have distorted Jesus to their own twisted image.
We are also guilty of making a Jesus who looks like us.

True disciples are willing to have their lives confronted,
not confirmed.
They are willing to dig deeper for the real Jesus.
They will spend time studying the Gospel,
becoming familiar with who Jesus was in his own context.
They will listen for the voices of other Jesus-followers
who do not share their own experiences and culture
and language and traditions
and skin color and socio-economic status
and social and political values.

If we only huddle with Christians that walk in shoes like ours,
there will be parts of Jesus we all just fail to notice.
If all we’re doing is a half-hearted attempt to imitate
an abstract caricature of a person,
then I guess no big deal.
We go on living our lives as Jesus-admirers.
And we might even do a little good in the process.

But if we want to be a disciple,
we have to sign up to be a life-long apprentice.

Discipleship is a life-long process
of listening,
being willing to learn,
being willing to be directed,
being willing to share our lives, intimately,
with other Jesus-followers,
so that we might get a fuller and truer picture
of who we are following.

I just have a hunch that Peter,
on this first real test of his readiness to be a disciple,
saw that it was asking more of him than he was ready to give.

At least he was being honest, when he asked Jesus to go away.
But Jesus,
full of love, and patience, and grace beyond measure,
reached out to Peter where he was, and said,
“Don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
You are still who you are—a fisherman.
I take you as you are, Peter, and where you are.
I love you as you are, Peter the fisherman.
But if you’ll let me,
I’ll teach you to be a different sort of fisher,
the kind of fisher you were born to become.
You will gather people for God.
You can do it, if you will come with me,
and let me shape your life.

I believe it was that very loving, inviting, and yet challenging voice,
that lifted Peter out of his pride,
long enough to step out of the boat,
and say a whole-hearted, whole-bodied, whole-life
“YES” to Jesus.
Yes. He would follow.

I wonder what it might be that’s holding back me, and you,
from signing up for a life-time of learning,
and submitting ourselves to the master shaper.

God give us strength.

Let me read, on all our behalf,
our confession to God.
I found this in the back of our newly-arrived hymnal,
Voices Together.
And I think it fits this moment.

Let’s pray.
Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry,
too real to hide, and too deep to undo.
Forgive what our lips tremble to name,
what our hearts can no longer bear,
and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment.
Set us free from a past that we cannot change;
open us to a future in which we can be changed;
and grant us grace to grow more and more
in your likeness and image;
through Jesus Christ, the light of the world.

—Phil Kniss, January 24, 2021

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