Trusting and Following - May 3, 2020
What does it really mean to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian?
Today in our readings we have a snapshot of the very first Christians in their faith life together, and we have a metaphor in St John’s gospel of Jesus as the shepherd that we follow. So let’s dig into these.
First the passage from Acts.
It says that the first converts, who’d heard Peter and the other apostles speaking so boldly and excitedly about Jesus after Pentecost, and who’d wanted to turn their lives around (repent), devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship. In other words, they were eager to learn, to hear the stories about Jesus – what he’d done and taught, how he’d died and been raised to life again; how the disciples’ lives had been totally transformed. This wasn’t about sitting in classrooms with Bibles open, being taught; this was about being with the people who’d known Jesus best, spending time with them, learning from them, and being changed themselves.
They were also devoted to the breaking of bread and the prayers. That means they were gathering together in community to pray and to do the thing that Jesus did so many times with his disciples and with crowds of followers: he would take bread, bless it, break it, and share it. He did that to feed thousands of people, he did that at the last supper before his death; he did it with the two disciples in their home in Emmaus, when finally they recognized him. From the very beginning of the Jesus movement, of Christianity, believers have been gathering together to break bread. It’s central to our life of faith. That’s why we’re working to find a way during COVID-19 self-isolation to continue to break bread together. (More on that later…)
The passage goes on to say that many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. In other words, amazing things were starting to happen: people were being healed, lives were being transformed, God’s power was clearly at work. Becoming a Christian wasn’t just about embracing a set of beliefs: it was and remains stepping into a life-changing way of being.
And the passage continues to describe how the believers spent time together, shared their possessions among themselves, supported the poor, and went to the temple together (they were all Jewish at this point). It’s a communal lifestyle, not an individualistic or competitive one. People looked out for each other, supported each other, and spent significant time together.
In their homes, they broke bread and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God. There’s that breaking of bread again: it’s not just physical nourishment, it’s a spiritually significant act, a strong link with Jesus, to be done both at home with family and in gatherings with the other believers.
This snapshot offers so much to guide us today. We can’t gather together physically, and may not be able to for many weeks, perhaps months, to come. And that’s forcing us to ask ourselves as people of faith what it really means to be followers of Jesus. It has to be more than going to church on Sunday. It has to be more than receiving the sacraments and saying the creeds. It has to be more than committee meetings on Zoom.
To be a follower of Jesus is to have your life shaped and changed in every aspect. It’s to be willing to be on a journey, not static. It’s to trust that Jesus calls us by name, like the good shepherd in John’s gospel, and leads us into abundant life. So we need to learn to recognize Jesus’ voice, and trust going where it calls us.
This past week three different people in the parish emailed me unprompted about ways they’d heard that voice and been touched and changed by it.
- One was a person who simply noticed a blue jay outside his window, and had a moment of feeling and knowing that God is with us in this difficult, painful time, giving us the gifts of faith and resilience to get through.
- Another was someone describing how she journals with Jesus, writing to him about her life and her struggles, and then writing Jesus’ response to her. It’s brought her a closer sense of Jesus’ presence in her daily life, and it often resolves problems she’s been experiencing.
- The third person recounted a situation where she’d felt inspired out of the blue to mention some job openings in her field to an acquaintance, and it turned out he was desperate for work. It seemed like a divine nudge to help the right person at the right time.
In each of those examples the person, one way or another, was hearing the voice of Jesus and responding, being touched and changed. They each had a small story to tell, and shared it with me. And they’ve given me permission to share them with you.
The first followers of Jesus spent time together, shared stories, saw amazing transformations in their own and others’ lives, and broke bread together giving thanks to God. They learned who Jesus was, and they learned to trust his voice and his guidance in their lives, through what we now call the Holy Spirit. They went through times of persecution and rejection. Some were killed for their faith. But they were widely known for their love and joy, and more and more people were drawn to joining the Jesus movement and following what was simply called The Way.
So what does it mean today to be a follower of Jesus?
It means the same as it ever did: coming to know who Jesus is, trusting and following his voice, being changed, being thankful, being liberated from what cripples us.
It means praying together, breaking bread together, sharing stories together – whether we gather physically or by virtual means these days.
It means sharing our resources and caring for those who are lacking.
It means discovering that what God has in mind for each one of us is nothing less than abundant life. Not wealth, not security, not success, not even health and long life necessarily – but abundant life: a quality of life that is rooted in the love of God and peace that passes understanding.
None of that has changed in the two thousand years since the first people heard the apostles’ words and became believers. None of that has to change just because we’re in the midst of a pandemic. In fact perhaps this pandemic is making us take another look at what really matters and what church and faith are really all about.
Perhaps this is a time to listen more intentionally for the shepherd’s voice.
Perhaps it’s a time to deepen our bonds with one another and with God.
Perhaps it’s a time to realize what abundant life really is, and to share that good news.