"The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, 'Follow me." - John 1:43
Yesterday, we began our new Bible Study Simply Christian - a ten-week exploration of the basics of our Christian faith. We had a great turn out and even better conversation. Part of our discussion focused on what changes have occurred in our culture over the last seventy years - changes that may make it harder to be a Christian today.
But, sometimes it strikes me that talking about things like the course of history or changes in our culture are just ways for us to make something very simple very complicated. In the opening of John's Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry directly. He doesn't mince words. He doesn't try to give a long explanation about the benefits of following him. And he doesn't try to explain culturally or theologically who he is.
No. He just says it: "Follow me." That's it. To the point. Direct.
And this point shouldn't be lost on us.
Sometimes we can make Christianity into the most complicated thing in the world. Many times - especially in Bible studies or in small groups - we find it hard to keep our focus on Christ as our teacher and instructor. We tend to get caught up in conversations about where our culture is going or what the Bible means for us today. We can get sidetracked into discussions about whether or not our country is a Christian nation anymore or where the church might be headed.
All the while, Jesus waits for us to respond to his simple statement that is a wonderful mixture of both command and invitation. Will we follow him? Will we turn our attention to him, to see where he is going, what he is doing, what he is teaching? Will we study his life and seek to follow in the way he walks?
Christianity really does come down to these direct questions. It really is this simple (not simplistic, mind you).
However, as we discussed yesterday, it is not easy for us to keep our attention on Jesus or on the simple reality of God's presence in our world. As someone said in the Bible Study, our natural inclination ever since the Fall is for us to resist God's simple, honest invitations. God invites us to worship and love him. God invites us to live in an open, loving, trusting relationship with him. We were made for this. This should be the most natural thing in the world. But, the reality is although we still feel an inkling in our hearts to seek God, we are also at war with ourselves. We want to know God, but we also - all of us - want to worship and serve ourselves.
This is why we find it so hard to faithfully follow Jesus all the time, why we find it so difficult to keep our attention on what matters to God, why we find it so challenging trying to keep our eyes, ears and hearts tuned to God's glory and grace in the world. We want to follow Jesus, but we also want to seek our own glory. In other words, we need help, and we can be thankful that Jesus is forever patient and gracious towards us, just as he was patient with disciples like Peter.
Paul's words about us learning how to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling even as God is at work within us are important to note here (Phil. 2:12-13). Jesus is both at work within us to help us follow him, but never to the point where we are stripped of our self or ability to freely respond. Faith is a dance involving both God's grace and our own commitment.
British preacher George MacDonald touches upon the importance of our direct response to Jesus' direct invitation in his work Creation in Christ when he writes:
"Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because Jesus said, Do it, or once abstained because he said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in him, if you do not do anything he tells you."
These too are direct words, and - even for me - not words that are easy to hear. But, they are necessary to hear.
I would do well to focus my attention back upon what Jesus did and what he taught and to try to do likewise. We all would. It all comes back to that simple, central two-word invitation and command. Follow me.
How wonderful would it be if we could be a church community where we strove to help one another to follow Jesus!
May Jesus continue to help us learn how to follow him ... in all ways ... and at all times.