Following Jesus

St Barnabas’, Carlisle-Rivervale

+ In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

“So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD”.

“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

“Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”

In every account of Jesus calling the men who were to become his apostles, it seems that their response and following him are instant decisions, instant action, instant forsaking of the old life and embracing of the new.

Last week, we heard from John’s Gospel of the calling of Philip, of his immediately seeking out Nathanael and of Nathanael’s quick commitment to Jesus.

Today we read of the instant acceptance of Jesus’ call by the fishermen Simon & Andrew, James & John. “Immediately they left their nets … immediately they left their father”.

And, of course, as we read a part of the story of Jonah this morning, it would seem that Jonah follows the call of God pretty quickly, too. Except that the passage began, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” For Jonah, unlike the apostles, the call of God wasn’t quite so welcome!

His first reaction to the call of God to go preach in Nineveh was to board a ship going in exactly the opposite direction. Nineveh is a thousand miles east of Israel; but Jonah took passage for Spain, a thousand miles west! And I’m sure that many of us hearing the call of God have experienced at least the impulse to walk, run, sail or fly as far as possible away. I know I have been that way from time to time; and I don’t think I’m Robinson Crusoe in it!

Jonah finds himself and the ship in a great big storm on the Mediterranean, thrown overboard to appease the gods, swallowed by a great big fish and praying for three days and nights for forgiveness. The fish throws up, and Jonah finds himself on a beach in a nasty pile of the fish’s stomach contents – not, perhaps, the most pleasant experience!

And “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” God is gracious but persistent! And I’m glad of that. Jonah is chastened, repentant and eventually obedient.

So we come to today’s passage in which Nineveh – its king, its people and even its animals repent and seek God’s forgiveness. And, even then, Jonah is unhappy. You need to read the next chapter to see his reaction. He was looking forward to witnessing God’s destruction of the city, and is disappointed at the mercy of God. Interesting thought in light of some of the awful incidents of “terrorism” we’ve been witnessing in recent years!

As an aside, let me encourage you to go home and read the book of Jonah in its entirety. It’ll only take you ten or fifteen minutes; but it’s worth getting the whole picture.

Now to the disciples and their calling and “instant” following.

There is no doubt that the four fishermen in this morning’s Gospel respond instantly to Jesus’ call. But it seems that there was still a process of dealing with that commitment which meant dealing with the effects of such a change of vocation.

I saw a cartoon the other day in which Simon is at the printers’. He is just picking up 5000 business cards which read “Simon Bar-Jona, fisherman, Capernaum, Galilee”. The next picture has Jesus saying to him, “From now on you will be called Peter”.

Commitment to follow Jesus and to become “fishers of people” undoubtedly took some time to organize, however immediate their response.

A new movie out this week is “Wild”, with Reese Witherspoon starring as Cheryl Strayed, a woman in her late thirties who walked the 1500-mile Pacific Crest Trail.

Cheryl Strayed, in telling her own story of this journey, which she undertook to redeem her life from the self-destructive course in which she had spent several years, and from the fear and rage that had lived in her heart since the sudden death of her beloved mother when Cheryl was only 20, writes this about her commitment to this journey as a journey in itself, a journey that became part of her life journey:

There was the first, flip, decision to do it, followed by the second, more serious decision to actually do it, and then the long third beginning, composed of weeks of shopping and packing and preparing to do it.
There was the quitting my job as a waitress and finalizing my divorce and selling almost everything I owned and saying goodbye to my friends and visiting my mother’s grave one last time.
There was the driving across the country from Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon, and a few days later, catching a flight to Los Angeles and a ride to the town of Mojave and another ride to the place where the Trail crossed a highway.
At which point, at long last, there was the actual doing it, followed by the grim realization of what it meant to do it, followed by the decision to quit doing it because doing it was absurd and pointless and ridiculously difficult and far more than I expected it would be . . . And then there was truly doing it.

These things must have been true of the disciples. Certainly the quitting of their jobs required some decency, some words about why, and some farewell. Simon, we know, had a mother-in-law, and stayed in touch enough to know when she was ill, so there must have been some goodbyes said there. And in sorting out what to take and when to go, there must have been some question, said or unsaid, about whether this was wise or foolish.

In calling others to follow him. Jesus often said that they must count the cost. Even Peter, well into the journey with Jesus, said to him, “Lord, we have left everything to follow you. What will we then have?” And Jesus reassured him that no-one gives up everything for him, who won’t in the end be rewarded many times over. But that’s not the point in following him, is it?

And those who followed Jesus “immediately” also went through times of failure. At the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus was arrested, they all ran for their lives. This very Simon Peter even denied three times that he knew Jesus at all. But, like Jonah, to whom “the word of the Lord came a second time”, Peter was given another opportunity to commit to the following of Jesus, and he took it and followed all the way to his own untimely death.
The good news is that there is room for the immediate responder;
there is room for the reluctant;
and there is room for the runaway!
In the economy of God, in the grace of the One who calls us to follow, there is always room.

You and I are called to share the message – the good news – that God’s kingdom has come near, that repentance and faith are the entry, and that we are loved and valued and forgiven. In accepting this call, in truly following Jesus, there is no doubt that there is “stuff” to be left behind, there are attitudes which need to be abandoned and replaced, and there are priorities to be rearranged.

But those who’ve walked the journey with Jesus will tell you it’s all been worth it. You know and I know that our commitment to accept his call and follow him have rewarded us greatly already and there’s more to come.

In a few minutes, we are going to sing a hymn we used last week, “Will you come and follow me”, by John Bell and Graeme Maule of the Iona Community. Its last verse is a good response to Jesus’ call to us, and with it I finish:

“Lord, your summons echoes true
when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
in you and you in me.”

The Lord be with you!