Readings: Isaiah 49: 1 – 7 and John 1: 29 – 42
Well we are continuing this morning with our sermon series on the five marks of growing churches. And this comes out of vision within the Diocese for growth and making and nurturing disciples. And so perhaps it would be useful at this point to remind ourselves of what those five marks of a growing church we have been asked to explore are. And they are growing in Christlikeness which Marion looked at last week; and then growth in commitment; in partnership; in influence; and in numbers. And this morning I shall be looking at the second of these which is ‘growing in commitment.’
And so let’s now see what our set reading for today has to say to us about commitment. And you will recall how through Advent we heard how John the Baptist had a calling burning within his heart to prepare the way for Jesus, the One who was to come and to be the Saviour of his people. But as Jesus has now come and begun his public ministry John is very much aware that he must now begin to fade into the background so that the focus can be on Jesus. “He must become greater; I must become less,” says John. And these are not just pious words by John as he now begins to encourage his own disciples to transfer their allegiance to Jesus. And I’m sure it must have hurt him personally to let such gifted and loyal disciples go. And I think it says something about John’s character that he doesn’t try to stand it their way at all. And it’s a lesson for us too on a personal level; for as Christian people we must be very careful of the example we set so that we don’t put people off or stand in the way of those wanting to know more about Jesus.
And so one day as John is at his usual post with two of his disciples down by the River Jordan he sees Jesus coming and says: “Look; this is the one I told you about. This is the one who takes away the sin of the world.” And catching a glimpse of Jesus the following day these two disciples taking their cue from John go and walk on after Jesus. And we know one of these two is Andrew and while we are not told the name of the other one, the general consensus seems to be that it’s John the Apostle, the author of this gospel.
And so as Jesus sees them walking behind him, he turns and says to them “What do you want; why are you following me?” And at this point I don’t think, they can really articulate why or what they want except there’s something about Jesus, almost like a gravitational pull that draws them to him and that makes them want to know more about him.
“What do you want?” Well on the surface it seems to be a very simple question, doesn’t it – “What do you want?” But it is a question with deeper implications, not only for those early disciples but for us too. Sooner or later if we begin to take Jesus seriously we face the same question: what do we really want with him, or from him? What are we looking for? What do we want?
And as for these two in the narrative, Jesus looks at them and as he waits for an answer they seem rather nonplussed and give him what seems to be a rather curious response. “Where are you staying?” And an answer of “Where are you staying?” to a question of “What do you want?” does seem rather odd doesn’t it, but if we are to understand what’s really going on here we need to appreciate that in that culture asking a question like that, in effect, meant inviting yourself over for a meal as you would only do that with a friend. And so they looked at Jesus and they say: “We would like to come to your house for dinner. That’s what we want. We want to be your friend we want to get to know you”
“Where are you staying?” they ask. And Jesus says: “Come and you will see.” And they spend the day with him. “Come and see” he says. “Come and get to know me and spend some time with me.” Well they may have heard a little about Jesus from John but here Jesus is inviting them into so much more. And Jesus offers the same invitation to us too as there’s a deep longing in his heart to be in relationship with all those who want to know him
And this is the first step we take towards discipleship; it’s getting to know him. And how well do we really know him I wonder? This what Tom Wright says in his book: ‘Simply Jesus’ he says this: “With Jesus, it’s easy to be complicated and hard to be simple. Part of the difficulty is that Jesus was and is much, much more than people imagine.” He goes on to say this: “Jesus – the Jesus we might discover if we really looked! Is larger, more disturbing, more urgent than – we the church! – had ever imagined.”
And then notice this, Jesus doesn’t press these two disciples of John into making an immediate response, but gives them opportunity to spend time with him and to consider all the implications before making any commitment.
And what we see happening here in John chapter 1 explains the readiness of the disciples later on to make the radical break from their occupations and to follow Jesus when he calls them by the Sea of Galilee. “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men” he says to them. And Matthew in his gospel account says: ‘At once they left their nets and followed him.’ And being able to make such a radical commitment like that at such short notice now begins to make sense. I’m inclined to the view it didn’t happen quite as suddenly as it first appears as they had already spent time with Jesus and had opportunity to think things through. And it seems to me almost certain that the time they had already spent with Jesus was what prompted such a decisive and committed response.
And we can see the impact that that time spent with Jesus had had on Andrew and John – it was life changing. And somehow we’re never quite the same if we’ve had an encounter with the reality of Jesus. And the first thing that Andrew does the following morning is to rush off and tell his brother Simon Peter. “Simon, Simon we have found the Messiah.” And then we read that Andrew brought Simon to Jesus. And what a wonderful privilege it is to introduce others to Jesus. And it seems that John had also told his brother James.
And what we see as we go through the gospel narratives is that there is an ongoing process at work in discipleship and the more time the disciples spend with Jesus the greater their commitment becomes. And it’s the same with us too. When we experience the reality of Jesus in our lives a desire begins to awaken within us to go deeper and to know him more. But the trouble is that so often we only go so far and for whatever reason we go no further. We are drawn to Jesus but then stop. And this is something that C.S. Lewis says. He says this; “Too often we are like children who settle for playing in mud puddles when the beauty and immensity of the ocean is only a few feet away.” And I like the way that Lewis sums it up. We are content playing around in the mud puddle but after a while, we tend to rationalise it and say: “Well, that’s all there is. That’s all God intended.” But Jesus in the Gospels continually encourages us to ask for more. And if only we could fully grasp all that God has in store for us and what Jesus is longing to lead us into.
But let’s turn over a few pages from our reading into John chapter 6 and we see what happens when commitment is only superficial. And what we see there is that there were many who were attracted to Jesus and liked to be associated with him and in a way followed him but they later turned back and left him because they took offence at some of the hard things he was saying. And, of course, that’s no commitment at all. Leaving can be easy but hanging in there when the going gets tough does require real commitment.
And Jesus then turns to the 12 who are close to him and says: “Do you also want to leave?” And this is how Peter answering on behalf of the 12 says; and I’m reading it now from the Message translation: “Master, to whom we would go? You have the words of real life. We’ve already committed ourselves, confident that you are the Holy One of God.”
And those who truly want to follow Jesus and to commit themselves to him are those who have discovered that there is no one and nothing more valuable that Jesus. There’s no one more worthy of our commitment and devotion than him. And it brings to mind some of those stories that Jesus tells in the gospels, one about a farmer and the other about a pearl collector. And the farmer is ploughing one day when, to his amazement he comes across some buried treasure in the field in which he’s working; and so he quickly covers it up again, and sells everything he has, absolutely everything to release enough money so that he can buy the field for himself.
And then to underline the point he’s making, Jesus goes on to tell of the pearl collector who comes across the last thing in pearls – the smoothest, purest pearl he has ever seen. And this pearl is so desirable that he sells his house, his servants, his entire pearl collection, in order to buy that one perfect pearl. And the reason that Jesus tells these stories is to show that these men, in selling everything they had, in giving up everything else, were not viewing it as hardship or sacrifice. They did it ‘out of joy.’ It was reckless and wholehearted, because they knew that the goal of securing the treasure, or buying the pearl, was really worth it.
They did not view it as hardship or sacrifice. But it doesn’t mean there will not be times when there may be hardship and sacrifice. And Jesus never said that following him would be easy. In fact, he referred to it as being the ‘narrow way’ and the way of the cross but there is nothing more rewarding and fulfilling than in responding to his invitation of wholehearted allegiance and commitment to him. Jesus is worth more than anything this world can offer.
And, of course, a commitment to follow Jesus means seeking to follow his example and seeking to become more Christ like as we heard last week. It means being a servant and following in obedience wherever he may lead. And that may all seem like a very tall order and well beyond our reach; perhaps unattainable. And our response might be: “well how can we possibly give that level of commitment?” And this is how William Temple, an Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940’s liked to respond to that question: He would say this:
“It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear and telling me to write a play like that. Shakespeare could do it – I can’t. And it’s no good showing me a life like Jesus and telling me to live a life like that. Jesus could do it – I can’t. But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like this. And if the Spirit could come into me, then I could live a life like His.”
And if we turn a few pages further on in this gospel isn’t that precisely what we find Jesus promising; that he will ask the Father to send the Spirit who will be with us and within us. And it’s the Spirit within who makes Jesus real to us. And the Apostle Paul writing to the Church in Rome puts it like this. He says: “If we belong to Christ then we live not by our own inclinations, but by the Spirit, since the Spirit of God has made his home in us.” And the Spirit makes his home in us because he wants to relate to us in a personal way and to change us from within.
Well I must close and perhaps I can finish with quoting some words from an old gospel song that has been buzzing around in my mind as I’ve been preparing for this morning. And it’s:
“I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands:
I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand.”
Sermon preached at a service of Morning Worship at St Laurence’s, Scalby on Sunday 19th January 2014