April 5, 2015

Following the Road to Life

Let’s proclaim the great truth of today again together: Jesus is risen!  He is risen indeed!  This morning we are in the final part of our series, The Heart of Christianity.  For the past seven weeks we have been taking a look at some of the essential practices of the Christian faith.  We’ve been talking about the things that if we get these down, much of the rest of our faith journeys will fall fairly naturally into place.  We have talked about things like our confession of Jesus’ lordship.  Our whole lives should broadcast this truth to the world.  But this only happens when we take up the second practice: living transformation lives.  Starting with our minds and going from there we are to be transformed by this confession that Jesus is Lord into something other than we were before.  In Christ we are new creations.  The old is gone, the new has come.  From here we talked about the practice of serving after the pattern of Christ.  Jesus intentionally leveraged all the advantages He had for the benefit of the people around Him, especially those who weren’t able to otherwise do for themselves or to return the favor.  If we are going to be well grounded in our practice of the faith we need to be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to serve the least, last, and lost among us.  In part five of the series, we got more specific about the nature of this service.  As followers of Jesus, the God who is just, we are to be serving in ways that advance God’s mission of justice.  This means getting involved with any number of causes that see the situations of people who have been wronged turned around and made right.  Last Sunday we looked at the necessity of living disciplined lives.  We do not drift naturally in the direction of being right with God.  It takes a great deal of attention and discipline to stay on the same path Jesus walked.  We need to intentionally incorporate things like prayer and Bible study and fasting and solitude into our regular routines so that we can be moving ever forward in our efforts to be more like Jesus.  Finally, this past Friday, Good Friday, we talked about living sacrificial lives.  Jesus gave up everything for us.  What are we willing to give up for Him?

That all brings us to this morning.  This morning we are going to wrap up this series by examining the most foundational point of all.  The thing that ties all these different practices together is this: they are all part of what it means to follow Jesus.  When all the chips are down we need to make certain that before anything else we are following Jesus.  The reason for this is that life is found in following Jesus.  But rather than try to prove this to you or otherwise explain why it is the case, I want to do something a bit different in our time together this morning.  I want to let you hear from a man who knew this truth better than just about anyone else.  His name is Simon, but you know him better as Peter.  His story with Jesus starts with a bit of a bang and takes off from there.

My name is Simon, but you can call me Peter.  I wasn’t always known as Peter, but being with Jesus can make that kind of thing happen.  I’m glad today to confess to you that He is my Lord and Savior and I’ll follow Him to my grave, but that’s not how things always were  Growing up my father was a fisherman which meant that apart from some extraordinary set of circumstances I would be too.  I did all the things society would have expected of someone like me.  I learned and worked with my father and my brother Andrew.  Our partners James and John, the sons of Zebedee, often joined us and while we weren’t setting the world on fire with our fishing we were making a comfortable living.  Things were good.  Life around the Sea of Galilee was never dull.  There were always new people coming in and out of the area.  New rabbis always seemed to get their start there away from the political grinding mill of Jerusalem which made for good entertainment when there was time.  And even if those weren’t enough there was always work to be done.  If you’ve ever owned your own business you know exactly what I’m talking about.

In any event, this was life.  It was life now and for all I knew it was going to be life for a very long time.  Little did I know, though, just how little I knew.  A few months after Andrew and I joined James and John to go out on our own we began to hear the stories of this man named Jesus.  I’ve got to say, the stories were pretty incredible.  People said He could heal you from any disease.  Not even demons could stand before Him.  If that weren’t enough to generate some pretty powerful rumors, He was said to be the most gifted teacher anyone had ever heard.  People who had heard Him reported that their hearts were seized within them with a desire for God and His words.  They went back home with a greater passion for and interest in serving the God of our fathers than they had ever had before.  They said He didn’t teach as the various teachers of the law did.  He spoke as one with an authority that needed no reinforcement.  His word was the final statement on the matter.  All of this culminated in a growing murmur that this man might be the Messiah.  It was mostly just fanciful hoping then, but those kinds of rumors have a tendency to grow legs and start spreading on their own.  I hoped to get to hear Him someday, but I simply didn’t have the time to take away from the business.

One Friday morning would change all of that.  James and John and Andrew and I had spent almost the entire previous night out on the boats hoping for a catch.  We went to all the normal spots, but every time we let down our nets they came back up empty.  Wherever the fish were hiding we couldn’t find them.  By dawn we were exhausted and frustrated so we decided to call it a day and get some rest.  We headed for shore and began cleaning the nets.  The next thing we knew a crowd had gathered.  A crowd like that could only mean one thing: Jesus was in the area.  Maybe He would teach from near the lake so we could hear Him.  Still, we had to finish cleaning the nets lest they be ruined.  We set our hopes to the side for the time being and kept at it.

Suddenly I heard a voice next to me.  “Simon, can I use your boat?  The crowds are pressing so close I’m afraid those in the back won’t be able to hear Me.  If you could push out a little ways from shore I think everyone will be better for it.”  I looked up and it was Him—Jesus.  He was standing right there over me…and He knew my name!  I made eye contact with Andrew and he gave me a nod.  The nets were going to have to wait for now.  An opportunity this good just couldn’t be missed.  Jesus wanted to use our boat.  Not only were we going to get to hear Him, we were going to have a front row seat!

As quickly as we could we dragged the boat back to the water and steadied it so He could climb in.  Once He was settled I rowed us a few yards from shore and Andrew dropped the anchor.  Then He began to teach.  I’ll tell you: it was even better than I had imagined.  His words were like fresh honey being drizzled slowly across your tongue.  There was an initial sweetness on contact, but as it spread and lingered that initial sweetness grew and developed into a full and robust pleasure.  I don’t remember how long He spoke, but it felt like days and yet at the same time was over before it began.  Oh how I hungered for more.  Still, the crowds were dispersing and it was time to row Him back to shore so He could move on to the next place.

But as Andrew pulled up the anchor something totally unexpected happened.  When He saw that we had brought the nets with us He said, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”  Andrew and I just looked at each other.  We were still jazzed from His teaching, but this didn’t make any sense.  Why would He say something like this?  I had heard He was a carpenter, but surely He knew at least something about fishing.  He had to have seen us cleaning our nets.  That meant were done fishing.  The Sabbath was only a few hours away and we had preparations still to make for it.  Fishing again and then having to start completely over with cleaning the nets would set us way back.  Besides all this, we had been fishing all night and hadn’t caught a thing.  If the fish weren’t around at night, they certainly weren’t going to be around now in the hottest part of the day.  If this was some kind of joke on His part, neither of us was laughing.  But still, if He could teach with such authority, what harm would there be?  More work on our part to be sure, but He didn’t seem like the kind of man you denied.

So we started rowing.  When we got to the deep waters where there had been no fish the night before, we cast our nets yet again.  What happened next still doesn’t make sense in my head.  Both of us sensed the movement under the boat.  Suddenly we felt an incredible tug on the nets.  We started pulling and there were more fish in our nets than we had ever seen at one time in our lives.  As Andrew struggled to hold the lines I frantically waved to James and John.  When they saw us struggling they jumped in their boat and rowed out to us as quickly as they could.  The four of us just managed to get the nets in without breaking them but the haul of fish was so large it threatened to sink both boats.

And as we celebrated this incredible catch something dawned on us.  We quickly made eye contact with each other and saw we were all thinking the same thing.  He had done this.  Those fish weren’t there before and they shouldn’t have been here now.  In all our years of fishing we had never seen a catch like this with nets and boats like ours.  This Jesus wasn’t just a healer and a teacher.  He was something else.  Only God Himself could have powers over nature itself like this.  And as this realization dawned we became all too aware of just how unworthy we were to even be in His presence.  I turned to look at Him and He was seated there calmly where He had been the whole time.  He had a slight smile on His face as if He were taking great delight in simply watching us react to what had just happened.  I couldn’t help myself at how I reacted.  I fell at His knees and exclaimed, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, I lord.”

The only sounds were the waves, the wind, and the flopping fish.  We all looked at Him with anticipation.  How would He respond?  Would He accept us?  Why had He done this?  When He finally opened His mouth He said the strangest thing: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”  Catching men?  With what?  All I knew was catching fish.  Yet if this man who just made fish appear where there had been no fish before was convinced I was going to be catching men, surely He had to be right.  Whatever He meant, I knew I had to find out.  Where this Jesus went, I was going to follow.  Andrew, James, and John all felt the same way.  When we rowed back to shore, we left everything there and followed Jesus.

I have learned much since that first day.  As I listened to Jesus teach again and again, sometimes publicly and sometimes just for us, I became convinced that He spoke with the authority He did not because He was all that much more charismatic than any other teacher, but rather because He had it.  He had the authority to give new commands that carried the force of the Law.  We were to love our neighbors, even our enemies, as we loved ourselves.  We were to put others first, serving them without thought of return.  We were to leverage any power we had for the benefit of others.  We were to build our entire lives on the things He taught.  He said one thing after another that didn’t make any sense…until we witnessed them played out through His own life.  And oh how He lived.  The life He lived day in and day out seemed somehow more alive than what the rest of us were doing except when we were on track with imitating Him.  It was like in following Him we were being led to life.  Not just the kind of life you and I play at every day, but something deeper, richer, fuller, than anything we’d even known to desire.  We were following Him to real life.

But lest I leave you thinking we were sold only by His incredible teachings, there was far more to Him than that.  He didn’t simply speak with power, He acted with power.  As we witnessed miracle after miracle we gradually came to understand the extent of His power.  We saw Him not merely heal any and every disease.  He once fed a crowd of thousands with a few small loaves and fish.  There was not food and then there was.  He did that twice.  Once we were crossing the Sea when a fierce storm blew up as they are wont to do on the Sea.  We figured we were all goners, but Jesus was asleep in the back of the boat.  When we woke Him in fear of our lives He reacted by telling the storm to stop…and it did.  Then He chastised us for not having enough faith.  Another time He had sent us on ahead of Him in the boat assuring us that He would catch up with us in the morning on the other side of the Sea.  The wind and waves were against us all night.  Suddenly through the haze of the storm Jesus came walking by…on the waves.  I’ll still never forget the experience of climbing out of the boat to come to Him.  This man we were following to life had power not only over the human body, but over nature itself.  There was no limit to the extent of His power.  We would later learn that not even death avoided the reach of His power.  Following this man, Jesus, was taking us life.

The event that would teach us just how far we had to follow was still coming.  At the point we had all been following Jesus for a couple of years He led us up to Caesarea Philippi.  Why He would take us to that God-forsaken place we couldn’t figure out, but He had a purpose.  When we near the city, bathed in the shadow of the evil Roman Empire He gathered us near and asked us a question: Who do people say I am?  Figuring He was just trying to get the word on the street, we threw out all the various responses we’d heard: Elijah, John the Baptist back from the dead, one of the other prophets, and so on.  But then He followed up with another question that revealed His purpose: Who do you say that I am?  There in the heart of Rome’s power in the region He wanted to know if we could see through the fog of lies to the truth.  I spoke up with what had become the confident belief of my heart: “You are the Christ!  The Son of the Living God.”  Jesus smiled.  He said that it was the very Spirit of God who had placed that knowledge in me.

Jesus was the Messiah.  Everything I had seen and heard for the past two years confirmed this to me.  I was following the man who would lead us to life.  He would lead us to conquer our enemies.  He would establish us as a powerful nation once again.  Of this I was certain in that moment…until Jesus opened His mouth again.  Almost immediately He began explaining to us that He was going to die and be resurrected on the third day.  I didn’t know about the whole resurrection thing then, but I did understand the dying part.  He couldn’t die.  He was going to lead us to life.  The longer He spoke the more upset I became until I couldn’t hold it in any longer.  I interrupted Him.  “Lord, you can’t!” I exclaimed.  I got up and pulled Him to the side and began explaining how He couldn’t talk like this.  He was going to defeat Rome and establish a nation and be victorious over His enemies.  He was the Messiah and the Messiah wasn’t going to die.

I still wince when I think about what happened next.  “Get behind me, Satan!” He finally shouted.  “You’re thinking about the things of men, not of God.  If you want to follow me then you’ve got to be prepared to lose your life, not preserve it.”  I was crushed.  The Messiah was supposed to lead us to life.  How could the man I had just confessed to be the Messiah talk about dying and losing His life?  We were following Jesus to life, not death.  He came back to this point again and again over the next few weeks.  It still bothered me, but I kept my mouth shut.

Then it happened.  We entered Jerusalem a week before the Passover.  We had been there before, but this time felt different.  For starters Jesus rode into the city like a visiting dignitary.  We shouted His praises and many people along the road joined us.  The next few days were spent traveling around the city and listening to Jesus teach.  The Jewish leaders seemed more agitated with Him than usual.  They ganged up and asked their hardest questions, but He knocked them down as if it were mere child’s play.  Then came our Seder meal together—the last meal of its kind we would eat with Him.  He predicted His death yet again and with a heavier heart than ever before.  The events of the next few hours were a blur.  He seemed especially driven to pack a great deal of information and knowledge into our heads that night.  He spoke again and again of His leaving us and what would happen afterwards.  If only we had understood why!

Finally, around midnight the mob arrived with Judas at the head.  They were there to arrest Him.  Suddenly all the predictions of His death came flooding back into the front of our minds.  They were going to try and kill Him.  My first thought was, “Not if I have anything to say about it!”  I cut the ear off the servant of the high priest, but Jesus quickly put a stop to the violence before it had a chance to go anywhere.  I watched the ensuing chain of events like an outside observer.  The leader of the Temple Guard put Jesus in chains.  Bewildered and fearing for our lives the rest of us fled.  John and I followed at a safe distance to see where they were taking Him, but we weren’t about to try and do anything to help.  Before we knew it He was hanging on that cross.  They crucified the Messiah!  Even knowing what I do now those words are still hard to fathom.  We were following Jesus to life and yet He was hanging there dying.

We didn’t know what to do except hide.  Jesus had been crucified.  That meant Rome considered Him a political insurrectionist guilty of breaking the peace.  They tended to round up the followers of people like that and crucify them as well.  We decided to lay low for a while until the whole thing had blown over.  Then came Sunday morning.  The women in our group could move about more freely because they weren’t considered disciples even though we knew better.  Jesus’ mother and some of the others headed for Joseph’s tomb to finish the burial process.  Neither they nor we, though, we prepared for what they found.  He wasn’t there.  Instead they found an angel who announced that He was risen.  I don’t think there are sufficient words to explain how this news struck us.  Jesus was dead and now He was alive.  This was exactly what He had told us would happen.  The Jewish leaders would see Him put to death and on the third day He would rise.  Anyone who can claim something like that and then do it is worth being followed, am I right?  Anything He says is worth doing.  Anywhere He goes is worth going.  If not even death could hold Him, then anyone who stuck with Him surely would receive the same life He had.  He was on a journey ending in life, He had completed it, and now He wanted to share that life in and through us.  All we had to do was follow Him.  Life is found in following Jesus.

We would later come to understand in more detail and with the Spirit’s help the nature of His death and resurrection, but for then one thing was abundantly clear above all else: life is found in following Jesus.  We watched Him for three years live a life that was truly life.  Everywhere He went life seemed to flourish.  Bodies, hearts, spirits, and minds were made whole.  When He was killed it was as if a pall of death settled over everything.  The light of creation was dimmed in those hours.  But then He lived again.  And this time with a shine of life that was even stronger than before.  This was a life that was not confined to Him, but which could now be lived and shared by anyone willing to follow Him.  Life is found in following Jesus.  Listen, you may think you are living, but if you aren’t following Jesus, you’re just playing at life.  Any life you think you experience is but a reflection of the real life found only in Him.  Jesus died and lives again so that you might also live.  This is what the resurrection is all about.  I said before that I gladly declare Him to be my Lord and Savior.  If you want to know the life that is truly life as well, leaving behind whatever else it is you are following and instead following Him is that only way to go.  Life is found in following Jesus.