He’d only attended church a few times when he tells me he wants to join. Someone, out of the blue, wants to join the church? That’s confusing. Preachers, never short on ego, can begin to figure, “Must be the power of my positive preaching.” “Well, are you baptized?” “Oh yes,” he says, “but I haven’t been to church in years. I’m getting to that age when you start thinking about – you know, making sure you’ve got your ticket for heaven.” “I see. Why do you want to join this church?” “People here are friendly – and your sermons are shorter than the Baptists or Methodists.” “Well,” I said, “I guess you know us. Here, sign this form.”
Luke tells us, Jesus now sets his face toward Jerusalem, which sounds serious. He’s going there to suffer and die. After a brief ruckus with some Samaritans, Jesus and his disciples move on. Along the way, a volunteer wants to join Jesus. “You really want to do this? It’ll be tough. Bring a sleeping bag.” To another person Jesus says, “Follow me.” “Okay, I’ll catch up with you, after I bury my father.” That sounds reasonable. “Don’t bother,” snaps Jesus, “Let the dead bury themselves.” Wow! One more volunteer asks to sign on. “I’ll be back after I tell my family goodbye.” Jesus responds: “Just stay home. You’re evidently not ready to follow me.” “Jesus don’t we welcome everyone who wants to join – I mean, let them in, right?”
Jesus says other harsh things I wish he hadn’t said. Like, “In this kingdom you start at the bottom and stay there. You serve whoever is in front of you.” Really – you want to do that? What about folks I don’t like being around – them too? “Want to be my disciple? Okay – deny yourself, here’s a cross, now follow me.” “Jesus, I feel like I’m missing something. I have been good – no, actually I’ve kept the law perfectly. What else do I need to do to get eternal life?” “Sell all you have and give the money to the poor. Then come follow me.” “You are kidding, Jesus, right?”
Some folks join churches hoping to find assurance, comfort, peace, answers to prayers, a better life. I’m for all that. I once believed my ministry was near the end at a parish. Since I work for God, I figured He’s in the placement business, and will answer my prayers. I asked God to send me to peaceful waters, a safe harbor, where people get along, and they take church seriously. God has a sense of humor. You don’t always get what you ask for. I didn’t. But being in shark infested waters for a time was a stepping stone. Eventually we came here, to St. Paul’s – and now I believe in God all over again. Jesus isn’t against family or security or peace in our souls. He’s for rearranging our priorities so we can focus on him first.
I am not as good at this as some others. Each week, I need to be here – listen to these stories – be reminded I stumble and fall. I need God to feed me bread and wine, show me signs of grace and forgiveness – remind me He’ll never leave me even when I stray. A lot of folks are better at this than me, I guess. They’re rarely here. Maybe they’re right. It’s not church that comes first. Jesus does. First we make our commitment to him – to follow him. Once we do, he ushers us into a larger world. He expands our love to include those we don’t like; tells us to put others first. His radical inclusiveness can offend us. He says God’s loving kindness is given to all people God makes – even to those his religious tradition condemns. He’s demanding. He expects us to do more than join a church, or go to church. He loves us enough to tell us that we’ll get lost if left on our own. “So,” he says, “Because I love you, follow me.” And each day, I find I must sign on again – or I lose sight of him. I’m not that good at this. And if he doesn’t get under our skin sometimes – really tick us off, maybe we don’t know how much he loves us – and what that love cost him. If we follow him, he promises nothing will happen to us that he hasn’t already experienced.
I wish I’d had the guts to tell that guy he needed to follow Jesus first before I’d let him join the church. I wish I’d told him Jesus is the one inviting him to church so he could follow him. It’s his call. I can say, “You really need to follow Jesus.” People won’t – not until they meet and hear Jesus, the one who invites us all. All I can do is assure you – yes, it takes time; focus; denying self; serving others; being faithful, not perfect – loving others as God loves us. It means falling, failing, getting back up, doubting but not looking back. And the amazing grace in all this – he invites people like you and me.
Membership in the church – everyone belongs; all get the benefits. That’s easy. We don’t ask a lot. Jesus does. He asks all or nothing – and patiently waits for us. And about getting to heaven – he doesn’t really talk about that. He says, “Follow.” He gives us our assignments. God takes care of what lies ahead. We join a church to learn and practice what following Jesus means.