A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 29, 2012 (St. John the Evangelist)
Jesus is starting to sound like a broken record. Not that anyone under the age of 25 actually knows what a record is. But this is the third week in a row we’ve heard Jesus say “Follow me” to some unsuspecting fisherman. If you haven’t gotten the point that Jesus wants people to follow him by now, we may have a serious problem.
So what does it mean to follow Jesus? Ultimately it all comes down to discipleship. Will you follow Jesus with all your heart, and mind, and soul, or not? And it’s hard not to imagine what it would have been like for those first disciples – maybe it would have been easier to respond to the call to follow Jesus if he himself was looking directly into your eyes. Maybe there would have been some mystic pull that would have drawn you into his inner circle. But they did have a choice. Please don’t imagine Jesus’ calling of his disciples as something out of a bad sci-fi zombie movie. With Peter dropping his nets and robotically saying, “Yes, master.”
There is evidence that not everyone did follow Jesus. In the story of the rich young man who is told to sell all he owns before following Jesus, we’re told he “went away grieving for he had many possessions.” No one is compelled to follow him.
As we hear Jesus’ words directed toward us, which is how all Christians must hear them, remember it’s not really a question, “Follow me?” but neither is it a command masking a thinly-veiled threat: “Follow me – or else.”
Rather, Jesus’ words are an invitation. “Follow me.” An invitation not into an easy life, but a vision of hope and faith and love and justice. An invitation that rejects the evil and apathy that drags us down while raising us up to the possibility of new life and vibrant relationship in the one, true, and living God.
When you receive an invitation in the mail (again those under 25 might not have any idea what I’m talking about), it often comes with a response card. You can either check off “Yes, I’ll be attending” or “No, I am not able to attend.” As with Jesus’ invitation of discipleship, we have the choice to either accept or send our regrets. But there’s also a third option. And that’s to stick the unfilled-out response card in a pile of junk mail and let it just sit there. In the back of your mind you know it’s there but you just don’t have the energy to deal with it. You’re on the fence about whether or not to go and avoiding it means you don’t have to make a decision. You know it’s rude to the host and if you were throwing the party yourself you’d be annoyed at the person not sending in the response card but there it sits.
Sometimes we do the same thing with Jesus’ invitation to discipleship. We set it aside and we don’t deal with it. If you see Jesus at the Fruit Center you might take your cart and duck around the corner into the gourmet olive section because it would be kind of awkward if he asked you whether or not you received his invitation.
No one is going to force you to accept the invitation, but Jesus’ great desire is that you fill out that response card and send it back immediately. Not because you have all the answers but because Jesus wants to accompany you on your journey of faith and discovery.
Ultimately Jesus calls us into a bold discipleship. Not timid or lukewarm or occasional discipleship but bold discipleship that allows us to live out our faith not just for an hour every week but in our daily lives. To be models of God’s love in the world through word and deed.
Our patron saint, John the Evangelist, was known as the “beloved disciple” of Jesus. As an apostle and evangelist – that is as the writer of what’s known to us as the Gospel according to St. John – he embodied what it means to share the Good News of the gospel. And that’s a key component of discipleship — we are invited not just to follow Jesus, but to share the Good News of the Gospel with others.
On this day of our Annual Meeting, it’s helpful to pause and reflect upon the essence of our ministry up here on this hill. In light of this passage from John’s gospel, I think our collective ministry really comes down to two things: sharing the Good News of Christ and making disciples. And I am utterly convinced that the way you share the Good News and create new and bolder disciples is through church growth. Growing in God, growing in faith, growing numerically, growing financially. When growth is driven by the Gospel mandate to share the Good News it can’t help but take root and grow 30, 60, or 90-fold and I believe that is taking place right here, right now.
If you peruse the Annual Report (and I know you’ll read, mark, and inwardly digest every word), you’ll see the quantifiable statistics on growth: In the last 12 months, the Average Sunday Attendance grew by 8% as did the total pledged to St. John’s. But taking the broader view, in the last two years attendance here has increased 26% while giving has increased another 30%. That’s amazing. And it’s encouraging because it means that we are sharing the Good News with more people, we are impacting more lives, and those who call St. John’s their spiritual home are increasing their commitment to the parish.
So, why are we growing? Well, as much as I’d like to think it’s because we serve excellent coffee, it’s more than this. From my perspective it’s because we are a lively, welcoming community. Each Sunday, the gospel is preached with integrity and passion not just from the pulpit but from the choir stalls and from the pews. It’s preached in the ways we care for one another; it’s preached through social events; it’s preached through committee work both visible and invisible; it’s preached through outreach; it’s preached through Christian education for all ages; it’s preached by and through each one of you. Growth happens when a congregation works in concert with the Holy Spirit to create a symphony of harmony, joy, hope, and love. That, my friends, is what is happening at St. John’s and it is quite a blessing to behold.
The next question is what must we do to sustain this growth? That’s where Jesus’ call to discipleship comes in. To be a disciple of Christ is to be growing ever-deeper in your faith and your commitment to the community through which your faith is lived out. But it’s also about sharing rather than hording the Good News. It’s not ours, we don’t own it, and Jesus bids us to give it away with reckless abandon. As difficult as it may be for some of us, invite a friend to church, encourage someone to attend a program, share your passion for St. John’s with a friend (in a subtle, non-threatening, Episcopalian kind of way, of course).
I know that growth is not always easy – there are growing pains and there are obstacles to growth. I encourage your prayers and your support and your open communication about changes you may or may not agree with. In a little while we’ll talk about some goals for the parish in the upcoming year. But in the end it all comes down to those two little words: “Follow me.” In the pause before you send back that response card, the phrase hangs out there, pregnant with salvific possibility. Join Jesus, join all of us at St. John’s, as we move ever deeper into our faith.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2012