“Leaving to Follow”Dr. Paul A. Baxley Matthew 4:18-22 Year A – The Third Sunday after Epiphany
In two decades of ministry, almost every time I have taught a Bible Study or preached a sermon from Matthew’s account of the calling of the disciples, someone has approached me wanting to talk about the immediacy of the response of the first four disciples. After all, as Matthew and Mark both tell it, Jesus walks along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, sees two sets of brothers, commands them: “Follow me!” and they immediately respond. Just so we won’t miss the immediacy of the response, the evangelist uses the word twice to describe the way Simon, Andrew, James and John respond to Jesus’ call.
Sometimes the response I receive to this immediate response is the question: “Come on, did it really happen that way?” Other times, people offer interpretive possibilities to lessen the shock. “Maybe,” they say, “this wasn’t the first time they’d ever seen Jesus. Maybe they had heard him preach before and had already had a chance to ask all the important questions.” From time to time, a person will ask, with a holy sort of wonder: “What was it about Jesus that allowed them to respond so suddenly? What did they see in him?” But almost always more than a few people in the worship service or Bible Study want to probe further into the way Matthew presents the call of the disciples.
I have to admit that this immediate sort of response is stunning in a world like ours. Most of us want instant information, immediate satisfaction in almost every area of our life. However, when it comes to the making of really important decisions, we almost never want to do it quickly. We want to take our time, consider every angle and consequence, reflect and pray. Perhaps this is because we are increasingly resistant to commitment. Or, to name a more positive possibility, perhaps we grasp the significance of these decisions and want to make sure we get them right. In a world where immediate decisions are increasingly rare, the suddenness of the response offered by Peter, Andrew, John and James certainly grabs our attention from the very beginning.
As stunning as the immediate response may be, it is not what most challenges me. After all, I do still meet people from time to time who make life-altering decisions immediately. I know people who have taken a job instantly when it was offered, and I know even more who said yes immediately after a man said: “Will you marry me?” While these situations are not identical to the one we see in Matthew, they do force us to recognize that immediate responses are not entirely extinct in our world.
More troubling to me is a different element of this text. As I see it, Jesus is extremely intrusive. He sees these four men, demands that they follow him, and does so in spite of the fact that they have done nothing to make themselves available to him. After all, he doesn’t find them at the synagogue enrolled in a lay class for people contemplating God’s call in their lives. He doesn’t even find them in a prayer service. No, when he meets these guys they are involved in the routine of their lives.
As far as we can see, there is nothing distinctive or unusual about them. They are not highly educated; they are almost certainly not trained in theology. They are at work, going finishing, earning their living in a fairly substantial part of the Galilean economy. This normal daily activity is the stage on which Jesus suddenly steps and demands a radical change in their lives. What an imposition! What an intrusion!
If the immediacy of the response is disturbing, the intrusiveness of the summons is more so. Why? Because if Jesus can come without warning and demand the allegiance in the lives of these four ordinary people, all of us are at risk! No wonder he will later compare himself to a thief in the night, and tells us we never know when he’ll show up (Matthew 24:44). We are all exposed! All of us live in a world where it is possible that without warning, without introduction, Jesus could show up and say: “Change everything, follow me.” That is disorienting and disturbing.
Though I can’t be sure, I have a strong suspicion that I will never forget the morning of January 11, 2010. I was in the midst of a routine Monday as a pastor. My day began as Mondays always did in that year at First Baptist Church in Henderson, NC. I met with an intern serving our congregation who was a student at Duke Divinity School.
When that session was over, I noticed I had a voicemail message on my office phone. So I retrieved the message. The caller identified himself as being from Athens, Georgia. He said he had a matter he wanted to discuss with me and asked me to call at my earliest convenience. I did so, to be told that he was chair of the pastor search committee of First Baptist Church there, that his search committee had been given my name, and that he wanted to know if I would be willing to submit a resume and some recent worship videos for their consideration.
Out of the blue the request came. I had done nothing to make myself available to search processes. I had no updated resume. But there was something about the call that I couldn’t dismiss. I remember wandering around in something of a daze for the rest of the day and going home that evening to begin a conversation with my wife about what we should do. Unlike the disciples in this text, I made no immediate response to that committee chair, and he made no commitment on that call.
The search committee and we came to a point of feeling a strong call from God, and relatively quickly as I was preaching in view of a call three months later. But just like those first disciples, I found myself interrupted on a Monday morning. I experienced an unsought, unexpected, intrusive call from God. Even now, remembering that morning brings back some of the unusual and unsettled feelings that telephone call set in motion. A single telephone call, without warning, turned all of life upside down.
Perhaps that’s why I’m struck by the intrusiveness of the call even more than the immediacy of the response. But I must say, it is neither intrusiveness nor immediacy that most challenges me today. Today when I hear this text in Matthew 4, I’m struck by something else about the response of the first four disciples. In order to follow, they had to leave. Peter and Andrew left their nets (which was their means of making a living) to follow Jesus. James and John leave their boat and their father to follow Jesus. For each of them, following requires leaving.
So we discover an important truth about the call to discipleship. Jesus doesn’t come to our lives as one who wants to be a part of our lives. He’s not offering himself as part of a well-rounded, balanced existence. He’s not asking us to add him to a list of important allegiances in our lives. It’s not like our lives are really good in and of themselves except for “a little something missing;” and Jesus is that “little something.” Jesus demands our full allegiance. Jesus seeks to re-order everything in our lives. Following Jesus invariably requires us place everything else under his sovereignty, which means we must be willing to leave other things behind.
Sometimes being a follower of Jesus requires us to change the way we earn a living, either by taking an entirely different job, or by profoundly changing the way we do our current job. For example, a follower of Jesus (by definition) can’t be the same kind of banker or business owner or attorney or doctor or teacher or funeral director as someone who isn’t following Jesus. A follower of Jesus has to leave behind certain ways of doing business.
Always being a follower of Jesus redefines all of our other basic relationships. I have known people who literally had to leave their fathers and mothers behind in order to respond to a call from God, in the sense that doing what Jesus asked them to do required that they go against their parents’ wishes for safety and security. I know young people serving in different ways who like James and John literally left a parent in the boat to do so. But even when that is not required of us, it remains the case that being a follower of Jesus redefines our family relationships and our friendships. No other relationship (be it spouse to spouse or child to parent) can have pre-eminence in our lives when we become followers of Jesus.
Back in November I had the opportunity to hear George Mason preach and make several presentations at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia. Dr. Mason is the Pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, where he has served for more than two decades.
In one of his presentations, he was reflecting on the way he approaches the baptism of new converts. He told us that, in meeting with young people preparing for baptism and their parents as well, he points out that baptism will forever change the relationship between parent and child. After baptism, their most basic identity will be that of being brothers and sisters in Christ. George pointed out that the children and teenagers were usually fascinated by this insight and the parents were always unsettled! Perhaps that’s because they knew how Zebedee felt sitting in the boat.
Following Jesus always requires leaving something behind, some old way of doing business, some old way of relating, some old way of viewing ourselves. When we follow Jesus, options that used to be open to us are no more, because we have signed our lives over to a new allegiance. We can no longer be people who ultimately live to satisfy our own desires to do what we want. We have to leave that self-serving way of living behind.
Following requires leaving. There’s just no way around it. To try to follow without being willing to leave is to land in an unbelievable tension, to be hopelessly pulled in different directions. Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes that troubled condition in this way:
No one should be surprised at the difficulty of faith, if there is some part of his life where he is consistently resisting or disobeying the commandment of Jesus. Is there some part of your life which you are refusing to surrender at his behest, some sinful passion, maybe, or some animosity, some hope, perhaps your ambition or your reason? If so, you must not be surprised that you have not received the Holy Spirit, that prayer is difficult or that your request for faith remains unanswered….How can you hope to enter communion with him when at some point in your life you are running away from him? (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)
Yes, following requires leaving. Spiritual vitality requires sacrifice. In a me-first, ego-centric world, where so many of us live as though the whole world revolves around us, it is this radical sacrifice that may be even more disturbing and unsettling than either the immediacy or even the intrusiveness. But Jesus doesn’t come into our lives just to meet our needs and serve our interests. Jesus comes into our lives, Risen and Exalted, as the God who spoke the world into being, desiring to draw us into his life and place us in his mission for the world. To follow his intrusive call requires a willingness to leave and go after him.
Too often, I think, we pastors in inviting people to follow Jesus have told less than the whole truth. We’ve presented a decision to follow Jesus more like you’d sell an insurance policy. Or we’ve dressed up the invitation in a way to make it appealing to a self-absorbed, risk-adverse, sacrifice-resistant world. But the truth is this. Jesus steps on the stage of our lives, often without warning, and says: “Follow me.” He offers us new purpose, just as he did those first four. Stepping into his path involves stepping out of another. To say anything less is to misrepresent Christ.
In the last few years I’ve learned a new hymn that captures all of these truths well. It is a powerful text with a haunting tune that comes to us from the Iona Community in Scotland. These words provide Jesus’ summons and give us language for response:
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let My love be shown, will you let My name be known?
Will you let My life be grown in you and you in Me?
Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in Me?
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.
(John L. Bell and Graham A. Maule, “Will You Come and Follow Me?” in Celebrating Grace Hymnal. Macon: Celebrating Grace, 2010, hymn 473)
About the writer:
Dr. Paul A. Baxley has served as Senior Minister of First Baptist Church since June 2010. He is a native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Previously, he served as Senior Minister of The First Baptist Church in Henderson, North Carolina (2004-2010), as Director of Congregational Relationships for Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (2002-2004), as Campus Minister at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina (1999-2002) and as Associate Minister of The First Baptist Church in Henderson (1992-1999). He holds degrees from Wake Forest University (B.A. Religion), Duke Divinity School (M.T.S.) and Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (D. Min.)
Currently, Paul serves as moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia’s Coordinating Council. He also serves on the Governing Board of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Board of Visitors at McAfee School of Theology. He has previously served as chair of the Board of Directors for the Center for Congregational Health and the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. He serves as a member of the Board of Visitors at McAfee School of Theology. While serving in Henderson, North Carolina, he was the chair of the local Ministers Community Partnership, which included area clergy from different denominational and racial backgrounds. In 2012, Paul was one of the presenters at the annual Mercer Preaching Consultation and delivered the Lawrence Hoover Lectures at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.
Paul is married to Jennifer Hoerning Baxley, a Physical Therapist who works for St. Mary’s Hospital in Athens. They have four children (a 12 year old daughter Olivia, a 6 year old daughter Maria, and twin three year-olds Matthew and Caroline).
Scripture and Music
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
It Came upon the Midnight Clear
Arise, Your Light Has Come!
Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise
The Church’s One Foundation
I Love to Tell the Story
Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee
Christ, Be Our Light
Rock of ages, cleft for me
Creator of the Stars of Night, Jeffrey Honore
Until We Rest in Thee, Sue Ellen Page
Let Us Love One Another, A. B. Sherman
He Comes to Us, Jane Marshall
They Cast Their Nets, arr. Michael McCabe
One Thing I Ask of the Lord, Heinrich Schütz, arr. D. McAfee