Sunday, April 9, 2017

Follower or Admirer (Sermon)

John 12 

           Jerusalem is full of people who are gathered for the Passover celebration. There are people everywhere. Think of the sounds of children, family reunions, animals being bought, sold, and traded. There is the smell of bodies, dust, excrement, cooking, and perfumed oils that some use to disguise the odors. There is a rush to purchase food, oil, wine, and charcoal.
Of course, there are also Romans- soldiers and their families. They look on at the sudden rush of people in from the countryside with alarm. Where did all these people come from? Will they bring trouble? Will an influx of people make it difficult to get some of the food and goods they prefer? Better also head out to the market.

            There are non-Judean Jews coming in for Passover as well. If valid worship or sacrifice can only occur at the temple, they also make the pilgrimage. It seems that some of them have heard of this itinerant rabbi, Jesus, of whom it is said that he raised a man who had been dead four days. When the Greek Jews come into town, they go seeking out Jesus. They say to Philip, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” (Philip is a Greek name, so he may be or appear to be Greek.)

            We want to see Jesus. Why might they want to see him? To find out if all they have heard is true? Perhaps they need a miracle. They may be interested in learning from him or simply very curious looky-loos. When they see Jesus, though, they will be confronted with the deepest question that comes to all who meet him. Will they follow him or will they just be in his fan club? Will they be admirers or disciples? Will they want the connection at the foot of the cross or only as the palm parade is going by?

            In an article called “Followers, Not Admirers”, the theologian Søren Kierkegaard writes, 

It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression “follower.” He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for…. What then, is the difference between an admirer and a follower? A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.

A true follower of Jesus is an imitator of Jesus. It is important to remember that God had spokespeople prior to the Incarnation. That’s what a prophet is, a mouthpiece for the Divine. Therefore, it was not necessary for a person of the Trinity to pour the power and strength of being eternal into a fragile human body simply to impart lessons through teaching. Jesus’ teaching matters because it explains his deeds.

The words of Jesus- in conversations, in teaching, in prayer- make connections between what the Divine character always was and how God expects those who are led by the Spirit to respond. But the words were never the thing, because anyone might have taught in the name of the Lord. Within the Apostle’s Creed, we have very limited verbs about Jesus- born, suffered, crucified, died, buried, and rose. These verbs are concrete because they require a body.

            A body is unit of action. Jesus, with a body, is God prepared for action in the flesh. The body is not merely a receptacle of information. We are not merely encased spirits, biding our time. We are bodies in motion. We have been brought into a body, the Body of Christ. How we will respond to that inclusion, though… how we will respond to the gift of grace… how we will respond to always being Easter people, even on this side of Holy Week… that response is up to us.

            And, so, will we be followers or admirers? Being an admirer is nice. You still get the identity: “Oh, I love Jesus. I like to sing about him. Love to talk about him. Read his book sometimes, even.” So, if someone came up to you and said, “Sir, madam, we wish to see Jesus.” What will you show them: a hymn, a Bible, a catchy bumper sticker? Is it enough to be in Jesus’ fan club?

            In Fourth Gospel, it is said that those who have seen the Son have seen the Father. In today’s passage, Jesus asserts that anyone who is truly his follower will serve him. Logically, then, if Jesus is being served, he is present. Where true followers of Jesus are acting in service in imitation of him, he is there. And if he is there, then God is also being revealed. All of this happens through the power of the Holy Spirit.

            To reiterate: if you are imitating Jesus' actions in service, he will be present to be served (in the situation in which you are acting). If he is present, the whole Trinity is there because they are fellow travelers always. Thus, when one is a follower, an imitator, a disciple, and is asked, “We wish to see Jesus”… the answer will be clear because his presence will be felt in the act of service.

           Crucially, imitating Jesus will quickly separate the followers from the admirers. Eventually, admirers feel the pinch of knowing that Jesus does some things, says some things, and likes some people who are sometimes outside the edges of propriety. Jesus will be seen, unashamed, with the dying, the dead, the diseased, the depressed, the deserted, the demon-possessed, the downtrodden, the drug- addicted, the dastardly, and the desperate. He will see them for who they are and where they are and acknowledge them of as children of God, dealing with their needs before he makes any expectations of them.

            Following in those footsteps, truly committing to that level of kindness, gentleness, peacefulness, and honesty in our daily lives can be tough and frustrating. Furthermore, it does not really win a lot of friends and influence enemies. It mostly gains disdain from some, confusion from others, and a lot of God work that you carry in your heart because you worry that people will think you are crazy if you share it.

            Today is the martyrdom date of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and theologian. He was committed to what he believed were basic Christian principles of the church in the early days of the Third Reich, which included welcoming, evangelizing, and baptizing non-Aryan Christians. As Adolph Hitler’s regime grew in power, Bonhoeffer was part of a splinter church within Germany that focused on resisting the church being an arm of the power of the state, particularly of state violence. Bonhoeffer sought to teach and preach in both Britain and in America at different times, but ultimately returned to Germany because he believed that he had to be a part of resisting evil there in order to be able to live in the Germany that he perceived would be rebuilt after the war.

            He was arrested for being a double agent and then his significant role in a plot to kill Hitler was discovered. He was hanged on this date in 1945 in Flossenburg concentration camp, one month before Germany surrendered. During his time in prison, he continued to write to friends and to his family, as well as some theological thoughts. These letters and papers from prison were smuggled out and published as a book by the same name. Within one letter, Bonhoeffer reflects, 

We have learned a bit too late in the day that action springs not from thought but from a readiness for responsibility.

            The admirer of Jesus is always ready to think about him. The admirers on that in Jerusalem waved palms and smiled. They could have pointed Jesus out to the Greek passersby and said, “There he is. Ain’t he great.” As the week went on, the admirers of Jesus would have been among those who frowned at the woman who wept over his feet and dried them with her hair. He shouldn’t have let her touch him, they’d have said. The admirers would have been aghast at Jesus washing the disciples’ feet or proud to be included, but having no intention of repeating the incident. They may have tried to blend into the crowd or disappear at the crucifixion. Ultimately, admirers will end up disappointed with the true Jesus. He’s too much or not quite enough or right time, wrong place or wrong time, right place. They sure do admire him, but…

            The followers of Jesus, the disciples, those on the Way of Christ have come to accept that faith is not the absence of doubt. It is action in spite of doubt. The followers have already assumed the readiness for responsibility that Bonhoeffer mentions. They waved their palm branches, but only with one hand because with the other they had escorted a leper, a bleeding woman, a child, sex worker, a blind man, a refugee, a centurion, or a hesitant Pharisee to be within reach of Jesus. For the followers, commentary on the goodness of Jesus is strange because sometimes the many ways in which they encounter him through service are not always good, by the usual definition of that word. They are, however, always holy.

            In the week ahead, whether you attend services or pray through the daily readings or simply try to make it through your regular to-do list, ponder in your heart whether you are a follower or an admirer. Are you all in or are you watching from a distance? Does this week get to you because you realize that imitation of Christ demands a solidarity in these events that is truly spiritually and emotionally overwhelming? Or is this a week to be with other fans of God’s work?

            When someone says to you, “We wish to see Jesus,” how do you respond? In word or in deed? Will you be an admirer or a follower? 

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