In our gospel lesson today Jesus called four very ordinary people—Andrew, Simon Peter, James, and John—to follow him. All four were fishermen, the “Joe the Plumbers” of their day, ordinary people like you and me. And all four dropped everything they were doing and followed Jesus. Just like that; they followed Jesus.
So I’ll bet you expect a “call sermon” today. You know, a sermon where I tell you to “drop everything” and follow Jesus. That’s today’s lesson. We are supposed to read and hear and reflect on CALL. Our collect says so: “Give us grace, O Lord,” we prayed, “to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and to proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation…” And our first reading from Hebrew scripture tells us the Good News we are to proclaim, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them a light has shined.”
There you have it: the Epiphany message. Actually, the whole gospel message. God has come among us in Christ Jesus and I want to tell you about Jesus so that you, too, can walk in the light and follow Jesus.
But no, this isn’t a call sermon. There’s another message that insists on being shared today. Today’s message for Church of the Resurrection is about discerning which invitation to follow.
I kept thinking about these four fishermen. They were all people who wanted a relationship with God. They had been to the wilderness and received baptism for the forgiveness of their sins. At least three of them, probably all four, had met Jesus in person, had visited his HOUSE, had spent the day, probably had shared a meal with Jesus, and had learned astounding things about scripture from the one who John the Baptizer had called “the Lamb of God,” the Messiah. We know this because they called Jesus “Rabbi,” which means “teacher.” But now they had returned home and were back at work, tending their nets, making a living, going about their ordinary lives. Waiting, no doubt, to return to Jesus’ house next week.
Yes, today they are back to the ordinary business of their lives. They apparently hadn’t grasped that a radical change was required: they had met the Christ but hadn’t figured out, hadn’t discerned, that a major shift was needed.
(So yes, this is a discernment sermon. On a day when we will share at our Forum after this service where we are in discerning the future of our church. On this inauguration weekend, when we are hearing opposing “follow me” voices.)
Jesus asks his disciples to follow the will of God and to trust in God. This is the gospel lesson today. Jesus said, “Follow me.” Jesus didn’t say, “Follow me and I will teach you how to unlock the mysteries of the universe. I will show you how to heal people, raise them from the dead, and be with them in their pain.” Jesus didn’t say, “Follow me and you will go to the ends of the earth to tell people about me. You will be reviled, persecuted, and people will say all manner of evil things about you. Jesus didn’t say, “Follow me and your reward will be to suffer the same death as I, but you will be remembered forever.” No, Jesus simply said “Follow me,” and then added that short phrase, “and I will make you fish for people.”
Notice what the disciples did next. They left their profession and followed Jesus. Just like that. They could have listened to other voices, opposing voices: “Stay here, you have fish to catch, nets to fix, a living to make.” “Stay here, you have wives, families, people who need you.” “Stay here, you can visit Jesus’ house any week you want; you don’t need to follow him 24/7.”
As for us, we ask, “How can I be certain? How can I know that what I hear is God’s will? How can I know what I am supposed to do in Jesus’ name?” My own methodology involves reading scripture, praying, and listening. I especially like reading the lessons each week through the lens of the question I am discerning. This method keeps me from picking through scripture to find a passage or story that supports my own preferred option.
But, in a misguided attempt to give you a BETTER answer, I searched the Internet to see what other people have to say about discerning God’s will. I was surprised to discover that there are all manner of methodologies for discernment. Rick Warren of “The Purpose Driven Life” fame a few years ago has the shortest, two-step answer: “Admit you need guidance, and then ask God to guide you.” So his method is to pray. Saint Ignatius has the longest. His eleven steps, though, involve several that are the same, “Pray for openness to hear God’s answer,” and even involve the rather business-like steps of listing reasons for and against each option, and evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of each.
The similarities of most versions, though, boiled down to this: pray, read scripture, talk to others, and listen for God.
Scripture does inform us. Scripture tells us, “Trust in God. Do not follow the council of those who do not speak truth. If you are poor, God will especially bless you. If you are hungry, I will activate people to give you food. If you weep now, you will laugh. If people exclude you, hate you, try to wall you out, or shoot you dead in the street simply for breathing, REJOICE; God has a special reward for you.”
These Jesus-followers were not billionaires, although billionaires can follow Jesus. They were ordinary people, like us. What they had was trust in God and a willingness to act, a willingness even to be wrong at first and to keep on acting. They saw something different was happening and they grasped that a new answer was required. Just like us.
Jesus’ call to these four ordinary people is his call to us today: “Follow me.” But how can I know for sure what to do? The answer is, “You can’t know, not for sure.” Like James and John, Andrew and Peter, though, we have the information needed to decide to follow Jesus in a new way. We have the Bible. We have our history. We have people’s stories. We have all we need.
But here is the paradox of discernment: We cannot know for certain what to do without experiencing Jesus and we cannot experience Jesus without following him. What we must do is act. Read scripture, pray, and ask God what to do. In your heart, you will know. And I know—knowing you—know that you will follow Jesus because you long ago stepped out in faith to do just that. Keep praying. Keep listening. Keep following. You will be blessed. More importantly, you will be a blessing.