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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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New Rules for New Disciples

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: jesus, john, baptist, disciples, rules

January 15, 2023    The Second Sunday after the Epiphany

The Church of the Ascension    Munich, Germany

Text: John 1:37: “The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.” 

We are now fifteen days into the New Year, and so I cannot help but wonder: How are you doing on your New Year’s resolutions? Making any progress? Was it a kind of dietary change? Maybe you’re doing “Dry January”? Or was it maybe a resolution to do a little Bible reading every day, or pray the morning office every day? 

Maybe you resolved to use less plastic this year. How’s that going? Or maybe you are turning the heat down at home a little bit to save money and protect the environment. 

How are these going? Has your life changed the way you hoped? Do you even remember what your New Year’s Resolutions are?

The turn of the year is by long custom a time of deciding on changes we want to make in our lives. 

I suppose the end of the year is a time of daring to look back over the landscape of the previous months to see how little has actually changed.

But we are undaunted by that. We still remain persuaded that we can make real change in the patterns that shape our lives. And from time to time we do—sometimes as an act of will, and sometimes as an act of adaptation.

This morning we are presented with six people who are about to make good on their New Year’s Resolutions. They may not be thinking of it quite that way—but here is where we have to be honest with them about just what it is they are getting into. 

Céline and Charlotte and Laura and Lena and and Seun and Sophia are all about to stand up in front of all of you and make some very public commitments. We make them do it in public in part to help them keep the promises they make—because all of us will be able to remind them that we were here and watched as they did it.

They are making a public commitment to the Christian faith, and to the life of this community. Promises that were once made on their behalf, or in a different church, they are making here of their own free will. 

They are making a commitment to live out their faith as part of a church, and as part of this church, the Episcopal Church, and the church of the Ascension. They are becoming full-fledged disciples in their own right. 

But what comes with that is a kind of New Year’s Resolution. Maybe it’s better to call it a new life resolution. Because when you choose to become a disciple, something about your life is supposed to change. And one of the reasons for that is, there are new rules you are signing up to follow.

So what are they? What are the new rules for these new disciples?

Well, there are some hints in the Gospel lesson we just heard read that will help make this a little clearer. And some of them, at least, may be a little ... unsettling.

The gospel of John is so different from the other three gospels, the synoptic gospels. It tells the same story, yes, but in a very different way, from a very different perspective, and with a very different audience in view. It emphasizes different things, and so not surprisingly it some of the elements of the story it tells are unique.

Here in the very first chapter of John we meet the first disciples. But what we’re told about them when we first meet them is that they’re already disciples of someone else—John the Baptist. They’ve already signed up for a team, and it’s John’s team.

This morning we heard two connected stories of John the Baptist and Jesus. But uniquely in this gospel, we never see Jesus being baptized by John. 

More than that, we get a very different sense of the relationship between the two of them; John somehow knows that he is called to be the precursor, the person who prepares the path for Jesus; but at the same time, it seems clear that John isn’t really sure, when we first meet him, just who Jesus is. That’s pretty different from the account in the gospel of Luke, where we’re given the sense that they are related somehow, because their mothers are related.

Here, we get a picture of Jesus and his followers baptizing people, while John and his followers are doing the same. And somehow there comes a point at which John—who all this time has been saying he’s not the Messiah, and yet all this time has been the focus of more and more speculation that he really is the one—somehow in the midst of all that, when he might have simply claimed the job for himself, John instead has an epiphany of his own. He realizes that this other prophet who has been working just up the river from him is the one who is coming. 

That’s the background to the story we have this morning. John has realized not just that he is the forerunner, but who it is he is preparing things for. And at a moment that he and Jesus are in the same part of town, he turns to two of his own and says—“Do you know who that is? That’s the one I’ve been talking about. That’s him.”

In that moment, something happens that gives us the first rule of being a disciple. 

John the Baptist—this prophet everyone has been talking about, this celebrity of the moment, this major social influencer of his day—in that moment he becomes a disciple of Jesus. We don’t think of him that way; we don’t thnk of John hanging up his camel hair and giving up his diet of locusts and wild honey and joining up with those who follow Jesus around.

We know instead that John keeps on being John, and ends up in jail for it. But the point is clear: John knows that Jesus is Jesus, and he is not. John knows that God is God, and he is not. And that is the first rule of a disciple: We believe in God, and the God we believe in is not some other, abstracted form of ourselves. We are God’s; not the other way around.

That seems obvious, maybe, but these days it is important for our work as disciples to begin there. We are surrounded with too many examples of people, usually men—Mr. Musk, or Mr. Bezos, or perhaps even Mr. Putin—who think of themselves as “self-made men.” Or, in a phrase my first boss in ministry used to use, “self-made men who worship their creator.”

That isn’t us. We are meant to worship, yes; it is not to much to say that we have been designed for worship. Humans make meaning by worshiping something. On the Avenue George V in Paris you can worship either God our Louis Vuitton, and I’ll just let you guess which door there’s a line of people waiting to get in.

Think about what happens next. John says to his friends: That’s him. That’s the one. If you want to deepen your relationship with God, that’s the person you need to spend more time with. 

And what happens? They leave him, and go to Jesus. They don’t ask questions, they don’t calculate the risk/benefit ratio or the differential rates of return, they just go. And perhaps even more important, when they catch up with Jesus, and he asks them that single, profound question: —What are you looking for?—they don’t answer, well, we’re looking for a better prophet. We’re looking to move up in the disciple ranks. We’re looking for something with an influencer who has better market share among young families. 

They don’t say any of that. What they ask is, “Where are you staying?” How can we spend more time with you? How can we be where you are? They don’t go with him to check out his lodgings; they go with him to be closer to his life.

Disciples go where Jesus is—that’s the second rule. And the point of the story is to teach us that sometimes that means leaving the familiar, leaving decisions you’ve made, even leaving a teacher you love—because your flourishing, your life with God, means you need to be nearer to where Jesus is.

The last thing we’re told about those disciples is what they do after they’ve made their choice to be where Jesus is. Do you remember? The very next thing we hear is that they are telling other people about what they’ve found. 

It’s even more specific than that: By the end of the day, Andrew—one of those two disciples who just that morning had been on Team John the Baptist, is telling his own brother, someone in his own family, about what he has found. Rule number three is, disciples tell others what they’ve found—even, maybe especially, those closest to them.

I spent yesterday morning in the company of parents who learned a very great deal indeed about Jesus from their own son. That man was a disciple. He knew whose he was; he did all that he could to live more closely with the Jesus he had come to know. And he shared what he had found—with others, with his colleagues, with friends of different faiths and none.

And so Céline, Charlotte, Laura, Lena, Seun, and Sophia: Here are the new rules for you. Here is your new rule of life. 

First: You are God’s, and not the other way around. Always remember whose you are. Go through this life knowing that God made you, God loves you, and God walks with you.

Second: Wherever you can, however you can, whatever it costs, go where Jesus is. Go where you can find more of how Jesus lives—how Jesus would live in this world, who he would be with, how he would love them. Because when you do that, you will find out more about how Jesus wants you to live. And believe me when I tell you, your life will be changed, whether you like it or not. 

And third: Tell others. That’s the rule. When you stand up in front of me a moment from now and we call on you to speak for yourselves, dear friends, that’s just practice. It’s not the last time you’re supposed to share what you know; it’s the first time you do it as the disciples you are called to be. So tell others, even those closest to you. Not just in words, but in your actions, in your choices, in the thousand different ways each day you interact with other children of God. 

Now, most of the rest of the people around you here, their lives have already been changed by following these rules. So they are here to help you, to guide you, to answer questions.

You are joining the church of the Ascension, yes. But more importantly, you are joining this amazing community of Aspiration. We aspire here to be disciples. We are all still working at it. You are joining a group of people who have decided to live by three rules that are guaranteed to make your life more challenging, less predictable, and so much richer. Remember whose you are. Go wherever Jesus can be found. And share with the world what you find there. Amen.