Are you by nature a follower or a leader? One night, Leroy and I were heading out to South Park for my days off. It was late, and we found ourselves driving through heavy snow. The windshield wiper could barely keep up with the accumulation, and the visibility was only a few yards. The only thing that made the situation tolerable was the fact that we could follow the red tail lights just ahead of us. We crept up Kenosha Pass at ten miles per hour, and without warning, the car we were following pulled off the road at the top of the pass. We moved forward into fresh, deep snow, and immediately the other car got behind us. Now we were the unwitting leaders.
It reminded me of the story of a man driving through heavy fog. Another car passed him, and he thought, “That car seems to know where it’s going, I think I’ll just follow the red tail lights.” After a few miles, the tail lights suddenly disappeared. Then… Wham! There was a loud crash. The man had followed the other car into the driver’s garage and knocked the other car right through the rear wall.
How do you decide who is worth following?
I don’t have a twitter account, and I don’t expect that I will ever tweet. Those who do tweet have followers. You don’t have to be a celebrity or a president elect to tweet. You just have to set up an account and wait for people to sign on to be recipients of your wisdom as contained in 140 characters or less. As many have observed, having an account and having followers doesn’t mean that all who tweet are wise. Just having a public platform doesn’t make anyone a leader.
I’ve wondered this weekend how Martin Luther King Jr. might have used social media and how that would have influenced the civil rights movement for good or otherwise. MLK Jr. understood principles of wise leadership and used those to awaken our nation to the unjust treatment of many of its citizens. His life and his death remind us, like the life and death of Jesus himself, that being a leader often comes at a very high personal cost.
Jesus appears for the first time in the Gospel of John at the Jordan River, and last Sunday we talked about his baptism there. In today’s text, John the Baptizer makes a formal introduction of Jesus by saying, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Then something kind of awkward happens. Two persons who had admired and followed John suddenly switched teams and started to follow Jesus instead. If John was upset, he had only himself to blame. His description of Jesus caused his own followers to believe that Jesus was a more worthy leader.
The Gospel of John stands out from the other three Gospels contained in the New Testament. For example, all include the story of Jesus gathering his first disciples, but other than a few common characters, the story in John is unlike that in Matthew, Mark and Luke. There’s no mention in John of the Sea of Galilee, and there are no boats or fishing nets. Jesus doesn’t say “I will make you fishers of people” in John, and he does not even issue a direct call to follow him. Andrew and Simon Peter do choose to follow, though, in all of the gospel accounts.
John’s Gospel is also different because of the overt theological themes that present Jesus as divine. There is no question that the community of early Christians that produced this account of Jesus’ life were convinced that Jesus was uniquely related to God and that everyone needed to hear and believe it. The stories in other gospels about the calling of disciples don’t make it clear why Andrew and Simon Peter should follow. John, though, implies that it is because Jesus is the “Lamb of God.”
The first church I served as a pastor while also a college student was in a very rural setting. A family near the church had a sheep farm and I often walked through its pastures on a trail that led into the hills. I lived in a little parsonage by the church, and one day its ancient furnace died. Although it was March, temperatures were below freezing outdoors, and the family with the sheep invited me to sleep at their house. The next morning I woke up to the sound of baby lambs bleating. Their mother sheep had died giving birth during the night, and the twin lambs were being fed from baby bottles in the kitchen. As I walked around the back side of the barn later, I discovered another sheep that had given birth, and both mother and lamb had died and were frozen in the snow.
Lambs are not the most sturdy creatures. Calling someone the Lamb of God doesn’t seem all that impressive. There are a lot of thoughts about what John meant by using that word, and it’s possible that his metaphor was intended to be open to interpretation. In Isaiah, the prophet wrote of a suffering servant, often understood to be Jesus, who was led like a lamb to the slaughter. Many see the reference by John to be an allusion to the Passover Lamb that was killed as a sacrifice for the purpose of atoning or paying for the sin of the Jewish people. And then there is the powerful and victorious lamb that returns from death and judges humanity in the book of the Revelation. Put together, Jesus might be seen here by John as a fulfillment of Scripture, the redeemer of Israel, and the one who will finally conquer and reign. That is a lot packed into one little word.
So, given how John presents Jesus to the world as one who is worthy of following, we could ask this: Do we follow Jesus because he is God? Because he is God’s Son? Because we believe that he is wise? In the Gospel of John, Andrew and Simon Peter explicitly follow because they are convinced that they have found the Messiah. The stories in Matthew, Mark, and Luke imply that they follow because his words and self-presentation are simply compelling.
Brennan Manning, whose book The Ragamuffin Gospel we heard from earlier, was a former priest and recovering alcoholic who passed away three years ago. His words are often gripping because he avoids the polish and theological jargon that usually find their way into religious books. He wasn’t afraid to write about his own failings. I like how he writes about those who feel that their lives are “grave disappointment to God” and how we are likely to experience weariness and discouragement along the way no matter how much we may be devoted to following in the way of Jesus. When Brennan quotes Jesus as saying “Come to me, those who are heavy burdened” in Matthew, he reminds readers that those words show a very human Jesus. He says that following Jesus isn’t some romantic or theological concept, it’s just living life with all of its challenges and being committed to loving others.
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus, Martin Luther King, Jr. unexpectedly found himself in the middle of a boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. He was twenty-seven years old, a pastor, and the father of a newborn child. He began to receive more than forty threatening phone calls each day as a result of the boycott.
One night at midnight, King received a call telling him that if he didn’t leave town in three days, he would be killed and his house blown up. Using Dr. King’s own words, biographer Drew Henson describes what happened next:
“I sat there and thought about my beautiful little daughter who had just been born. She was the darling of my life. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. I sat at the kitchen table thinking about that little girl and thinking that she could be taken from me at any minute. I got to the point I couldn’t take it any longer.
I discovered that night that my religion had to become real to me. I bowed my head over a cup of coffee. I will never forget it. I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. It seemed to me in that moment that I could hear a voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ I heard the voice of Jesus saying to fight on.”
Martin Luther King followed Jesus and became someone who many followed on a difficult path toward a more just society. Regardless of whether we regard Jesus as divine or as a wise and courageous conveyor of truth, we are still followers in the Way of Jesus. In my own journey toward progressive Christian faith, I recall a moment of clarity when I heard a preacher remark that many people want to worship Jesus but aren’t that interested in doing what Jesus actually told them to do. Faith isn’t just believing, it is following in a way that changes us and causes us to change the world as a result.
May we be followers. And leaders. And sincere seekers of truth regardless of whether we lead of follow. Thanks be to God for Jesus and Martin Luther King and every woman and man and child who shows us the way.