John 1:43 “The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”
My previous congregation had an elementary school. Sometimes I watched the children in the lower grade classrooms be the leader for the day. They love to be the first in line, to have everyone stop when they stop and everyone go when they go. It’s the following that is the hard part. And if I heard dissension in the ranks when they were out in the hall on the way to or from recess, if someone wasn’t happy with what was happening, it almost always came from the followers.
We adults shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back. Ever serve on a committee? As people sometimes joke, if you have four people on it, you have five opinions. They can’t all get their way, and that can get tense. When it comes to what we believe and how we live, Jesus doesn’t even make it a committee of two–him and me– as though we could work out some compromises between us along the way. “Follow me,” he says. That means giving up the lead, even over my own life–even over my own heart and mind! And that’s something we don’t naturally want to do.
Why not? Why isn’t following Jesus easier? Following him means going where he goes, experiencing what he experienced, living like he lived. When Philip was younger, I doubt he said to himself, “When I grow up, I am going to join a persecuted little minority, give up my desires and comforts to love others and spread the gospel, and die by execution thousands of miles from home.” But that is what following Jesus, and living a life of love, led to in Philip’s case if we can trust the writings of early church fathers like Eusebius.
That’s not to say that following Jesus is all pain and unpleasantness–not by far! The blessings are immeasurable. But following Jesus in love is less about self-fulfillment, self-promotion, or self-realization, and more about self-giving, self-denial, and self-control. Following Jesus is a life lived for others. Following Jesus is a life of service and sacrifice. That’s where he went.
It’s no secret why many refuse to follow him, many stop following him, and we are tempted to go our own way. My sinful nature doesn’t like where Jesus is leading me in this world. It doesn’t like the things he lets me suffer. It doesn’t want to give up what he asks me to give up. It doesn’t want to see others have it all while I seem to be falling behind. It doesn’t want to follow him in faith.
Following someone means one other thing. It means staying close and keeping them in sight, so that we don’t lose our way. For three years Philip walked where Jesus walked, slept where Jesus slept, ate where Jesus ate. Think of what he witnessed! The sick healed, the dead raised, the greatest sermons ever preached, violent storms stopped in their tracks, vile demons forced to retreat, a cross with God’s Son hanging on it, a tomb with God’s Son lying in it, an empty grave with God’s Son overcoming it.
Following Jesus still means never letting him out of our sight. We don’t see him with our physical eyes, but he is near us in his word and in the sacraments. We hear and read the same things Philip saw in the sermons we hear and the Bible classes we attend. We come to the same table at which Philip once ate, and we receive the same body and blood given for the forgiveness of our sins. In God’s word, in God’s house, gathered in Jesus’ name, he is still in our sights, leading us closer to our heavenly home each day.
In this sense, “Follow me” is as much a special invitation, a blessed gift, as it is a command. From that blessed spot right behind Jesus you can peer into his manger to see God becoming weak, and little, and human so that he could live with you and be your Savior. Just behind Jesus, following him, you can look up to the cross where every sin we ever committed drains his life away, while he drains sin of every penalty and all its power. Following Jesus from the grave you can see the shades of your own empty tomb in his.
When Jesus finds you, follow where he leads, and you will never regret it as long as you live…which will be forever.