Summary: As kids we sang: "I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back!" But is that the reality of our adult lives? Are we willing to deny and sacrifice ourselves and all we have for Christ's sake?
[Sermon preached on 3 June 2018, 2nd Sunday after Pentecost / 3rd year, ELCF Lectionary]
When I was a kid—I think I was eight years old at the time—I attended a Summer Bible Camp. I will never forget it, for many reasons. In particular, I remember how at the end of the day’s program, we always sang the same song every day again. It was this song:
I have decided to follow Jesus. (3x) — No turning back, no turning back.
The cross before me, the world behind me. (3x) – No turning back, no turning back.
That is quite a radical song, don’t you think? And to make eight-year old kids sing that song, when they are tired and almost falling asleep… Wow! I think that by modern standards that would be considered abusive manipulation. In fact, I have sometimes wondered how many of the kids in that camp still consider themselves Christians today, half a century later? How many of those kids really left the world behind them and took up the cross to follow Jesus?
We don’t generally think of being a Christian as something quite so radical. Most of us, who have at one time or another made a decision to receive Christ as our Lord and Savior, did so from quite a different motivation. We decided to follow Jesus for the benefits it brings with it: Eternal life, peace of mind and heart, forgiveness of our faults, acceptance just as we are, the feeling of being loved by God. Perhaps there was a price to pay. For me, the price was that I was bullied and laughed at in school because I was a “Jesus freak”. That was a small price to pay compared to the benefits.
When people are invited to receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, more often than not, they are persuaded by the benefits, not by the costs. The famous American evangelist Billy Graham, who went to be with the Lord earlier this year, preached the gospel around the world to more than a billion people over a period of sixty years. Many times, he spoke on the topic: “The cost of not following Jesus.”
His marketing strategy was to lay out before the people the enormous benefits of becoming a believer. He painted in vivid colors what it would be like not to make it to heaven. He was quite explicit about the tortures of hell. But when it came to the cost of becoming a believer, he often did not go a long way. The worst that could happen to a new believer is that they would have to start to read the Bible and pray every day and go to church every Sunday. Too much for some people, I am sure. But actually, not quite that bad, is it?
But Jesus had an entirely different marketing strategy. When large crowds followed him, he felt troubled. In the Gospel reading for next Sunday, we see how one person after another comes to Jesus with the intention to follow him. And how does Jesus react? He discourages them. He tells them: “Don’t bother, if you are not willing to leave everything else behind to follow me. Don’t bother, if I am not your #1 priority.”
In John 6, we see how many thousands of people are following Jesus. They come to hear him speak, to see him perform miracles and drive out demons, and perhaps to get some benefits out of the meeting. And they get what they are looking for. Jesus performs a miracle, when he turns five loaves of barley bread and two little fish into enough food to fill the stomachs of more than 5,000 people. But Jesus isn’t happy. He escapes the crowds when evening comes and disappears to Capernaum.
The following day, the crowds trace his steps and appear on the scene, ready for more. This time, he offers them no miracles, no food—only some very tough and challenging teaching. And what happens then is so typical. The people simply disappear. They go home, because they don’t like what Jesus is offering them this time. They say: “This is hard teaching!” And Jesus asks: “Does this offend you?” Obviously, it does, because not only the crowds leave him. John says that “from that time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” Not just the crowds, but even his disciples. And not just a few, but many. That’s what happens when Jesus rubs the truth of God’s kingdom into their greedy faces.
Of the more than five thousand who followed Jesus in the plains of Galilee, only eleven were left in the Garden of Gethsemane, and only less than a handful followed him to the cross on Calvary.
Some time ago, I watched a preacher on YouTube describe the three kind of followers that Jesus didn’t want around.