Follow – 4: Transfigured!

“Six days later…” That’s how our story begins. You may wonder, “Six days after what?

What happened six days ago that makes it so important to mention now? What’s the connection between what happened then and what’s about to happen now?”

What happened six days ago was the story that we’ve explored for the previous two Sundays.

It begins when Jesus takes his disciples on a retreat, to the region of Caesarea Philippi, in Gentile country north of Galilee. There, he asks them two questions. First, “Who do people say that I am?” Then, “Who do you say that I am?”

Ever quick with an answer, Simon Peter says, “You’re the Messiah!”

Jesus charges them not to tell anyone. Then he begins to teach them that he will be arrested and killed, but on the third day he will rise again.

Peter objects, “This can’t be so!” and Jesus silences him harshly.

Then he says something truly startling. He says, “If you want to be my disciple, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”

He says that to his 12 closest disciples, plus whoever else is on hand. Now, six days later, he takes aside his inner circle of three disciples, and they ascend a high mountain on a quest that’s somehow related to what happened earlier.

The three are James and John, the Thunder sons, and Simon Peter, one of the Johnson brothers. Where’s Andrew, the other Johnson boy? It is my theory that Jesus leaves him in charge of the other disciples while he and his core leadership team are gone. Given the fractious nature of the team Jesus has assembled, keeping them in line is not a small task, but Andrew seems to be a capable guy.

We don’t know whether they are still in the region of Caesarea Philippi or whether they’ve returned to Galilee, so we don’t know what mountain they have ascended.

If they’re in Galilee, it must be Mount Tabor. It’s formidable enough, jutting up from the plain nearly 2,000 feet. That’s half again higher than the Empire State Building in New York City.

If they’re still up north, it must be Mount Hermon. It’s more than 9,000 feet high, and its peaks are often covered by snow.

Tradition favors Mount Tabor. Jesus is known for a lot of things, but mountain climbing isn’t one of them. Still, ascending even 2,000 feet in elevation will leave you panting. Whether the three disciples know it or not, the climb has primed them for a new revelation – and that’s exactly what they get.

Standing before them, Jesus is transfigured. His appearance is changed. Whatever color his clothes were before, now they are dazzling white, as white as snow, whiter than you could hope to ever bleach them. And, according to another telling of the story, his face shines like the sun.

Suddenly standing with him are Moses and Elijah, Moses the great teacher and lawgiver, Elijah the great prophet. Together they represent the entirety of God’s revelation though the Hebrew scriptures. Through the presence of these great men, long dead, God is testifying to the importance of Jesus.

The disciples are rightly terrified by this vision. Peter begins to babble. He says, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here.” Mark that down. It may be the only time that Peter deals in understatement rather than exaggeration. Then he shoots over the top: “Let’s make three dwellings here, one for each of you.”

The Hebrew people always were good at erecting rock monuments to mark special events on their journey with God. Ebenezers, they were sometimes called – rock cairns that say, “The Lord brought me safely thus far.”

Peter proposes something similar, though who knows precisely what it is. Maybe he wants to erect booths the way you might at Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. Maybe he’s thinking of something longer lasting, some holy site that might draw thousands of pilgrims to the top of this mountain. Or maybe not, considering how inaccessible it is, even today.

Whatever Peter is thinking, it’s clear that he wants to hold on to this moment. Even if he doesn’t know exactly what it means, he wants to preserve the essence of this revelation. And it’s not over.

A cloud has overshadowed them – do you know how scary it is to be on a mountaintop that’s suddenly covered by clouds? –  and from the cloud comes a voice: “This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him!”

They have seen Jesus exalted. Moses and Elijah testify to his greatness. Scripture points to him. The voice of God says: “Listen to him!” What a fabulous experience!

Then, as suddenly as it began, it’s over. No one is there but Jesus, and he appears quite normal again. Show’s over. Time to go. On their way down the mountain, Jesus tells them to keep quiet about this until after he has risen from the dead. Well, what could they say? It’s hard enough to describe what they’ve just seen. How could they ever explain it? And what can it possibly have to do with rising from the dead?

Years later, in the second New Testament letter that bears his name, Peter will say, “We didn’t just make this up. We were there. We saw this.” (2 Peter 1:16-18) But what exactly did they see, and what can it mean?

I’ve heard the Transfiguration described as a threshold event, a doorway between two states of existence.

On the Christian liturgical calendar, it’s a doorway between seasons. It’s the climax to the season of Epiphany, and it leads us into the season of Lent. Epiphany is about revelation of who Jesus is. The Transfiguration is an epiphany itself, the peak revelation of the season.

One a deeper level, the Transfiguration is a threshold between levels of understanding. Once you step over this threshold, you can’t see things the way you saw them before. Your vision has been altered. Your understanding has been changed.

But to appropriate this in your life, you’ve got to step over the threshold, and that’s harder than it sounds. The problem is making an epiphany last, keeping this new understanding firmly in your mind. The problem with epiphanies is that they can be ephemeral. They can fade away like smoke. If they are remembered at all, they might easily be misremembered.

The best description I can give you comes from the mystery novels by Andrew Greeley. Greeley was a Catholic priest who was both a sociologist and a somewhat racy novelist. His greatest literary creation, in my opinion, is Bishop Blackie Ryan, a Chicago priest who feels most at home wearing a Chicago Bears starter jacket.

Blackie is a crackerjack detective who has a knack for solving the most unsolvable mysteries. But even he is baffled until that precious moment when all the pieces fall together and everything suddenly makes sense.

He describes it as seeing the door of an elevator open. Inside is the solution to the mystery. He glimpses the solution, but then the elevator door closes. He glimpses the solution, but he hasn’t seen it clearly enough to understand. Only when the elevator door opens and stays open does he know whodunit.

It’s the same with the Transfiguration. It seems so simple, so obvious. And yet, the meaning of it is somehow elusive.

The disciples see Jesus transformed in a way that is so fantastic it’s almost unbelievable. They see great figures from the past testifying to his greatness. They see the identify of Israel as revealed in its scriptures testifying to his greatness. Even a voice from God says, “This is my Son!”

But seconds later, it’s over. The light that transformed the figure of Jesus is gone. The great figures from the past who testified for him are gone. The voice from God is not even an echo any more. As the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth says, all they see now is the same Jesus they saw before. They glimpsed his greatness, but that vision has faded away.

And when they come down off the mountain, they discover that Andrew hasn’t been able to keep the other disciples out of trouble. Instead, they’re at the center of a village brawl. That’s another story entirely.

Here’s a simple point, made many times by commentators on this story. Mountaintop experiences do not last. They cannot last. You cannot live on the mountaintop. There’s no food there, no water and – sorry, Peter – no shelter either. Mountaintops offer incredible views, but they are not hospitable to human occupation.

Hiking in the woods and mountains is one of my favorite pastimes, though I do far too little of it. I’ve been to the top of many peaks higher than either Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon. I can testify that the view is magnificent, and the cliché is true: You feel on top of the world! But then comes that nudge. The wind comes up. A cloud passes by. It’s as if the mountain is saying: “Time for you to go.”

Mountaintop experiences cannot be sustained, and perhaps they shouldn’t be. But maybe they can be internalized. Maybe they can be remembered well. Maybe you can take that vision down from the peak and keep it alive in the plains and valleys below.

What’s the vision we need to take away from this Transfiguration experience? When we say it today, it sounds so ordinary, so much a cliché. Jesus is Son of God. The Word is not only with God, the Word is God.

Last week I saw a video of a preacher who waltzed through the books of the Bible, finding a new title for Jesus in every book, 66 titles in all, but none higher than this one. Jesus is Son of God: present at creation, present with us in all ways at all times, Alpha and Omega, King of kings and Lord of lords. At his name, every knee shall bend and every tongue confess his glory.

If that’s the takeaway, how do we take it away with us? How do we internalize this mountaintop high? You know already. This is not rocket science. This is Christianity 101, the basics of following Jesus. We rely on the classic means of grace, those lines of power from God to us that we only have to plug in to activate.

In the Wesleyan tradition, we see them first as works of piety, works that strengthen our love of God.

These include reading, studying and meditating on scripture; lifting up our whole selves to God in prayer; fasting and other acts self-denial; attending worship regularly; sharing holy communion frequently; sharing our faith with others always; and engaging in holy Christian conference with one another.

There also are works of mercy, works that strengthen our love of neighbor. These include refusing to harm others; instead, doing good to all as often as we can; visiting the sick and the imprisoned; feeding the hungry – and that dangerous task mentioned in our baptismal vows: resisting evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms we encounter them.

Resisting evil and seeking justice can get you killed. That’s why Jesus’ call to bear the cross leads, six days later, to this vision of Jesus as divine. Without divine help, we couldn’t bear the cross. Without divine help, we won’t do it.

Need I also add that these means of grace are also the themes of Lent? Lent is all about bringing us closer to God, making us better followers of Jesus.

The call of Jesus to discipleship leads here. It leads to a mountaintop experience that confirms our wildest hope: that Jesus is God incarnate. And it leads to the sudden realization: that even after this revelation, the Jesus we worship is the same Jesus we saw before. He’s God in human form, calling us to follow him to a new life, calling us to be transfigured with him in glory.


A message delivered February 23, 2020, Transfiguration Sunday, from Mark 9:2-10, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas.


Some kingdoms have no physical boundary. The Chiefs Kingdom, for example, has a geographic center, and that is Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City – which is in the state of Missouri, not Kansas, don’t you know.

Despite the geographic center, the Chiefs Kingdom has no geographic boundary. It exists wherever there are fans of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Similarly, God’s kingdom has no geographic boundary. It exists wherever there are followers of Jesus Christ. Though he is no longer the physical center of God’s kingdom, Jesus is always its center.

It’s unlikely that his first disciples understand that. They know Jesus as a physical presence, and they expect him to be the center of a physical kingdom. Their expectations are obvious in today’s gospel story. It’s also obvious that Jesus has other plans.

As today’s story opens, Jesus is tired of being mobbed by crowds in Galilee, so he leads his disciples north, out of Galilee, into Gentile territory, where he won’t be as well known. Perhaps there they can snatch a few moments of quiet time together.

It’s obvious that something is on his mind, something he wants to share with them privately. Finally, an opportunity comes, and he asks: “Who do people say that I am?”

They provide the standard array of answers. If Jesus had a social media profile assembled by publicists, it might speculate: “Could he be John the Baptizer raised from the dead? Or maybe Elijah or one of the other old-time prophets, come back to usher in the new age. Maybe even a new prophet – who knows?” (See Mark 6.14-16.)

Clearly dissatisfied with such answers, Jesus asks: “What about you? Who do you say that I am?”

Apparently only one of them is bold enough to speak up, and of course that’s Simon called Peter, whom Jesus has nicknamed Rock. He knows who Jesus is. He’s known all along. He blurts out, “You’re the Messiah!”

In the version of this story that’s recorded in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus praises Rock for his insight and says, “On this rock I will build my kingdom.”

Then he tells them to be quiet about it. If anybody asks, you don’t know a thing. This is just between us, OK?

Why is he so secretive? It’s one of the mysteries of the gospels. Scholars have called it the “messianic secret.” And it’s not just his identity that Jesus wants to keep under wraps. It’s also his healing ministry, which is a sign of his identity and a sign of the dawning of God’s kingdom.

So many times, especially early in his ministry, whenever he heals someone, Jesus says: “Don’t tell anyone about this.” But of course everyone he heals run out and blabs to everyone they know, so that Jesus’ reputation as a healer grows by leaps and bounds and so many people crowd about him and his disciples that they don’t even have a chance to eat. (Mark 6:31)

Why is he so secretive? Because he knows that if word gets out that he thinks he’s the Messiah, he’ll be dead in a week. We call him Jesus Christ today, but if we’d called him that back then, it would be like signing his death warrant.

Christ is the Greek form of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means “God’s anointed one,” which means “king.” In the first-century world dominated by the steel might of Rome, a “king” is a dangerous revolutionary. A “king” is someone whose existence cannot be tolerated. “King” means dead on arrival.

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t want to be known as king. He just doesn’t want his identity revealed prematurely. He’ll make a public announcement at the proper time.

Until then, don’t tell anybody. And here’s why. He says: “When the time comes, I’m going to be rejected and suffer and die. But on the third day, I’ll rise from the dead.”

It’s a totally unexpected twist. “Yes, I am Messiah, but don’t tell anyone, because when word does get out, I’ll be killed.”

Whoa, whoa, Jesus. Hold it right there. Let Peter the Rock explain something to you. First, Messiah doesn’t die. Can’t happen. See, Messiah is God’s anointed one, and God’s anointed one is not a loser. He’s a winner. Failures die. Messiah doesn’t die. Messiah rocks, get it? Messiah destroys the oppressor. Messiah leads Israel to victory. Messiah wins. Most importantly, Messiah does not die. Got that, Jesus?

Jesus gets it, all right. And that’s another reason he wants to keep all this a secret until he can lead his disciples to deeper understanding of his mission. The world expects Messiah to be a warrior king, but that’s not the kind of king Jesus will be. So the first thing they have to get straight is that violence will not bring victory. Violence will only breed more violence. God’s way is different.

Jesus looks at his disciples, one by one, last of all Simon the Rock. Then he says, in the harshest voice they may have ever heard him use: “Get behind me, tempter! Don’t lead me astray! Fall behind me as my disciple! You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

Moments before, Jesus praised Peter for his insight. Now he calls him Satan, the accuser, the tempter, for getting it wrong. Peter must feel crushed. But maybe that’s a necessary step to understanding.

Out of the blue we’re told that there’s a crowd of people nearby, and Jesus calls them over to teach them. What he teaches is an extension of what he’s said privately to his disciples, but it must strike fear into everyone who hears it.

“If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. If you want to save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life because of me and because of the gospel, you’ll actually save your life.”

Couldn’t we just go back to keeping it all a big secret and forget the rest? That must be what the disciples are thinking about this time, and maybe those of us in the crowd, too.

“If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself.”

We’re approaching the season of Lent, when many people traditionally engage in symbolic acts of self-denial such as giving up chocolate or liquor or video games or other inconsequential things.

I understand the impulse, and I’ve even helped promote it, but it has never moved me. It’s as if I might say, “For Lent, I’m giving up my yacht.” Or, ”For Lent, I’ll deny myself use of my private plane.” Oh yes, I’m happy to give up inconsequential pleasures, especially imaginary ones. But deny myself for Jesus? What’s that about?

Jesus’ original followers are mostly the poor, the marginalized, the least of society, the ones noted in their high school yearbooks “Least likely to succeed at anything.” When they hear, “Deny yourself,” they take it to heart. What little they have to deny is even more precious because it is so little. And though they must be shocked to hear him say, “Take up your cross and follow me,” they know exactly what he means, and they shudder.

Kyle Idleman is the young pastor of a megachurch in Louisville. Nine or ten years ago he wrote a book titled Not a Fan. A fan is enthusiastic admirer, he says. Jesus doesn’t care much for fans. Jesus is looking for followers.

Fans collect T-shirts and ball caps and swag and doodads. They love to tailgate and party and celebrate victories. Fans are happy to cheer for Jesus as long as it doesn’t require major change in their lives or have negative implications. But following Jesus has a cost. Fans admire Jesus from a comfortable distance. Fans don’t follow Jesus. There’s little chance they’ll ever be covered by the dust of their rabbi, they are so far behind him.

I’ve never been much of a fan. I have one – count it, one – item of Chiefs clothing. I bought it to wear last week on Super Bowl Sunday. I watched the game with great interest, but I never for one second considered going to the victory parade. I didn’t grew up with posters of athletes or rock stars on my bedroom wall. I don’t mourn when famous actors like Robin Williams or famous athletes like Kobe Bryant die. I’m just not a fan.

I am a follower of Jesus. Sometimes I think I’m not much of one. I do try to put others first. Sometimes that works; sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite, in the sense of the word as Jesus uses it.

In first-century usage, a “hypocrite” is a play actor, a person who performs a role on the stage. You wear a mask, you see, to show which character you’re playing, and sometimes you wear multiple masks in the same play because you play multiple roles. But it’s always you underneath. You never change, just the mask you wear. And the mask is never the real you. The mask covers up the real you.

I want to take off all the masks and be the real me, and I want the real me to be a dedicated follower of Jesus.

That question Jesus asked his disciples is truly the question of the ages. More urgently, it’s the question of every hour. It’s the defining question of our lives. Who is Jesus? More specifically, who is Jesus to me – and who am I in relation to him?

Is Jesus my king? Am I part of his kingdom? Am I a fan, or a follower of Jesus?

We’ll continue to pursue these questions next Sunday, when we focus on one question: What does it mean to take up your cross to follow Jesus? A hint: probably not what you think it means.

A message delivered Feb. 9, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, from Mark 8:27-35.

Waves of madness

I have gotten hooked on (and highly recommend) Deborah Crombie’s series of British mysteries featuring Scotland Yard sleuths Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James.

In Leave the Grave Green, a character James is interviewing reminisces about the past. He notes that those who survived the first World War “had looked into the mouth of hell, and they knew how fragile our hold on civilization really is.”

So it is today.

“A wave of madness is sweeping the globe,” says United Nations General Secretary Antonio Guterres.

He senses “growing instability and hair-trigger tensions,” and with them, “a heightened risk of miscalculation.” 

Trump and Netanyahu have unveiled what they call a “peace plan” for the Mideast, though it was created without any involvement by Palestinians and involves a huge land grab by Israelis.

What do you call a “peace plan” that is unilaterally imposed? How can such a thing ever result in peace? What else could you expect from two national leaders who are facing charges of corruption?

Moscow Mitch is wrapping up his show trial on Trump’s impeachment. No witnesses allowed, no evidence beyond an endless parade of boring speeches and PowerPoints. Just power politics, which Mitch is handy at.

The invertebrates in the Senate (read: Republicans) will give Mitch what he wants, of course. And since Chief Justice Roberts presided over it all, you can say that all three branches of the government have now conspired to cover up Trump’s misdeeds and pave the way for more.

Is this how it ends? The American experience in self-governance, I mean. This is why so many people stay away from the ballot box. They know the game is fixed. Doesn’t matter who you elect. Power and money seem to always win.

Trump contrived to give Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. One liar honoring another. The gift so demeans previous recipients of the medal. They actually did something to deserve it.

I found the Super Bowl halftime show featuring Shakira and JLo frenetic and exhausting, and I was surprised both had the energy to stand upright when it was over.

They’re catching a lot of flak, of course, for the sexuality of it. Some from Franklin Graham. But he insists that Trump is America’s gift from God, so he obviously is unqualified to speak about morality.

Some people don’t understand Shakira’s “tongue thing.” It was a ululation, a cry of joy or despair, depending on the circumstance. She learned it from her Lebanese relatives. It’s an ancient cry, heard in many cultures all around the world.

Those who condemn her for it probably would be OK with a Rebel Yell.

People around the world are frustrated, for good reason. Our leaders are idiots or worse. Betraying their own infantile insecurity, they belittle Greta Thunberg of Sweden and Licypriya Kangujam from India. In seats of power around the world, Nero fiddles a horrid tune.

Follow – 1

I’m sure that you’re familiar with the story of the calling of these four disciples. I’m going to talk about it in ways that you may not find familiar, though, because I think the way it’s usually told is very misleading.

The way it’s usually told is that Jesus walks up to these four fishermen he’s never met before – like a vacuum cleaner salesman making a cold call at your home at 9 in the morning – and he invites them to follow him. If that’s not hard enough to swallow, the really astounding thing is that they do it!

They literally drop everything and follow him. Two of them even leave their father behind in their fishing boat. They don’t even say, “Bye, dad, off to be with Jesus.” They just leave. Tough luck, old man. Your boys have gone and enlisted in the salvation army.

Do you buy that? Do you think that’s what really happened? Don’t you find this story, the way it’s usually told, to be so otherworldly and unrealistic that you can hardly give it any credence at all? Don’t you want to dismiss it as just another one of those fantastic Jesusy Bible stories – you know, loaves and fishes and water into wine and walking on water and all that?

So when the preacher then says, “You ought to be like these fishermen and follow Jesus,” don’t you suppress a smirk or a gag and think, “Yeah, right. I really am gonna drop everything and follow Jesus. Spouse and kids and career and hopes and dreams for the future, I’ll chuck it all, just like that, and never look back.”

Are you with me on this? Isn’t there something fundamentally wrong with the way we’re usually expected to interpret this story?

The first thing that’s wrong with it, of course, is that it’s simply not true. It’s not true to our experience, and it’s not true to the Bible story either. You are right to be suspicious of the usual telling.

Jesus does not walk up to four guys he’s never met before and somehow – almost magically, as if by force of his charismatic manner, magnetic personal charm and irresistible divine will – somehow he entices them to walk away from their former lives and follow him. That is just not how it works.

He knows these guys. He already has a relationship with them. They know what he wants, and they are ready to respond. In fact, they’re eager for him to come calling. They’ve already got their bags packed. All they need is the word. “Let’s do it.” “Let’s roll.” “Follow me.”

*  *  *  *  *

Let’s back up and tell the story a different way, filling in some blanks with details from other gospel accounts.

A few weeks ago, we celebrated Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptizer. Jesus hears a voice saying, “You are my Beloved Son, and I’m pleased with you!” It’s a powerful affirmation from God the Father of who Jesus is and what his mission is to be.

But Jesus does not launch his mission immediately after his baptism. First, he spends 40 days in the desert being tested. Then he hangs around the banks of the Jordan, mingling with John’s disciples – and from them he chooses at least two he wants as his own.

John is standing one day with two of his disciples. One is named Andrew. We’re never told the name of the other one. Jesus walks by. John exclaims, “There goes the Lamb of God! He’s the one we’ve been waiting for.”

It’s as if John is telling these two disciples, “You ought to follow him now.” So they do – and the first chance he gets, Andrew runs to tell his brother, “We’ve found the Messiah.” His brother is the fellow we know as Simon Peter. (The story is told in John 1:35-42.)

Andrew and Simon are the Johnson brothers. You may think it odd for me to call them that, but that is precisely how the Bible identifies them. In Matthew 16:17, we’re told that Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjonah.”

Some versions of the Bible translate that as “Simon, son of Jonah.” That’s accurate enough. That’s what the words mean. But it’s misleading. It’s just not right. “Barjonah” is not a description of who Simon is. It’s his surname. It’s his family name. It’s the Aramaic equivalent of “Johnson,” or “Jackson,” or “Johansson.”

The Johnson brothers, Andrew and Simon, and apparently this other fellow who’s never named, are among the first followers of Jesus. As soon as Jesus meets Simon, he gives him a nickname. He calls him Rock. In Aramaic, the word for “rock” is Kephas. In Greek, it’s Petros. From that, in English we get the name Peter.

The name loses a lot in that transliteration. The name “Peter” tells us nothing about the essence of the man, whereas “Rock” potentially tells a lot. Even though Peter fails to live up to his nickname much of the time, the nickname does stick, and Peter does eventually live into it. He becomes a Rock of the early church.

The Johnson brothers are commercial fishermen. We might imagine them as dull fellows who have no higher aspirations than a bigger catch of fish than they ever got before, but whatever else they are, they are spiritual seekers. They are among the disciples of John the Baptizer. The first time we meet them is not long after Jesus has been baptized. It’s possible that they even witnessed Jesus’ baptism without realizing, at the time, what they were seeing.

Now they want to follow Jesus rather than John, and Jesus is willing to accept them as his disciples. But he isn’t quite ready to launch his public ministry, so after awhile the brothers return to what they know best: fishing on the Sea of Galilee.

They are simply marking time. They know that when the time is right, Jesus will fetch them. The time comes when word gets out that John has been put in prison. Jesus moves his home base from Nazareth to the fishing village of Capernaum, and one morning he comes calling.

Peter and Andrew are in their fishing boat not far from shore. They probably have fished all night and are letting down their nets for the last cast of the day. They look up, and there stands Jesus on the shore. “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fish for people.”

It’s the call they’ve been waiting for. They pull up their nets and row for shore.

Not far away, Jesus encounters two more fishermen, James and John. These are the Zebedee brothers. They’re business partners with the Johnson brothers. (Luke 5:10) We’re never told how Jesus first meets them, but he knows them well enough right off to call them Sons of Thunder. Whether that’s because old man Zebedee is loud, or his sons are, or all three of them, we can’t be sure.

The brothers are sitting in a boat with their dad, doing what fishermen do in their down time, mending their nets. “Follow me,” Jesus says, and they’re gone. We might imagine them saying, “Keep bringing in those fish, Dad. We’re off to bring in people.”

We also might imagine Zebedee feeling abandoned and resentful, but that’s unlikely. Soon, in fact, his wife will join his sons traveling with Jesus, and the income from Zebedee’s fishing business will help support their ministry. We never learn the name of Zebedee’s wife, but she is a loyal follower and companion of Jesus, and she is there when Jesus goes to the cross. (Matthew 27:56).

Retold this way, what does this story suggest about following Jesus?

One thing it suggests, right out of the gate, is that none of us has any business engaging in the stereotypical style of “evangelism” where you grab ’em by the collar and demand “Do you know Jesus?” That’s not evangelism. That’s spiritual abuse. Evangelism must be an extension of relationship. If a call to follow Jesus does not arise from a relationship, it’s most likely an abusive ego trip.

And we’re looking for far more than a stereotyped prayer accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior. We’re calling people to new life. They must be allowed to give this serious consideration.

The Johnson and Zebedee brothers understand this already. They know that Jesus is calling them to an adventure that has several dimensions. First, he is calling them to a special relationship with him. He is calling them to discipleship.

A disciple is an apprentice, a learner, a student. Jesus will be their master, and they will follow him. Literally, they will follow his steps and his actions. They will imitate him and learn from him. If they do it right, as an ancient saying goes, they will be covered with the dust of their master. They will follow him so closely that any dust he kicks up will cover them as a mark of their dedication.

They won’t understand it at first, but Jesus also is calling them to a new relationship with God. Through Jesus, they will meet God face to face. Through Jesus, they will learn what God is really like. They will learn that God loves them with a burning, passionate love, and that God yearns for them to respond in kind.

Jesus also calls them to a new vocation. Before, they cast nets for fish. Now, they fish for people. They are evangelists, proclaimers of the Good News of God’s friendship and love. Whatever else they may do in their lives, their primary task now is to live for Jesus.

They will always be disciples, learning from Jesus. But they also are apostles. That is, they are sent out in the name of Jesus to recruit and train other disciples. Though we sometimes try to separate apostleship and discipleship into two entirely different roles, apostolic action is always the logical extension of discipleship. Apostleship always springs from discipleship. At home or abroad, disciples always act to make new disciples.

So when Jesus calls these men to follow him, he’s calling them to a new relationship, new identity and a new vocation. That call extends to us as well. Jesus also calls us to new relationship, new identity, and new vocation. He calls us not only to be his disciples but also his apostles. That means that we are called to not only learn from Jesus but to help recruit and train other disciples.

We don’t have to drop everything to do that. If you think that an apostle is sent out into the mission field, consider that the mission field is probably as close as your back yard. You don’t have to go to Africa or China to find people who don’t know Jesus. All you have to do I look down the street.

And you don’t have to make a career out of it. Jesus calls only a relative few to serve in that way. To most people, Jesus simply says, “Whatever you do, do it for me, and for the glory of God. If you’re an Uber driver, drive for me, and treat your passengers as if they were me. If you provide care for children, care for them in my name, and treat them as if they were me. If you farm, farm for me, and treat the land and the animals as if they were mine. If you’re retired, accept your leisure as God’s gift to you and find some way of using your time to be God’s gift to others.”

That means, too, that we are all evangelists, tellers of the Good News of Jesus. Most of the time, we don’t preach sermons. We preach with our lives. We preach with our actions. We preach with the love we show others.

And when the moment comes that people inquire, “Why are you such a caring person?” we are ready to make our simple testimony. We are prepared to say, “I’m a Christian. I’m a disciple of Jesus. I follow him.” And then tell why you follow hi.

I’ve said that we don’t have to drop everything to follow Jesus, and that’s true. But there is a cost that we must weigh. That’s where we’ll turn next week. We’ll tail Jesus as he goes about proclaiming the Good News of God, while his disciples dog his dust. “Turn your lives around,” he keeps saying, “because I am bringing God’s kingdom right to your door.”

And that’s where it is. Right at your door.

A message delivered February 2, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, from Matthew 4:12-13, 17-23.