If you are following Jesus to get into heaven when you die, you are not really following Jesus. You’re pursuing your own agenda, and Jesus seems to you to be the best strategy to get what you’re after.
Following Jesus means just that: following Jesus. Just to follow Jesus. To be near him and to join him in what he is doing. And that is the very essence of eternal life.
Chasing after anything else results in earthly, merely biological life. For a time we grow and thrive, but eventually we decline and pass away.
This is probably very clear when the object of our desire is fame or status or wealth or power or sex appeal. But even when we achieve very good goals like spiritual depth, theological clarity, and moral rectitude our lives wither like the grass unless they are fruit born by a higher passion: our desire to follow Jesus.
Following Jesus is eternal life. A wholly different kind of life. We first experience, and begin to develop in, eternal life right here on planet earth. Eternal life doesn’t come to completion in our brief time between birth and death. Not by a long shot.
As we follow Jesus, we grow into eternal life. Sometimes in fits and starts. Sometimes gradually and imperceptibly. Sometimes in great spurts.
Compassion displaces judgement and fear. Anxious striving gives way to patience and perseverance. Our wounds release forgiveness instead of resentment and bitterness. Where once we felt remorse for falling short we now experience gratitude for mercy and restoration freely given.
In short, when we follow Jesus we begin to get over ourselves. This is the kind of life that no grave can contain. We cannot achieve it. It comes as a result of following, staying near to Jesus.
That’s what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel (John 21:1-19). Jesus appears to the disciples for the third time following his resurrection. He provides them with a miraculous catch of fish and then feeds them breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias.
Then he turns to a conversation with Peter, a conversation meant not only for him but for all of us. Jesus tells Peter about the very essence of following him. Feed his sheep.
The miraculous catch and the breakfast on the beach illustrate the simple but mysterious truth of eternal life. He feeds his followers wherever we are and frees us from the burden of a always worrying about getting our own needs met.
Jesus feeds us so that we can join him in feeding his sheep. He invites us to come along with him, wherever he may go, to do with him what he is always doing.
And then he says something that may seem out of place, as if he were changing the subject.
“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (John 21:18)
From one perspective, his message is for Peter. He is foretelling how Peter will die: carried away by Romans to be crucified.
But more broadly he has a message for you and me. Following Jesus means to leave the destination to him. He will take us places that we did not choose, that we could never have foreseen, because that is where his lambs are.
I’ll illustrate what I mean with a story Anne Lamott tells about herself and God. She calls it “The Ham of God.”
Lamott was in a funk. On her forty-ninth birthday, she was reeling from the damaged lives and arrogant cruelty and shattered hearts and callous indifference woven into the fabric of our universe. She writes, “I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.” (Plan B, “The Ham of God”, p. 3) Instead, she had a cup of coffee and decided against death by carbohydrates.
Even though her despair passed, Lamott’s connection with the world’s suffering persisted. Empathy for the miserable and outrage at injustice churned away inside of her. So she called her Jesuit friend Father Tom. “I want to know what to do,” she said. (p. “The Ham of God”, 8)
Here’s how Father Tom replied: “We start by being kind to ourselves. We breathe, we eat. We remember that God is present wherever people suffer. God’s here with us when we’re miserable.” (“The Ham of God”, p. 8)
When she got off the phone, Lamott did what sensible people do. She had some birthday chocolates. Then she prayed. “Help me to be helpful.” (p. 8) Then she drove to the grocery to buy her birthday dinner.
God’s answer to her prayer to be helpful picked up serious speed at the checkout counter. Lamott writes:
When the checker finished ringing up my items, she looked at my receipt and cried, “Hey! You’ve won a ham!”
I felt blindsided by the news. I had asked for help, not a ham. This was very disturbing. What on earth was I going to do with ten pounds of salty pink eraser? I rarely eat it. It makes you bloat. (p. 9)
She asked for help. She got a ham. As far as she was concerned, it was like giving a vegan a meat-lover’s pizza. So, she pretended to be excited and grumbled inwardly as she waited for the ham and then stomped her way through the parking lot toward her car. She was so distracted by her inner rant that she smacked into a slowly moving car.
It was a rusty old heap. She started to apologize and then recognized an old friend. Her friend opened the window. Here’s how Lamott tells what happens next.
“Hey,” I said. “How are you— it’s my birthday!”
“Happy Birthday,” she said, and started crying. She looked drained and pinched, and after a moment, she pointed to her gas gauge. “I don’t have money for gas, or food. I’ve never asked for help from a friend since I got sober, but I’m asking you to help me.”
“I’ve got money,” I said.
“No, no, I just need gas,” she said. “I’ve never asked someone for a handout.”
“It’s not a handout,” I told her. “It’s my birthday present.” I thrust a bunch of money into her hand, everything I had. Then I reached into my shopping cart and held out the ham to her like a clown offering flowers. “Hey!” I said. “Do you and your kids like ham?”
“We love it,” she said. “We love it for every meal.”
She put it in the seat beside her, firmly, lovingly, as if she were about to strap it in. And she cried some more. (pp. 10-11)
When we follow Jesus, we know this one thing about the destination. His hungry, suffering, lonely, lost, and ragged sheep will be there. We never know beforehand just where we’ll be. But we’ll know it when we see it.
Jesus will make it happen. For them. For us. In him God is going to make all things right. Reconcile all the jagged edges and misshaped puzzle pieces of the universe. Jesus is the Lamb of God, as we hear in Revelation.
He takes us to the place of salvation and redemption and reconciliation and healing and restoration and joy and healing. Actually, it’s not a place. It’s a person. The Lamb of God himself is all of this and more.
And the Lamb of God is on the move and making salvation happen in small and tender ways all over the place.
When we’re following Jesus, some of the Lamb’s most remarkable work happens in interruptions and surprises. Everyone we meet is Jesus’ own sheep, hungry for what only Christ himself can give.
That hunger may present itself in the form of a lost tourist asking for directions. A stranger’s flat tire on a rainy highway. A child’s tears at a broken toy.
We may find ourselves cooking for the homebound, making lunches for the homeless, tutoring children who read below grade level, or gathering clothing for those whose paychecks don’t stretch far enough.
The irritable sales person, the distracted checkout clerk, and the abrasive coworker have a story. They are hungry sheep yearning to be fed by a listening ear and an understanding heart.
You never know when your ordinary trip to the market is for the ham of God.
This sermon was preached at St. Luke’s, Grambling.