Follow my Leader
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
18 January 2009, 10:30 (Epiphany 2)
Who am I? I was born on January 15th 1929 in Atlanta in the United States. I was bright, clever, and I won a scholarship to study for a degree, which was unusual for people like me.
I got my degree at the age of 19 but then I felt God was calling me to the ministry so I trained to become a pastor in the Baptist church. My first pastorate was in Montgomery, Alabama, in the early 1950s. For me, Christianity involved working for justice and a fair society, and Alabama in the early 1950s was a long way from being either just or fair.
I began to organise peaceful non-violent protests about some of the worst laws which discriminated unfairly against certain sections of society. We boycotted buses, we organised sit-ins in restaurants. We never used violence – we simply drew attention to what was going on in America at that time.
For 14 years I led my people in this struggle to change the law. It was a bitter fight – we were attacked, misunderstood, feared, imprisoned, often scorned, sometimes killed – but we didn’t give up. In August 1963 200,000 of us marched through the streets of Washington. Afterwards I made a speech which became a legend in its own lifetime.
The next year 1964 the Civil Rights Bill was made law and they awarded me the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1968 I visited Memphis. For some time I had been receiving death threats. I was not popular among those who feared a new order in America. I made a speech in which I said, “I may not get to the promised land with you but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will”.
The next day, by person or persons unknown, I was shot and killed.
Martin Luther King would, and should, have been 80 last Thursday. As a man, both in life and in death, he inspired millions of people to move out of their comfort zones and try to change the world.
I mention him today, not just because it would have been his birthday a few days’ ago, but because our Gospel today focuses on the call of some significant early disciples, Philip and Nathanael, and I want to focus on one simple question from those readings – “What was it about Jesus which motivated people to abandon the comfort zone of their well-established lives and launch out in a completely different direction? What was it about Jesus which inspired people to join him on his journey to change the world. When he called them, why did they follow?”
And I suspect as I try to answer that question we will discover similarities with Martin Luther King and the following he commanded in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
I wonder if you have ever stopped and asked yourself what first attracted you to Jesus Christ. And indeed what continues to attract you now? What first persuaded you to become a follower of his and why do you remain one today?
If you find that a hard question to answer go back to those first disciples and ask the same question of them.
But there must have been a magnetism about his character which defied indifference. In the incident just prior to today’s Gospel reading, Andrew and a friend simply saw Jesus and were persuaded to follow him. They were so intrigued that they found Simon Peter, who did the same. People didn’t take much persuading.
In our reading today Jesus says no more than ‘Come with me’ to Philip. Philip is won over to the cause and he fetches Nathanael. Now Nathanael is a cynic, a sceptic, a fence-sitter, but 5 minutes with Jesus and he is utterly and completely convinced.
You get the same impression from the other Gospels. James and John mending their fishing nets. ‘Follow me’ - a simple call, and they leave everything to go with Jesus. Levi, collecting taxes - one look, one word and he is gone with Jesus.
The power of Jesus to command allegiance and to motivate radical changes in people’s lives is awesome. Indeed, it is almost frightening. We are only too aware today how easily cult leaders can manipulate people by the power of their personality and the attractiveness of their message.
Was Jesus no more than a powerful cultic leader exercising a dangerous and manipulative attraction over gullible followers? Well, what do you expect me to say. No, of course, not. He simply does not fit the cult leader stereotype for a variety of reasons.
He comes across as totally without guile. Do you detect in the teaching of Jesus another agenda or a hidden desire for power? Or is part of the attraction the very fact that he doesn’t ever attempt to manipulate people? Merely to draw from them the best they can offer. Here is a man of enormous integrity. In the Gospel John the Baptist described him as the ‘lamb of God’ – innocent, pure, without guile.
You also get the impression that he shuns attention when it is focused upon him. Despite the fact that he begins to draw large crowds you get the feeling that Jesus is ill at ease with what we today would call ‘media-hype’. Often you find him withdrawing to be alone, telling people to go quietly to their homes instead of following him. He does not feed off the adulation in the way that cultic leaders do today.
He doesn’t give the impression of being insecure with himself. One of the marks of cultic leaders is a fundamental self-assurance, which is actually borne of desperate insecurity. You simply don’t find that in the Jesus you encounter in the Gospels.
No, in Jesus you find that rarity, a man who can inspire and motivate others in an extraordinary way by the power and integrity and transparency of his personality, his life and his message. And that same transparency that allowed others to see him without masks allows Jesus to see others without masks too. He has the unnerving ability to see right through you. He sums up Peter immediately, Nathanael almost before he has even met him.
When you meet someone who seems to know you through and through, someone who can cut through the image you try to project and see behind the masks you wear, this is unnerving, it can be frightening, but when this person proves to be totally trustworthy, when it becomes apparent that even though they see you, as it were, naked, they still love you, then this becomes a very attractive relationship to build.
But even when we acknowledge the power of Jesus’ personality, there is another ingredient necessary to explain why people followed him. He was leading them somewhere which inspired them.
Just as Martin Luther King inspired America with his dream, his vision of a united America in which black and white lived in harmony, so Jesus inspired his generation with a vision of the Kingdom of God, a place of shalom, wholeness, completeness, for individuals and for communities.
And like all good visionaries he didn’t just hold out an idealistic dream. He showed people how to make it a reality – ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done’ – and again, like Martin Luther King, Jesus was prepared to pay the ultimate price, to go to the wire for what he believed in.
It has always struck me as one of the great ironies of history that the word Christian, so much a standard description of our faith, is hardly to be found in the New Testament, only once indeed. The New Testament, when describing the faith, uses the phrase ‘follower’ or ‘learner of Jesus’.
The modern advert isn’t far from the mark – Carpenter needs Joiners. We are called to be joiners, learners, followers, to make a positive attachment to Jesus Christ, every bit as much now as those first disciples were called to do then.
For the big difference between Martin Luther King and Jesus is this – one of them continues to inspire us by his memory, the other by his presence.