“Rejoice and be glad!” Jesus says this to his followers who are persecuted and reviled and slandered as they follow him. Be glad. Have joy. Even in your suffering. (Mt 5:10)
Is he kidding?! How in the world can we possibly be joy-filled and glad in the midst of persecution and suffering? And there will be persecution, Jesus declares again and again. Jesus may have promised to lead us through a rose garden but he was clear that there would be many thorns in the following. Where’s the joy in that?
But maybe we’re looking for joy in all the wrong places. Too often we confuse joy with happiness. But they aren’t the same thing and we run into trouble when we think they are.
Happiness is an emotion, often fleeting, that comes and goes based on the events that happen to us. We spend a lot of time, energy and resources searching for happiness, looking in all sorts of places – possessions, relationships, money, success, drugs etc. – for the next high of happiness. But since it’s transitory, happiness quickly disappears until it’s replaced with the next “happy hour”…at least until the timer runs out.
Joy, on the other hand, is spiritual and is centered in our relationship with the one who calls us to follow. Joy is a gift, often given over time and through a cumulation of our experiences of God’s love, peace and blessing with us. Joy doesn’t disappear over the next hill or into the next valley. Joy, once discovered, remains with us, not through our work but through the power of the Spirit when in faith, we open ourselves to the in-spirited Christ within.
What does this joy look like in everyday life? If I had to pick two of the most joy-filled people in the Bible, I’d pick Anna and Simeon. (Luke 2:25-38) And it’s not just because they eventually got to see and touch and hold the salvation of the world, although that was the moment their joy was fulfilled. No, they lived in joy even before that special day.
Neither Anna nor Simeon had an easy life. They were members of a persecuted and oppressed people, practicing their faith in an Empire that saw them as conquered. Anna had been widowed and left childless early in life. Simeon had received a promise that seemed to take forever to come about. Yet both Anna and Simeon lived their lives in the joy of expectant waiting, prayer-filled worship, and devout relationship with the God whom they trusted to bring new life to the world. Anna and Simeon didn’t spend their lives searching for momentary instances of happiness; they lived every day in the new life given them each moment through God’s promises, celebrating the beauty and blessing of God’s life they were receiving.
Joy is a gift shared by God, not only as an end result of following Jesus but in the following itself, thorns and all. In our following, we find joy in the now through the promised new life of God’s indwelling future. Joy doesn’t deny the pain and persecution of the following; it acknowledges it as real. But at the same time, joy says to death, suffering and persecution, “You don’t get the last word. Life does. Love does. Impossible-to-understand peace does.” Joy always finds God’s new life and blessing in the present (as difficult as it may be to see sometimes) and hopes through faith for the new life God gives.
So let us follow Jesus, falling in joy with God in the same way we fall in love with God. In this following we will discover what it means to love…but more about love next week.
In the joy of Christ,
Bishop Laurie Jungling
So, what does it mean to follow Jesus? I hope you saw an image of what following Jesus can look like in last week’s Spotlight on Project Hope in Columbus, MT. And I encourage you to keep your eyes and ears open for other glimpses of what it means to follow Jesus in this world.
Often, when we’re asked the question “What does it mean to follow Jesus?” we think first about what we do? After all, we’re the ones who are called to follow; therefore, we should be doing the work of following, right?
But actually following Jesus is first and foremost something God does, not us. Following Jesus starts with Jesus himself – his invitation, his call, his promise, his gift. Only in the receiving of God’s gift in Christ do we begin to participate in the following.
This comes clearer to us in the first verses of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are you,” Jesus says to various groups of people. Think again about what it means to be blessed: to be filled with the life and love of God into the depths of our hearts, minds, bodies and spirits. To be blessed is to receive the vitality of God’s wholeness, abundance, and unconditional love into our being. To be blessed is to be given pure grace.
I invite you to look at those beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12 and ponder what Jesus’ blessing means to those he calls to follow him. Here are just a few of Jesus’ blessings:
· “To you who are poor in spirit: the kingdom of heaven, God’s own abundant life and love given in me
(Jesus), has entered your life.
· To you who are mourning: the comfort I bring fills you with the peace of God’s own abundant life and
· To you who are meek: the earth that I save will empower you with God’s own abundant life and love.
· To you who hunger for right relationship with God and neighbor (righteousness): that right relationship
is fulfilled through God’s own abundant life and love.
· To you who seek to make peace: you are God’s beloved child, filled with God’s abundant life and love.
· To you who are persecuted as you try to live out your right relationship with God and neighbor: the
kingdom of heaven, God’s own abundant life and love given in me (Jesus) has entered your life.
· To you who are reviled and persecuted and slandered with all kinds of evil falsely simply because you
follow me: rejoice and be glad because you are filled to overflowing with God’s own abundant life and
Following Jesus begins with God’s blessing given to us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It is only through the abundant love and life of Christ received into our lives that it is possible to follow him. Through Jesus we receive forgiveness and are restored to living relationship with God. Through Jesus we are given the compassion to love our neighbors. Through Jesus we receive faith, hope and love. Through Jesus, the Spirit inspires (in-spirits) us with all the strength, support, wisdom and blessing we need to follow Christ into the world -- always in it, never of it.
But you know what? There is another gift we receive when we follow Christ. “Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus proclaims in the last beatitude. This is a promise, not a command. And in it Jesus promises that in following him, even as we move toward the cross, there is joy and gladness. But more about joy in following Christ in next week’s article.
God’s blessings of life and love be upon you always.
What does it mean to follow Jesus? Not what did it mean, but what does it mean right now, in this time and place? That is the question that we in the Montana Synod will be exploring more deeply over the next months and years as we discern how to be the body of Christ in these changing times.
Essentially, following Jesus is about being in life-centered relationship with God in Christ through the power of the Spirit. This is a relationship that starts not with anything we do but with Jesus saying simply, “Come and See; Follow Me.” And when we take that first step of trust, of faith, we see in Christ a new way of life that is radically different than the world around us lives or preaches. This is a life that has all of its being, seeking, and doing, all of its thinking, feeling, and acting centered in God’s love “for you” in Christ. In inviting us to “Come and See, Follow Me,” Jesus calls us to follow him right into a life-newing relationship with God.
And this new life in relationship with the God who is love has consequences for how we live in this world. Following Jesus isn’t merely about getting into heaven someday or showing up in church occasionally. For the Kingdom has come near, now and today, and that matters for how Jesus calls us to live in relationship with God and with our neighbor...all of our neighbors including creation itself. As Jesus declares: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)
Following Jesus is about living out these relationships of love with all our heart, spirit, mind and body. And we do so not from our own power, which is limited and tainted by sin, but through the power of the Spirit who enters and forgives us when we have the courage to let go and let God. When we can do that, the new life-changing love of God becomes our center and we can follow Jesus with a faith-filled vitality that seeks to live God’s Kingdom into the world around us.
And what does this following look like for us in our particular context and lives, you may ask? Well, that is what we’re going to explore together in various ways. And one significant way we will discern what it means to follow Jesus today is to start seeing it happen right in front of our eyes.
Beginning next week, the Synod News will be offering a new regular series entitled “Spotlight on the Synod.” In this series, we will tell a story about ministry taking place somewhere in the synod that makes “Following Jesus” visible to us. Jenny Kunka, our NRIT director, will be gathering and writing these stories of how the Spirit is working through you in your communities to love, welcome, and serve God and neighbor. These stories will be offered once a month in place of my article so that you can see some of the exciting and creative ways enthusiastic ELCA Lutherans around the Montana Synod are following Christ in their neck of the woods.
So, as we travel the synod, I invite you to tell us about the inspiring, distinctive and vital ways your congregation or ministry is “Following Jesus” so that we can shine a spotlight on it for the rest of the Synod to see.
Your fellow follower of Jesus,
Bishop Laurie Jungling