Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
Welcome to the second reflection in this series, The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Focused Life, in which we’re considering seven spiritual practices that can help us all walk with greater intention, following Jesus in His way of love. The seven practices which Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has put before us all are: to turn, to learn, to pray and to worship; to bless, to go, and to rest.
My focus here is the first spiritual practice in the Way of Love: To Turn and follow Jesus. This recording is based on a sermon that I preached in the context of a Confirmation service, in which 12 young people between the ages of 13-18 publicly professed their commitment to follow Jesus, taking on for themselves the promises made on their behalf when they were baptized as infants.
Turning toward Jesus and choosing to following him is what Episcopalians celebrate and sacramentalize in our services of Holy Baptism and Confirmation. Baptism is when we first come to faith and become part of Christian community. If we’re baptized as infants, with parents and loving adults making promises to raise us in such a way that we know following Jesus looks like, in the Episcopal Church, we’re given an opportunity when we’re older to speak for ourselves, after we’ve decided for ourselves to follow Jesus. In Confirmation we also receive the prayers and blessing of the community gathered. Episcopalians believe that these two rituals of Baptism and Confirmation are sacraments. That is, they are outward signs; they outwardly symbolize inward, spiritual truths: Jesus’ unconditional love for us and our decision to accept him as Lord and follow him.
Hear, again, the order of things. Jesus’ love for us, which is the love of God, comes first. Our response comes second. A relationship with God, and for Christians, a relationship with Jesus, doesn’t begin from our side. It begins with God.
It’s a bit like the relationship we had as infants to our parents and other adults. Those who loved us as infants did so for a long time before we even knew what love was, much less love them in return. We had to grow in our awareness of their love, our understanding of love, and in our capacity to love before we could respond. We learned, and continue to learn, in stages. It’s a process of growth.
That’s how it is with God’s love and our love for God in response. God loves us long before we were ever conscious of that love, and loves us steadily as our awareness waxes and wanes. But with awareness, with experiences that reveal God’s love and Jesus’ presence with us, then our response matters. What we choose to do and how we choose to live, determines, in large measure, how the relationship will deepen and grow.
There’s a story in the Bible that describes this relationship dynamic really well. It’s from one of the accounts of Jesus’ ministry, the Gospel of St. Luke. It tells of a time, early in Jesus’ ministry, when he was teaching and healing in the villages around a large lake known as the Sea of Galilee, which lies to the north of Jerusalem in Israel/Palestine. People responded to him — the text tells us, people were hungry for the word of God that he spoke. It got to the point that wherever Jesus went large crowds would gather.
One day, Jesus asked two fisherman for their help. Might they let him use one of their boats, so he could go out on the water and speak to the crowd gathered on the shore from there? A fisherman named Simon agreed, even though he had just returned from a long night of fishing having caught nothing. Simon rowed him out, and from the boat Jesus spoke to the crowd.
When Jesus finished, he turned to Simon and said. Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch. Simon, remember, had been out all night. He was exhausted. He was also a professional fisherman, and here was this itinerant preacher telling him how to do his job.
I don’t know if it was what Jesus had been teaching from the boat, or if Simon knew of Jesus from before, or he was simply being compliant. But something inside Simon prompted him to respond. He did mildly protest, pointing out that they had been fishing without success all night. But then he said, If you say so, I’ll let down the nets.
Was it an “if you say so,” out of trust? Of resignation? How many times have I said, “If you say so,” meaning, “You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about, but nonetheless, I’ll do what you say.”
However he said it, Simon did what Jesus asked. And within minutes, there were more fish to catch than his nets could hold.
Then Simon was completely overwhelmed. His first response was one of shame. It wasn’t shame because he had doubted Jesus’ fishing sensibilities. He knew then in a way he hadn’t realized before that he was the presence of someone holy, and he didn’t feel worthy to be there, even in his own boat. Simon was certain that if Jesus knew what kind of man he was, Jesus wouldn’t want anything to do with him. But you see, Jesus did know him. He knew all about him. He didn’t ask Simon for help because he wanted Simon’s boat. He wanted Simon. “Follow me,” he said, “From now on, you and I will be fishing for people.”
What this story suggests is that before Jesus asks us to acknowledge, much less follow him, he’s going to show up in our lives and make his presence known. Of course, it’s different for us than it was for those who knew him when he walked the earth. Now, Jesus comes to us in spirit. Jesus comes through other people, through our thoughts, dreams, events in our lives, even through what we read, listen to, and watch. (C.S. Lewis, who came to faith late in his life, once said that if people don’t want to become Christian, they better be careful of their reading.) The point is, with us, Jesus gets our attention, not only through our physical eyes, but with our inner eye. We hear him not just with our ears, but with our hearts.
The relationship begins with Jesus coming to us, however that happens. Only then is the invitation extended for us to turn toward the one who has first turned toward us.
I can tell you the first time I consciously turned toward Jesus. It’s easy to remember, because for many years growing up, I lived in a religious and spiritual vacuum. I had gone to church as a young child with my mother, but when I moved to live with my father and stepmother, they didn’t attend church, and neither did I. In those years, everything I thought I knew about God, I either picked up from television, this really scary movie called The Exorcist, or what little I remembered from attending Sunday School when I was younger.
Then, when I was around 15, I became friends with a girl who was a Christian. She didn’t talk about Jesus often, but when she did, it was as if she knew him. I got the sense that whoever Jesus was for her, he was kind. That got my attention. One Sunday, she invited me to go church with her. The minister spoke about Jesus’ love, using the image of a door. There’s a door to our heart, he said, and Jesus waits outside for us to invite him in.
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I knew that in my heart I was lonely and often scared. At the end of of his speech, the minister invited those who were ready to invite Jesus into their hearts to come forward and he would pray with them. I made my way to the front. He put his hands on my head–not unlike how I as a bishop place my hands on the heads of those standing for Confirmation–and he prayed. I don’t remember what he said, or feeling all that different when I returned to my seat. But something changed for me that day.
In truth, life remained pretty rocky in those years. I was dealing with a lot in my family and in school. I had a lot to learn about myself, much less Jesus. I was confused because everyone in my friend’s church was happy that I had accepted Jesus, but I wasn’t particularly happy, and I was pretty sure that I hadn’t experienced what they assumed I had. I wondered if I should go forward to receive the minister’s prayer again, but no one thought that was a good idea. As time went on, I bounced around a bit to other churches, and even received Jesus again in another church. For a time, I lived with the minister of that church and his family.
I learned a lot from them, my first church family, and my identity as a Christian slowly took hold. But inside I struggled with some of the church’s teachings. I couldn’t reconcile Jesus’ love with the church’s more rigid beliefs; for example, that only a narrow few–those who believed exactly the way we did–would be saved. I longed for a place to talk about my struggles, but there wasn’t space for that. I wanted to talk about the gap between what we prayed on Sunday mornings and how we actually lived our lives. But here wasn’t room for that either. There was no place for ambiguity or doubt, and I felt a lot of both. I doubted myself a lot, and I doubted God. But then something would happen that got my attention, and I would turn, and there Jesus would be. Right around that time, I had to make one of the scariest decisions of my life, and I had to make it alone. But I didn’t feel alone. I felt Jesus with me.
By the time I was 18, I was back living with my mother and attending the Episcopal Church I went to as a young child and where she was now an active lay leader. I thank God for that church, and for the minister, who took me under his wing and helped me work through all of my questions. I told him I didn’t believe that only a very narrow group of Christians would be saved, whatever being saved meant. He said, “Mariann, a good rule of thumb when thinking about God is to assume if you wouldn’t do something because it isn’t loving or kind, then God–who the source of all love–wouldn’t do it either.” That was so helpful to me, and it remains helpful still. It reminds me of something Presiding Bishop Curry likes to say: “If it’s not about love; it’s not about God.”
In telling you this part of my spiritual story, I hope it’s clear how the decision to turn, follow Jesus and walk in his way of love isn’t a decision we make once. It’s a journey through life that changes and grows as we change and grow. Looking back on that first time I came forward in a church, I see now it was a turning point for me. For I knew then that Jesus was real. The longer I’ve lived, the more I learn about him, and the more experience I have in turning to follow him, the more I know that his way with us, and his way in the world, is the way of love. In my imperfect way, I want to follow him as best I can.
One of the many reason I’m grateful to be part of the Episcopal Church is that every Sunday we’re invited to come forward and invite Jesus into our hearts. Every week, he comes to us in the symbolic last supper with us, his friends. Every week, we can turn toward him and allow his spirit to fill us.
Some people have told me they can’t remember when they first decided to follow Jesus. As far as they can tell, they always have. I think that’s amazing. But for others, as for me, there was a first time that we remember turning and choosing to follow. Some people make that decision after spending a lifetime in church but then realizing that they never really knew him, and thus never really turned their lives toward him. But something happened, and they experienced him, or met him again, or as one book title suggests, they met him again for the first time.
Regardless of how we begin or begin again, before long, we’re all in the same place. Because it’s not, as I’ve said, a turning we make once. Turning to follow Jesus is a daily commitment, and frankly, some days we’re better at it than others. We aren’t always good at this, which is one reason the Way of Love requires practice.
So let’s consider what a daily practice of turning to Jesus might look like.
When we wake up in the morning, what are some of the first things we do? Well, there are physical needs to tend to, so we generally make our way to the bathroom, and then get dressed. We may go immediately then to the kitchen for food or coffee. If there are others to care for in the morning, we must do that. Most of us have morning chores. Some of us like to exercise in the morning.
Let me ask this: How long are you awake before you check your phone? Might I suggest sometime after you wake up and before you check your phone that you turn toward Jesus?
Turning toward Jesus involves finding a bit of time at the beginning of the day to consciously turn your mind, your inward eye, toward him. It’s not that hard. It might involve saying a prayer, a brief mantra, as you get up. When you stretch, or look in the mirror, or take a shower, it can be as simple as remembering that he is there.
I try to do this everyday. I don’t always remember, but whenever I do, I take a breath, thank him for the day, offer whatever I’m feeling or thinking, and ask for his guidance and strength. That way, as I go about my day, if, through an event or in conversation with someone, something gets my attention — even if it feels like an interruption — I have a better chance of noticing his presence. At the end of the day, it’s helpful for me to look and remember what happened and to ask, “Where was he present? Where did I feel his presence, or miss him in the moment because I wasn’t paying attention?”
There’s another dimension of turning toward Jesus that I’d like to mention as I draw this message to a close. It’s when we can turn to him for forgiveness, in those times when we’ve done or said something we regret, and when we feel as if our lives are out of control in ways we cannot fix, and we need his help.
In church, we often talk about Jesus forgiving our sins. What that means, at least in part, is that when we know we’ve said or done something wrong, or we’ve made a mistake with serious consequences and we don’t know how to set things right, we can turn to Jesus. When we ask, he will forgive us, no matter what. More than that, he will help us make amends and start anew walking with us every step of the way. To ask for forgiveness doesn’t allow us to forget, or pretend that what was hurtful or wrong never happened. The gift of it is finding a way out of the pain, a way to make amends and find release us from the burden of what we’ve done.
When life gets rough and it’s not our fault, and we need help — Jesus is there. I mentioned earlier the time as a teenager when I was alone, scared, and needed help. And he was there. No doubt some of you listening are going through hard times now, or there’s someone close to you. Jesus is there for you, for them, for all of us. He doesn’t miraculously make what’s hard go away. What he gives is inner strength and courage. He moves through other people who show up and help us. As is often said, he can make a way out of no way. It’s not an experience that can be easily explained. But I’m here to tell you that it’s real and can be trusted. I’ve been in that spot more times than I can count. And one thing I know — we are not alone. We can turn to Jesus.
Turning is but one of seven practices in the Jesus-focused life. It’s the starting point, when we first make the decision to turn toward the one who has come to us. We turn to him in need of forgiveness and strength. It’s a choice we make everyday, to turn toward him and then to follow where he leads. But remember, as you turn, that he turns to you, first, and to me, in love.
God bless you. Thank you for listening. I’ll hope you come back next week, when we’ll consider another practice in a Jesus-focused life.
Experiencing Jesus Podcast
Join Bishop Mariann on an 8-week journey through the Way of Love series as she reflects on each of this rule of life’s seven facets: Turn, Bless, Pray, Worship, Rest, Learn, and Go. We hope in listening, you will experience Jesus in a new and refreshing way.