Following Jesus

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I want to talk this evening about Following Jesus, from Luke 5.1-11. First, though, I too would like to welcome you personally to JPC, particularly if you’re a student at one of the Universities or Colleges on Tyneside. We really do want to get to know you, and we hope that this sprawling extended family of a church will become a home from home for you.

One student has been blogging about his uni experience last year. Here are some extracts:

15 October
It's been a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions since I've been back now and it's only just showing signs of starting to settle down.

4 November
Life finally seems to have settled down a bit over the past couple of weeks, and coming off the rollercoaster feels a little flat.

7 March
Drugs, alcohol, girls etc. I always have been an intensely independent person who thrives on having their freedom, and university offers a lot of that…

8 April
There have been a few blips… I know my Mum’s pretty worried about what I’m getting up to at university as she knows I don’t tell her a lot of it, and we’ve always been very open. And then the dreaded ex…..nah she’s not that bad really, but exes do often crop up and provide difficult situations every now and then. She’s clearly really struggling…

18 May
Slightly mixed fortunes with various ex-girlfriends….my most recent ex has been nothing but cold and bitter towards me since Easter and our conversation in which I was pretty adamant that she needs complete emotional distance to move on. She’s been extremely unpleasant the whole time and right now I don’t really want anything to do with her until she gets past these feelings.

27 June
Well I finished my exams. They went predictably badly considering how little work I’ve done this year…
The events that followed for the next two weeks I probably won’t go in to great detail… partly because I don’t remember all of it. Two weeks of going out with friends, drinking, doing all sorts of stupid things. It was immense fun, but I was pretty relieved when it was over and the first day I woke up without a hangover I felt so unbelievably fresh. Strangely, I’ve come out of it with crazy motivation to get in to really good shape and get a job and basically do various responsible, mature things.
[Daniel’s blog on www.studentdepression.org]

End of quotes. That kind of self-confessedly immature and irresponsible lifestyle exacts a heavy price. It’s a price paid not least by a string of young women, who I pray won’t have to keep on paying for the rest of their lives.

There is another way. A different young guy around student age, went through a shattering experience that changed his life. His name was Simon. This happened about 2000 years ago. But we have a vivid account. You can see it here in the Bibles on p1032. You’ll find Luke’s Gospel chapter 5 there, and we’re looking at the start of that chapter, verses 1-11. It’s the section with the heading ‘The Calling of the First Disciples’.

Simon’s shattering experience was an encounter with Jesus. I’m praying that, in our own way, we’ll all have that experience. What happened to this fresher then? There are three stages in the experience that Simon went through, and these are the stages we need to go through too. They’re printed on the outline on the back of the service sheet. And you’ll see there that each stage of the total experience has three sub-stages. The three main stages are: first, Jesus challenges us; secondly, Jesus changes us; and then thirdly, Jesus calls us.


First, JESUS CHALLENGES US

This account is so vivid you can almost see it on the TV monitor of your mind’s eye. So I want to run the video, hitting the pause button on the remote quite often so we can think about what’s going on. So rewind to the start and press play. Verse 1:

One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding round him and listening to the word of God…

Hit the pause button just there. This is sub-stage 1: Jesus draws us into the crowd.

Jesus had recently leapt into the public consciousness like Barack Obama during the US election last year. Jesus has burst on to the public scene from his obscure life up in some northern town because of his astonishing life-giving power.

He was throwing evil spirits out of people. He was healing people in large numbers with just a touch. Even more important was what he was saying. He was a riveting speaker. 4.32:

They were amazed at his teaching, because his message had authority.

Why so much authority? Because this is God speaking. That’s mind-blowing, but it’s true. Look at that little phrase Luke uses. What’s this crowd doing as Jesus speaks to them? They’re ‘listening to the word of God’. When Jesus speaks, God is speaking, because Jesus is God in the flesh. So it’s gripping stuff.

Mind you, being in the middle of that crowd was very safe. You could easily keep your distance from this dangerously challenging man. You could be non-committal, enjoy the spectacle, soak up the atmosphere.

It can be like that coming to church in a crowd. It’s very easy to keep your distance from Jesus.

If you’re just here for the food and the company, please enjoy it. There’s another supper next Sunday. Bring your friends. Make the most of it. But I would ask you to do this as well: listen to what Jesus is saying to you.

How do we hear the voice of Jesus? Through the Bible. Through hearing the Bible explained. So please don’t just melt away when the crowd disperses and shut Jesus out of your life. Come back. And keep coming.
Jesus draws us into the crowd. That’s sub-stage 1. Sub-stage 2 is Jesus gets into our boat. Press the start button again on the video. Verses 2-3: with the people crowding around him…

2[Jesus] saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

Pause there.

The next thing that happens is that Jesus starts to make demands on your life. Simon was OK about that. He already knew Jesus a bit, and he was impressed. And he wasn’t being asked for anything too difficult. Just the loan of a boat and a few hours of his time. The cost was low – just a bit of inconvenience.

A student’s housemates ask him to come with them for a pint and he has to say no because he’s decided to try out Focus. But he’ll just go once or twice - see what’s going on there. No long-term commitment. Lending Jesus your boat, so to speak, isn’t too demanding. So if you’re a student who hasn’t been along to Focus, give it a go. The details are on the student leaflet.

Sub-stage 3 of Jesus challenging us gets more serious. This is Jesus gives us a command to obey. Verses 4-5:

4When [Jesus] had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything…

You can almost hear the momentary pause. What’s he going to say? ‘What do you know about it Jesus? Stick to your carpentry, and leave the fishing to us.’ No. He bites his tongue. He knows he’s dealing with someone tougher than him, v5;

…‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’

Jesus begins to command, and it’s more costly and demanding .We don’t really understand why what he’s asking is necessary, but we’ve crossed a line in our lives and we know that Jesus isn’t just a riveting teacher, he’s the master of our lives now. We have to do what he asks. We’re beginning to see that he knows better than us.

Maybe it’s from this point on that you begin to call yourself a Christian. There’s a lot you don’t understand, but there’s no going back. Jesus has taken hold of your life.

Maybe this is the point at which you don’t just go along to Focus if you haven’t got a better offer that Tuesday evening – instead, you rearrange your schedule so you can be there every Tuesday evening. And you realise that the small group that you’re in for Bible study and prayer requires more than just occasional attendance. You realise that these people are your brothers and sisters in Christ, and you have to be there for them when they need you.

So that’s the three sub-stages that make up this first stage when ‘Jesus challenges us’. He draws us into the crowd, gets into our boat, and gives us a command to obey.

The second stage of Simon’s encounter with Jesus I’ve called…


Secondly, JESUS CHANGES US

The first sub-stage here is that we see his power. Run the video again. Verses 6-7:

6When they had done so [that is, gone out deep and chucked the nets out again], they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

Simon saw the power of Jesus, not at a distance - from the crowd - but at work in his own life, through him. This was up close and personal. Suddenly Simon had a glimpse of who he was really dealing with. And it hit him hard.

I remember I saw a greater miracle than Simon’s catch of fish, first hand, when I was a student, I helped to lead a small group for a few guys who were interested in discussing the Christian faith. One of them was self-confident, bright, full of questions, and sure that the Christian faith wasn’t true. I found him intimidating, and I felt out of my depth.

A few months later, his thinking had completely reversed. He was totally sold out for Jesus. He still is today. I saw this happen in front of my eyes, like a spectator. I talked to him, just like Simon was the one who threw out those nets. But I saw the power of Jesus at work at closer quarters than I had ever done before. And when you see that, it hits you hard. Something happens inside you.

So the second sub-stage of Jesus changing us is that we fall in fear of him. Look how Simon reacted. Verses 8-10:

89For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Closer knowledge of someone you admire usually brings some degree of disillusionment. But with Jesus what happens is the exact opposite. The closer you get to him, the more frighteningly awesome he is. When you glimpse the reality of who Jesus is, you don’t think ‘Oh no, another hero bites the dust.’ You think ‘Oh no, this is seriously scary, this means he knows what I’m like inside. I’m in deep trouble now.’

The blazing light of Jesus shines into the dark corners of our lives, and we realise it’s filthy in there. Not fit for him to see. All we can do, in the quiet of our own heart, by faith, is to fall at the feet of Jesus and say, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man. I am sinful woman.’ When we see Jesus, we fall at his feet.

And what does he do next? This is where miracle is piled on miracle. So sub-stage 3 of Jesus changing us is we receive his grace. Back to verse 10:

Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid…’

Pause right there. ‘Don’t be afraid…’ Jesus could have said, with every justification, ‘Simon, you’re right. Your life stinks. Get out of my sight and don’t come back.’ Instead he says, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ Wrapped up in those few words are forgiveness, acceptance, comfort, encouragement – and the power to change.

Apparently (I quote):

Students who started at university last year can expect to owe nearly £21,200 by the time they leave and new students should reckon on at least £2,000 more than that…
[The Push Student Debt Survey 2009].

That’s nothing to the unpayable debt that we owe Jesus. But he forgives us the debt, and he paid it off himself at the cost of his life. We fall at his feet, ashamed and fearful. He picks us up, and puts us to work. That’s grace. That’s what we receive at his hands.

So that’s the process of encountering Jesus one to one, face to face, by faith. That’s what happens when Jesus changes us. We see his power. We fall in fear of him. And we receive his grace.

Then the third and final stage here is this:


Thirdly, JESUS CALLS US

The first sub-stage here is that Jesus commissions us. Verse 10 again – look how Jesus continues:

Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.’

Jesus introduces us to his mission for our lives. You realise it’s not just a matter of coming to church or Focus. What Jesus wants is much more radical than that. He wants the whole of your life. He has a plan for us.

‘From now on,’ says Jesus to Simon, ‘you will catch men.’ In other words, ‘I am going to use you to make others my followers too. That’s my purpose for your life.’

Not for a week, or a term, or a year, but for life. Jesus is Lord, so what do we do? We accept the commission. And then we start to act on it. So the second sub-stage of Jesus calling us is that we leave everything. You can see that in verse 11:

Jesus said to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.’ So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything…

Pause there for the last time. Some things in our lives will get in the way of our mission if we hang on to them. So we let them go.

Over the summer I was in an old church in Cornwall and a stone memorial on the wall caught my eye. I was deeply moved by it.

It commemorated the lives of three young men – John Pearce, John Badcock, and John Bryant – all fishermen from that Cornish village. They all died together, in their early twenties. In 1850 they’d gone as crewmen with Captain Allen Gardiner when he sailed to Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America - 8000 miles and a cultural world away. To them it was literally the ends of the earth. Why did they go? As the memorial told me, they went as pioneer missionaries. They went to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the native population of Tierra del Fuego.

They landed, but fierce weather, few fish and no way of shooting birds led to disease, starvation and death for the whole group. They hadn’t seen a single profession of faith among the local people who’d been hostile and aggressive. But their experience directly inspired what became the South American Missionary Society – the leading Anglican mission agency in South America. Those three young men left everything and followed Jesus. Gardiner’s biographers say of them:

They were men of high character and simple piety, who had worked together as fishermen, and lived together as Christians.
[‘The Story of Commander Allen Gardiner, R.N.’ by J. Marsh and W. Stirling]

Isn’t it time that our generation picked up that baton? Isn’t it time that our lives displayed the same Holy Spirit empowered courage whether in Tierra del Fuego or a student terrace in Fenham? Jesus said:

“Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.”

We belong to Jesus. Responding to Jesus’ call means leaving everything for him. And then what?

Well finally, it means we follow him. Verse 11:

So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

We follow him for a lifetime. We follow him with a purpose. We live for him.

There, then, is the three stage process that Simon went through. First, Jesus challenges us. He draws us into the crowd; he gets into our boat; and he gives us a command to obey. Secondly, Jesus changes us. We see his power; we fall in fear of him; and we receive his grace. And, thirdly, Jesus calls us. He commissions us; we leave everything; and we follow him. What stage are you at in that process? Jesus is always moving us on. He keeps on challenging us and changing us and calling us afresh.

There are critical times in our lives, and starting as a student is one of them. Many in that crowd around Jesus no doubt just melted away. Many kept their distance from Jesus. They were listeners who never became learners. Simon and his friends got in close, and they got in deep. Please, for your own sake, do the same yourself.

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