David VanDenburgh, Senior Pastor, Kettering SDA Church, Kettering, Ohio

Summary: Pastor VanDenburgh shares, ?The church is about one thing—following Jesus. Everything else flows from that.? What does ?following Jesus? mean in the living out of one’s life? This sermon will help in focusing on the answer to this vital question.

The first creed

The briefest and earliest Christian creed was written by the Apostle Paul and is found in 1 Corinthians 12:3. But look quickly, because it goes by very fast. Paul says, ?Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, ?Let Jesus be cursed.’ And no one can say, ?Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.?

This is what Christians said when they accepted Jesus. It was especially significant in those days, because it was dangerous to say. Historians state that soldiers, civil servants, and government officials would meet one another on the streets of the Roman Empire with the greeting ?Caesar is lord,? and the appropriate response was ?the lord is Caesar.?

Imagine what would happen if someone said to a Christian, ?Caesar is lord,? and he responded, ?Jesus is Lord.? He would be in direct confrontation with the mighty power of Rome! But Christians did that. They understood that being a Christian meant acknowledging Jesus as Lord and that the Lordship of Jesus Christ shapes and colors everything in life.

Many long and comprehensive creeds have been written since then. But I believe Paul’s creed is the best. It does not put God in a ?box.? It calls Christians to faithfulness, recognizing that Jesus is the living Lord of the church and everything about us as Christians is about our relationship with Him.

A comprehensive definition

What is a Christian? Some may say a Christian is one who attends church. Or one who has been baptized. Others describe a Christian as a person who believes or does certain things. But the most comprehensive definition of a Christian is a person who is seriously committed to living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. To put it simply—a Christian is a person who follows Jesus.

Then, what is a Christian church? A Christian church is a group of people who fellowship together because they are engaged in the same business—the business of following Jesus. The purpose of the Church is twofold: First, to follow Jesus, and second, to enlarge the circle of Christ’s followers by inviting others to say ?yes? to following Him too. If you look at Jesus’ life and words, there was no ambiguity in His mind about who He was and what He expected from people. He was not hesitant to call people to submit to His Lordship. Jesus said to His disciples, ?You call me Lord and Master, and you say right, for that is what I am? (Jn 13:13).

Not a lot of options

C. S. Lewis once said that Jesus does not leave us a lot of options. It is popular for people to say of Jesus Christ, ?He was a great religious leader? He was a great prophet like Mohammed... He was a wise man like Confucius? Or, He was an enlightened one like Buddha.? But we only have three choices. Either Jesus was a liar who claimed to be Lord and Master but knew he was not. Or He was a lunatic. Somebody who thought He was Lord of the universe, like people in mental institutions who think they are Napoleon or Jesus Christ.

Lewis says, if [Jesus] isn’t a liar or a lunatic, then that leaves us only one other choice: He is Lord. Christ Himself says, ?I am Lord.? And He is very clear about what He wants. He wants people to follow Him—to be His disciples and obey Him. To go where He asks them to go and to do what He wants them to do. This is non-negotiable.

Jesus’ very first words

Jesus’ very first words to His church were, ?Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men? (Mt 4:19). And those words are the same words He speaks to us now: ?Follow me.? Jesus told His disciples, ?If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me? (Mt 10:38). He says, ?He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me? (Mt 18:19-22). A scribe once said to Jesus, ?Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go!? (Mt 8:19). And Jesus replied, ?Foxes have holes, and birds ? have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head. In other words, if you are going to follow me, you had better be ready, for it is not going to be easy.

Scripture tells of a rich young ruler who runs up to Jesus and asks, ?What must I do to have eternal life?? Jesus replies: ?Sell everything you have, then take up your cross and follow me? (Mt 19). The young man leaves sadly because he has great possessions, and the cost of following Jesus is more than he wants to pay. And then there is Zachaeus. When Jesus sees Zachaeus in the tree he says, ?Zachaeus, come down; for I’m going to your house today.? Jesus exercised authority! And He calls people to recognize His authority by submitting to His Lordship in their lives.

If I had been approaching Zachaeus, I would not have done it that way. In fact, in similar circumstances we usually say: ?I was just wondering. I don’t want to inconvenience you. I know you are busy, but would it be possible for Jesus to have a little bit of your time this afternoon? If you could work Him in I would really appreciate it. Whatever is convenient for you!?

Do Jesus a favor?

But Jesus is different. He looks up and says, ?Get down here; I’m going to your house today!? Zachaeus had a choice. He could say ?no? or ?yes? to Christ. And the response he made determined whether he was saved or lost. When Jesus calls us to recognize His Lordship in our lives, He does not really ask our permission. We have this backwards somehow. We picture Him standing in the cold, knocking at our heart’s door and the evangelist saying, ?Poor Jesus! Look at Him standing out there in the cold snow. Why don’t you open your heart and let Him come in? Do Jesus a favor!? But this is not how Jesus presents Himself to us. Instead, He says, ?Come down here! I need to be in your house this afternoon.? There is a difference.

When Christ told His followers He was leaving, He promised to send another like Himself—the Holy Spirit. The Spirit would empower them to live as His followers, teach them the meaning of God’s word, and apply it to their lives. That is how they would follow Jesus. And this actually happened.

In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit moved upon the disciples and they began to preach. A crowd ran up and said, ?These people are drunk!? But Peter said, ?We are not drunk. This is the fulfillment of what was promised in Scripture.? In the power of the Spirit, Peter helped the people see how they had sinned by refusing to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord. And through the Old Testament Scriptures, he revealed that Jesus was Lord. Scripture says they were cut to the heart. They stood before Peter and said, ?What have we done? We have crucified the Lord! What hope is there for us?? And Peter replied, ?Repent and be baptized and you will be forgiven. And not only that, but God will give you the same Holy Spirit that He has given us.?

In other words, it was a command to accept the Lordship of Christ. This was the issue of salvation: Would they submit to Christ’s Lordship? Those early Christians did follow Jesus— boldly and bravely. They had no money or church buildings. They had no seminary training or paid clergy. The culture was hostile, but they put their lives on the line every single day and they followed Jesus.

Put quite simply

It was a simple kind of Christianity. Paul expresses it this way: ?If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved? (Rm 10:9). Here is how Paul sums up the preaching of the gospel: ?What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake? (2 Cor 4:5). This was the powerful message of the New Testament church. And these people obeyed the voice of the Spirit as He taught them the will of the Lord.

It is fascinating to read Acts and see how directly God through the Holy Spirit led His people. While the Antioch Christians were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ?Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them? (Ac 13:2). And they did. They laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and said, ?The Spirit has called you, brothers. Go. Follow.? And ?being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there they sailed to Cyprus? (Ac 13:4).

The Acts of the Apostles is really not the acts of the apostles, but the acts of the Holy Spirit! The Holy Spirit said do this, and they did it! It said go there, and they went there. And sometimes the Spirit said do not go there, and they didn’t (Ac 16:6). This is the way it was in the early church.

All turned around

But somewhere along the way Christians began to forget about Jesus Christ being Lord. They began to act as if they were the ?lords? of the church and Jesus was their servant. Somehow the purpose of Jesus was not to command His people, but rather to make them healthy, prosperous, and comfortable. To hear their prayers and answer them. To protect them while they traveled, to watch over their children, to get them a good job, a nice house, and bless them. And somehow Christianity became more about Christians than Jesus.

And with this kind of thinking, you begin to hear questions like, ?What will I gain if I become Christian? What kind of church do I want to join? What kind of music do I like?? Or ?I want a church that offers programs my family wants. I don’t like it when the church keeps asking for money. I’m too busy—I don’t have time for church work.?

These statements reflect the assumption we often make: Jesus is about serving us rather than us serving Him. We tend to forget about following, obeying, and serving Him by serving others.

Over the years, I have had some people come to me and say, ?Pastor, I am going to have to give up my ministry to the church.?

?Oh, really? Why??

?Well, because, um, I just got a new job and I am very busy. I don’t have time for that ministry anymore. Maybe later, when things settle down a little bit.?

I try to be gracious, because I know life can truly be a ?stretch.? But on the other hand, sometimes I just want to say, ?Maybe you should get rid of that job. I mean, maybe you’re investing too much time in work if you don’t have time to serve God.?

What happens when Christ’s Lordship gets pushed off to second or third place in our lives? How did it happen that the Church that began with Jesus saying ?Follow me! I am your Lord and Master. If you want to follow Me you must give up everything and take up your cross!? How did it happen that we came from there to the place where we look for a church that does not make too many demands on us? Whatever happened to the kind of Christianity that says to people, ?Jesus is your Lord and He commands you??

I was talking with a Christian of another faith a while ago. He asked me about Sabbath and why I go to church on Saturday. After explaining he said, ?That sounds great, but it would be very inconvenient for me! I have athletic events on Saturdays and other things I need to do. Stores are not open all the time on Sundays, but they are on Saturdays.?

Is convenience the right issue here? Is it a matter of whether it is convenient to follow God or not? Jesus was not shy about this kind of thing. He said ?Why do you call me Lord and not do what I say?? (Lk 6:46) Many Christians tend to think they should be rewarded for serving Jesus, as though it were somehow above and beyond the call of duty to respond to human need or to sacrifice for the sake of serving. But that is a far cry from the way Jesus called Christians to live.

No, you first!

Christ says, ?Will any of you who has a servant ? when he has come in from the field, say, ?Come at once and sit down at the table’? (Lk17:7-10). In Jesus’ day there were more slaves than citizens, so people knew very well what slavery was about. If you were a slave, you had no life. You were at your master’s beckon call. If your master said you worked till eight o’clock, you worked till eight o’clock! If he wanted something at midnight, you got up and took care of it. And that is why when Jesus said, ?Which of you, if he has a slave, when he comes in from plowing the field, would say to the slave, ?You must be tired. Here! Let me take your sandals off! Sit down and put your feet up. Dinner will be ready in a little while.’?

When Jesus said that, all of His listeners would have laughed, because it was not that way. Jesus continued, ?Would he not rather say to him, ?prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink.’ Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ?We are unworthy servants. We have only done our duty.’?

The church is about one thing—following Jesus. Everything else flows from that. We worship because following Jesus is so wonderfully good. We have fellow-ship with one another because we all follow Him together. We love and care for one another because Jesus commands us to do so. We believe and do certain things and we refuse to do other things because we are following Jesus. When we are baptized, we die to the ?self-life? and are reborn to the ?Christ-life.? We commit ourselves to live for Him, and we begin to follow Him wherever He leads us.

That works, but how does it work? It works by actually living the way Jesus lived. To have Jesus as Lord of my life means that I am committed to doing what He asks me to do. It means praying like Jesus prayed. Becoming familiar with the words of God like Jesus did. It means spending time alone with God, as Jesus did and obeying the voice of the Spirit. And, it means getting out of the boat and putting your feet on the water, in obedience to the voice of Jesus who calls you to follow Him to impossible places!

Following in hard places

Simon Peter’s first encounter with Jesus was when Christ said to him, ?Follow me.? And he did! Peter walked away from his nets, away from his family, and he walked with Jesus. One night on Lake Galilee Peter was in the boat with the other disciples. They were in a frantic storm, rowing and bailing and praying. But through the gloom they saw someone walking on the water. Thinking it was a ghost, they heard the voice of Jesus say, ?It is I. Don’t be afraid!? Peter shouted, ?If it is you, call me out of the boat to follow you.? And Jesus said, ?O.K. Come!? So Peter got out of the boat, put his feet on the water, and stood up. He was standing on the water! And Peter began to walk on the water—following Jesus in obedience to His call.

Now, that is a radical kind of following! It is a paradigm for you and me. Jesus does not just call us to follow Him on the beach, where we know how to follow. He calls us to follow Him on the water, where we don’t know how—where we have to rely on Him completely to make it possible!

Soon after, the time came when Jesus said to His disciples, ?I am going to go someplace where you won’t be able to follow me.? And Peter said, ?What do you mean, we won’t be able to follow you? I will follow you.? But Jesus said, ?No, you won’t.? But Peter argued, ?Yes I will! I am ready to die for you!? And Jesus replied, ?Really, Peter? I tell you, before the rooster crows to greet the dawn, you will denied me three times.? And Peter said, ?I will not! I am so committed to following you that not even death could keep me from it.? And he really meant it. A footnote to the Scripture says, ?And so said they all.? But before the morning, they all fled in fear. And Simon denied Jesus—not once or twice, but three times. He felt about as low as a human being could feel.

Conversation on the beach

Fortunately the story does not end there. After Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Peter and the other disciples decide to go fishing, and they fish all night long. When day dawns, they see Jesus on the beach preparing breakfast for them, and they sit around the campfire eating. Then Jesus turns to Peter and begins to deal with Peter’s failure to follow Him. Three times Jesus asks Peter, ?Do you love me?? And Peter affirms his love for Jesus. Then Jesus says, ?Follow Me.?

Peter takes Jesus quite seriously because he immediately follows Him down the beach. He is truly back in the following business! Then something interesting happens. Something that says a lot about the ?following business.? Peter turns around and sees John following them. And he looks at Jesus and says, ?What about him??

There is always the temptation to look at other people. It is so easy to get caught up with what they are doing to follow Jesus that we give more time and attention to their following than our own. But Jesus says to Peter, ?Don’t worry about him; you just follow me.? In those words, Jesus gives us a rule for the business of following: Yes, we are to follow. Yes, following means living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, being radically committed to doing His will, no matter what the cost. But it also means that we are not to worry about what other people are doing. We simply focus on our own following.

A private matter

Because Jesus Christ is Lord of the Church, He will put it all together in a way that will give honor and glory to His name. He will advance His kingdom and accomplish His purposes for the world. So, let each of us personally ask God this very private question:

?Lord, if following You as the Lord of my life is truly a core value for me, something for which I would give my life, then what would that following look like? Is there something that would have to change in my life to follow You? Is there something about how I use my time, or my money, or my influence that would have to change in order to follow You the way you have called me to follow? If there is, then as the Lord of my life, please help me to deal with it right now.?