It seems appropriate to be talking about leading and following today, as we celebrate the life of one of America's most powerful and significant leaders of the past century. When Martin Luther King, Jr issued a call for people to follow him into a path of non-violent resistance to the corrupt powers of his society, people followed. Whether it was to participate in a sit-in, to register to vote, or to march on Washington, there were many who heeded King's just and passionate words.
When Jesus comes on the scene in John's gospel reading, he is issuing a call for followers. Philip not only answers in the affirmative, but he heads out to find his friend, Nathanael. Although a little perplexed that something worth paying attention to could come out of a backwater place like Nazareth, Nathanael is curious enough to check things out. When Jesus stuns him by his uncanny knowledge of Nathanael's activity - as well as his character - Nathanael signs on.
As we move into the season of Epiphany, we are given the same challenge of following Jesus. The question that we need to answer is "why would we do so?" What makes Jesus worthy of following? Here are at least ways to answer that question.
First, Jesus knows whom he is calling. Both the Old Testament reading and the Psalm make this point. God knows the boy Samuel, sleeping in the temple under Eli's care, and calls him by name. "Samuel, Samuel," the unearthly voice will urge, not giving up until it is satisfied that it has caught the youngster's attention. Samuel is the one God knows is able to next lead his people and he personally recruits Samuel into this sacred service. (I Samuel 3:1-10)
Similarly, in the Psalm, we are reminded that
LORD, you have searched me out and known me;
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You trace my journeys and my resting-places
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,
but you, O LORD, know it altogether.
You press upon me behind and before
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
For you yourself created my inmost parts;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
We need not be fearful that God has made the call to us based on false advertising; there is nothing that surprises the All-knowing Creator. "Where can I hide from your presence?" the Psalmist will ask further on. God has formed us and walked alongside us since our birth; with the knowledge and love of a invested parent God issues the invitation to walk in paths of righteousness.
Second, Jesus is worthy of being followed because He is both fully God and fully human. As a perfect man, filled by the Spirit of God, he is able to live out the life that all the rest of humanity, infected with the "sin-virus," broken and and in need of healing, are unable to do. To some, the assertion of Jesus' divinity, seems to divorce him from humanity. Even though Paul will say, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor 5:21), some argue that a sinless Jesus is unfollowable, impossible to emulate. It would be easier if he had some flaws, some baggage to overcome, goes the argument. But I don't buy it.
For Jesus to be fully worthy of imitation, he needs to behave in a completely exemplary way. Otherwise, we would need to become his judge, stating that in this situation, we should behave like him, but in this we shouldn't. It is true that we have to do this with many other leaders, even those whose vision puts them heads and shoulders above their companions. "Only human," is what we say, when weaknesses are exposed; devotion diminishes and we qualify our remarks. Be like Tiger Woods, we may say to our son practicing his golf game, just not in the way he treats women.
This isn't an issue with the human/divine incarnated Christ. In every way he is fit to be followed. He will be tempted in every way, says the writer of Hebrews, but he will be able to show us the way through the temptation. Like us enough, and not like us in ways that are crucially important to God's deepest plans.
There is another possible error though, as we think of following Christ. In his divinity, we can make him unattainable. Surely, he had some sort of "God app" that he accessed through a superhuman brain. If only I knew everything, I could be like Jesus, we muse. But if Jesus were truly human, he relied, as we all must, on the Spirit of God who not only formed, but also filled him, to live out his daily life on earth. Rather than having plays funneled through his headset from a celestial coach, I believe he lived as we do, dependent upon the daily guidance and power of God's spirit. It is true that he didn't have fear, anxiety, pride or anger blocking the directives of God's voice, but he still had to listen. And if he was able to know what God wanted, as a human, so can we.
When Jesus issues the invitation to become his follower, he does so knowing who is on the guest list, and what resources are available to answer this call. Like the disciples who received the Spirit in those rushing Pentecostal winds, we are able to access not only the healing we need to become whole, but the wisdom we need to become mature. Filled with the same Spirit, we are able then to follow this carpenter from Nazareth, secure in the knowledge that He will be a leader worthy of emulating, in every way and in every situation.