Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
A stranger comes to town. No reputation. No name recognition. He walks along where the fishers are working. He points to a couple of them, and he simply says, “Follow me.” That’s all. No introduction. No explanation. Just, “Follow me.” And they do. They don’t know who he is. They don’t know what he’s about. They leave everything. Their boats. Their work. Their families. They just drop it, get up, and follow him.
The feast of St. Anthony of Egypt was just over a week ago, and so I was reading about his life during my devotional. He’s considered the first Christian monk. Born in the mid-third century in Egypt, at about age twenty his parents died, leaving him in charge of his younger sister. I’m going to quote from the words of Athanasius about Anthony, and as you hear it, I want you to think about your emotional reaction to Anthony’s choices and how they effect his sister.
Not six months after his parents’ death, as he was on his way to church for his usual visit, he began to think of how the apostles had left everything and followed the Savior, and also of those mentioned in the book of Acts who had sold their possessions and brought the apostles the money for distribution to the needy. He reflected too on the great hope stored up in heaven for such as these. This was all in his mind when, entering the church just as the Gospel was being read, he heard the Lord’s words to the rich man: If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor—you will have riches in heaven. Then come and follow me.
It seemed to Anthony that it was God who had brought the saints to his mind and that the words of the Gospel had been spoken directly to him. Immediately he left the church and gave away to the villagers all the property he had inherited, about 200 acres of very beautiful and fertile land, so that it would cause no distraction to his sister and himself. He sold all his other possessions as well, giving to the poor the considerable sum of money he collected. However, to care for his sister he retained a few things.
The next time he went to church he heard the Lord say in the Gospel: Do not be anxious about tomorrow. Without a moment’s hesitation he went out and gave the poor all that he had left. He placed his sister in the care of some well-known and trustworthy virgins and arranged for her to be brought up in the convent. Then he gave himself up to the ascetic life, not far from his own home. He kept a careful watch over himself and practiced great austerity.
I don’t know about you, but when I read this story for the first time, a knot started to form in my stomach. I got to the part where Anthony gave away his land and possessions, all I could think about was his sister. It was his responsibility to take care of her, to raise her. They had already lost their parents. Now he was giving away the things that would maintain their livelihood at least until she was grown. I was relieved when I read that he kept back some of his possessions in order to support her. I took a breath. Then he decided to give away the rest of everything to the poor. What about his sister? He put her in a convent. Did she want to be in a convent? She had just lost her parents. Did she really need to lose her brother now, as well?
Jesus says, “Follow me,” and they drop everything. They leave their work, their possessions, their families, and they follow him.
It’s a difficult problem, isn’t it? What do we do when God’s call conflicts with our highest ideals? What do we do when God conflicts with family? When that happens, how do we know that we are understanding God’s call correctly. Is it faithful to take the more dangerous path, to give up everything for Jesus, or is it just irresponsible? Is it responsible to take the safer path, the path of security, or is it just cowardly? What is it that Jesus is calling us to do? And how are we supposed to respond?
Many early Christians answered the question by following Jesus and leaving family behind. The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, advises his followers not to get married and not to have children. He was convinced that the responsibilities that go along with having a spouse or children would distract Christians from really being able to follow God. He was sure that having a family was detrimental to one’s relationship with God, that having a family kept people from being good disciples of Jesus. Paul gave only one exception to his rule. He said that if there were any Christians who were so filled with lust that they couldn’t remain celibate, that it would be better for them to marry than to commit fornication. Otherwise, he insisted, all Christians should remain single and childless. Anything else would be an unnecessary distraction from the things of God.
We’ve come a long way since then, though, haven’t we. Typical American Protestantism today is all about family values. Rather than thinking of marriage as a distraction from religion, we tend to think of marriage and family as requirements for living a Christian life. Protestant pastors often aren’t really trusted unless they are married. It’s not much better for pastors who don’t have kids. We tend to think of family as our primary religious obligation. Being a faithful spouse, raising good Christian children—these are the things we seem to feel called to do in order to follow God.
And for many American Christians that means accumulating things. It’s important to provide a nice life for our families. That means a nice house, a reliable car, heat, electricity, internet, telephone, television. It means being able to pay for braces and music lessons and college and a wedding when the time comes. It means planning for a stable and comfortable retirement, so that we’re not a burden to the next generation.
Of course, with all of these things to buy and hold and maintain, it makes it awfully hard to respond when someone shows up and says, “Follow me.” We have so many things that we can’t think of leaving behind. The house, the car, the retirement plan. How could we just drop everything and leave? We have responsibilities, after all. People are depending on us.
So what are we to do? Which is more dangerous, that we drop everything to follow Jesus and end up being irresponsible, or that we fulfill our responsibilities and end up missing Jesus’s call? What do we do?
I tend to justify taking the safer path by saying that my marriage covenant and my responsibility as a father are sacred trusts from God, that I have made promises before God to fulfill those roles, and so God would never ask me to do something that would make being a husband and father more difficult. But how often am I actually fulfilling my responsibilities, and how often am I just making excuses, taking the easy way out, taking the path more travelled? We know, after all, that Peter was married. And yet he dropped everything to follow Jesus. James and John were responsible for helping their father. But they dropped everything to follow Jesus.
Most of us are probably much more likely to take the easy path. We’re more likely to error on the side of responsibility. That is the more socially acceptable option for us. And yes, many of us do hold sacred trusts from God to support our families. But that means that we have to listen all the harder for Jesus’s call to us. We have to be all the more attentive to what Jesus might be asking us to do. At some point, Jesus will call us, ask us to make a difficult decision. It may not be a call to leave absolutely everything to follow him, although it may be. But it may a be call to give up some things that we would rather keep in order to be lighter, my ready for God’s service. What will we do when Jesus calls? How will we answer? How much are we willing to give up in order to follow the savior of our lives?