If we look back on our personal faith histories, chances are we’ll recall certain significant events that have brought us to where we are today. For me, one very significant event took place between my junior and senior years of college. At that time in my life, I wasn’t actively practicing my faith. However, while walking down the street one hot summer afternoon, I happened to take notice of a welcome sign to a local church. While gazing at that sign I felt a strong desire to return to church, and I did shortly thereafter.
During my final year of college that followed, I began to "integrate" my renewed faith into every aspect of my life, and I tried to live it out in a committed and sincere way. I found myself taking a hard look at my values and my behavior, and it soon became clear to me that I had to make some changes if I wasn’t going to live a double life. I experienced a very real and sometimes painful tension between the person I was and the person Jesus was calling me to be.
I knew in my heart that Jesus was calling me to change because he loved me. At the same time, I became very conscious of my public identity as a Christian. The people who knew me were aware that my faith had recently become very important to me, and I didn’t want to do anything that might scandalize them or lead them to think that Christians are hypocrites.
For instance, I had loved the idea of making lots of money and living a comfortable, respectable life. I had accepted a fairly lucrative post-graduation job with a major accounting firm, and I thought that I was on my way to fulfilling my dream. But then certain of Jesus’ teachings- "You cannot serve God and money;" "Where your treasure is, there will you heart be also"- began to really challenge me, and I wrestled with them mightily.
I was also in a serious relationship with a young woman. However, there were aspects of that relationship which were at odds with my revived faith, and I began to discover that it’s hard to break relationship patterns that have become established over a long period of time.
In addition, I felt myself growing apart from a number of my friends. Whenever we’d get together, I was uncomfortable with some of their attitudes, the things we talked about, and how much we drank. I often found myself preferring to do things with my new church community than doing things with them.
One day I shared my struggle with my pastor, and he suggested that maybe there were some things I needed to "let go" of- dreams, priorities, habits, and relationships- if I was sincere about being a Christian. In other words, the lesson I had to learn is that deciding to follow Jesus also meant that I probably needed to leave some things behind.
Yet this is a challenge that many of us have to face, isn’t it? Today’s gospel reminds us of this, in two ways. As we heard, the first four disciples, had to leave behind jobs, family, possessions, and a familiar way of doing things, in order to answer Jesus’ invitation to follow him. And then there is Jesus’ call to "repent." The word "repent" literally means "turn around." Jesus, then, is actually asking each one of us to turn our lives around- to turn toward him and turn our backs on everything that is negative and sinful.
But let’s face it: Making changes in our lives, leaving familiar things behind, and turning our backs on sin is often easier said than done. We get very set in our ways, we can be stubborn as mules, and we can even become comfortable with our sins. That’s why, when our Lord calls us to repent and follow him, our answer isn’t always an unqualified "Yes!" Instead, it’s "Yes, but…" Consciously or unconsciously, we lay down our limits and conditions, because we don’t want to step out of our comfort zones.
So perhaps today’s gospel is challenging us to ask ourselves the question: Just what is it that prevents us from following Jesus completely, and without reservation? Are we stuck in a bad habit that drags us down again and again? Do we think we aren’t good enough or worthy enough to be a follower of Jesus? Is there some worldly goal, dream, or priority that we keep hanging onto? Has our desire for money, success, or security gotten in the way? Is there some resentment we won’t let go of, someone we love to hate and refuse to forgive? Or are we afraid- afraid of the changes we have to make and the pain and effort that go along with it?
One good way to identify the things that keep us from following Jesus completely is to take a hard look at what we worry about. Worry is typically a sign that we aren’t trusting God. And when we don’t trust God, we can’t really follow him, can we? I know that sometimes I catch myself worrying that Jesus will call me to serve in a place that would require my family to move from our current home. But then I ask myself: "Am I truly a follower of Jesus, or am I following him only on my own terms?" I need to be reminded that partial service to Jesus isn’t real service at all; it’s usually self-service in disguise.
Maybe worry, then, is one of those things we need to leave behind if we are to follow Jesus; maybe we need to turn our backs on worry to answer Jesus’ call to repent. In other words, if we are to walk with Jesus, we need to surrender our worries to him, that we might more fully surrender our lives to him. Because, as we prayed in today’s psalm, the Lord is our light and our salvation, of whom- or what- should we be afraid?