The Path: Discipleship as HikingThe Bishop's Blog
I want to reflect on a simple idea, and that is the call to follow Jesus. It found in the brief gospel reading, but there are earlier echoes of the call in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Isaiah and Ruth, Joseph and Mary. The idea may resonate with your own life story, and particular the intersections where we sometimes find ourselves along the way.
The gospel passage is filled with active verbs:
Jesus withdrew to Galilee
he leaves Nazareth
he walked by the sea of Galilee
he spoke to the disciples and said follow me
they leave their nets and follow
he sees two others, he calls them, they leave their boats
they follow Jesus.
To be a Christian is all about action, it is about setting out on a journey, a path. As disciples, we are not passive students, sitting in a seminar around an oak table. It is more the case that we are in motion, seeking the wisdom to know about the next step we take. I want to describe some features of this path: think of it as a field guide to the basic calling in your lives, to get started or to stay on the path.
A friend, Arthur Boers, a Mennonite pastor and professor in Canada, wrote a book a few years ago entitled The Way is Made By Walking. It is about a particular pilgrimage Arthur took, 500 miles over a summer in northwest Spain, toward the Cathedral of St. James, where the relics of the apostle are supposedly housed. The book, however, leads the reader into reflection on the different journeys of our lives, and at the same time is a commentary on something as basic as walking.
I love to walk. As a college student I hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail. I took youth groups, campus ministry groups and smaller groups of friends. My wife and I would later hike up to the top of Mount LeConte in eastern Tennessee, which is just a few feet less in altitude than Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. In the year before I began this ministry in Florida I was a district superintendent in the western mountains of North Carolina and one of the churches had a hiking club, and I joined them on some of the higher peaks in that region, including Wayah Bald.
And so my friend’s book appealed to me: the way is made by walking. It is a similar sentiment to the phrase of the fourth century teacher and saint of the church, Augustine, who said, “It is solved by walking.” I like that: it is solved by walking.
I am a creature of habit. As an adult I have walked most every day, my goal is usually two miles, and that is usually the distance I walk. I can look back over time and see that a number of insights have come in the midst of walking: the call to ministry while walking the trails of a western North Carolina camp one summer; walking to the post office in seminary and meeting and getting to know a student named Pam who often happened to be sitting there, on the way; sometimes I have walked in the midst of a struggle—trying to resolve a financial issue; and the decision to invite a young man named Jacques from Haiti to come and live with us, which would happen—this decision came as I walked the outdoor track at the YMCA near our home one evening. “It is solved by walking.” I like that phrase.
It is not accidental that the Christian life begins not as an assent to a formula or a creed, but as an invitation, a decision to get moving on the path—“follow me”, Jesus says. Take a walk with me.
And so you get started on the path. And if you make this journey it leads you into a different kind of life. Following Jesus—-maybe it will mean spending every Sunday night with teenagers at church, or sleeping in a church basement with the homeless, or flying to Haiti to serve the poor, or teaching the Bible in prison, or integrating your faith as a public leader—-a teacher or attorney or politician—-or a lifetime of some kind of full-time Christian service.
I marvel at the potential for good that exists in every human life. And yet I know that you cannot figure our the shape that good will take ahead of time. The way is made by walking.
This is the path, the journey, of following Jesus. It is a given that we will now know exactly how it will all turn out. That is the trust part, the adventure part. One of the stereotypes about Christianity is that it is boring; in reality, it is an adventure. “Follow me,” Jesus says. Where? You’re going to meet sick people and confused people, wounded and conflicted people, but you are also going to know life, abundant life, it is going to make sense in a way that nothing else does. It is the way of the cross, this journey, but it is also about an empty tomb and an upper room and the promise, finally, of Jesus: “I am with you always.”
“Follow me,” Jesus says. When you begin walking with him, you make a few discoveries. You learn something about yourselves, and this has something to do with the need to simplify, to shed, to lay aside some of the baggage that you are carrying. In the gospel they leave their nets, they leave their boats, they leave home. In hiking, I figured out what was worth carrying in the backpack, and what could be left behind. I often chose the book that weighed the least, the food that was the lightest, and the clothing that took up the least amount of space.
The path of life is like that. Most of us carry around baggage that we could get rid of, baggage that clutters our minds, weighs upon our hearts. In the revival services of my childhood church, the altar was a place to let go of some of the baggage—-some anger, some bitterness, some sin, some prejudice, some resentment. Jesus often talked about our need to shed the unnecessary baggage:
If anyone would come after me,
let them deny themselves,
take up a cross and follow me.
Take my yoke and learn from me,
for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
In hiking, in traveling, we learn to simplify, to reduce, to let go of the non-essentials. The spiritual writers called this purgation, or detachment. And as we purge, as we let go of stuff, as we lay it all out before us, we also discover what is really important, essential, crucial. We figure out what we really need, what is necessary, to sustain us in the journey. In a backpack that might include food, clothing, a sleeping bag, a good map, a way to build a fire and something to help in the case of an emergency.
In life, you figure out the necessary provisions for the journey: companionship, work to do, the dreams that God places in our hearts and the passion to go after them, desires for beauty or compassion or truth or justice, and the discernment between what we need and what we want.
The good news for those who follow Jesus is that he promises to provide for our needs. This is the message of Exodus 16, the gift of manna in the wilderness, from which the hymn comes:
Great is that faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness
morning by morning new mercies I see
all I have needed they hand has provided
great is thy faithfulness
Lord unto me.
It helps to remember that God provides, because along the way you are going to encounter difficulties, and you will be tempted to give up. A necessary dimension of following Jesus is perseverance. Jesus must have known this. Later, he will be in a conversation with Peter, this same Peter he calls by the lakeshore, they are well along the path by now, and Jesus asks him, “Would you also like to leave?”
And Peter responds,
Lord, where else would we go?
You have the words to eternal life.
At times, along the path, we are tempted to give up, to give in, to quit. But the path of following Jesus is a lifelong journey, it is, to borrow Eugene Peterson’s wonderful phrase, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”. Let’s be honest: hiking is not always easy. There are dangers: you can become dehydrated, you can get lost, you can develop blisters, and your muscles often become sore.
And of course this is true in life: at times we are exhausted, at times we are lost, at times we are wounded, and at times we are hobbling along, doing the best we can, and it does not seem to be enough. In fact, sometimes we may wonder if we are going to make it!
What do you do? You take life one day at a time. You follow Jesus one step at a time, you place one foot in front of the next. A friend of mine says that it is about progress, not perfection.
Progress. And when life is most challenging, it is enough to take small steps. I think of the hymn composed by John Henry Newman:
Lead, Kindly Light,
Amidst the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on,
the night is dark and I am far from home,
Keep thou my feet
I do not ask to see the farthest scene
One step enough for me.
Progress. One step at a time. In the word of the prophet Isaiah, it is “to walk and not faint”.
And so Jesus calls us to follow him, to set out on the path of discipleship, or to stay on the path. Along the path we purge all that is unnecessary and we give thanks for the provision of all that is necessary. We persevere through adversity and we keep before us the purpose of the journey, which is to stay close to Jesus. Over time, by grace, we become more like him, we take on his identity. Along the way, we live into the words of the Psalm, and make it our prayer:
Teach me your ways, O Lord
Show me your path.
When I was working on this sermon, it seemed to connect for me, it made some sense to me (I hope it does for you!), but I could not figure out a way to end it. Maybe you have figured that out already!
And then I thought—-it has no ending, the path has no ending, and that is the point. The adventure of following Jesus begins in this life—for some of us a long time ago, for some maybe a journey that began more recently—but the path really does go on forever, in this life and in the life to come.
The one who said “Follow me” also said “I go to prepare a place for you” and that is his final provision for us, eternal life, a life that begins now, but a path that goes on forever. To walk the path is the adventure of the Christian life. What exactly does that mean for you?
That is the question, and that is your spiritual work. I can only say that the wisdom is true: “It is solved by walking.”
In the meantime there is the call to each of us. Jesus says,
give us faith to know you
wisdom to discern the way ahead
and opportunities to serve you.
Lead us in paths of righteousness,
for your name’s sake.