Sunday, January 26, 2014

Following Jesus: A Sermon for January 26th on Matthew 4:17-20.

This morning I’d like to draw your attention to four verses from our Gospel reading for today, Matthew 4:17-20:
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people”. Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Now I don’t know about you, but I ‘follow’ quite a few people on Facebook. This following is not very demanding. Each morning when I turn my computer on and log in to Facebook, I see their status updates. I keep up to date on what they’re doing, I see pictures of their kids, occasionally I read their political rants, and if I’m lucky, I might even see funny pictures of cats that they post. But this ‘following’ doesn’t make many demands on me. I can do it quite comfortably from my chair, without changing a thing about my ordinary daily behaviour.

And you and I could easily get lulled into thinking that ‘following’ Jesus is like that – we check in with him week by week and see what he’s up to. We hear the gospel reading, we note that this week he performed an amazing miracle, or used a particular clever saying, or gave some particularly helpful insight. But we might not feel especially compelled to change anything about our plans for the rest of Sunday because of what we heard. We’re just ‘following’ him, after all; we’re not signing up for anything demanding!

I suspect that many churchgoers down through the years have seen following Jesus precisely like that. But if you look at these verses from Matthew, it’s obvious that the early followers of Jesus, the early disciples, couldn’t possibly have seen the command ‘follow me’ in that way.

There are two ways they could have seen it. The first was quite literal: Jesus was on a journey from one place to another, and he wanted them to come with him. He had taught and healed in one town, now he was travelling to the next town, and he wanted them to walk behind him on the road and go where he went. And there was a cost attached to this: ‘Immediately they left their nets and followed him’ (v.20). A few verses later we read that the two brothers James and John abruptly left the family fishing business; they left their father Zebedee in the boat, and followed Jesus.

So this was a challenging summons, and there was a cost; following Jesus was a clear priority, and even making a living came second to it. Nothing – not work, not family, not security – could come before this call. “Follow me”, said Jesus, and he was the one who had the right and the authority to give that summons, so they left everything and followed him.

But there was a second meaning too: ‘Follow me’ also had the technical meaning, ‘become my disciple’. Discipleship was the accepted way of passing on teaching in the time of Jesus; if you wanted to learn, you picked yourself a teacher, and if he was willing to take you on, you went and lived in his house. This was important, because they didn’t see teaching as only an intellectual pursuit – the transferring of the lecturer’s notes to the student’s notebook without it going through the brain of either of them. No – in the time of Jesus, the goal of learning wasn’t just to know what the teacher knew, but to become like the teacher. So you listened to the teacher’s instruction, yes, but you also watched his way of life and imitated it. How did he treat his family? How did he handle his money? What did he do when people got angry with him and mistreated him? What did he do when people asked for his help? You watched all this carefully, and you patterned your life after your teacher’s life.

Now obviously, for us today, we can’t literally ‘follow Jesus’ in the first sense: we can’t walk behind him on the road. But the first sense does still have something to teach us: it reminds us that following Jesus can’t take second place in our life. If we put Jesus in second place, then we’re not following him, because he said, ‘Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matthew 6:33). Not second, but first. So for us today, just as much as for Jesus’ early disciples, there’s a challenge to make our discipleship the number one priority in our lives.

But of course, the second sense of ‘follow me’ is the main one for us today. Jesus is calling us to be his disciples; that’s the most common word used for ‘Christian’ in the New Testament. A disciple is an apprentice in the art of living in the Kingdom of God, and Jesus offers himself as our master, our teacher, our example and our guide. So our goal as disciples is to learn to see life as Jesus sees it and to live life as he taught it.

There are three components here, that this Gospel reading sets out for us. The first is the way Jesus sees the world: he sees it through kingdom eyes. His challenge to all people is this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”.

Let’s be clear that Jesus is not talking about dying and going to heaven here. Matthew is using the words ‘kingdom of heaven’ in exactly the same way that Mark and Luke use ‘kingdom of God’; the reason for the different wording is that Matthew is writing for a Jewish audience, and some Jewish people were reluctant to actually say the word ‘God’, because it was too holy to pronounce. You see this today, where some Jewish writers will write the word ‘God’ as ‘G_d’ to avoid actually spelling the word.

So when Matthew says ‘kingdom of heaven’ he means ‘kingdom of God’, and Jesus tells us what the Kingdom of God is all about in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven”. The kingdom of God isn’t about dying and going to heaven: it’s about God’s will being done on earth. The kingdom of God is a promise that God hasn’t abandoned this tired and hurting world. It’s a promise that one day, evil and sin will come to an end, and God will establish a world of compassion and justice and peace and love. Jesus gives us a picture of that world a few verses further on: the mourners will be comforted, the meek will inherit the earth, the merciful will receive mercy, the pure in heart will see God, and those who have been rejected and persecuted for doing the will of God will receive the kingdom of God.

This is Jesus’ worldview: God’s kingdom is coming, and in fact it has already begun to arrive. At the end of our Gospel we read about him healing ‘those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics…he cured them all’ (v.24). These healings were signs of the kingdom: sickness and disease are not part of God’s original plan for his creation, and one day they will be past history, when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.
Now we might look around us at the world today and see it as an absolute truth that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, that the strong oppress the weak, that human beings tend to do the selfish thing, that might is always right, that ‘God is on the side of the big battalions’, and so on. We might see it as the height of foolishness to sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, or to love your enemies and turn the other cheek. But to Jesus, it’s not the height of foolishness; it’s a wise investment. What do I mean by that?

Well, here’s an illustration I’ve used before. Those of you who are old enough to remember VCRs, do you remember the battle between VHS and Betamax formats? When Marci and I first moved to Aklavik in the western Arctic in 1984, Betamax was king. All video players in the community were Betamax players; all the movies you could rent from the stores were Betamax movies. If you went out and bought a VHS machine, people thought you were crazy. And yet, with hindsight, those of us who bought VHS players were the smart ones. We weren’t living out of the past; we were living into the future.

And that’s what it means to choose to live now on the assumption that the Kingdom of God is a reality. To many people, that’s as unrealistic as the demise of Betamax, but we know better, because Jesus has told us that one day, the will of God will be the only reality in the universe. So we choose to live into the kingdom of God rather than living out of the kingdom of selfishness and greed and oppression and violence. It’s like moving to a new country: you’re foolish if you think you can do this and continue to live by the same customs as you left behind in your old country. You need to learn the way of life of your new home. But in our case, we aren’t moving to a new country; the new country is coming to us! So we’re wise to start learning what life will be like when it arrives.

And that leads us to the second thing, the meaning of discipleship: ‘Follow me’, says Jesus. Learning to follow Jesus is learning to live the new life of the Kingdom of God. It’s learning to put legs on our prayer, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’.

It’s no accident that the next section of Matthew’s Gospel is the Sermon on the Mount. You want to know what it means to follow Jesus? Here’s the most sustained teaching on the subject in all of the Gospels. It’s about influencing the world around you rather than being influenced by it, acting as salt to stop the world going bad, and light to light up the dark places. It’s about turning away from anger and being reconciled to one another, turning away from adultery and building strong families, learning to tell the truth at all times, turning the other cheek and not turning away those who ask for our help. It’s about loving your enemies, not just your friends, because that’s what God does.

What’s this kingdom about? Jesus goes on to tell us that it’s about not worrying about what other people think about you, but fixing your mind on one thing: pleasing God. It’s about learning generosity, prayer, and fasting, it’s about not storing up material possessions for yourself, but concentrating on doing God’s will instead. It’s about not judging others, but concentrating on fixing your own life first. It’s about doing to others as you would like them to do for you.

This is vital, Jesus says, because it’s not just the ones who call him, ‘Lord, lord’ who will enter the Kingdom, but only the ones who do the will of his Father in heaven – in other words, the will of the Father as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. They are the wise people who are building their house on the rock; if we refuse to do that, we’re like a foolish builder who builds a house on a poor foundation.

So this is what it means to be a disciple; this is where the rubber hits the road. Jesus is setting before us a challenging new way of life, where we don’t concentrate on getting rich or being popular, but on loving God, loving our neighbour, and even loving our enemies. And, sisters and brothers, this is what we signed up for when we were baptized and confirmed. We became Christians in order to learn to be Christian: the Sermon on the Mount teaches us how to be Christian.

Don’t be intimidated by this. Yes, the Sermon on the Mount is challenging, but it’s not the entrance exam in the School of Jesus, it’s the curriculum! We will spend the rest of our lives struggling with it, figuring out how to put in into practice, failing at it, and getting up and trying again; that’s totally okay. What’s not okay is to ignore it, and to sideline it and concentrate on something else. The goal of becoming a Christian is to become like Jesus; the Sermon on the Mount is the curriculum that teaches us how to do that.

But there’s a third thing here: Jesus says “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (v.19). Discipleship has an outward focus: disciples want to make more disciples. If we don’t, then we’re not being faithful to the mission God has given us. I know this is hard for us to hear, because we’re Anglicans and the idea that we might be asked to speak a word for Jesus is scary to us. But we will not experience true spiritual freedom unless we do it. You haven’t truly learned something until you can teach it to someone else.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous know this. They use the Twelve Steps, which are a powerful program of spiritual conversion: admitting that they are powerless, asking for God’s help, examining themselves, making amends to others, asking God to remove their faults and so on. But the whole process leads to Step Twelve: ‘Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs’. Wise A.A. members have told me that they know this is an integral part of their recovery: until they become evangelists for AA, spreading the word about the Twelve Steps and inviting other alcoholics to practice them, they won’t really be in recovery.

And the same is true for us: fishing for others is an integral part of following Jesus. We might wish that Jesus had given us a program of discipleship that meant we never had to open our mouths about him, but he didn’t. The Kingdom of God grows one heart at a time, as disciples of Jesus pass the message on to others and encourage them to become disciples as well. If we get everything else right in church life, but miss this out, we’re missing out the goal of the whole process.

Let me close by saying that today’s Gospel is not marginal; it’s the central and essential theme of being a Christian, and being a Christian church. And this is something that mainline churches have tended not to give much attention to.

In 1985 the Anglican Church of Canada published the Book of Alternative Services. It was the end result of years of experimenting with new services and trying out new drafts; someone who had been involved in the process told me that he thought our church had probably put a million dollars into producing this book. And we Anglicans are comfortable with that priority, because worship is important to us. But I would ask, do we have a comparable commitment to making new disciples and helping Christians to grow as disciples? I suspect not.

So let me close by asking you these two questions. First, given that Jesus shows us that discipleship is essentially about mentoring: who is your mentor? Who is the older and more experienced disciple of Jesus who you have gone to and asked, “Will you please let me come alongside you and learn from you how to follow Jesus?” And please don’t all look at me and say, “My priest is my mentor”, because even Jesus only discipled twelve people at once! No – we need to get serious about this, and the New Testament would seem to indicate for us that it doesn’t happen in an academic way – it happens through mentoring relationships.

But here’s the second question: who are you mentoring? How is the younger generation of Christians going to learn how to follow Jesus? Sermons are important, Bible studies are important, but by themselves, they aren’t going to do the job. Those of us who have been Christians for a long time are called to be intentional about looking for newer Christians and taking them under our wing, offering our help and guidance and wisdom in the practical details of daily discipleship. This is not an optional extra for those who like that kind of thing; this is an integral part of being a follower of Jesus. This is the way that Jesus wants to change the world, and every single one of us is called to be a part of it. So let’s pray for God’s guidance and strength, and then let’s get on with it.

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