This past Thursday and Friday, I participated in the Trinity Institute Conference via a webcast at Luther Memorial Church. The topic was “Reading Scripture through other Eyes” and it brought together scholars from North America and Africa to explore the interpretation of scripture in various contexts. The conversations among the scholars were fascinating as were the discussions we had at Luther Memorial. I was struck once again by the centrality and importance of Christians wrestling together to understand scripture, and how Christians in different cultural contexts approach and learn scripture in different ways.
We don’t do enough bible study at Grace. For most people, the things I say about the text are about as much reflection on scripture as you do on a regular basis, and we have few opportunities to work together to understand and puzzle over the meanings of the biblical texts. One of the key themes of the conference was that no matter how important reading the bible might be as a personal spiritual discipline, it’s more important for us as individuals, and as a congregation, to study and read the bible together. For it is only as a group, gathered around God’s word, that we can discern where God is calling us to be.
Of course, it’s important to hear the bible being read and interpreted in the context of the liturgy. That’s one of the reasons my sermons always deal with the biblical texts of the day. It is in worship, and in the story of the Eucharist that is recited each week, that we hear the story of Jesus Christ and the church, the Body of Christ. It is through the liturgy that we learn to understand our own stories in relationship to those larger stories. In a very real way, it is only through those larger stories, that our own stories come to make sense.
Last week, we heard the Gospel of John’s story of the call of the disciples. This week, we heard Matthew’s. I would love to be able to talk with you about some of the differences in those two stories. The characters, for one thing. Last week, it was John the Baptizer who pointed out to his disciples who Jesus was. In response, they left him and followed Jesus. They approached Jesus, not the other way around.
In today’s gospel, John has already been imprisoned and Jesus’ first disciples are not former disciples of John, who follow him out of curiosity, but fishermen, Peter and Andrew James and John, the sons of Zebedee. We might want to explore why the gospels change the cast of characters, but that’s not for a sermon. That’s for bible study.
The larger difference, the more significant one, is the way Jesus calls the disciples. In Matthew, it seems he is walking along the lake shore, sees the men at work in their boats and with their nets, and calls them to follow him. Now come the interesting questions. Why did he call them? Why did they follow him? What was it about them, and him, that drew them to one another? How could the four of them leave everything to follow Jesus? How could we imagine it?
But our gospel this morning is not just about Jesus calling the disciples. It also represents the beginning of his public ministry. Matthew provides us with a brief synopsis of what Jesus preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That, too might seem to be a hard matter to get our heads around. Repent is one of those words we often read in the bible, but rarely encounter in daily life. Repent and repentance are about turning away from sin, and seem to suggest a degree of self-reflection that we rarely want to get involved in. Repentance, even confession of sin, although we say the words each week in the Eucharist, seem to be matters for Lent, not for January and the season of Epiphany.
These words of Jesus, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” is the very same message preached by John the Baptist. Matthew wants us to understand that John and Jesus preached in similar terms, that as radical as John was, Jesus was equally so. But there are differences between the two. Where John left civilization and preached in the wilderness, Jesus went into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan, and came back into civilization to preach, teach, and heal.
On the surface, the message was the same. The words were the same. But Jesus did something very different from John. Matthew shows us John condemning sinners and demanding a repentance that they symbolized by being baptized by him. In contrast, Jesus came to the sinners where they were, ate and drank with them, embraced them, and most importantly, restored them to community. We must remember that the biblical notion of sin is not just, or primarily about one’s individual relationship with God. Above all, it was about one’s relationship with the God’s people. Sin separated the sinner from the community, from God’s holy people, from the body of Christ.
The Greek word that is translated as repent literally means “change your mind.” And there’s more, repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near. That language is alien to us; it doesn’t convey very well what Jesus was getting at what the core of his preaching was. When we hear Kingdom, we tend to think of a geographical entity, like the United Kingdom, the sense that it means something geographical or spatial is underscored by Matthew’s use of the word “heaven” and “has come near.” We imagine for ourselves that Jesus might have been talking about the separation of heaven and earth breaking down, somehow.
But kingdom could also be translated as reign, or rule. In Mark, for example, Jesus proclaims “the kingdom of God has come near.” What might “The reign of God has come near mean?” What might “change your mind, for the reign of God has come near” mean? These are all good and important questions that deserve careful reflection, but there are more. Today’s gospel story ends where it began. Matthew repeats Jesus’ words but he adds another piece of information. As he went about Galilee, preaching, Jesus also cured the sick, every kind of disease and sickness. He made people whole again.
That’s all well and good, but where does it leave us this morning? Challenged by Jesus’ call to follow him, will we cast our nets aside? Will we make room in our busy lives to become fishers of people, to share the good news of God’s reign with the people we encounter each day?
My guess is that many of you who heard my sermon last week were comforted by the thought that being Jesus’ disciple means entering into a deeper relationship with him, abiding with him. Certainly, it does mean that. But it also involves the Jesus we encounter today, who meets us where we are and challenges us to move, and grow. He challenges us to walk with him and to share his message. He challenges us to preach the good news and to restore people to wholeness.
Still, the questions remain. What is the good news of the reign of God right here and now? How do we go about restoring people to wholeness, within themselves and in their relationships with others? These hard questions challenge us as deeply as Jesus’ call to follow him challenge us. I can give no easy answers to any of them. Those answers must come from deep within our selves and in our prayerful conversations with others. But this I do know. Following Jesus is much more than coming to church every Sunday or whenever we can fit it into our schedule. Following Jesus means listening to his call, responding to it. Following Jesus means accepting Jesus challenge to participate with him in proclaiming the good news and reaching out to those in need. Following Jesus means doing the hard work of discerning together what and who he is calling us to be as individuals and as a community. Let’s get on with it!