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Staying the Course

fishersofmen4Matthew 4: 12-25
1 Corinthians 1: 10-18

Introduction to the reading
This week’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew seems to be a repeat of last week’s reading from the Gospel of John – the calling of the first disciples, Simon Peter and Andrew.

But each Gospel tells the story of Jesus in a slightly different way, with a different emphasis and toward a different audience.  John tends to focus more on the divinity, the holiness and the spiritual being of Jesus.  Last week, Peter and Andrew recognized the truth of John’s proclamation, “Behold the Lamb of God”.  They knew Jesus was the promised Messiah.

The synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – are like one another in seeing Jesus’ more human aspect, which you will notice today.

It’s also worth noting that all the Gospels, but Matthew in particular, clearly connect Jesus to the experience of Israel and to the prophets, which you will hear in the first section of the reading.  Jesus is the embodiment of God’s continuing and unlimited presence in the world.

Back when I began in ministry – over thirteen years ago now – my dear husband Peter presented me with some resource books that he thought I might find useful in my work, and indeed I have.  One volume he gave me was the Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 11th Edition, published in 2001.  By now, sixteen years later, I’m sure there must be at least a 20th edition.
The Handbook contains entries on the major Christian denominations in America – their historical background, doctrines or main teachings and their polity, or form of government; statistics – number of churches and membership; and also information on major branches of Judaism and Islam.  There are hundreds of entries in this one book on one shelf in my office.
Then I look around.  I also have commentaries, dictionaries, study Bibles, interpretations, journals and books, books on books of the Bible, on church history, worship, preaching, pastoral care, teaching, missions and so on and so on…  This is one small office.  Think of all the libraries in other churches, in seminaries, universities.
Not to mention the diversity of religious experience, all the way from humble Quakers, traditional Presbyterians, strict Roman Catholics and conservative Jews to evangelicals and Pentecostals to radical Islam to atheism, all in their own way speaking and acting on some kind of understanding of the presence – or absence – of God in human life, each one practicing – and maybe pressing – their own agenda.
Somehow, I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind when he said to Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John: “Follow me.”  How could something so simple and straightforward have morphed into something so complicated, difficult, messy and contentious?
If only we could do what Jesus said so simply and put so clearly in the passage we read today:

  • “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come hear.”
  • “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”   

Repent.  Turn around and go a different way in your life.  Renounce the old ways of wrong thinking and wrong doing; face toward God’s way and change how you live.

Repent:  Jesus takes up the message that John the Baptist has been proclaiming up this point, before he was arrested.  John the Baptist was a pivotal figure in the relationship between God and humanity.  Before John, there was the time of the Law and the Prophets; after John there is the age of Jesus.  So John himself embodies an about-face, being the last of the old kind of prophet and at the same time, the first proclaimer of the good news, the first preacher of the Gospel.  John himself symbolizes repentance.
Repent.  We hear and read so, so much these days about evils and wrongdoing in the world: nefarious uses of technology; governmental stalemates, entrenched positions, conflicts of interest; abuses of power; racism, sexism, ageism; income and educational inequality; not to mention the more commonplace killing, stealing, cheating…  

This is nothing new, of course.  Certainly, the need and opportunities for repentance abound just as they always have.  And not just on the large scale, where it’s hard to make a turnaround, but also in each one of our individual lives.  Jesus calls for repentance.  Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation; the old life has gone and a new life has begun.

Commenting on this passage, T. Denise Anderson, a Presbyterian pastor in Maryland, noted:  “[‘Repent’ is] not just a command but also an invitation.  It beckons the hearer to turn away from a course of action and choose a new (and better) way.  The call to repent is powerful.  It suggests that no one is beyond the reach of redemption, and that we all – all – can choose a different path.”

Follow.  Come along behind me.  I will teach you.  I will show you what to do.  I will take you where you need to be going.  I will engage you in God’s mission in the world, for the world.
Some interesting observations about those first ones called.

  • They were two sets of brothers:  Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John.
  • They were fishermen – busy, gainfully employed in their family businesses
  • Their response to Jesus was immediate and unquestioned.  They left their boats, they left their nets, they left their father and they followed Jesus.

Matthew makes it clear that Jesus summons people from the fabric of family relationships and from the midst of the workaday world to build a new relationship with Jesus and to take up a new vocation.  The brothers do not cease being brothers; the sons do not cease being sons.  None of them ceases being fishermen, but now they will fish in a different way for a different purpose.  Who they are/were has not been erased; they have been transformed.  And that is the point.  That is the new life in Christ.
God became human in the person of Jesus.  God became one of us and has complete understanding of our human situations.  Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit can infuse every aspect of our living – if we allow that to happen; if we do not close our eyes or cover our ears or harden our hearts; if we are open to the call of Jesus; and if we pick up and follow within the context of the particular, practical life we happen to be living.  Can anyone answer that call?  I don’t see why not.
The apostle Paul issues a caveat, however.  Make sure you stay on course with Jesus.  As you heard, he wrote to the church in Corinth about this.  Apparently divisions had arisen within that church and people were aligning themselves with one leader or another.  He writes:  What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”  Has Christ been divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?  Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?  No, you are Jesus’ people, engaged now in God’s mission in the world.  Remember that.  Be careful what you fall into, what false gods you find yourself worshipping.  And we know what they are in our own time:  work, work, work; entertainment; politics; sports, professional or our children’s teams; technology – smart phones, tablets, gaming, the internet, Facebook, Twitter.  We know…

Love.  You didn’t hear this word in the Gospel reading.  But is it truly what we witness happening in the final verses.  Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.  Jesus loved them, these people.  He taught them God’s word.  He challenged them to live up to that word.  He proclaimed God’s saving grace when they failed.  He healed them.  He loved them.  And he wants us to do the same.  Do not make your neighbor into your enemy, even though that neighbor, friend, co-citizen may have gotten caught up in all sorts of evil –greed, bigotry, oppression, any kind of sickness.  No, Jesus says.  Love one another.

Repent.  Follow.  Love.  We have spent centuries; written and published billions of words; fought countless wars; organized and reorganized and eschewed organizing; devised charters, official confessions, books of church order…  But is that what Jesus had in mind?
Our lives are richer for all the writing and thinking and organizing, there’s no doubt about that.  But richer still they are when we stay the course that Jesus set for us:  Repent.  Follow.  Love.

Anderson, T. Denise. Christian Century. 4 Jan. 2017, 20.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
January 22, 2017

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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