The reading today fills a liminal space in Matthew’s Gospel (4:12-25). It follows the ‘Temptation of Jesus’ and occurs just before the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes. Matthew’s Gospel invites us into an extraordinary period in Jesus’ life, as he starts his ministry.
For centuries in the west, being a Christian has been a cultural assumption. Now it is different, more like it was before the fourth century CE, when the whole Roman Empire became Christian through force of imperial edict. Now, following Jesus is increasingly a choice we must make, whether we live in the global south, the industrial north, the Anglo west, the Asian east, or among First Nations people.
Like the crowd starting to follow Jesus, we follow because we are making a choice. For many nowadays this choice is either not presented, or is seen as embarrassing, unrealistic and not helpful in today’s world.
God’s call in our lives is not convenient. The danger for us and the church, is our tendency to define our mission and then invite Jesus to tag along with us.
However, Christian discipleship does not start with us deciding to seek out Jesus and calling him to join in what we are doing. Discipleship has to do with Jesus’ call on our life and our response.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian said: “Discipleship is not an offer [humans] make to Christ. It is only [God’s] call which creates the situation.” (The Cost of Discipleship.)
Jesus’ call to the fishermen was not a call to sit at his feet and be taught, but rather to be active and follow in his footsteps. Unlike those in Galilee who had been sitting the darkness of imperial injustice (v.16), the disciples are called out to walk in the light of God’s coming reign. Their discipleship is an incipient confession of faith: they put aside their old ways of life confident God’s justice and grace will be found in the way of Jesus.
The stories of the first disciples being called show us discipleship is not about believing certain ‘facts’ about Jesus but following him in specific contexts and in practical ways filled with hope.
All followers of Jesus are called from a given time and place just as you and I are today, and our backgrounds and identities are not denied. Rather, we are challenged like all disciples, to put the skills and knowledge we already have to the service and for the good of all in God’s kingdom.
God’s call in our lives is not convenient. Discipleship is not cheap. Peter, Andrew, James and John left their fathers, their homes, their livelihoods, their community relationships and their fishing boats and started a completely new way of life. This would have cost them dearly.
I say again, God’s call in our lives is not about convenience or comfort. It is more important than careers, our material possessions and our families. All these things are intended to work in God’s service and God’s kingdom. If these activities support the powers of the world in any way, if the kingdoms we create promote oppression, greed or brokenness, Jesus calls us to repent.
Repentance’ means turning our backs on this way of life reorienting ourselves, so we actively live salvation, justice and wholeness as believers; demonstrating the kingdom of heaven breaking into our lives, showing God giving hope and light to the world.
Discipleship is not convenient. There is a cost to following Jesus and it is a cost also paid by those who are left behind which is often the issue stopping us, preventing us from seeing God’s world as God invites and intends, a life filled with love and hope, astonishing and life-giving.
Just as Christianity was unwittingly built on violence and force as the Roman Empire first tried to stop its spread and then sought to impose it; so the Christian world has continued with this worldview today. It is blind to its own decisions to conform to the world’s brokenness, the violence, greed and oppression which still haunts us today, particularly with our Aboriginal sisters and brothers. We are still celebrating and enjoying our power and we have not been healed as Jesus offers.
I started by saying Matthew’s Gospel reading today is extraordinary. At the start of Jesus’ ministry, we are told:
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. So his fame spread throughout all Syria and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
We see for the first time the character of Jesus’ emerging ministry, his teaching, healing and way of living, encouraging and restoring. We notice those who came to Jesus for healing were afflicted physically, psychologically and spiritually.
This is just how we are today. Our worldview remains discriminatory and entitled; our perceptions and belief systems are well entrenched; we are frequently closed to new ways of thinking about the world, its injustices, poverty, greed and oppression. We are broken physically, psychologically and spiritually.
Jesus stepped into his ministry only after rejecting the temptations of the world, of power, people and relationships. It was only then he was able to start his ministry.
And he chose to start when he had just heard about the arrest of his cousin, John the Baptiser by Herod Antipas. Jesus would have been under no illusion about the likely response of the world’s powers to his ministry.
While the crowds followed, watched and gossiped about what Jesus was doing and why, how and to whom, Jesus challenged them to shift their thinking, open their eyes and ears, and see what God is about. As the crowds grew, I suspect the disciples were excited about Jesus’ rapidly spreading fame and enjoyed being part of the latest news. They did not have any idea about the cost of their discipleship and its implications, beyond the arguments raging at home about their decision.
After Jesus’ initial success at healing and teaching he sits down and teaches the beatitudes which we reflect on next week. This left those listening astonished at his clarity of thought and the different way he spoke to them.
I remember many years ago in my previous life, attending a conference. One of the speakers stood out like a shining light, offering a different way of thinking and working in the aged care sector, when all the other speakers followed the same cynical, defensive, hopeless, pragmatic, transactional tone and content. The speaker received a rapturous ovation, was peppered with questions and excitement. The speaker finished; the audience sat down. It was back to business as usual. No-one made the change, no-one followed up, no-one thought it important enough to change what they were doing.
I have the same sense today, people are listening without hearing, seeing without understanding, living without being alive. My prayer to God is how we might hear and live this differently.
I’ve been reading a book which talks about discipleship as the ‘way of the cross’.
To follow the way of the cross means to show the same sacrificial love Jesus showed when he went to the cross. The same self-denial. The same submission to God. The same willingness to suffer. The same service to others. (Tim Chester 2010:50)
The author mourns we do not speak any more of the hope which comes from giving our lives to God.
Matthew quotes Isaiah (9:1-4):
The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.
And we are told:
From that time, Jesus began to proclaim: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (Matt.4:16-17)
So, my sisters and brothers, here’s the question for you and I to consider: when you come to consider your lives and your own discipleship, will it have been one of hope, sharing God’s light with those around you? Have those sitting in the region in the shadow of death felt hope lighten their lives with God’s presence.
This is not about hope offered with a quick sales talk and free offers, not hope given at someone else’s expense, through abuses of land, misused and stolen, or property held tightly once belonging to others, freedom celebrated while others disappear within our justice system, or justice unjustly enforced on others considered less equal.
God’s light shines a very bright light on these big questions which I hope we can consider as we seek to live our lives always responding to Jesus’ call which I now say to you again: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
The Lord be with You.