Matthew 4: 12-23
As you enter the ruins of the ancient town of Capernaum on the shore of Lake Galilee you are greeted by a notice which declares, in English with appropriate graphics: Holy Place: No dogs, cigarettes, guns or short clothing. Whether or not this accurately portrays the four things in life that are most offensive to God it surely represents at least an attempt to maintain something of the Kingdom of God within the boundaries of the town where Jesus began his public ministry.
Today’s reading contains three of the recurrent themes found in Matthew’s Gospel: The fulfilment of Scripture in verses 14 to 16, the salvation of the Gentiles in verse 15 and the announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven in verse 17. Matthew’s use of the expression ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’ contrasts with the expression ‘The Kingdom of God’ favoured by Mark and Luke. There are many theories about this difference but the most likely stems from the fact that the author of Matthew was a Jewish Christian who had yet to throw off the Jewish practice of avoiding saying or writing down YHWH, the word for God. This left him with no option but to use a different word to express the same concept which has nothing whatsoever to do with the afterlife but rather a world in which all people obey the will of God.
Obedience is not something we humans are very good at though, is it? Going all the way back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden it is something we have found a bit of a struggle. Even when God’s will is clear we can always find a very good reason why it doesn’t apply to us or why it would be perfectly reasonable to delay doing anything about it until tomorrow.
That thought brings me to the most startling part of today’s reading. It’s not the fact that Jesus chose four lowly fishermen to be his first disciples, though I shall have more to say about that later, but that they followed him ‘immediately.’ Not the next morning when they had talked it over which each other and with their parents; not at the end of the month after they had had time to sort their affairs out a little and make arrangements for someone to look after their animals; not in a few years’ time when ‘things will be a little different’ or some such phrase but immediately.
So what are we to make of that? Did Jesus really demand that these four working men walk away from their responsibilities without so much as even a goodbye to their friends and family? There are, of course, those who take every word in the Bible literally who would condemn me for even asking the question but for me such arguments run the risk of missing the really important message contained within the passage: The Kingdom of God is to be built by ordinary men and women like you and me, and the need to get on with the work is urgent.
Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John were all called to follow Jesus in a literal sense as he travelled from place to place healing the sick and teaching all those who came to listen to him. But what of us? What does it mean to follow Christ in the 21st century? Just what is involved in ‘Building the Kingdom?’
Our Gradual Hymn today [Will you come and follow me] gives us a few pointers to help answer this all-important question. I would be grateful if you would find it again. This hymn was written in 1987 by John Bell, a Church of Scotland Minister and a member of the Iona Community. Like all his work it is rooted firmly in the Bible. The first four verses between them contain twenty one questions addressed by Jesus to each one of us beginning with “Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?” The fifth verse gives a suggested response.
The twenty one questions are an interesting mix reflecting both the demands of following the teaching of Jesus and the difficulties faced by anyone who chooses to answer his call. It would take too long to go through all twenty one questions so I have chosen one from each of the first four verses that I find particularly challenging.
In the first verse I have chosen the question: “Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same.” That has to be the scariest question of all doesn’t it, and surely the one that was racing through the minds of Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John after Jesus approached them in Capernaum. It is one thing to respond to a clear specific request like “could you call into the doctors’ and pick up my prescription”, but quite another to answer a call that could take you absolutely anywhere.
We are all creatures of habit. We know what we like and don’t like. We have our comfort zones and we like to stay within them. Answering the call from Jesus means putting your trust in him entirely and going wherever he leads, just as his disciples did on the shores of Lake Galilee.
It will not have escaped your notice that the second part of this question is the same in all five verses: “and never be the same.” That sounds scary too, for we don’t like change any more than stepping out of our comfort zone, but actually it is a positive thing. When I look back to my own life before I answered the first call from Jesus at my confirmation I needed to change - Lord how I needed to change. And, of course, I still need to change because the process is continuous and never ending, at least not here on earth. I was reminded of that by a story posted on Facebook by one of my daughters last week: Following the death of a much loved pet a family were pondering the fact that dogs have a much shorter life than humans. After the adults had failed to come up with a convincing explanation the six-year old, who had obviously been listening at Sunday School, produced his answer: “Humans need a long time to learn how to love each other and be nice all the time. Dogs know that already so they don’t have to live so long.” I’m not entirely convinced that applies to every dog I have ever encountered, but the bit about humans needing a long time is spot on!
In verse two I have gone for the question: “Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare.” This can apply at many different levels: In more than 40 Nations on earth today, including Afghanistan, Syria and parts of the Palestinian Territories on the West Bank, Christians have to risk far more than a hostile stare to profess their faith. Indeed, in some of these countries it is illegal to own a Bible, to share your faith or teach your children about Jesus and in others there is the real danger of physical abuse or even death.
Here in our green and pleasant land we have the legal freedom to profess our faith but, in our increasingly secular society, we certainly can and do encounter the occasional hostile stare. Even within the structures of our church, speaking out can engender such hostility: Prophets have never been universally loved.
My challenging line in verse 3 is “and do such as this unseen?” By force of brevity this statement tells only half the story for all things are seen by God and that, of course, is all that really matters. The problem is, we humans have what can be an overwhelming need for approval. Knowing that our good deed has met with God’s approval is not always enough: we need a parent or our spouse or maybe our boss to tell us how wonderful we are too. Saint Ignatius of Loyola recognised this problem in that wonderful prayer of his:
Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.
I pray it often, but I still find it a struggle at times.
For my final selection I have chosen “Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around.” That is a real challenge for it demands both action and humility which are not comfortable bedfellows. Reshaping is not a passive act but demands rolling your sleeves up and getting involved in the thick of things and, by its nature, making changes which will not always be popular. The humility is needed when trying to discern the will of God in the situation under question and ensuring that you are not pushing forward your own personal prejudices disguised under the banner of Christ.
So that has faced up to the challenges, but what of the final verse: I can’t really finish without looking at that. Here, it is the first line that demands my attention every time I read it: “Lord, your summons echoes true.” There are many times when I wish it didn’t but I cannot escape the central message of today’s Gospel reading: The Kingdom of God is to be built by ordinary men and women like you and me, and the need to get on with the work is urgent. Let us go from this place renewed in our resolve and get on with the job!