Jan 23rd | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Matthew 4:12-23
You would think that a story as important as the calling of the first disciples would be a little clearer than it is. In Mark, generally agreed to be the first of the gospels to be written and the basis for Matthew and Luke, the oldest story of the calling of the disciples is told. Jesus is passing along by the Sea of Galilee, sees Simon Peter and Andrew fishing, calls to them to “follow me” and they drop the nets and go with him. A little farther down the shoreline, Jesus sees James and John in the boat with their father, Zebedee, mending their nets, and he calls to them. They leave their nets, their boat, and their undoubtedly bewildered father, and follow.
Matthew tells essentially the same story, as we heard again this morning. Luke uses the basic framework of the story, but throws in the story of a long and fruitless night of fishing and a miraculous catch to sweeten the story. John’s gospel goes in a whole different direction. John tells us that the first two disciples were followers of John the Baptist and one of them was Andrew. It was Andrew who ran and told his brother, Simon Peter, about his encounter with Jesus - who brings Simon to Jesus – and we hear the renaming of Simon, son of John, to Cephas, which John is quick to tell us, is translated Peter.
It is a highly stylized story, no matter which version you read. Our Sunday School teachers – God bless their exhausted souls – made great use of the story, as have most of the preachers we have known. Jesus calls and we are to answer. Jesus says, “follow me,” and we are to leave everything behind and do as Jesus says – boats, wives, children, property, connections, responsibilities, whatever. We’ve all probably heard those lessons and sermons.
But, as interesting as the question of “how” may be – “how” were the disciples assembled into that cell group that surrounded Jesus – the more important question is “why” – “why” did Jesus call disciples? Why did Jesus need the help of the strange assortment of associates that we call “disciples”? Why do we remember this story and why do we hold it so dear?
One reason is simply this: everything has a beginning. From the creation of the universe to our very lives – everything that is not God has a beginning – a starting point – a moment of genesis. Of critical importance to the early church was the story of their own beginning and that beginning had everything to do with Jesus and those first people who caught a glimpse of what God was doing through Jesus.
It’s Matthew’s story we are considering this morning and Matthew’s telling of the calling of the disciples is rooted in the very heart of Jesus’ mission. The way Matthew tells his story of Jesus is by rooting it deep within the tradition of Judaism. Jesus, Matthew tells us, left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the ancient territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. Did he really do that? We don’t know, but Matthew tells the story in that way, so that it lines up with the prophet Isaiah, who wrote: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who say in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” (Matt. 4:13-15 and Isaiah 9:1-2) Jesus comes to dispel the darkness of life gone wrong and to shine the light of new beginnings available to those who will answer God’s call. Little wonder that Jesus picks up the theme of John the Baptizer’s preaching, and proclaims, “Repent – turn around – begin again: for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” In other words, Jesus comes telling all who will listen, “You can start over. You can begin again and have what God intended you to have all along.”
This is the very heart of the good news. We do not have to be what we have become. We do not have to live as we have learned to live. We do not have to have a world in which bullets strike down congressional representative and small children. We do not have to have a world in which corporate interests outweigh the needs of the poor and disenfranchised. We do not have to have a world in which the air, the water, and the land is poisoned by corporate interests. We do not have to have a world in which hatred and bitterness are practiced as political realities. God offers us something new – something better. God offers us a new beginning – a fresh start – a return to what God intended for us in the first place, before we took matters into our own hands. In Isaiah’s words and Matthew’s words, God offers us light in place of that darkness we have created and tolerated. We can begin again.
The call to the disciples is this call to new beginnings. Jesus invites the earliest disciples to answer the call of God to begin again. And they don’t have to be rich and well taught. They don’t need to be power-brokers or movers-and-shakers. They don’t have to be among the power elite. They don’t need influential ancestry. They don’t need any of the trappings that we admire and secretly covet. Just as they are, just who they are – is all that is needed for Jesus. “Let’s get started,” Jesus is saying. “We’ll learn the rest along the way.”
When you and I are baptized – whether as infants, children, young adults, or adults – we are answering God’s call to begin again. Across the waters of baptism, as it was for those first disciples at the waters of the Sea of Galilee, the call to be disciples is first heard. In our baptism, we leave the nets behind and follow the One who will teach us a new way of living. In our baptism, we choose the Light and leave the darkness behind.
And as it was then, so it is now. It does not matter who we are or what we are. It does not matter whether we are well-educated adults or infants who don’t yet know a single word. It doesn’t matter whether we have lived a life of which we are not proud, or whether we haven’t a single reason to feel guilt or shame. In baptism, God calls out to us – across the waters – and invites us to follow in the way of Jesus. In baptism, we are all claimed as God’s own children. In baptism, we are joined to the household of God.
For some, there comes another calling. For some, there comes a second call to special service within the church. Within the household of God, some are called to special service as deacons and elders and ministers of the world and sacrament. This is not a call to privilege or power. It is a call to serve the servants of God. The call comes to those who are already part of God’s household because they were baptized in the waters of new life and not for any other reason.
And just as it does not matter who we are or what we are to be baptized, so this second call to ordained ministry cannot be about who we are or what we are. We cannot make rules that say only right-handed members of God’s family can be ordained. We cannot make rules that say only blue-eyed members of God’s family can be ordained. We cannot make rules that only brown-haired – and only naturally brown-haired – members of God’s family can serve as elders, deacons, and pastors. Any who answer God’s call in baptism – men and women, rich and poor, gay and straight, well-educated and less-educated – any who answer God’s call to discipleship must be allowed to answer the second calling to specialized ministry should it come to them.
The word “disciple” means “follower,” “student,” and “believer.” In our baptism, we commit ourselves to, as Richard of Chichester prayed, “…know Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, and follow Thee more nearly, day by day.” That is our common calling.
To be ordained means to be set aside for special service to God by serving others in particular ways. The word “deacon” comes from an ancient Greek word which means “servant.” Those called to be deacons are called to serve all of God’s people, with special attention to the poor, the sick, those who mourn, and those traveling through darker times. The word “elder” comes from the ancient Greek word “presbuteros,” which literally means “aged ones,” but refers to the wisdom and experience that, hopefully, accompanies age. Elders are those who are recognized as having the leadership characteristics that age so often brings. But both, elders and deacons, along with pastors, are called to be servants of the servants of God.
Today, we ordain a new elder and a new deacon, and install others who have been previously ordained. We acknowledge their commitment to God through Jesus Christ. We affirm their calling to special service within the church. We promise our support and encouragement in their work and we promise to respect their decisions and follow where they lead us. To the lakeshore of this congregation, God has come again, calling new disciples and new leaders.
So, now we get started again. With new leaders and a new sense of what God is calling us to believe and do, we begin again.
And there is much to do, for God has called us to new and vital ministries. Much like those ancient disciples, who answered Jesus’ call without knowing all the details, we answer God’s call, not knowing where we will be called to go or what we will be called to do. But we know that whatever the calling and wherever it leads, God goes with us. And we know that “we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.” (Phil. 4:13)
And we can! For now and evermore. Amen.