January 22, 2023
The Third Sunday After the Epiphany
January 22, 2023
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; I Cor. 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
From the Gospel according to Matthew, “(Jesus said) ‘Follow me.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, as tempting as it is to begin this sermon with a rousing rendition of that old Evangelical Sunday School song, “I will make you fishers of men”, in my prayers this week I found that this morning’s Gospel invitation to “Follow (Jesus)” is much deeper than we might realize because it is very much connected to last week’s invitation to “Come and see”.
You know, one of the recurring themes in each of the Gospel accounts where the disciples are called to follow Jesus is the fact that he invited ordinary people in the midst of their ordinary lives to do extraordinary things. But that invitation to follow Jesus is often misunderstood to mean that they and us for that matter, are called to a specific task or work or endeavor when, in fact, the Christ’s invitation is much simpler and I’ll add, deeper than that.
In today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will make you “fish for people.” Now, as much as I prefer the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, I like other versions of this particular text where Jesus says he invites them to be “fishers of people” rather than “fish for people” as the NRSV says because such shifts our focus away from function and redirects it towards identity. And I believe that is an important difference because what Jesus is calling these first disciples is not into work or a specific mission or task, but rather inviting them into a relationship.
Perhaps that is why these first disciples were willing and able to “immediately” as Matthew says, follow Jesus. I think most of us cannot imagine getting up and leaving everyone and everything we know to follow Jesus. And so I think there is something deeper here. Otherwise we might believe that because they immediately left everything behind, these men were superheroes of the faith: guys to be admired, but kind of hard to identify with. And church history is clear that seeing any disciple, or for that matter, any church leader, as a superhero always creates problems and often misses the whole point of the Good News of God – misses the point of the Gospel.
For example, the Church at Corinth could be described as the first “mega-church”. It was incredibly successful, with record attendance; the who’s who of society were members; her people evidenced every spiritual gift; they had huge budgets and abounded with programs and opportunities for ministry. Nevertheless, that church was splitting apart at the seams. People were arguing that who led them to Christ was more important than the personal transformation they experienced by following Christ. They were caught up in processes and missed the core message of the gospel that says salvation rests in Christ Jesus alone. But some insisted that being protégés of superheroes of the faith like Apollos, or Peter, or Paul should and must make a difference in their standing and place of honor in the Church. In today’s reading from his first letter to that Church, Paul says none of that stuff matters. The Christian faith is not about signs on our doors, who led whom to Christ, where we were or what we were doing when we came to faith, but rather, that we continue to choose to follow not Apollos or Peter or Paul, but Jesus Christ in every aspect of daily life. Peter, Apollos and Paul were probably great guys, but they couldn’t save anyone from sin. It is only Christ who saves, and it is he alone who invites us to follow him, and be fishers of people.
Isaiah, in this morning’s Old Testament lesson, proclaimed that the coming of the Christ would not only affect Israel, but the whole world through Israel’s response to God; through their renewed relationship with God. See, everything in scripture is about relationships: how we respond to God and how we respond to and treat others. The Messiah, Isaiah tells us, comes bringing God’s light into the world – a light that goes beyond borders, homes, neighborhoods; beyond our own selves. And Isaiah says that when God’s people choose to live in that light of God’s own self, others take notice, are drawn to that light, and ultimately drawn into a deeper relationship with God and one another. In responding to God’s light, healing and life-giving redemption takes hold in one’s heart. If we get hung up on who called whom, who led whom to Christ, who lives the way we live, or speaks the way we speak, who does things our way, we miss the purposes of God in Christ, God’s mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other in and through a relationship with Jesus Christ, the promised light of the world.
Matthew says these disciples immediately followed Jesus. But what it is that Jesus called these first disciples to be? He called them to be fishers of people. And that, again, implies relationship. Jesus calls these first disciples into relationship: first with himself (“Come and see”, Follow me”) and that will lead to a relationship with each other, and then with all the various people they will meet over the next few years and, indeed, the rest of their lives. We might remember that the Gospel of Matthew ends with yet another invitation to relationship; Jesus says make disciples by baptizing them (into the name of the relational God, by the way) and teach them everything that Jesus had taught them. Gosh, that sounds like evangelism again, doesn’t it? We might remember that last week we explored a deeper understanding of evangelism – an evangelism not based upon street corner preaching or spouting scripture at others, or what we say, but rather, demonstrated through how we choose to live the same welcoming and forgiving grace and mercy of God that has changed and continues to change our lives – the grace and mercy that makes a difference in this world just as it has made a difference in us. And that example invites others to know and experience the same: to know and experience a relationship with God and with us.
Jesus said, “Follow me … and I will make you fishers of people”. And Jesus issues the same call, same invitation, to us still today. An invitation to be in genuine and real relationships with the people around us, and to be in those relationships the same way Jesus was and is in relationship with his disciples then, and still offers to be with us, with all his followers, today. And we’re not talking about just being acquaintances with those around us: you know, those in the next pew that we might nod to or wave to during the Passing of the Peace, but rather, about being in a real relationship with each other and our neighbor. As my colleague David Lose describes it, we are invited into the kind of relationship “that bears each other's burdens, that truly and in concrete ways cares for each other and especially the vulnerable, and holds onto each other through thick and thin, always with the hope and promise of God’s abundant grace. Sometimes that call -- to be in Christ-shaped relationship with others -- will take us far from home and sometimes it will take shape in and among the persons right around us: here at church, at home, in our workplace, and everywhere else. But it will always involve persons -- not simply a mission or a ministry or a movement, but actual, flesh-and-blood persons.” Again, it’s a call, an invitation, an evangelism marked by relationship.
Ah, but Fr. Allan, remember I told you last week I’m not an evangelist? I know, neither am I. But we are human beings created in the image of God, a God who desires to be in relationship not just with you and me, but all humankind, all creation. In many ways, that is the one calling, the one invitation, the one vocation we all hold in common – not to be fishermen or tax collectors or whatever like the first disciples – but to continue to be ordinary people like Jesus called “right in the midst of their ordinary lives to be in relationship with the ordinary people all around them and through that – through our relationship with ordinary people like you and me, and everyone we meet - did extraordinary things then … and, beloved, he continues to do extraordinary things through us still today. How is that possible? By our choosing to follow, embrace, live, and embody everything Jesus taught us so that our very lives, who we are, what we stand for, what values we uphold invite our neighbors, invite the world, to come and see, and to follow Jesus. That’s how people come to know and experience the extraordinary grace of God. It is so simple and yet, so very powerful.
You know, the Psalmist said there was nothing more important than his relationship with God. A relationship that forever drew him to seek that much more deeply the face, the presence, the grace, of God. That’s what we are doing when we choose to answer Jesus’ invitation to follow him. This is a lifetime journey, a lifetime relationship, a lifetime of being fishers of people. May God grant us the grace and the will so to do, and so to be. Amen.