by Ellen Sims
I want to begin today’s sermon in more of teaching mode to underscore some Matthean themes we can anticipate as we continue following Jesus this year through Matthew’s Gospel. Last Sunday the Gospel lection took a brief detour from Matthew to John’s version of the calling of the first disciples. Today we’re back with Matthew, following his take on the first disciples’ response to Jesus’s call to follow him. Sometimes when I really think about the layers of story tellers and scribes and editors and translators between Jesus and me, following Jesus feels as challenging as following someone in a long caravan of cars through Atlanta traffic. How do I know if the driver in front of me is still in sight of the car she’s been following and how far are we from the lead car? Are we sure we’re following the right follower who’s trying to follow the actual leader? (After all, we saw some “Christian” cars with their “God didn’t create Adam and Steve” bumper stickers take the wrong exit ramp miles ago.)
One thing we try to remember is that the different gospels emphasized different themes reflecting their own social, cultural, and political contexts—all of which are different from our own context. Consider the highly improbable scenario of someone 2000 years from now who’s living on the colony on Mars reading this sermon. Would they understand the metaphor I just shared about a caravan of cars in Atlanta traffic? Not likely. That’s why we, 2000 years after Jesus lived, consult biblical scholarship and stay aware of the similarities and differences between the four canonical Gospels. The Gospel writer we call Matthew, for example, is more focused on Jesus’s Jewishness than are Mark, Luke, and John, so Matthew often quotes from Jewish scriptures. Did you notice that the lectionary paired today’s Gospel reading with the Hebrew Bible passage Matthew cited? Matthew quotes the Hebrew prophets a lot to emphasize that Jesus is consistent with the Jewish prophetic tradition. Jesus was trying to reform Judaism, not leave it, not start a new religion. In fact, one scholar emphasizes that “the members of Matthew’s church practiced and believed themselves to be part of what we may refer to as Matthean Judaism” (Overman 10). The folks who first read the book Matthew wrote were not Christians. Yet. Matthew wasn’t responding to a “split and enmity between ‘Christians’ and ‘Jews’ . . . but between different Judaisms at the close of the 1st Century in Palestine” (10). The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. left a “leadership and cultural vacuum” that produced “various Judaisms in Roman Palestine” (19). Later “when something called Christianity did flourish in another context, . . . Matthew emerged as an important Christian text” (26), but Matthew wasn’t writing for Christians, and, sadly, some Christians later used Matthew’s words against Jews (27).
Another prominent theme in Matthew is that of community. In fact, a key commentary on Matthew I use is titled Church and Community in Crisis: The Gospel According to Matthew (Overman). Its author explains that various Jewish communities were developing after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Temple worship had ended, but a new way of worship and being Jewish was developing. During this period of oppression under Rome, a trusted community became essential for Judaism to survive. No wonder Matthew, unlike the other Gospels that describe Jesus’s itinerant ministry, says Jesus settled in Capernaum, apparently using Peter’s house as base (63), to focus on community building in a particular place while inviting others to help build up the “kingdom of heaven” in the here and now. Likely Jesus and his followers would travel to nearby towns to proclaim the alternative (anti-Caesar) kingdom and heal the sick, but they would usually return home by nightfall (67). In Matthew, unlike Mark (upon which Matthew drew heavily), people came to see Jesus (58). He did not travel to them in other areas. That means Matthew’s Jesus is much more rooted in a particular community than the Jesus we meet in the other gospels, and perhaps Matthew’s Jesus is more attentive to the specific community he is creating among his followers.
Devoting this year to the study of Matthew gives us the opportunity to ponder and practice what it means to create and sustain the kind of healthy community Jesus invited others to join. He was proclaiming a recipe for right relatedness that was the opposite of Caesar’s empire. Jesus called people to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Mt. 4: 17). One way to understand Jesus’s call for repentance was as a challenge to reject the Empire’s values (“repent” meaning literally to turn away and move in the opposite direction). Jesus then was calling people to move toward a very different kingdom to God’s kingdom, the kin*dom, the un-kingdom, a heavenly realm where God’s ways would hold sway. Offering the people hope for a heavenly kingdom to replace the malignant Empire was actually one means of healing sick people who came to Jesus for help, sick people suffering in mind, body, and spirit from horrors endured by those in territories Rome conquered, occupied, and oppressed.
One key part of Jesus’s healing strategy was to gather those abused by the system and offer them a healthier community. Significantly, he initially tapped people already related, two pairs of brothers, fishermen all, and told them to leave their nets and boats behind right then and there and join him in fishing for people. Each of these men already knew how to work with his brother, and they also knew first hand about the Roman Empire’s extractive means of production and distribution to serve the interests of the powerful, not those who performed the labor. They understood that poor “fishers and processors had little to no control over fees for fishing licenses or taxes and toll rates” and were unjustly exploited in such a system (Batten). When Jesus invited Peter, Andrew, James, and John to come with him and “fish for people,” they understood he was tasking them to join him in pulling human beings out of the deadly waters King Herod had confiscated to control and further disadvantage the poor. These first followers knew well the way the Empire and the Empire’s client kings like Herod Antipas, exploited the poor. Jesus’ invitation to follow him was an invitation to help create a new community of equality and service to God’s ways, not Herod’s and not Caesar’s.
Jesus promised people new identities and new connections. Imagine, however, what courage it took to depart from the expectations of this Ancient Near East culture where one’s identity, livelihood, and status were entirely dependent on one’s family, one’s “tribe.” Jesus called people from the known into the unknown, reorienting them to a new loyalty and purpose, integrating them into a new community. A couple of generations after Jesus called the first disciples, the author of Matthew was calling his readers through this very story to join his Jesus community and “fish” for people, too. Perhaps such radical transformation is only possible when supported by a trustworthy community.
Unfortunately, loneliness is felt by many today, even people who are part of the Jesus community. This past week Rhoda shared with the church council an article published in the AARP magazine summarizing various studies of the mental and physical consequences of loneliness on individuals and society as a whole. An impressive amount of a wide-ranging research shows that people in our culture are becoming increasingly “less socially connected” and the feeling of loneliness is more pervasive. The consequences for individuals and society at large are great. People who are lonely are at a much higher risk for heart disease, Alzheimer’s, suicide, even the common cold. Surprisingly, loneliness presents greater health risks than obesity or smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. Researchers from various disciples are trying to determine how best to help people feel less lonely, but it’s not so simple. What is going to sound to us a bit like blaming the victim needs to be understood as we try to include those who may feel disconnected: “Lonely people . . . often misread a facial expression or tone of voice, characterizing curiosity as hostility, for instance—and gradually develop a distorted reality about the social world around them.” So putting lonely people together to make friends usually backfires. “A lonely person, in a mistaken attempt at self-protection, can unconsciously send out signals of disinterest or even hostility, which then causes others to withdraw.” A well-meant friendly overture can be misunderstood. But let this possibility not discourage us from welcoming others with sensitivity and sincerity.
Reading this article last week made me appreciate afresh the brilliant though not original approach Jesus took to “saving people” by forging connection. We are social animals. But society in general is increasingly less socially connected. How wise Jesus was to stress in his ministry the importance of a caring community for those who would offer this world an alternate way of relating to one another and ushering in God’s kin*dom–as brothers and sisters.
Reading the article on the pervasiveness of loneliness also helped me reflect on the needs within our congregation for deeper relationship, stronger bonds, a wider outreach. We want to actively invite others to Open Table and also help people feel connected when they do visit. We can’t be everything to all people, and as with other churches, people sometimes slip away from Open Table because, some tell me, they just didn’t connect with anyone or they have a strained relationship with someone at church. As the article explains, “There is a human need to be embedded, connected, integrated in a social network. When that social network is missing, ‘the consequences are very real in terms of mental and physical health.'” I think we underestimate both the necessity and challenges of deep relatedness. Despite our flaws, a healthy church is the best place I know for helping people develop healthy relationships. It’s not just the “mere presence of other people” we can find in a faith community; what we crave and can find and help cultivate are “core values and shared life experiences” and meaningful engagement with the needs of the world. And it about creating a community whose bonds are not based on an “us versus them” ethos that defines itself by excluding others or demeaning people in other communities.
I’m wondering if you would like more opportunities to share on Sunday mornings about a spiritual practice or value you value in your life or some life-changing experience that has formed your faith life. Sharing our stories is a vital spiritual task that gives us inner strength while helping us connect to one another. So take a moment right now, while the invitation is fresh, to call to mind a Jesus-y spiritual disposition you try to cultivate, or a role model or life experience that taught you this value, or a way you see it being lifted up here at Open Table.
Let me know if you would like 2-5 minutes in an upcoming worship service to share something about your inner life or a formative experience as part of Open Table. I’ll say more about this in our newsletter.
As we try to follow Jesus through the Gospel of Matthew this year, let’s be mindful of the challenges of community formation and growth. I’m eager to hear insights and stories from you.
God whom Jesus called Father, we see you best in the life and death and life again of Christ Jesus. May others see a glimpse of Jesus in us. Amen
Batten, Alicia. “Fishing Economy in the Sea of Galilee” https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/fishing-economy-in-the-sea-of-galilee.
Darling, Lynn. “Is There a Medical Cure for Loneliness?” https://www.aarp.org/home-family/friends-family/info-2019/medical-cure-for-loneliness.html.
Overman, J. Andrew. Church and Community in Crisis: The Gospel According to Matthew. In The New Testament in Context. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996.