This is the second Sunday in a row when the Gospel has presented the call to discipleship. The call of discipleship – is as I mentioned last week – the overarching theme for the season of Epiphany.
Last Sunday, we heard John’s version of events. Today, we come to Matthew’s construction of supposedly the same events. There is always more than one way to tell a story and we might be struck by not only the differences between John and Matthew’s version of the same events – but also the similarities.
Both Evangelists set Jesus’ call of his first disciples along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. But each sets this scene against a different historical figure and scriptural backdrop. John sets the scene against the backdrop of John the Baptist and the long Jewish tradition of the messiah’s arrival being preceded by the message of a forerunner – preparing the way.
Matthew sets the first call of the disciples after John had been arrested – whereas John reports the Baptist still loitering about the lake shore. Chronologically, Matthew comes first, so John’s later account is playing fast and loose with the timeline and his setting of the call against the backdrop of the Baptist’s ministry requires some literary license.
Matthew places Jesus in the historic tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy in the first reading for Epiphany 3. The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali correspond to the area which by the 1st century CE was known as the Galilee. As in Isaiah’s day, so in Jesus’ – Galilee was a border region – a buffer area – subject to waves of invasion as well as persistent cultural infiltration by the non-Jewish peoples of Syria and the Phoenician coast.
Each Evangelist uses a different historical figure not only to authenticate Jesus’ identity as messiah, but also to imply something about the meaning of his coming. Here they share a similarity. Jesus is baptized in the Jewish heartland of the Jordan valley. But he begins his ministry in the cosmopolitan melting pot of the north. Their plot timelines may conflict and yet they agree on the location – both setting the call of the first disciples along the shores of the Sea of Galilee – each portraying the power of Jesus’ charisma to change the direction of people’s lives.
Matthew’s depiction of the call of the disciples is startling and somewhat alarming – if we take it seriously. Can it really have been the case that Simon, his brother Andrew, together with James and John, the sons of Zebedee just dropped everything and abandoned their lives with all attendant responsibilities? I mean what happened to poor old Zebedee, now two sons and four hands down? How will their father now crew his fishing boat?
Why John and Matthew are at pains to set Jesus’ arrival at the beginning of his active ministry against the backdrop of very particular Jewish historical themes is because they are not only telling us who Jesus is but also hinting at the expectations of those who dropped everything to follow Jesus and why they did so.
Conditioned by their Jewish longing for the Messiah they were thus receptive to Jesus’ call with its strong message of repentance as the engine for change. They heard Jesus’ call because whether conscious of it or not, they were already waiting for it and like so many of their fellow Jews, they were subconsciously listening for it. The power of Jesus’ call to follow him spoke directly into the deepest longings of their hearts, both as human beings and as members of a nation consumed with a longing for change.
Today, our psychologically informed awareness of the power exercised by charismatic leaders over their followers casts an interesting light on Jesus’ call of his first disciples. The charismatic leader’s call to discipleship –whether spiritual, political, or personal – speaks into our experience of futility and powerlessness. The charismatic leader appeals to our longing to live with deeper meaning and higher purpose. Being called is the experience of being recognized – singled out – speaking to our need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Being called is to be chosen. Being chosen is an intoxicating experience that satisfies not only our longing for something deeper but also our desire for intimacy – an end to our sense of personal isolation.
We respond to a call because it comes to us in a context of our expectations shaped by a belief that God has a purpose for us and has a need for us to play our part. It’s these expectations that precondition us – making us receptive to hearing Jesus’ call to follow him. Many of us may not hear his call as a distinct experience – like a voice in our heads. Most of us will hear his call in dispersed ways – a comment here, a thought there, a confirmation coming at the right moment for us to take a course of action. We will have a sense of how we want to act in life – how we want to make the world better than we find it to be.
But our expectations also pose a danger. As Episcopalians we are often too closely identified with polite society’s wish to keep expressions of Christian faith private so as not to cause offence. We may be waiting – but the question is what are we waiting for?
Speaking about the call to discipleship to those in church on a Sunday morning is essentially preaching to the choir. Because we are the ones who for whatever dimly grasped reasons are responding to Jesus’ call to worship God. If you think this is a small matter, then recall that the central symbol of our worship is that of being nourished at God’s table to go out in to the world strengthened for action.
To worship God – as we do in the Episcopal Church – through our unique synthesis of timeless liturgy and of-the-moment theological messaging is an increasingly counter cultural action in 2023 America – esp. here in the New England. If you doubt me then ask yourselves why fewer and fewer of us are prepared to do so.
To worship God as we do is to want to be changed to become agents for change in the world. The crucial eucharistic transformation is not only in the bread and wine but in the transformation of our hearts and minds to be better fit for God’s purpose in the world. In a sense Jesus calls us is to realize that through eucharistic transformation we become the ones we have been waiting for. As Christians, everything we do in the world flows from this point.
Simon, Andrew, James, and John, the first of a trusty band of brothers heard Jesus’ call and responded without equivocation because he spoke into their longed-for expectations. They heard a promise of change in Jesus’ call. They knew the only thing they had to lose was not changing.
I’m reminded of the cartoon with a somewhat salutary message. It pictures Jesus dressed in 1st-century long shift with shoulder length hair sitting with a young guy who looks like he’s sleeping rough. Jesus has just asked the young guy to follow him – to which – the guy replies Facebook? Jesus says No I really want you to follow me. Still a little perplexed about what Jesus is getting at – he finally exclaims – So ….. Twitter? Jesus says: I’m going to start again and you can let me know where I lose you.