…In the World Today… (Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-24)
I would guess that most of you know that the sermon title is just part of a line from a Gospel Song called “He Lives,” written by the evangelist Alfred H. Ackley in 1933. It’s in our hymnal, in the Easter section. As I say, I have borrowed this half- or quarter-line of poetry as a title, not only to refer to the risen Jesus as alive, but as alive in the lives of disciples who are “…in the world today.” You probably will have noticed over the years that, however much I speak of God or Jesus, I want to bring things around to us and how we live in today’s world. This is because mission in the name of Jesus is what Christian life is about. At TEE this last week I observed that one of the greatest mistakes that Christians made with the teachings of Jesus was to transform them from a life to be lived to a system to be defended. I think you know by now that I do not think that’s the way to go. Indeed, it plays right into the hands of those who would co-opt Christian folk into the service of power and privilege. Ever since Christianity became the state religion of Rome about 1,500 years ago this has been a problem for us.
Last week we thought about the Church as the people God calls and empowers to serve one another and the world. The Church is called to do its inner work of worship, care, and learning in order to be built up to do God’s work in Christ outside of itself by using all the resources at its disposal.
This week I want to think about the Church as a community of faith in God through Christ, empowered by the Spirit to imitate what Jesus taught and did, “in the world today.” Of course, the place we learn about what Jesus taught and did is in the Bible, especially the Gospels. Baptists have always insisted that we look to the Bible for a rationale for what we think and do. But even “using the Bible” can be made into something too simplistic to be helpful. There’s an old slogan that had a resurgence of popularity a number of years ago, “What would Jesus do,” and like all slogans, we need to be aware of a couple of distortions about the way in which the Bible helps us to find what Jesus might do in the world today.
One kind of distortion ignores the “today” part of things, by assuming that what we need to do is to read the Gospels to find and reproduce Jesus’ ancient techniques in our world. If Jesus healed lepers in certain ways, then we must reproduce these ways now. If Jesus called only male disciples, then we must have only male ministers or officers or whatever now. What Jesus did then, he expects us to do now, unquestioningly, and in just the same ways. This must mean that in order to follow Jesus and do what he does in the world today we’ve got to live as if it were still the 1st century. So we try to adopt a first-century world view and values. Of course, we don’t need to do that, and can’t, and shouldn’t! When we try we just look like people who are trying to recreate a past world that can’t live again, and, so, look foolish and so does Jesus. Churches are unique to their contexts and their times and must be nimble and wise enough to read the scriptures (including those about what Jesus did and taught) and adapt the methods to their own day and place. If we read the New Testament carefully we’ll see that the folk in the generation after Jesus lived, when the New Testament was, for the most part, produced, did it that way, too.
Paul recognized this principle of diversity in context when he addressed the Corinthian Christians as “The Church of God in Corinth” in 1 Corinthians 1:3. He knew that, although there was a sense in which the Great Church of God in Jesus Christ covered all time and all geography, it is really known to us in little local bundles that are defined by their own local communities and, so, have characteristics and problems peculiar to those communities. The Church of God in Corinth wasn’t the Church of God in Rome, or Jerusalem, or so on, much less the whole Church of God on earth. Corinth had its own set of issues (as we can tell from reading the 1st and 2nd Epistles to the Corinthians) as did every church to which Paul wrote, and every church since. Local churches must recognize that it is our job to read what Jesus said and did in the Gospels as principles to be adapted and not as rules to be adopted. This applies equally to the rest of the Bible, too. We must be critical thinkers about our faith. This is hard work.
Our Epistle reading today is a continuation of the passage to which I just referred and highlights another possible distortion of doing what Jesus does. Paul discovered that the Corinthians were not very unified in their approach to things. There were those who claimed to follow him, others to follow Apollos, others Peter, and other teachers. There were even some who were so spiritually arrogant as to claim not to be worldly enough to choose a mere earthly teacher, but simply to “follow Christ.” Of course, in a sense, all Christians ought to follow Christ, but not as a premise for division. The Corinthians were allowing their loyalty to certain ways of thinking about Christian faith as a system (derived from certain teachers) to divide them from one another. And Paul was horrified, and said, “What! Is Christ Divided?” “Don’t allow interesting discussions on doctrines (the example he uses is baptism – one which some Baptists should hear) to dissolve basic unity in Christ” as a way of life. He said the basis of that unity is “The Message (or word, or story) of the Cross.” By that he means the basic story of who Jesus is and what he does for regular people in the world today, by his life, teachings, (and especially his) death, and resurrection. That’s the basis for unity. But, as you’ve heard me say countless times, unity is not uniformity. The Church of God in Corinth needed to learn that what was effective in Corinth was not effective everywhere. There were going to be differences, and diversity is OK, and more than OK, it’s a strength not a weakness.
If we read the scriptures with intelligent care we find that these writings contain different models for doing things. There are almost always at least two “right” ways of doing most things then and now. The trick is not to think that churches are like cheap socks where one size fits all, but to see, that the scriptures give us principles that transcend individual contexts, and we must be thoughtful enough to adapt them for the Church of God in La Crosse, as must other churches in other spots. The key is to hold onto both our unity in Christ and our diversity in how we live that all out in the world today. In both New Testament churches and churches today that diversity plays itself out even within the same church fellowship. It is one of the basic adopted values of this congregation to welcome and nurture people’s diversity as well as recognizing our unity in Christ. That is crucial to who we are at First Baptist.
With these, probably over-long, warnings about over-simplified distortions, let me come back to my basic definition of the Church for this morning. The Church is a contemporary community of faith in God through Christ, empowered by the Spirit to imitate what Jesus taught and did, “in the world today.” Our Gospel lesson gives us three specific things that Jesus does, and these three can become principles about which we may reflect and adapt for our context.
Matthew 4:12-25 breaks into three paragraphs. In the first paragraph Matthew tells us that, after John the Baptist was put in prison for criticizing Herod’s marital irregularities, Jesus went back home to Galilee. Galilee was a place that would be far more open to Jesus’ preaching than Judea would have been. There were more non-Jews in Galilee and more openness culturally. He would have had a better chance being heard there than anywhere else in the whole land of Israel. The land that was called Galilee of the Gentiles had always been surrounded by non-Jewish people and had to deal with that diversity as a matter of course. That’s a pretty good reason why Jesus went there to set up his ministry. It was also home.
But that’s not why Matthew is interested in Jesus’ homecoming. That act reminded Matthew of a passage of scripture from Isaiah chapter 9. He wasn’t really interested that originally it had referred to a hard time when the folk in those ancient tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, which was the very place Jesus went, had been put in darkness by Assyria centuries before. To these Isaiah had promised better days. Matthew saw Jesus’ going back there as bringing light and hope to such people now. And so, to Matthew’s eye, Jesus’ arrival in those hopeless spots filled those ancient scriptures full of meaning – contemporary meaning. Matthew often finds that Jesus fills those ancient Hebrew scriptures full of meaning (that is, fulfills them). The word “fulfill” has nothing really to do with what Isaiah really meant, it had to do with what Jesus really did. He filled those scriptures full of meaning in new ways. Churches who attempt to imitate Jesus read the scriptures creatively in the light of what Jesus has done in order to fill them full of meaning – not in terms of the ancient world, but in terms being in the world today. I once knew a congregation who decided to fulfill the Old Testament scripture about God’s instruction to allow the poor to glean in the grain-fields by making the produce of a field of vegetables owned by a member available to poor people to pick for their needs. That’s what I’m talking about. Jesus fulfills Scripture in new and creative ways and calls disciples to do as he does.
The second paragraph of our Gospel text pictures Jesus as walking by the Sea (or Lake) of Galilee and calling four fishermen as disciples. They were famous: Peter and Andrew, James and John. Jesus called disciples. Even Jesus did not see himself as called to be the Lone Ranger. No one ministers or serves alone. Matthew basically tells the same story here that Mark did. The story is simple: Jesus sees the fishermen, he calls, and they follow. There is an attraction to him that was hard to resist. Now that’s not the only way the story can be told. Both Luke and John are concerned with the psychological dimensions of this call to discipleship, again showing that different people respond to different stories. We could get very narrow minded and literal about this and say that when Jesus calls it has to be Matthew’s way, or Luke’s way. Perhaps a better lesson to learn and teach is that Jesus called these folk engaged in the trade of fishing, and asks them to do what? I like the way the Contemporary English Version has it: “Jesus said, Come with me! I will teach you how to bring in people instead of fish.” Jesus asked them to use the talents and gifts they already had to reach out into the community to come alongside of and recruit others. This call still comes to Jesus’ disciples today. There are no magic pills and no sure fire programs to get this done. We do need to follow Jesus in asking people to use the gifts they have to do what they know how to do, only in service of Christ and the Reign of God on earth. Jesus called disciples and so do communities of faith that follow him. None of us are in it alone!
The last paragraph of this text sums up Jesus’ work: according to Matthew, he taught, he preached, he healed. Communities of faith who follow Jesus in the world today also do these things. There are many different ways to do them, but it seems that teaching, preaching and healing are still tasks of Jesus’ people. Can we do that? That we teach means that we confront people’s ignorance of the things of God in Christ and develop critical thinkers and doers. That we preach means that we tell the truth of what God is up to in our world today and how people fit into that plan. That we heal means that we confront the reality of human pain and suffering, and seek to do what we can to speak and act for peace and wholeness in the world. Jesus taught and preached and healed, and so do communities of faith that follow Jesus, and they do it in many, many ways.
Again, all these things are principles about which we need to be thoughtful and winsome and humble as we attempt to imitate what we see our Jesus doing in the world today. So that those with whom we come in contact are convinced, first, that we love God and one another, and, second, that we have been with this Jesus whom to know is life eternal.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.