Monday, January 30, 2012

Jesus said "follow me" reflections on Matthew 4:17-25

On January 29th I preached at a congregation in Auckland as part of the call process we use in the Presbyterian Church here in New Zealand and it gave me the opportunity to preach on a passage that has been challenging me recently and reflects my recent reading of  Leonard Sweet's new Book "I am a Follower"  and also to articulate briefly a vision of ministry that revolves round following Jesus into relationship, community, ministry and mission.

Jesus said “Follow me”
In his new book “I am a follower” Leonard Sweet says that the church has for the past few decades become obsessed with leadership not follow-ship.

 Churches and pastors have become all about developing  leadership. In the past decades leadership conferences have replaced billy graham crusades as the number one gatherings for Christians in the west. People travel thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars to listen to the captains of commerce and the pastors of the latest megachurch talk about leadership.

There are shelves of books written on the subject.

In the face of that we need to again hear that call Jesus gave to his first disciples “follow me”. His first words to Peter and Andrew, “follow me.” His first words to John and James “Follow me”. The call to all of us, Jesus said “follow me”. 

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus walking into the lives of those first disciples with the call to follow , comes right at the start of Jesus public ministry, after John the Baptist had been arrested Matthew tells us that Jesus came proclaiming “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”.  We tend to think that the word repent means to feel sorry for what we have done wrong. But it actually means to turn around to go a new way, to live differently. We are to do that because the kingdom of heaven has come near. Matthew uses kingdom of heaven whereas the other gospels use the kingdom of God. Scholars say this reflects a Jewish reluctance to use the name of God, but also as Jesus will teach us to pray “you kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ it reflects the idea of being a place where the will of God is worked out.

 In Jesus coming the long looked for reign of God was breaking into the realms of humanity.  The hope the Jews had been looking for of God’s justice and mercy having authority in the world was at hand. We tend to have a static view of kingdoms as nation states but in the ancient near east people were used to seeing kingdoms as places where a particular empire or emperor held sway and these borders were fluid. Like in first century Judea where the Romans had conqueror and imposed their law and there rule through a puppet king Herod and his descendants. Where before that had been Greeks and Babylonians and Assyrians. So the kingdom of heaven was where the reign of God would have authority: Where God’s justice and mercy would be reflected in every aspect of life, as it had been given in the Torah. It would herald just treatment of everybody and everything, including slaves and foreigners, livestock and land use. Where the established order will be turned on its head and the poor and least would be cared for and treated with honour. What has been called God’s up side down kingdom, or as NT Wright says It is the world and the realms of man that have it the wrong way up and Jesus kingdom was  the right way up kingdom. For the Jews this kingdom would extend to all nations to the whole world as the waters cover the sea as the prophet Habakkuk had declared. It was a kingdom that had near because its true king had come.

But this Kingdom of heaven with its world changing perspective starts at a personal level. It started with Jesus call to “follow me” to a group of fishermen  and the first disciple’s response. It starts with that same call to you and I.

This call to follow me at the start of Jesus public ministry shows that at its centre the Christian faith is a call to a personal relationship with the person of Jesus. It’s not an invitation to follow a new set of religious rules, or to practise a new set of religious traditions, but it is an invitation to connect and to follow Jesus. Even Jesus commissioning of his disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel starts with that promise of Jesus continuing presence and “ lo I am with you to the end of the age.
 It’s easy to think when you read the gospel narrative that this call to follow comes in a vacuum. But there is more to the story that Matthew tells us. The other gospels fill us in.  In Luke’s gospel we are told that Jesus had used Peter and Andrew’s boat as a first century PA system and after that had told them to go out into the deep to put down their nets after a frustrating and fruitless nights fishing and they had pulled up a miraculous catch. This convinced Peter that this Jesus was someone special, a man of God.  In John’s gospel we see some conversations and meeting that went on beforehand and are told that Andrew was a follower of John the Baptist’s and told by him that here was the one John was waiting for.  But for Mark and Matthew, Jesus simply calls the disciples to follow him.
But again it’s not in a vacuum. In Matthew’s gospel in chapter 1 we have been introduced to Jesus through his genealogy  we see that he is a descendant of David and Abraham, we are told more than this we are told that he is the messiah, that he is God’s own son. The long looked for new king, this is backed up by Matthew’s birth narrative where we are told all that had happened was done in accordance with the scripture.

So the call to follow Jesus to have this relationship with him is based on who this person Jesus is. He all us to follow because he is the king of the kingdom of heaven.  We who are called to follow him from beyond the cross and the resurrection, have the gospel s that show us that Jesus is the son of God. We are shown the love of God for us through his life, his death and his resurrection.  To be a Christian is to know and to follow Jesus.

However right from the start this call to ‘follow me’ is not just a call to an individual relationship with Jesus, a private faith, but it is a call to be a community. Right from the start we see two sets of brothers called ‘to follow Jesus’.  They might not be the people we might automatically pick as Mark Woodley says “peter has issues with control and impulsiveness. James and John, nicknamed “the sons of Thunder,” had issues with anger and volatility.” He goes on to say that  “By calling these four men and then Matthew the tax collector, Mary and Martha, and the whole motley crew- Jesus was making a clear statement about his kingdom movement: it does not exist was out community. "  A new people of God with a new king called to the demanding work of shaping themselves into a group that reflect Jesus love for each other. To follow Jesus is a call to community. 

I was talking to a student during the week who last year had become aware of what he called church politics. He was upset about the way people in his church treated each other. I reminded him that sadly this has been part of our struggle to be church from the beginning. In the epistles  Paul  wrote to those first churches were written to groups wrestling with what it meant to be this new community. A community of ordinary broken prickly people like you and I and Paul has to apply this new kingdom way of living to the situations they found themselves in.  Application that is full of words such as forgive, long suffering, patience and the reality of a nittygritty working out of loving one another.
For those first disciples to respond to Jesus call to ‘follow me’ meant that they had to leave things as well. It says they left their nets and boats to follow Jesus.  For them it was not simply leaving the physical nets but what these nets represent.

It meant leaving their Net worth. As fishermen they made their living from catching fish, it was how they feed themselves and how they supported their family…

It meant leaving their networks the way they made sense of their world through the relationships they had in their community and changing that to one where those networks were mediated through a new identity as follows of Jesus.

It meant leaving their network, the way in which they would have seen their identity as fishermen, to adopt a new identity as followers, disciples and after that as apostles, someone who is sent, sent as a witness to what they knew of Jesus.

It meant leaving their safety net, what they familiar with what was safe for the sake of following Jesus. We see this in after Jesus crucifixion that Peter says to the rest of the disciples lets go fishing, let’s go back to what we know and in John’s gospel we see Jesus has to come and restore a relationship with Peter and give him a new purpose for life.

In  Philippians 3:1-11, Paul himself talks of having to reconstitute his life and reality round Jesus and he talks of all he had left behind, all the things that had made his life and his identity and he says that he counts it as nothing compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus. All that he had held as important that was the network of his life he says it’s like I put it out on the edge of the road for the inorganic rubbish collection because I’ve found his pearl of great price in Christ. That’s part of the challenge for us who would answer the call to follow Jesus, that to follow means to leave.
Finally when Jesus says follow me, it’s a call not just to leave but a call to allow Jesus to make us fishers of men. Matthew’s gospel moves straight from this call narrative to a summary of Jesus ministry. For those who answer the call to follow Jesus it is a call to follow Jesus into the ministry of Jesus. It’s a call to proclaim the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Because we know that Jesus its king is present. It’s a call to follow Jesus into the lives of the sick and oppressed, the lost and the poor, with the reality and good news and power of God’s kingdom.  It’s a call that in Luke’s gospel will lead the disciples into loving and caring for the outcast and ostracized in their society, welcoming them back to God and to fellowship with us and with God.  It’s a call that we will see moves on into being and living a different way in this world, as straight after this passage we read today Jesus will sit down and teach his disciples in the sermon on the mount, what has been called the manifesto of the kingdom, what it means to be like the one who we follow.

Leonard sweet says there is usually an audible ‘gasp’ when he introduces himself at conferences when he introduces himself by saying I do not stand here as a leader. I make no pretence to leadership. My fundamental identity is not as a leader. My fundamental identity is this: I am a follower”.  He says sometimes the only way to get the audience back with him is to invite them to sing what he calls his leadership anthem, ‘I have decided to follow Jesus’. As I am here today preaching to a call, I think its apt that I let you know that my key call in life is this ‘I am a follower’. My understanding of the faith and of our identity as the church is that we are celled to be follows. To follow Jesus.
Jesus said ‘Follow Me’. At the centre of who we are as a church is that relationship with Jesus. Ministry for me is growing in that relationship and  encouraging other people deeper and closer in that relationship.

Jesus said ‘Follow me’ and it’s  a call to community, but not a  static community a settled community, in  a call for the church to be a pilgrim community, who are prepared to move and to change, to follow as Christ leads. To be prepared to change and to allow Jesus to lead us out of our comfort zones to where he leads. Humorist  Garrison Keller challenges us with this quip “Give up your good Christian lives and follow Jesus’

Jesus said ‘Follow me’ and I will make you fishers of men’ To follow is a call out into the lives of people around us and the world around us, following Jesus and bringing near  the kingdom of heaven because we are with Jesus.

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