Scripture: Matthew 4: 12-22; 1 Corinthians 1: 10-17
Is the call of Jesus’ first disciples a good model for discipleship for modern Christians? The Church tells us that we must give up everything to follow Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” But most of us are not Christian superheroes. We lead ordinary lives, and have to figure out what faithful discipleship means in our context. That includes finding a balance between our own needs and desires, and those of the Christian community.
Today, we heard Jesus begin his preaching ministry in Galilee. He used the same words as John the Baptist. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew consistently called the world to come the kingdom of heaven. Mark and Luke both called it the kingdom of God. Personally (I stress this), my interpretation is that Mark and Luke imagined God’s righteous reign coming here on earth. That makes it our task to bring the kingdom closer. In contrast, Matthew stressed a more spiritual kingdom of heaven, one that we must constantly be awake and ready for.
The Scriptural model for discipleship
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all identify Jesus’ first disciples as pairs of fishermen brothers. Matthew recounts that Jesus saw Simon and Andrew casting nets into the sea. He said, “Follow me,” and they did so. Then Jesus called James and John, and they left their father Zebedee to follow Jesus. Matthew presents Jesus as having “irresistible authority” as the model for discipleship. Jesus chose his disciples, as in John 15:16. “You did not choose me. I chose you.” In those days, the opposite was normal; a disciple chose his rabbi.
Let’s stop and think about this picture. Matthew asks us to imagine that a stranger approaches four fishermen, ordinary, commonsensical, no-nonsense people. The stranger says, “Follow me. I’ll make you fish for people, not fish.” And they do just that.
It seems improbable. But Matthew wrote his Gospel fifty years after Jesus lived. Before, newspapers, TV, or internet. So it’s not likely that he could rely on eyewitnesses.
People remembered that Jesus had disciples. Probably some of them were fishermen. Matthew wrote his Gospel to proclaim that Jesus was (and is) the Son of God. His original hearers (not readers!) would have got the message. Jesus, Son of God, had such a charisma that people followed him without question.
But the Gospels are not ordinary history in the modern sense. They are sacred history. We have to ask how literally we should take today’s story.
Should we leave everything to follow Jesus? Is it even possible?
Let’s move forward to our day. Sacred history may not be the best model for discipleship today.
We have difficulty in accepting the story like Matthew’s original hearers. It’s not because we don’t accept Jesus as the Son of God. It’s because too many preachers have, in my opinion, misinterpreted the story. They have put huge and unrealistic guilt trips on their congregations by saying things like this. “The disciples left everything to follow Jesus. So should you. Jesus has to be absolutely first in your life. No exceptions, no excuses.” In the words of an old hymn. As of old St. Andrew heard it, by the Galilean lake. Turned from home and toil and kindred, leaving all for his dear sake.
But how practical is that Scriptural model for discipleship? Some modern people do indeed give up everything for the Gospel. Missionaries go to work in foreign lands. But they have church communities to support them in their work.
Because ordinary people have family obligations. Even those fishermen presumably had wives and children. How did they feel about Dad going off to follow an itinerant preacher? Who would catch the fish that they needed for food and to sell in the market for them to survive?
There’s a place for lesser models for discipleship
Very few of us can just drop everything to become full time disciples. Are we poor disciples, unworthy to follow Jesus, because we worry about families, jobs, mortgages, and RRSPs?
Even the Gospels tell us that there were other people who took lesser roles in Jesus’ ministry. There were women who supported Jesus and his friends financially [Luke 8: 1-3]. Many people showed Jesus hospitality. Various Pharisees, Levi, and Simon the leper invited Jesus to dinner. Zacchaeus, and Martha and Mary, opened their homes to him. I am saying that there are many ways to be disciples.
Discipleship, friendship, and community
To change my focus. Today’s encounter between Jesus and the fishermen began a friendship between Jesus and his disciples. They accompanied him in his preaching mission, More than just friends, they became, in effect, Jesus’ family. So much so that in a later Gospel story, when people told Jesus that his mother and brothers were waiting to see him, he replied, “My mother and brothers are those [presumably the disciples] who hear God’s word and do it.”
Jesus also shared the Last Supper – a Passover meal normally celebrated with family – with his disciples rather than his biological family. They had become more than disciples, more than friends. They had become a community. Community is almost the antithesis of the modern Western ideal of individualism. Individualism makes me, my interests, and my desires paramount.
Community versus individualism
Last week’s edition of The Economist had an article on the decline in life expectancy among low-skilled white Americans. It described a culture of despair among that group, with high rates of drug addiction and suicide. An accompanying trend is declines in rates of marriage, union membership, community involvement, and church membership. These institutions foster peoples’ sense of community. In the word used in the article, the result is atomization.
‘Family’ and “Community’ are at the heart of Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth. In today’s passage, people were arguing about whether it was better to have been baptized by one person or by another. Members of the congregation seemed to feel that whoever had baptized them was a mentor, with whom they had a special bond. Perhaps like someone who had proposed their membership in a golf club or a service club. No, said Paul, you are all members of the Body of Christ, regardless of who brought you into the church.
The whole point of Paul’s letter was to stress the importance of community. Individual members must not rupture its connectedness through their selfish actions. Later, Paul gave the famous metaphor that we are all part of the Body of Christ. Each individual is valuable because of their particular gifts. The body is incomplete without them, just as our gathering this morning would be less complete if one of you had decided to stay in bed today. But more than that, none of us can presume to say that “I alone” am the body, or the Church. Any more than a hand or an eye can represent the whole human body.
To sum up
This idea connects today’s two readings. Jesus brought disciples into community with himself and each other. They were more than merely friends. Paul cemented that idea with his simile of the Body of Christ. It is like a human body, all of whose parts are important, while different.
But there is an important lesson for us today. Modern thinking has liberated the individual from the confines of conformity to the group. In the past this often forced people into the box of community expectations. Women, especially, had highly constrained roles of “proper” behaviour and career options. Individual options are clearly desirable. But there is equally clearly a danger when we let the pendulum swing so far that we lose all sense of community – the glue that holds society together.
After this service we will have a time of fellowship. We will eat and drink together, in order to foster community. I have a book at home called eucharist with a small ‘e’. The time of fellowship is a small version of Holy Communion. Cookies and coffee take the place of bread and communion wine.
Our task is to figure out what faithful discipleship means in our particular contexts. How can we meet our own needs while maximizing those of Jesus’ call to discipleship? Nobody said that discipleship was easy!