Sermon preached by Rev. Todd Weir
January 22, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 4:12-23
What would Jesus do? WWJD? I never bought the bracelet, but I do think this is a foundational moral question. If we want to be followers of Jesus. So, how do you think Jesus would have spent this inauguration weekend? Would Jesus have attended worship at the National Cathedral on Friday, proclaiming with Franklin Graham that the rain is a sign of God’s blessing? Robert Jeffress, pastor of a Baptist megachurch in Dallas, preaching from the Prophet Nehemiah, famous for building a wall around Jerusalem to keep the city safe.1 Would Jesus bless Trump or any President, saying that God had called them to be president? Or would Jesus have been hanging around with Congressman John Lewis, or wearing a pink hat with kitten ears on Saturday? Maybe Jesus would have avoided Washington DC altogether, with all the crowds and traffic, and gone to a retreat center in the Shenandoah Valley to pray for civility, peace and harmony.
Or maybe Jesus would just go fishing for the weekend. Apparently, Jesus liked to fish. He was good at it too, once telling the disciples who were catching nothing, to try to the other side of the boat and they almost sank they had so many fish. So maybe he got a few of his clergy friends together and they rented a cabin on a lake and spent the weekend fishing and swapping good ideas for church growth strategies. What is the best use of resources, a snappy social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, or a good old-fashioned direct mail campaign? T-shirts, refrigerator magnets.
If you read most of the sermons online about this Gospel lesson, the primary emphasis is on Jesus calling his first four disciples to be fishers of men. The assumption is Jesus was calling together a team of evangelists who would spread the message, and as the risen Christ commanded his disciples at the end of Matthew, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Growing up I even learned the song, “I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me.” It was a lot of fun because we could add the motions and pretend to be casting our rod and reel and catching each other. In third grade, I raised the exegetical point that the disciples used nets and it was more of a group process to pull the nets up out of the water. But the fishing pole gesture had already been established at the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century, and the net casters were declared heretics who would be burned at the stake if they changed the gestures to the song. Throughout history this is how the church treats biblical scholars. I stuck to my nets interpretation, encouraging Dennis and Steve to join me in catching the rest of the class in a big net, but they refused. I suspected their reasons had nothing to do with biblical scholarship, but rather they enjoyed casting at the girls and pretending to catch them. In seminary, I learned the term “hermeneutics of suspicion” which means beware of how the needs of the status quo effect your interpretation. Mary and Mindy liked my interpretation, and joined me in wrapping up Dennis and Steve in a big net. The Bible often has a preferential option for the marginalized, and a more receptive hearing. In the end, the end the Children’s Music Director, playing the role of Caesar, stepped in and banned the song altogether. My whole theory of how biblical interpretation happens is based on this experience.
Maybe this is why literalism annoys me to this day. Jesus is using a metaphor to simply say he will teach them how to understand people and influence them with a message of good news. Jesus never intended for the church literally swoop down on people minding their own business and capture them, take them hostage to our way of thinking. Remember that fishing is not good news to the fish, so beware of reading too much into a metaphor. The point of church is to teach people to act like Jesus, not to fill the boat by any means necessary. What would Jesus do?
What was Jesus doing in Capernaum? It is important to read the text in its original context, not just ours. As the text begins, John the Baptist was arrested, and it is suddenly dangerous to follow John. He has challenged Herod Antipas, a narcissistic despot, who does not just tweet, “John the Baptist is an overrated preacher. He also smells bad. Failing big league. Sad.” Herod goes straight to “look him up.” Jesus withdraws to Galilee, doesn’t go to his last known address in Nazareth, but instead a remote fishing village on the sea of Galilee known as Capernaum, which roughly translates “Bathwater, Pennsylvania.”
This is where it all begins, Jesus begins to preach, “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is near!” What exactly does that mean? Are the end times coming soon, and people need to cleanse their spirits so they won’t be left behind? If so, Jesus really blew it, since we are way past the soon part. Is the Kingdom of Heaven a separate spiritual reality, apart from this physical reality, where only souls can enter upon death? What did Jesus really mean? What does this Kingdom mean in terms of time and space? When? Where?
Here are a few clues from earlier in the text. This is the second time we hear the phrase, “the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.” The first time, in Matthew 3:2, it is John the Baptist saying it. So Jesus is saying the same thing as John, word for word, and John is now in jail. So when Jesus says to Peter, Andrew, James and John, to come and follow me; they had some idea even in Bathwater, Pennsylvania that they were joining something not popular with their Roman overlords. And yet they dropped their nets and immediately followed him. Maybe it was the high taxes on their catch when they went to market. Maybe the Roman “stop and frisk” policy, or they just didn’t think you should lock up people like John the Baptist for speaking his mind.
When someone talks about a new Kingdom being near, look out. What do we know about kingdoms in Matthew Gospel? Jesus learned about kingdoms in this chapter, just 4 verses before in Matt. 4:8. He was out in the wilderness just before calling his new disciples, and here is what the devil said to him,
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
To be clear, the kingdoms of the world belong to the devil, they were his to give, within his power to offer Jesus. Jesus said to him,
“Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
What would Jesus do? He kept to the message. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Then he gathered disciples whom he would train to make this message possible. We are still left with the questions of the ages – where is this Kingdom, how near is it, and when is it coming? Don’t worry, Matthew’s Gospel is going to spend a great deal of time (how many times will the Gospel us the term) including the texts for the next few weeks which will be from the sermon on the Mount. Next Sunday, Sarah will preach from the Beatitudes, with all the blessings for the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the meek and the mourning. Then we will hear about the moral imperative for neighbor love, even the love of enemies, the neceisty of grace and forgiveness. Then Matthew will move on to parables like the Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, a pearl of great price, Matthew is going to talk about the Kingdom of Heaven 31 times in his Gospel. The nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven is clearly his point.
Here is my bottom line translation to carry into the next week. I prefer to translate Kingdom of Heaven as Martin Luther King, Jr. did-it is the Beloved Community, the place of love and radical welcome that exists concretely wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus name. The Beloved Community exists as an ideal, a summons, a possibility, a hope that calls to us to come and follow. And it is made real whenever love wins, justice triumphs, healing mends what is broken, grace breaks the chains that bind us. The Kingdom of Heaven exists right here at First Churches as we listen and pray to the Still Speaking God and live into our vision of joyful Christian community, and it calls to us from the future “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” My agenda this morning is no different this morning than it was in October. My job is to help us all to wrestle with these sacred texts, so that we may be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Beloved Community, drawing near, as we do our best to live as Jesus showed us.