Saturday, January 5, 2019

"Jesus Calls Us"

            Happy New Year!

            As we begin a new year, my proclamation focus will examine what it means to be Christian in the 21st  century.  We have titled this series, “An Upside-Down Church.”  This past fall, as I continued to read and study the Gospels, I gained a new insight into Jesus.  Looking at Jesus from the perspective of faithful Jews in the first century, Jesus was someone who came in and turned upside-down their understanding of what it meant to be faithful to God.  For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made this claim:
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…”  ~ Matthew 5:38-39
At that time—as in our current time—the popular notion of justice was predominantly understood as lex talinois; that is, the right for a wronged person to seek retribution against any perpetrator who injured him.  Yet, in the passage quoted above, Jesus turns that understanding upside down.  Rather than permitting harm for harm, Jesus advocates the return of good in response to harm.  In so doing, Jesus turns the conception of being faithful to God upside down as well.  Now, persons loyal to God must re-think their understanding of justice, moving from lex talinois to an understanding which sees the importance of returning good—even for bad. 

In reflecting on this insight last fall, I began to ask myself what Jesus’ propensity to turn things upside-down might mean for the Christian faith and the Church in the 21st century?  If Jesus were to physically appear today, how might he turn his Church upside-down?  Then, I began to ask, as disciples of Jesus, are we called to turn the contemporary church upside down? 

            So, that question became the inspiration for this proclamation series:  How is God calling us now to turn the Church upside down, so that we may be more faithful disciples?

            This Sunday, January 5th, we begin this exploration with a foundational question: 

“What does it mean to be a follower of Christ?”

Our grounding scriptural text will be Matthew 4:18-23, which tells how Jesus recruited his first disciples:

As he [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Professional Biblical scholars are quick to point out that this is more than simply Matthew’s 
description of how Jesus began his ministry.  For instance, Eugene Boring writes, “How do people become disciples of Jesus Christ?  …this is the question Matthew is addressing, not the historical or biographical question of a past event.”[i]

            To fully appreciate the call of the disciples, some background context is in order.  In Judaism during this period, rabbis were the recognized Jewish authorities and teachers within the faith.  This was especially true in matters of the Jewish Law, which was so fundamental to their faith. One trained to become a rabbi by first becoming a disciple of an already established and highly regarded rabbi.  Rabbis’ disciples were literally their followers, who went wherever the rabbi went.  The disciples would sit and listen to the rabbi’s teaching.  In order to become a rabbi’s disciple, a young Jewish man would have to seek out a rabbi and apply to become a disciple.  Generally speaking, rabbis did not seek out students.

            Of course, Jesus turned this tradition completely upside-down.  First, as far as we know, Jesus was not formally trained with a well-regarded rabbi in the normal disciple system described in the previous paragraph.  Instead, he appears to have been self-taught.  Secondly, as we learn from the scripture, Jesus actively sought out and recruited Andrew and Peter, James and John, and the others to be his disciples.

            Jesus calls the disciples:  “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  Note that the disciples immediately drop everything and follow him.  The typical questions, “Where are we going?”  “What should we bring?”  Where will we stay?”  How will we feed ourselves?” “What do you mean we will become ‘fishers of men?’” etc. are never asked.  Eugene Boring notes that the disciples appear to have been comfortable in their life-situation.  They had a good profession, with boats and nets for their work.  They have families and friends.  They were not looking to start a new life.  They had never met Jesus and did not know who he was.              Yet, there was Jesus appearing and disrupting their entire lives.  And, the disciples embraced the call.

            What did Jesus mean when he said, “I will make you fish for people”?  We should not interpret this claim as just a clever metaphor which Jesus invoked because he was talking to fishermen.  There is something much deeper going on here.  Jesus is inviting Andrew, Peter, James, and John to join him in the work of building God’s Kingdom here on Earth.  At the heart of the Christian faith is a fundamental claim:  Not only is God the Creator of all Creation, but God will continue God’s work of Creation until the Kingdom of God has been fully established.  Although God’s Reign has not yet been fully established, we can see evidence in the world already and God has guaranteed the fulfillment of this reign through the Resurrection of Christ.

The theologian Phil Hefner coined the term, “created co-creators,” to indicate that we finite humans have been invited to join in the work of Kingdom-building by the Infinite One.  Jesus’ invitation to the disciples in Matthew is not restricted to Andrew, Peter, James, and John.  No.  Instead, this invitation is extended to all who seek to follow him.  As Eugene Boring writes, “…the picture seems to be that God’s judging/saving mission to the world is represented by Jesus, who calls disciples to participate in the divine mission to humanity.  The scene is thus utterly theological…  Nothing in the text suggests that this is a special call to apostleship; rather, a theological perspective on the way every follower becomes a disciple is here presented.”[ii]

What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?  Out of his great love for us, Jesus invites us to enter into a special relationship as his disciples.  In this special relationship, we are invited to join with Jesus in the work of building God’s Kingdom here on Earth.  This is a special invitation, which brings great honor, joy, hope, and peace.  Further, as we join in the work of Kingdom building, we also will grow closer and deeper in our relationship with the Divine.  At Christ United Methodist Church, we think of this special role of discipleship as comprised of four pillars:

1.      Seek God.
2.      Act Inclusively
3.      Serve Others.
4.      Do Justice.

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, January 5th, as we begin our exploration of how Jesus is calling us to turn the Church upside-down.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street. 

We have three worship services on Sunday mornings at 8:30, 9:45, and 11:00.  The 8:30 and 11:00 services feature a traditional worship format and the services are held in our Sanctuary.  “The Gathering” at 9:45 is held in our Family Life Center (gym), and it is more informal and interactive.    

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[i] M. Eugene Boring, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 8, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[ii] Ibid.

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