Our reading from Matthew chapter 4 this morning tells us how Jesus called his first four disciples – all fishermen; saying to them, “Follow Me.”
This puzzles me, because the first chapter of Matthew tells us that Jesus will be called “Emmanuel” – “God with us.” This speaks to how we see God as always right here, alongside us. Through Jesus-Emmanuel, we know God experiences what we experience. God feels what we feel. God knows birth and death just as we are born, and will someday die. “Emmanuel” is a statement of our equality before God. We are one of the many children of God standing alongside the first child of God, Jesus Christ.
So, how can the same Gospel teach that we are following behind Jesus (as the disciples were and at the same time walking with Jesus, our sibling, at the same time? Is Jesus our leader or our companion?
Now, how some interpret the idea that we “follow” Jesus troubles me. “Following Jesus” does not mean that we are desperately clutching at the hem of his robe to be dragged into Paradise. “Following Jesus” does not mean that we must adhere to some very specific interpretation of God’s Word or risk eternal damnation. “Following Jesus” does not mean we check our brains, or our hearts, at the door.
On the other hand, some people go a bit too far with the idea of Jesus as a companion. Yes, Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us.” But, this does not mean that Jesus goes everywhere that we want to go. Jesus is our companion. But companions walk together. They support each other.
We do not slavishly follow Christ. But then again, we cannot expect Christ to follow us just because we want him to! And yet many, Fundamentalists and Progressives alike, believe exactly that: justifying their own particular perspectives as the only one that is blessed by God. (Well, except atheists, who just want you to believe their particular perspective!) Many go further, claiming we’ll be blessed only if we have enough faith in what they believe. Really?
Our faith is not a social club. Divine favor is not a perk for our devotion to the Faith. It is certainly not a call to do whatever we want! Thinking that “God with us” also means “God will bless us (no matter what we do)” is an excuse for not listening for God’s voice in any of the many ways God speaks to us all the time.
And, our walk with God is communal, not just individual. What we think may be important. But, not if what we believe is isolated from what others believe, or what they and we hear from God. Thinking our faith is self-sufficient in isolation from the faith of our neighbors and friends means we are not listening for the wisdom of God that is present everyone we encounter. It means we do not understand that our community is an important balance in ensuring we don’t stray from the intent of Christ’s teaching. Being part of a community means our personal faith is guided and challenged and informed by those around us, all the time.
Now, this does not mean we simply surrender to the beliefs of those around us, or who claim to lead our communities. We cannot blindly accept their interpretation of God’s word, either. This is true in every realm of human endeavor and expression or thought. Our faith informs everything in our lives. All we do is grounded (in one way or another) in our individual faith-driven understanding of our position in Creation relative to the Divine, and relative to the community of which we are a part. Our faith is a dialog between us, and God, and those around us. Our faith is not dependent upon the words of any leader, or any prophet, other than God.
Another thread in the Gospel of Matthew is that the simple fisherman and others who are called to follow Jesus had a lot to learn. This is certainly true. Many have pointed out that the Disciples do not take on the title of “Apostle” until after Jesus’ ministry here on earth is complete. They were not ready to walk with God until after they had learned all they needed to learn from following Jesus. They were not able to make the leap from simple fishermen to Apostles all at once.
And so it is with all of us: we can’t walk with God until we’ve learned how to walk to begin with (in a metaphorical sense). We all follow Jesus’ teaching; but until we understand the basic tenets of the Faith for ourselves, we are actually simply following someone else’s example. Now, that’s not a bad thing, but it’s only the beginning.
And this point is a theme in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. The people of Corinth see themselves as followers of Christ, or of someone who preaches the message of Christ. They do not see themselves as walking with Jesus, but following. They argue among themselves as to which of those leaders is best.
But, Paul’s message is very straightforward: when figuring out who to follow, the answer is (ultimately) “none of the above.” And, this is made clear from the very first line of his letter, where he called them his “brothers and sisters” not his followers, not his “Disciples.”
Paul talks at length about how his mission is not about how many people he could baptize; but about preaching the Good News of the Gospel. He did not come to gather followers for himself. He was not asking them to rank themselves by the quality of their belief, or the excellence of any particular teacher’s message. Instead he urges them to come together, to avoid division and the taking of sides. He says they must be joined together “with one mind and shared judgment.”
They are not to follow anyone, but walk together (or march together) – with each other, and with Paul, and (especially) with Christ. The path they are to follow must be a communal discernment – a shared judgment. The path we follow in pursuing our faith cannot be dictated by any individual or leader, not even Paul.
Now, when we begin in our faith, Baptism may be one way we start. Being called to follow Jesus is another way. But, we are not truly mature in our faith until we are ready to walk with Jesus. We walk not as followers, but as one of the many, many children of God who are siblings with Christ. “Follow me” is not a demand for obedience, but a call to walk the same path that those who came before us have also walked in their own pursuit of the Gospel.
Now, this does not mean that we are cut off from God’s grace until we become mature Christians. Our reading from Isaiah 9 says that everyone is full of delight in God’s presence. Like Paul in First Corinthians, Isaiah is talking about the salvation or restoration of the community as a whole. He says God is lifting the load that weighs all of the people down. And, that the light of life is shined on those – meaning all those – who are living in the shadowy darkness. Not just some of them. Not just those whom we believe qualify through their supposedly more perfect faith.
There is no individual merit in this equation. The salvation or redemption of the community as a whole is the focus of these texts. Judging the merits or maturity of the faith of any particular individual is dismissed by both Paul and Isaiah as not worthy of discussion here: because ultimately we can’t do it alone, we are in this together.
In walking with God, we are called to preach the Gospel, the Good News. Paul teaches us this. The disciples did not become Apostles until they were ready to do this for themselves. The people of Corinth didn’t need to be expert preachers. Neither do we. We don’t need to be eloquent. We don’t need to have an intellectually elegant argument. We don’t need an impressive resume, or a high falutin’ degree from a seminary.
To be a preacher of the Gospel, to have something of value to contribute in our communal dialog with each other and with God, only requires belief. Not skill. Not knowledge. As an aside, it is worth remembering some words that it is thought were first said by St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”
Just belief in the Cross of the Anointed and the transformative power it represents within our lives is important, and is really all that is important. We simply need to believe in the truth of God’s Word which constantly works in all of us.
In fact, if we allowed only experts to preach, Paul says that would nullify the message of the Cross, which is about how all are worthy of the Grace of God. We see his advice at work in how this ARK operates. We believe the work of the church is a ministry of all believers, not just those (like me) who might have a degree in Theology! I may preach somewhat more elegant and scholarly sermons from time to time. I might even preach a good one, occasionally! But, that does not mean I have some sort of special merit to justify a claim to being the one and only minister here, it’s not true: we are all ministers. We walk together and work together, each of us contributing from out of the unique talents and gifts that each of us has. Those individual gifts were given for the benefit of the whole community, not just for our own individual merit.
Now, none of us are perfect. None of us will ever be a perfect leader. None of us will ever attain perfection in our ministry or our lives. Our ministries and our lives are made perfect only through the Cross, that is what Paul is telling us, not through human effort. It’s God’s job to make us perfect, not our job! We only have to accept God’s Grace, which we do by walking the path God sets before us. It’s our job to accept and love each other’s imperfections.
This is what is meant by “Emmanuel” – God with us. We are all with each other, and with God. We are all following the path that others have trodden before us. We are all responding to Jesus’ call to follow and preach the Gospel. We know that we preach the perfect message of God imperfectly. We know our efforts are flawed and will often fail. But, we also know that we, and our ministry, are perfected through Christ’s Love and Christ’s teaching.
“Follow Me,” said Jesus, and we do: working together to preach the Gospel as he calls us to do. We follow his example so that the Kingdom of God is made manifest here on earth, for all of God’s children.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, January 22, 2017 (Third Sunday after Epiphany).
Copyright (c) 2017, Allen Vander Meulen III.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.