Saturday, January 25, 2014

Follow Me

Sermon on Matthew 4:12-25
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 26, 2013 (Third Sunday after Epiphany)

“Follow me,” says Jesus.  Of course, when Jesus said that, Simon, Andrew, James, and John were literally supposed to follow Him.  Jesus was physically walking around here on earth, and when He said “Follow Me,” it was an invitation to literally get up from what they were doing, and walk around with Him.  He went to specific places here on this earth, and they physically followed Him around.  Following Jesus in this way was a somewhat unique thing that could only happen because at that time in history, in that part of the world, Jesus was physically walking around and preaching.  At our point in history, however, Jesus doesn’t physically come walking (or driving) through Racine and say to any of us, “Follow Me,” and we put down whatever we are doing and, put on a warm coat, hat and gloves, and follow Him up Lathrop toward the McDonald’s on 16th or wherever.  Following Jesus in the literal sense we see in today’s Gospel lesson is something that just doesn’t belong to our time and place in history, because we live after the Ascension, and so His presence among us today is not a matter of Him walking around looking for all the world like an ordinary human being, but rather a matter of being present in, with, and other, His proclaimed Word, the water of Holy Baptism, and the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

But the words, “Follow Me,” weren’t the only things Jesus said here.  He also told these four men that they would become “fishers of men.”  His choice of words here was an obvious reference to what their daily vocation already was.  They were fishers of fish.  They served God by being His hands to provide His people with daily bread in the form of seafood.  Now Jesus was calling them to study and learn from Him so that their vocation of fisherman would become transformed so that instead of dragging the net through the water and pulling in the fish caught in it, they would drag the net of the Word through humanity and pull in those caught by it through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Both vocations are valuable, that of fisher of fish and fisher of men, but Jesus wanted these particular men to become the latter, even though they had been the former.  And by the way, they never completely stopped being fishers of fish, either.  It’s what they did to pass the time after Jesus’ resurrection while they were waiting for Him to appear to them in Galilee.  For that matter, when He and His disciples were supposed to pay the temple tax, it was a coin found in the mouth of a fish that Peter had caught which was used to pay the tax.  So, in that sense, they became fishers of men even though they were still fishers of fish as well.

As Christians, we do follow Jesus.  Yes, we often need to be reminded that following Him is simply what Christians do, but I think perhaps we tend to think of following Him as a good work that contributes somehow to our relationship with Him.  See, we obeyed Your command, we left everything behind to follow You!  The fact is, though, that following Him is not a good work but a reality that God creates into us when we become Christians.  We follow Jesus not so much by trying to be like Him, asking ourselves constantly what He would do in a particular situation (though that can sometimes be a helpful question as we wage the war going on within ourselves), but simply because God has put us to death and resurrected us in His image.

These four fishermen didn’t really know what Jesus was asking when He said, “Follow Me.”  Yes, He told them that they would “catch men,” but into what?  What were these people who would be caught being caught into?  What is the point of all this catching of men?

Jesus asked His disciples to follow Him to the cross.  He asked them to follow Him to what appeared to be the total destruction of His ministry, to witness their Lord, their Leader, their Teacher undergo the most brutal form of execution mankind has ever devised.  They followed Him so that they could witness Him undergoing nothing less than the torments of hell.  “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?”  In fact, they followed Him into their own deaths, as all of them but John were also executed for being Christ’s apostles and preaching Him.

But the death of God leads to resurrection.  That’s also where these men followed their Lord.  These four, especially, were among the first to witness the fact that the tomb was empty and that Jesus had risen again.  They saw the risen Lord face-to-face, and even ate fish with Him along the shores of the very same lake where today’s Gospel lesson takes place.  A man risen from the dead?  Impossible, we might say.  Impossible, they certainly would have said if they hadn’t seen it with their own eyes.  That’s what Jesus invited them to see, as well, when He asked them to follow Him.

But they didn’t just follow Him to see these things, they followed Him in undergoing these things.  And so did all of you.  As St. Paul points out in Romans 6, those who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into His death, so that even as Christ is risen from the dead, we too may walk in newness of life.  Christ made you to follow Him before you were even aware of it, in most cases.  You followed Him through the cross to the empty tomb when you were baptized, so the life you now live, you live to God.  Jesus caused you to follow Him through death and resurrection already at the very beginning of your being a Christian.  That’s what being a follower of Jesus really means: you are one who died with Him and therefore has risen with Him.

So, what does Jesus do, right after He calls His first disciples to follow Him?  He heals the sick, drives out demons, makes the lame to walk and the blind to receive their sight, and so on.  And here is where the whole question of following Jesus and imitating Him would seem to break down.  We simply can’t do miracles the way He can.  God simply hasn’t given anybody the gift of being able to heal at will.  Yes, miraculous healings can and do still happen, but no human on earth can command these sorts of things to happen just by saying so, or even by praying so.  And so we might well ask what “following Jesus” means when it comes to feeding the hungry, healing the sick, clothing the naked, and so on.  Well, we can’t do these things miraculously, but we can (and do!) do them all the time.  God’s people pray every day for daily bread.  And every legitimate job in the entire economy is part of the process by which God’s people get daily bread.  Healings happen all the time.  Usually it’s medical knowledge and technology on the part of doctors and other caregivers, rather than miracles, but the sick are healed.  “Following Jesus” when it comes to alleviating the many and various problems caused by original sin, does not mean that we have to devote our lives to the Church as an institution.  What it does mean, is that everything we do is done as those who are already risen again with Christ and who therefore are free to do whatever we do as a loving service to our neighbor and a small picture to him of that place where hunger, thirst, sin, and sorrow, will never afflict us again.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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