Sermon for Jan. 26, 2020, Epiphany 3A.

Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake–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.

The early church struggled with a question that was hard to answer. The question was, how was Jesus related to God? Clearly, Jesus was a person of great God-consciousness. People were drawn to him because they felt the presence of God when he was present. Some experienced healing. His teaching showed that he had insight into God’s purposes. His prayer life was intimate, not pro-forma or ritualized. But how, exactly did Jesus relate to God, the early Christians wondered?  

They came up with many different explanations. Some said he was totally God, just appearing to be human, like the way Greek gods could do. Others said he was totally human, but was adopted by God as God’s son at his baptism. There were other ideas too. 

Christians eventually took sides, proclaimed their view correct, and the other views were wrong; heresies. There were fights, even street fights. The question for them was, what do you believe is the right answer? In other words, believing the right theology about Jesus and God became the central Christian question.  

Christianity spread in those early years. The Roman empire was so divided with bishops condemning each other and their flocks that by the early 300’s the situation was dire. So, Emperor Constantine convened a meeting of all the bishops, requiring them to come to the city of Nicea to hammer out one creed they could all agree on.  Eventually, they did. Most of them did. There was one bishop who, even on pain of punishment would not agree, but the others did. 

They produced the Nicene Creed. The point of Christianity had become: do you believe the right things about Jesus and God? If not, you were condemned as a heretic, and you were told you were not saved, and were destined for the fires of hell, forever.  

Nicea vs. Jesus

Some of us here know that story well, but I wanted to review it this morning because it is such a stark contrast with the text we read. What did Jesus want from people? Did Jesus have a creed? Did Jesus demand that people believe a set of ideas about himself? 

What is the gospel? Is it, “believe this and you will escape hell when you die?” It is my opinion that we should let Jesus answer that question. He did, in the text we just read.  

Matthew tells us, 

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.” 

“Good news” means “gospel.” So what was the gospel that Jesus proclaimed?  Let’s hear it straight from Jesus:

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Kingdom of heaven is the same as kingdom of God. Jews avoided saying the sacred name of God, so they often said, “heaven” or “the name” instead. So for Jesus, the gospel is the message that “the kingdom of God has come near.” It is not off in the distant future. It is not after you die, up in heaven. It is not waiting for a miracle or a war; the kingdom of God has arrived.  

It is not a place, it is not a territory, it is not a physical or political kingdom, it is, as Jesus spells out so clearly in the Lord’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come” is when “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” When people live as if God is king, then that’s the kingdom. The kingdom of God is present when people live their lives the way God wants. Notice how different that is from believing the right creed.  

And that is why we need to “repent” as Jesus said. “Repent” simply means “change the way you have been thinking”, which of course, will change how you behave. Change from what to what? What does repentance look like? Again, let us let Jesus answer the question for us. Matthew says,

“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake–for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Repentance then means leaving behind an old way of life, and following Jesus. The old nets, the fishing business were symbols of business as usual; a way of saying that following Jesus leads to a whole new way of living.  In other words, leaving behind the default position.

 The way we describe it today is to call it the ego-driven life; the false self, or the small self. The self that is self-concerned. The self that has to compete and compare; the fragile ego that is offended so easily. That is what we repent of, instead of remaining tangled up in those old nets.  

If we turn from our old ego-driven self, what do we turn towards? A life of fishing for others. In other words, an other-centered life. A life that cares about the concerns of others, instead of merely our own. A life of concern especially for the weak, the vulnerable, the suffering and the oppressed. That is what a life of following Jesus looks like. 

In other words, following Jesus by turning from the ego-driven life and turning towards a life for others is pretty much the opposite of a life of merely believing the “right” things and condemning as heretics those who believe the “wrong” things. But after Nicea, that’s what the church taught, and she taught it for centuries.

A New Day

Thankfully, we are living in a new day. Many people have awakened to this story.  When he talks about how the church got it wrong for so many years, Brian McLaren calls it, “Adventures in missing the point.” The point should have been the quest to live in the kingdom of God by following Jesus, the man of God who was a man “for others” as theologians have called him.  

The church has a lot of egg on its face for having missed the point for so long. In the minds of many people, the church’s reputation is unredeemable. Some have walked out, never to return. 

Others, who want to stay in, feel the need to distance themselves from the name “Christian” with all its historical baggage, preferring instead to simply call themselves “followers of Jesus.” I sympathize with them, but I’m afraid that is an insider distinction that is lost on everyone else. 

Why We are Here

To me, that is why we are here; to follow Jesus. So we gather to remember Jesus, to hear his teachings, and to reflect on how to put them into practice in our lives. It means we keep doing our regular spiritual practices, which are the tools by which we manage our self-concerned egos, especially the practices of prayer and meditation. 

It means we figure out ways to be “for others” including using our resources, our buildings, and our energies, to make a real difference. That’s why we have a New Vision Home for the DHS children. That’s why we open our doors to so many community groups like Monday Morning Seekers, Enneagram groups, Police And Community Engagement, Bridges, Citizen’s Climate Lobby, Nar-Anon, and others. 

That’s why session just voted to open our doors to the seven-week “Strengthening Families” program of the Comprehensive Juvenile Services Agency of Sebastian County which will begin later this spring.  

We can only do these things as a united community, working together for the common good, with a common vision. So today, we are thankful to add 3 new members into our community.

 Becoming a member means making a commitment to join this community and its mission. All three are already involved in community groups and service through this congregation. We need their gifts, their energy, their wisdom, and their love. They need our prayers and encouragement, our love and support.  

Let this next liturgy of reception of new members be a time when we all reaffirm our commitment to this faith-community and our common mission. 

The committee that has been meeting to answer the question: should we stay here in this location or make a change, has recommended, and session has approved that we stay and minister here. We believe that God has a future for us here. We have a mission, and we have a tremendous asset here on Rogers Avenue. 

We believe that we are uniquely poised to be an inclusive alternative with a beautiful, compelling message: God loves us all, and calls us all to follow the Jesus path, connected deeply with God, and fully activated on behalf of others.  

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