Today we hear Jesus repeat what John had proclaimed before Jesus was born: repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Matthew’s Gospel repeats the prophecy from Isaiah, that the gentiles would see, wake up, and come to know Jesus; they would be enlightened and the figurative darkness, or literal lack of knowledge they had of who God is, would no longer exist. God is near: get yourselves ready to encounter him!
Repent, Jesus says, for the Kingdom of God is near. This isn’t a claim about a place coming near, or at least not a literal place. Rather Jesus is claiming that he – this one who is God – is coming for us and coming to us. He’s in fact taking on who we are, assuming everything we are, so that we are in him and he is in us. It’s kind of a weird thing to think about. But Jesus is saying that this kingdom of heaven that arrives is him and when he comes, he will reestablish relationship with God and between all created things: he will bring about a kingdom that is not of this world. Nope, it’s God’s own desire that he comes into the world in the Person of Jesus Christ, to establish.
The thing this kingdom who comes near – Jesus – asks of us seems pretty simple: repent. What does it mean to repent? Why does Jesus ask us to repent? What is repentance about? (ASK) … Repenting is actually about, as we’ve been discussing, first, coming to know who God is, learning what his desire is for us; and then second, it’s about seeing where our lives – decisions, choices, ways of engaging one another, ways of thinking about situations – isn’t reflecting how God asks us to live with him and one another. So first we have coming to know God, second, we have a step of reflection: am I living in the way God desires me to when I say, interact with my friends, my enemies, when I respond to this or that situation, third, we have the step of moving toward God.
That is, of letting go of the things that keep us knowing God more deeply – maybe this has to do with how we prioritize our time and energy – and that keep us from weighing our lifestyles, our choices, our decisions with him as the focal point of our lives – maybe this has to do with fear of letting go, fear of changing, fear of being challenged, fear of other people, frustration or disagreement with others, etc.
Because the very next thing Jesus says after, ‘repent for the kingdom of God is near’ is: follow me. He goes to two sets of brothers who are fishing – Simon Peter and Andrew and then James and John – and he says to both of them: let go of what you’re doing, drop your nets, let that go, and come and follow me. If you drop what you were holding and follow me, I will recast you: I will make you into who you are supposed to be, ‘fishers of men’, fishers of people. In other words, you’ve got to let go of your stuff so that I can remake you into who I intended you to be: my disciples, witnesses, missionaries, my children who can point other people to me: fishers of people, disciples of Christ, children of God, followers of the way.
Our Gospel reading says, ‘as soon as Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘follow me’, they left their nets and their boats and immediately followed him. As I think I’ve said before, I had this sort of experience upon coming into the Church: God broke through my daily work, my busyness, my rational defenses, he entered into me – my mind and my heart – when I was opened by suffering in my case, and he said, ‘follow me and I will make you a fisher of people.’ Off to church and then to seminary I went. I was highly zealous as were the four brothers here who first followed Jesus.
In fact, I dare say that at one point or another, many who have an awakening from the slumber of this life, to the fullness of God percolating new life in them, follow God with a sudden zeal of intense desire, focus, exclusivity and love. The difficulty, as these same disciples will later reveal, is that that simple phrase Jesus utters, ‘follow me’ which we now affirm requires repentance not just once or twice but over and over, can be as challenging, frightening, confusing, frustrating, as can be a human relationship that moves from childish lust and romance, to commitment through sickness, struggle, disagreement, loss of passion or drive, etc. The gravity of following God is so often lost on us for whom complacency rather than danger is more often a barrier to learning anew, knowing, and following him.
But think, for a moment, about what it has meant for people to follow God: for Job – seeing all lost, family and friends turn on him, yet not straying in his faith, for Peter to whom Jesus will say three times, ‘do you love me, are you following me’. Feed my sheep, Jesus says to Peter. And of course this caring for Christians will lead Peter to his death and the hands of enemies of the Way Jesus had set out. Think of all the martyrs over the last two thousand years, in the last year, in the last month, who lost their lives in order to follow God.
Grace is not cheap. While we may receive it for free, to live into the grace of God, we must learn to give up our former lives every single day. This might mean you have to let go of your animosity or disagreement with others. It might mean that you need to back down from a fight or to actually engage more deeply. It might mean that you need to accept a situation or reality you don’t want to for the good of others in your household, or in your church, or your diocese, or your national church, or the whole catholic church. It might mean you have to sacrifice your comfort or the things you hold most dear, or the things that you’ve always done a certain way. It might mean that you have to give up putting yourself and your worries and concerns first. It might mean that you do not get to claim priority in choosing what you do next.
To follow God, to take up your Cross, is not about your comfort. It’s not about getting your way. Look at this passage again: to follow God is to let go of your old life – the figurative fishing nets here – and allow your life, your words and actions and ways – to be reshaped by God. This will require humility. It’s why Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter really loves him. Because while Peter says, ‘yes Lord you know I love you,’ Jesus knows that to step into his grace, into the light and new life, is to often be taken (as he will to say to Peter) “where you do not wish to go.” This isn’t punishment. It isn’t that God is unfair. It isn’t that God working through his Church has failed it or you. Rather it is that to truly be a fisher of people, well this mission will lead you through the trials, tribulations, the muck, the frustration and disagreement, that simply is human relationships.
To be a fisher of people you will get figuratively wet, messy, you’ll be blown about by the winds of uncertainty and the cold sleet of rejection, disappointment, confusion, worry, frustration and lack of fit and fulfillment. You might even get pulled down into the water, treading so you do not drown, or swimming with no shore in sight. That’s what it is to step into a relationship with God, when that relationship is fundamentally about you participating in his gathering frail and broken people like you and I to him. To follow God is not to be first, but to be open, willing, ready, humble, and ready to serve others to engage with others. So my friends whom shall you follow in the months to come?
This morning we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ. So first we read from the prophet Isaiah whose words to Israel told of God’s coming into the world: “here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. Then we read from the Gospel of Matthew, that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise: he himself is God, the Son of God, sent, or coming into the world to bring about God’s own righteousness: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him … And as Jesus came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And God the Father said, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And there we have God’s promise to come into the world to “fulfill all righteousness.” What is that righteousness: to make things as they were intended, to bring them to perfection, and since human beings failed to accomplish this, to reconcile, or to remake them from nothing. This in short, is the gospel: God came into the world and took on our sin, so that we could live as God intended us: to love God, to do his will, to follow his perfect ways by which he established everything that exists. This is manifested in Jesus’s baptism: God’s giving himself to us so that we can go to him and find our way, the righteous, true and faithful way to live here and now.
In our Triune God – Father, Son and HS – then, we receive life; a new life, created from nihil, non-existence, death. We enter into Jesus’s own baptism and of course we mark this with baptisms of our own. But this isn’t solely a mark of finality. It is also a mark of beginning. To be initiated into the new life in Christ, is to be initiated into a mission, into words and actions that communicate and share God’s life with others and to learn to give up those that don’t do this. So we are, by grace, made new.
But the acceptance of grace brings with it responsibility not unlike that of parents gifted with a child. Yes, you have this new bundle of joy – a new baby, a gift and miracle of new life – but that new life comes with a set of responsibilities as those who are to nurture this new life. As a parent must learn how to care for, teach, nurture, discipline and structure the new life of this new being, so too must the new Christian learn how to care for, nurture, discipline, and eventually communicate and even teach their new faith.
Where does a new Christian go, where does a Christian who has been in the Church for 60 years go, to learn what the faith is? How to care for and nurture and share it? Yes, to the Scriptures. Why? Because this is where God has revealed what his intention is for us; it’s where he tells us what it means to love him and to thereby, love our neighbors and even enemies. It is where God shows us – in his lived life amongst us in Jesus – revealed through time by the Holy Spirit – what our actions and words should look like if we want to follow him; if we want to love him, to be obedient and faithful.
The difficulty that we have everywhere, but particularly in the Western Church, is that we like to imagine that we can know who God is and that we can follow his will without knowing our Scriptures. For some reason – in most mainline churches – reading Scripture seems to be assumed to be superfluous to knowing God or doing his will. Reading Scripture, coming to know it deeply, has been replaced with a sense that, ‘hey if I’m a nice person and know some snippets of the text, and maybe do some nice stuff or put on good works, I’m being a faithful Christian. After all, I have my baptismal certificate.’
I’m not sure exactly how or why this has occurred, or perhaps there are so many reasons that it’s impossible to assign one particular reason for this occurring. I would suggest though that one of our greatest issues is that if we really dig into Scripture, we read things that challenge us, that make us uncomfortable, that call us out on our words and behavior, and that shine a spotlight on our sin: our failures to know God, to thereby love and obey him and to care for and nurture our neighbors. Furthermore, when we really dig into the Scriptures, and we then talk about them with other people, we inevitably find that we might disagree with one another. Those disagreements have too often been held in an environment of anger, bitterness, envy, and hatred, rather than as the Scriptures straight forwardly tell us, engaged in with love. And of course this extends to the doctrines, discipline and practices we have in our Churches.
So often, instead of engaging in a God revealed, i.e. Scripturally informed discussion about matters, we instead table discussions i.e. we delay them or stop them, and often simply go forward doing our own will because we lack the courage to face into Scripture, that is, into grace head on with other people. We avoid reading, understanding, learning, or seeking to consult Scripture, or doctrine, instead, thinking somehow we can avoid God’s notice if we just do our own thing in accordance with our own belief system. Or we ignore or write people off, or gossip in order to undermine them socially. But this is not consistent with what God asks of us when we are initiated into his life through our baptisms. God tells us straight up that following him is going to be really difficult. Why? Because we will have to constantly consult the truth – his life revealed in Scripture – and then talk about it not out of anger, judgment, bitterness, or frustration, but out of love (hope, patience, self-control, compassion, gentleness). And furthermore, this will require us to be courageous. It is unacceptable, God says through Paul, to be cowardly in our faith and witness. We cannot go about our lives in the Church, or outside of the Church engaging in gossip, slander, or with envy, jealousy, bitterness or anger. Why? Because these things hurt others who will respond in kind. Collectively, this will end up tearing down the Church, or a congregation, and it will push the weakest, or those just seeking, away from God and from us.
Let’s get really concrete here. Last week I came downstairs after service to overhear a conversation about someone’s unhappiness with Theo handing out bread during the service. This wasn’t said directly to me, instead, I overheard it second hand. When I spoke with the person directly, I was told that ‘several people were thinking of not coming up to communion because Theo was handing out the bread.’ This was the situation. Now let’s address this drawing on what we’ve learned from above about consulting Scripture together.
First and foremost, we spoke about the need to know God’s will for how we live with one another. This means, how do we engage one another as we try to live out the faith. I’ve said repeatedly that we need to know the Scriptures. So if someone has a problem with what a member of the congregation, whether priest or another staff person, or another member is doing, what do the Scriptures i.e. what does Jesus say to do? “if [you believe] your brother or sister [has] sin[ed] against you, go PRIVATELY TO HIM OR HER and point out the fault.” This did not occur. Instead, I overheard a complaint being made to a third party, something known as, ‘triangulation.’ The difficulty here, as Paul will raise in the Epistles, is that not going directly to a person doesn’t allow for a conversation about the actual topic at hand and so the ability to check, test, and clarify whether a practice is consistent with Scripture and with acceptable church practices. This practice of not going directly to someone communicates a lack of trust in the capacity and competence in them and so raises defenses as the other person will often feel undermined. Now perhaps the criticism is deserved. But Scripture is quite explicit that the WAY in which this situation was approached was inconsistent with God’s will for relationships, and the concrete result was, as Paul discusses in the Epistles, a break in trust, which is of course the foundation of relationships and the capacity to build up.
Let’s say that all those who were uncomfortable with Theo handing out the bread had actually come to speak with me one on one and we had gone to Scripture. What would we find? Now this gets a little more tricky to interpret because we have to look at several factors: what does Scripture say, what does church practice, policy or canon say, and why, and what is our concrete situation in the parish. In Scripture, what does God say about children and his relationship to them? In mainline Churches, where is Jesus Christ bodily encountered? In Word and Sacrament. So let’s go to Scripture to see what Jesus says about children and encountering him: God throughout the old and new testaments anoints and appoints children as his leaders and prophets (see Jeremiah for example, I am just a boy he says). But what about their seeking him? Let’s go to the Gospels and what do we hear? So there is this situation where Jesus’s disciples see children coming up to Jesus and they go to stop the kids from doing so. What does Jesus say to those disciples? “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” So Jesus dismisses his disciple’s attempts to hinder children from approaching him in person, in his body. Where again did we say Jesus is most present in an Anglican service? Right, the Eucharist and in our reading and preaching i.e. the Word. So when I am holding Theo during the Eucharistic Prayer, when he is present at the words of Institution said during the Eucharistic Prayer, he is present with the body of Jesus Christ. When, with me speaking the words, he hands you the bread that I have consecrated during the Eucharistic Prayer, he is participating in the mission of Jesus Christ, and by Christ’s own power, he is fulfilling his baptismal vows in a capacity permitted to baptized members of our church who are not ordained.
Now let’s go to the actual issue of distribution. Here we have to move into theology a bit. From the Scriptures, the Anglican Church, along with other mainline Churches, determined that an ordained minister was to be set apart or assigned to perform a particular portion of a liturgy along with a whole lot of other administrative or management duties. The liturgy portions for which a priest is set apart are these components and these alone: the absolution after we collectively confess, the words of institution during the Eucharistic prayer – this is when the bread and wine are consecrated, or when they become the body and blood of Jesus Christ (arguably), and finally, in the blessing. That is it. An unordained person can do the entire rest of the service. The distribution of the bread is usually done by the priest because of custom; but there is no unique particularity to the bread that is not also so for the wine. This should raise a question as to why it is okay for a baptized lay person to distribute the wine, as is done in our diocese, but not the bread? We have no requirement for licensing by the diocese, or else only Paul would be able to distribute the wine or bread (not Carolyn or Christine). To believe that only the priest can hand out the bread is false. It is inconsistent not only with Scripture, but with how the Anglican Church, at least here, presently understands & practices sacramental ministry. The ultimate result of not first seeking God’s will, which would lead someone who has an issue with another member of the church to go directly to the person, is a cascade of wrong presumptions, which could lead to wrong actions, frustration, resentment, and finally break down the trust upholding relationships in the church.
We continue to wonder, in the West, why a next generation of people is not coming into mainline Churches. I would suggest that one of the biggest deficits we have in ‘attractive ministry,’ is actual knowledge of our faith, our theology and tradition and our polity: what our faith is and how we are to come together to struggle with life’s challenges. Secondarily, I think we have lost the courage to dig into the Scriptures when facing hard questions, disagreements and challenges. I have asked for the last four weeks and now I ask again, do we know who God is? Do we know what he asks of us, how he speaks to us about how we are to live together, to go and share this with others? If we don’t know this, how are we going to fulfill the baptismal vows we took? If we do know these things, if we have faith that God has equipped us to share our faith in love, why are we so hesitant to rely on the Scriptures and to follow them when we engage in life with one another, and when we go out of here, with our neighbors and family? Amen.