Sermon Audio from September 4, 2016.

Matthew 4:12-20

12 When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— 14 to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

15 “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
    the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
    Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people living in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
    a light has dawned.”

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

18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.

One of the things that I’m always asking as a pastor is, what’s happening to the church today, and why? And I don’t mean just what’s happening to Saint Peter’s. I mean all Christian churches — at least in North America. And many of you have probably seen some of the statistics and talk about how the church is in both numerical and cultural decline.

Which does seem to be happening, but I think if we look a little deeper, we’ll be able to see that, this so-called decline isn’t the worse thing in the world, and it could be that what’s happening is not so much a decline as a clarification.

And what’s being clarified is this: not that there are far fewer self-identified Christians — the vast majority of people in the United States still claim to be Christian when they’re surveyed about their religion. What’s being clarified is, for whom does the Christian faith really matter and make a difference.

This is getting clarified because increasingly, there are fewer advantages, socially or economically speaking, to being part of a church. It’s just not necessary anymore in order to have a strong social group or advance yourself in society! To be distinctively Christians is requiring more commitment and sacrifice than in the past.

And part of me welcomes this clarification. Some Christians see it as a threat, but maybe we should see it as an opportunity and a  welcomed wakeup call. Because it raises the question: what difference does faith make in your life? What does it really matter to you?  And, then. if it makes a true difference, wouldn’t we want to tell others about it and invite them into it?

Because this is actually exactly what we’re called to do. And yet, this is one of the things that churches seem to struggle with the most. Even our church. Simply inviting people in and making other disciples.Y’all know that increasingly, people aren’t just going to walk in our doors because we’re here, because we have a building with a sign, or even a website.

Jesus calls the disciples to follow him, and as many of you know, at the end of the gospel of Matthew, in the Great Commission, Jesus send these same disciples out to make other disciples. He calls them. They have a calling on their lives.

Last Sunday was my ordination service, and many of you were here for it. In some respects it was the culmination of a calling I had sensed almost 10 year ago. For the longest time, though, even after starting seminary, I never really felt totally secure in this. Which wasn’t so much because I doubted myself — we all have that feeling from time to time — more so it was because I’ve always been very uncomfortable with any suggestion that my vocation was different from that of any other Christian.

Our culture is quite susceptible to this, in fact, because of how much emphasis many of us put on our careers. In traditional societies, this wasn’t as much of a problem. Family and tradition was the most important thing. But today, at least in our culture I think, it’s work. And there’s a strong tendency to over-identify with our work — with our occupation. And to consider our occupation the same as our vocation.

So if we’re not careful, we start to think that the person who’s really responsible for proclaiming Jesus is the pastor or preacher — the minister who’s up in front of everyone. And everyone else just has a supporting role.

 But that’s just simply not what Jesus says. When he calls the first disciples, and when he commissions the disciples, at the end of the gospel, there is no distinction between those who are called to discipleship and to disciple-making, and those who are not. We are all called to this ministry — anyone who identifies as a Christian has this responsibility.

Everyone of you has this vocation, no matter what your occupation.

And actually, I would say the practice of sharing our faith — of extending an invitation to others to follow Jesus — this practice, is what distinguishes inward-looking Christians from disciple-making Christians. Or, disciple-making Christians from what I would just call loyalty Christians, or belief-Christians. Christians who are Christians because of their identity, but not because they’ve been called.

And not surprisingly, Jesus models this for us himself in the way he calls the first disciples. See in the First Century, the typical way that a rabbi gained followers was for prospective pupils to come to him and ask if they could be one of his followers. Rabbi’s tended to have a fairly disinterested view of their students. It was students who especially wanted the rabbi’s more than the other way around. But of course, as he often does, Jesus goes against the grain in his approach, as it was he, the rabbi, who recruited the disciples.

And again, this is standard, to only ask us to do things that he has already himself as a model. We’re to make disciples, we’re to go after people, to become fishers of people — just as he did.

19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.

So the analogy that Jesus for discipleship is to fishing. I remember when I was little and I first heard this verse, I was always a little bothered by it. Because I was concerned that Jesus was telling us we shouldn’t go fishing anymore. I grew up going fishing pretty often, and I really enjoyed it. So the thought of having to give that up was sad, and it made me think Jesus was being a little bit unfair.

But in fact we know from reading the rest of the gospels, that the disciples do go fishing again. So it isn’t the case that Jesus is against fishing…

I actually just went on a fishing trip this last week. And it was great, I posted a picture on instagram and facebook — I caught this big red fish. Catching red fish can be a challenge, because you have to be very quiet. You can’t cast too close to the fish because then it spooks them. You have use the right lure or bait. And then you have reel the bait or lure in in such a way that makes it behave like the real thing.

But I was thinking about drawing the analogy to fishing out a little more, I realized that this is actually where the analogy kind of breaks down. Because at the end of the day, fishing is really all about deception. You basically make the fish think, hey here’s some food. But then you catch him…

And obviously I don’t think this is what we’re trying to do with people when we tell them about Jesus — though I know we’ve all had that experience probably, of deceptive or manipulative evangelism.There may be some strategy involved, but Jesus never evangelized this way.

 And when Jesus says, I’ll teach you to fish for people, the emphasis of the sentence isn’t on fishing so much as on people. Which is to say it’s on relationships! Which goes back to the whole question of calling.

Because you could substitute any occupation for the word fishing, in this case, to make it apply to you. Whatever your job is, whatever your daily life consists of, rather than activity being the end goal of your work itself, the work for as you Christian is always with the aim of building relationships that give you the chance to extend an invitation — to tell people about the good news, and to invite them to investigate — to explore — the call of Jesus.

Now, it is true that these days in our culture, it’s somewhat rare for people to just be completely open and interested to becoming part of “organized religion.” Maybe in other cultures. Most people where we live today though who aren’t Christians have grown up somewhat exposed to it, but then walked away from it as they got older — often because they’ve grown skeptical of the institution of the church or just don’t find it relevant anymore. But when they do this, even when they leave the faith, they often still believe is some kind of new age, self-help philosophy.

And I think it’s important to understand what most distinguishes Christianity from some of these other worldviews and belief systems that are so prevalent today — even though you may not realize it. Here are some popular quotes from leading self-help and new age teachers:

Every day, work harder on yourself than anything else. Because if you become more intelligent, more valuable, more skilled, you can add more value to other people. – Tony Robbins

Your biggest problem is you think you shouldn’t have them. Problems are what make us grow. Problems are what sculpt our soul. Problems are what make us become more. – Tony Robbins

In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you. – Deepak Chopra

The less you open your heart to others, the more your heart suffers. –  Deepak Chopra

And it’s not that everything that’s taught by people in these movement is false or ineffective. Actually, there’s seems to be a lot of practical wisdom and helpful insight from some of these teachers.  

I would just point out two things that distinguish the Christian gospel from these other philosophies:

1) First, both self-help and new age messaging tends to be about self-affirmation and self-realization. The insight is not that there’s anything wrong, necessarily. It’s just that we’re just looking at things the wrong way. We have the wrong perspective, and if we change our thinking, we can fix it.

 2) So, secondly, the only change that needs to happen, is one that we make. Which is a very different starting point from the one that Jesus is talking about.

Look at v. 17 from our reading today:

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

So the difference is, whereas a self-help gospel tells you what you can do differently to have a better life it gives you advice, in other words — the nearness of the kingdom of God is about what God has done, and made available to us — something we couldn’t do for ourselves. Advice might inspire you, but it doesn’t lift a weight off of you. In fact it puts the weight on you, you might say, in many respects. Because now you’re the one who determines whether this life is going to be available. Not that there’s anything wrong with taking action of course, but you can see the difference.

Remember too, that the coming of the kingdom of God also calls us to repentance, because something is indeed wrong with us and with the world. It’s the call from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. From self-sufficiency, to God-dependency.

By deciding to be our own kings and queens, everything falls apart — psychologically and socially, it’s just destructive. We hurt each other. And hurt people just keep on hurting people.

And I think we have to honestly ask ourselves: what’s keeping me from leading a life of invitation right now? And often it’s simply because I don’t trust God’s grace. I just don’t trust it. So I make Christianity about moral or doctrinal purity, because our moral actions and our doctrinal beliefs are things we still think we control.

Lesslie Newbigin, the famous British missionary, said that he thinks:

the greatest witness for the gospel in our lifetimes is a community of Christians living as if they believe the gospel is actually true.

Like God’s grace is really, actually available, in other words, and we don’t have to be slaves anymore to moralistic, knowledge-centered Christianity.

And if you still feel intimidated because you don’t think you know enough — it’s amazing to me how common this is — keep in mind, the disciples, these guys don’t know anything yet. I mean, we actually have the ability to understand more about Jesus now then they knew about him then — what he taught, who he was, what he did.

Another image besides fishing that Jesus uses one chapter later in the sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:14-15) is that of a lamplight. No one hides a lamp. They hold it up so all can see by it.

14 You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. Matthew 5:14-15

And the light does not originate with us. We are not the source — God is. So we’re just conduits. We are lamps that have been lit up! And so we let God’s light shine through us — ever so naturally.

Two authors who write about evangelism that I appreciate say it like this:

Relax. Enjoy your friends. Enjoy their company along with the company of Jesus. Point him out, freely, without fear or intimidation. You’re not responsible to sell him to them. You’re simply saying what you’ve seen. You’re not the judge. You’re the witness. We’ll go further and further into this way of thinking until you’re free to speak of Jesus often and always. And you’ll see—people will listen. Not because we’re so good, but because he is compelling!

– Carl Medearis, Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Non-Evangelism

We are a community bound together and energized by faith, love and commitment to Jesus Christ. Even though you don’t yet share that faith, love and commitment, you are most welcome to be with us, to belong here, to experience what we’re about. Then, if you are attracted and persuaded by what you see, you’ll want to set down roots here long-term. And even if you don’t, you’ll still be a friend.

– Brian McLaren, More Ready than you Realize: The Power of Everyday Conversations

Just a couple final points here about this practice of sharing and inviting:

  1. We’re not sharing our faith because we’re afraid of what’s going to happen if we don’t. We’re sharing because we’re overjoyed by what’s happened to us, and what could happen if we do!
  2. The second thing is, this practice isn’t about growing our church, numerically. No, it’s about furthering the genuine experience of transformation in people’s lives who neither know their enslavement to sin, nor the freedom they can find because of God’s love. I mean, this is what it’s all about. We want the truth to spread, until the whole world knows.

But you know, this desire to share your faith, because it’s a true conviction, because it really makes a difference in your life — that’s not something you can manufacture. It’s not something I can give you or put in you because of something I say or TJ says… It has to come from God, and from the Holy Spirit’s own work in your life!

Now, this doesn’t mean though that if you don’t feel like sharing your faith on some days that, you’re not a real Christian. It doesn’t mean to that every time you have doubts, you’re just confirming the fact that you’re an infidel…

It just means you have to find the things in your own spiritual life, that your rekindle your love of God and others. And you have practice those disciplines, go to those places, be with those people, who set your heart on fire for what matters and for what you know is true. We’re all going to have dry spells. So that experience in and of itself should not discourage us.

I know just speaking personally, it’s the doctrinal, and knowledge-based approach that I usually get hung up on, more so than the moral or legalistic approach — but both are equally unChristian! Both require the regular, transformative healing of the gospel if we’re to be free of them. So may we pursue this together.

Also published on Medium.