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22nd January 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
20 January 2017

Readings

Isaiah 9:1-4

Maurice Andrew notes that Isaiah 9 begins with an obscure prose passage that perhaps links this chapter to the gloom of the previous chapter.  The poetry then talks of the people who walked in darkness seeing a great light. 

Andrew draws attention to a letter written by The Maori Prophet Wiremu Ratana to Moriori Leader Tommy Solomon in 1924 explaining the origin of his vision and asking Solomon to call a meeting and recruit converts. [1]   

Matthew 4: 12-23

Warren Carter heads the first section of our reading ‘Jesus, The Light’ Shines in Imperial Darkness’ which refers to Matthew’s use of the quotation from our Isaiah reading. 

Matthew is suggesting that Jesus also brings light, this time to those suffering under the darkness of Roman oppression.[2]  .

Jesus begins his public ministry by announcing that the empire, or reign of heaven, is at hand and Carter stresses that Galilee is a territory ruled by the Romans.  The fact that the men were fishermen means they were controlled by an imperial economic monopoly.  Fish were claimed as revenue for the empire so Simon and Andrew, would have purchased a lease or contract with Rome’s agent that allowed them to fish and obligated them to supply a certain quantity of fish. 

Our fishing has a government imposed quota system but a better analogy might be the imperial arrangement where New Zealand supplied agricultural commodities to Britain at very basic prices, bought British goods at premium prices and sent young men to fight European wars.

In calling the men to fish for people Matthew shows that Jesus’ call invades and challenges people’s everyday world that is controlled by imperial economics.  

Sermon

Writing of this passage Dr Bill Loader suggests that:

It is interesting that Matthew is not prepared to start with his story of Jesus proper without first identifying those who will carry it on. They, indeed, will be among those who bring its light into dark places in and beyond Galilee.[3]

Loader goes on to suggest this is not scalp hunting.  It is not building a congregation in order to have bragging rights within a denomination or at the ministers fraternal.  Fishing for people is about seeking out folk who will not only follow Jesus but follow in the way that he sought out his disciples.  Jesus engaged people in the vision and agenda of ‘the kingdom’.  Jesus’ ‘kingdom’ vision was a way of widening peoples’ horizons, giving them courage then sending them into what may be to them, dark and unfamiliar places. 

The Jesus’ way is to call people to go into those scary places with the light and compassion.

Matthew is not talking about going into caves filled with bats and spiders.  Anyone can do that.  Darkness and light are used metaphorically to talk about challenging and changing established patterns of behaviour and showing, or illuminating, the life giving benefits of such changes for individuals and their communities.

Jesus was a disruptive influence in his society because he placed the challenge of his ‘kingdom’ vision ahead of loyalties to patriarchal family structure and economic practices.

Local systems of work and family were, and still are, crucial for security and the fabric of society.  So challenging them was, and still is, a dark place.  Nevertheless Jesus' challenge sets these priorities aside, not in principle and not for everyone, but in a way that exposes them as relative rather than absolute values. 

In the Jesus vision there is something great and more fundamental, than patriarchal family and the local economy.  Indeed greater than the national or world economy.  

Certainly it is taking a real risk to challenge the place of family and the economy but for many people real growth will never happen until they take such a risk. That also applies to communities and congregations where local conditions and loyalties can easily replace the God of the kingdom.   Congregations easily begin to serve something other than Jesus’ vision.  Churches abandon Jesus’ radical agenda that challenges us to call into question the dominant values of family and economy. 

The family of the church can become the prime focus rather than the mission of Christ.  Creeds and rules filter out undesirable members as a congregation seeks to provide a safe haven that protects its members from the darkness of the world rather than be the light that cuts through the darkness and liberates people.  

Jesus called his disciples to be fishers of people not fish entrapped in a net of tradition, creeds and proof texts.  American religious writer Diana Butler Bass warns us of that risk in the forward of her book Christianity After Religion.  

I do, however, think it is exceedingly wise for faithful people to intentionally engage emerging religious questions in order to reform, renew, and re-imagine ancient traditions in ways that make sense to contemporary people.’[4]      

Indeed if we don’t bait our hooks with an understanding of the issues that were important to Jesus, but expressed in ways the contemporary world will comprehend, then we are not going to be successfully fishers of people.

Last week I was fishing at the mouth of the Waimakariri River. The number of fish being hooked by those around me showed I was fishing in a school of Kahawai but I was not catching anything. 

I then noticed a school of very small fish around my feet. Furthermore the man next to me had a much smaller lure on the end of his line.  So I changed my lure and immediately hooked a fish.  The Kahawai needed to believe my lure was part of the school of fish they were feeding on.  They were not interested in, or were even sceptical, of bigger and brighter fish. 

That is a nice metaphor for a religion that seems totally irrelevant to the everyday world people live in, a world of dark places needing light.

Loader points out that Matthew was not prepared to start his story of Jesus’ ministry without first identifying those who will carry it on.  The success, the very world changing triumph of Jesus’ vision depended on the disciples he recruited.  The success of Jesus’ mission depended on Jesus’ fishing technique and the way he passed that process on to his disciples. 

Quoting verse nineteen on its own we get the impression that that all Jesus needed to do was say ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ (Matthew 4:19) and the brothers were convinced.  Indeed the next verse confirms that suspicion by saying: ‘Immediately they left their nets and followed him’. (Matthew 4:20)  

However if we think about the context of these two verses we understand that Jesus had been spreading his message around the fishermen’s home. 

First of all Jesus began his activities with reflection in the wilderness and after John was arrested.  Jesus was baptised by John and then we are told he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he faced up to the temptations of the mission he felt called to.  Reflective retreats were part of my ministry formation.  I am also sure there are more than just the one world leader that could benefit from facing their demons and the temptation of office before their inauguration.    Also significant was the fact that Jesus began his ministry after John was arrested. 

It is therefore fair to assume that although he undoubtedly moved to a more inclusive message than John’s call to repentance, he took over the ministry that John had already begun. 

Matthew also points out that Jesus’ ministry fitted, and built on, existing religious tradition. 

He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled. (Matthew 4:13,14)  Matthew is writing with hindsight so although it reads as if Jesus chose Capernaum to fit Isaiah’s prophesy the more important point that Matthew is making is that Jesus’ vision and understanding fitted existing religious tradition. 

As we read through the rest of the Gospel we will find that Jesus does exactly what Diana Butler Bass suggests we do. 

Jesus intentionally engaged emerging religious questions.  Jesus reformed renewed, and re-imagined ancient traditions in ways that made sense to the people of his time and place. 

Jesus had moved into Capernaum, by the lake.  He had been publically baptised by John and began preaching John’s message.  ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (Matthew 4:17)

So we can assume that the fishermen already knew what Jesus was on about.  They could well have talked among themselves about what the kingdom of heaven might mean for them.  As the rest of the Gospel shows Jesus’ vision was a hands-on vision, a get involved vision.  Jesus vision was a vision of a reality that encouraged people who saw themselves as powerless to experience the power of joining with others.  Working together people could make a difference in their lives and the lives of others by sharing and caring. 

Simon and Andrew could well have been wondering how they could be involved. 

As they were fishing their minds could have been feeding on the possibility of getting others involved in sharing Jesus’ ideas.  Could they be part of a movement that offered hope and a whole new approach to what it might mean to be a human community? 

Through that feeding frenzy of the mind Jesus dragged the lure of discipleship and they were hooked.  Immediately they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew 4:20) 

Matthew does not tell us about all the people who did not respond to Jesus’ call because that is irrelevant and would make the Gospel bulky and boring. 

However we know who they were and still are.  They are the 70% who didn’t vote in last year’s local body election and won’t vote in this year’s general election.  They are people who know what’s wrong with their life and their leaders and want some all powerful messiah to sort it out for them.  Sort it out their way.  Some of them discovered that Jesus was not that sort of messiah and demanded he be crucified. 

Some of those who won’t vote this year have already worked out that none of the parties or candidates will run New Zealand their way so what’s the point of voting.  They are internet trolls that discourage leadership and claim everything won’t work.

But in Matthew’s story Simon and Andrew were captured by the vision and went on to further training. 

They became students or disciples of Jesus.  They listened to the stories, witnessed the inclusive companionship and healing.  They also struggled to understand Jesus and were marked down on some assessments. 

Nevertheless, after Jesus’ death the same Spirit that had inspired Jesus brought them their NCEA results and they had enough credits to be commissioned as apostles. 

Those graduated disciples went out as apostles, people with the authority of the Risen Christ.  They changed the world.

They celebrated the memory of Jesus in a shared meal, they preached Jesus’ understanding of their religious tradition, offered hope and opened people’s minds to a new and better way of living in community.  They claimed empathy and a commitment to the greater good, liberated people from domination by political powers and family tyranny.  Above all they dragged the lure of heavens realm past minds feeding on hope of a better world and fished for people.  Those who took the bait met the risen Christ, were transformed by that meeting and in turn became fishers of people. 

Christ still calls unlikely people like us to be the fishers of people, folk who bring the light of Christ into the dark places of our world.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p. 408

[2] Warren Carter, Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading (London, New York: T&T Clark International 2000),p.112

[4] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The end of the church and the birth of a new spiritual awakening.  (New York 2013: HarperOne), p.7.

 

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