Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Matthew 4:18-25: Jesus Calls the First Disciples
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 Ministers to Crowds of People
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. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
Sometime between his baptism and the arrest of his cousin who baptized him, Jesus realized that he couldn’t or shouldn’t or didn’t need to do his work alone. According to the scholar Jillian Engelhardt, Jesus seemed to feel called to continue and enlarge the work John began. What we see in the Gospel, then, is Jesus doing this work, inviting people to repent, that is, set themselves right with God’s priorities. However, unlike John, Jesus would not preach that message alone. Jesus will have to leave the riverside and wilderness to find his coworkers.
In Matthew, Jesus moves from the riverside and wilderness outside of Nazareth, the place where John had centered his ministry, out to Capernaum in Galilee. This happens just a few verses before our reading for today. In a commentary on this text, the scholar Melinda A. Quivik invites us to pay attention to how this move is described. Remember, the gospel writers understood Jesus to be the Messiah described in Isaiah. The author of Matthew talks about Jesus’ move using a quote from Isaiah:
He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so 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.’
In her commentary, Quivik reminds us that the people of Galilee, that is the people of Zebulun and Naphtali, have been living in war for generations. During the era in which this story was recorded, Galilee was the land that Pontius Pilate ruled with an iron fist for Rome. Isaiah said that God would help the oppressed and raise up a leader in their midst. It matters that Jesus would begin his public ministry in the midst of people who had suffered at the hands of warmongering rulers. It shows us that God is always right in the middle of the shadow of death, with the people who need God the most.
As Jesus walked by the sea, he saw the fishermen, Simon and Andrew, hard at work. He invited them to join him, saying he would make them fish for people instead of haddock or smelt or whatever you fish for in the Sea of Galilee. What is perhaps most surprising is that they immediately follow him, without asking a word of explanation or clarification. I think I would have asked a few questions. Then, Jesus saw the brothers, James and John, who were also out working. He called out to them, inviting them to preach the word of the nearness of God. They also left everything and followed him. They were fishing with extended family and they left their family just sitting there, mending the broken nets. And, nobody, not even Jesus, takes time to explain to the new disciples, or us, what this “fishing for people” means.
Some might wonder why the brothers are willing to drop everything to follow Jesus in that moment. I read once that some scholars argue that these sets of brothers knew Jesus before he offered this invitation. They say that it is possible that they grew up with Jesus, or at least knew him by reputation. Some scholars argue that there was also a good chance that the brothers had heard John preaching before he was arrested. If the brothers already believed John's word that God was preparing to do something new, maybe they were just waiting for the sign to start working with God for that new thing. When Jesus showed up, saying, "All that stuff John was talking about... that's happening now. Come and be a part of it," maybe that was the sign they were waiting for.
I have to say, I kind of like the idea that they were already prepared and just needed a sign to start working towards the kindom of heaven. But, if I’m being honest, it’s mostly because I am more comfortable with the idea of them having a plan, instead of them just dropping everything with a moment’s notice and leaving. This whole story makes better sense to me if they are just waiting for someone, in this case Jesus, to show up and lead them. That being said, I don’t think the Gospel makes clear why they followed Jesus. All of those explanations are scholarly conjectures by people who, like me, have modern, fairly comfortable lives. What the story actually gives us is just four young men and the teacher who invited them to follow him. There is no explanation as to why they go.
I did read once a commentary Dr. Raj Nadella who noticed that, while we don’t know anything about these young men’s plans, it’s pretty clear that somebody in this story has a plan. You see, Rome has a plan. That plan is the unspoken undercurrent that shapes so much of Jesus’ life, and, ultimately, his death. Rome, like the other empires before them that made life hard in Capernaum, lived by a plan rooted in death and destruction, in conquest and forced assimilation. While being part of Rome meant that you might have good roads and aqueducts, it also meant having foreign soldiers breathing down your neck, conscription and slavery, theft under the guise of taxation. Violence was the primary tool in Rome’s plan. And, they wanted people to get so used to the horrors of occupation that they would feel powerless to stop it.
Jesus’ surprising invitation to these four brothers is a disruption of that plan. As many of us know, it only takes one moment, one event that is incredible or awful or confusing or full of potential to show you that you don’t have to keep doing what you’re doing according to someone else’s plan. So, maybe Jesus’ invitation was completely out of the blue and completely unprepared for and exactly what those young men needed at that moment. When they heard him, they knew the Empire didn’t have to control them. They knew that the kindom of God was offering them something more. So, they left the lakeshore and walked towards it. With no real plan about what came next.
The Holy Spirit moves in lots of ways. As you look through your annual meeting booklet over the coming week, I hope you’ll see the Spirit in the carefully crafted budget of our church, planned over several months to reflect our church’s call to participate in the kindom of heaven. But, I hope you’ll also remember that the Spirit moves outside of well-thought out plans, too. Jesus is still telling us that the kindom of heaven is close at hand. Let’s make sure we are walking towards it, even if our plan is still to be determined.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Melinda Quivick, "Third Sunday after Epiphany," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds. Dale P. Andrews, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, and Ronald J. Allen, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012)
Raj Nadella: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-412-23-5
Jillian Engelhardt: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-412-23-6
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.