Our gospel story this week (Matthew 4:12-23) is so well known – many of us will remember Sunday School songs about “I will make you fishers of men” that involve a lot of bobbing up and down and clapping. (In many ways this version of the call of the disciples is better known than John’s account that we reflected on last week) Most of us will have heard many very serious sermons and altar calls to this text. All responses speak a truth, or speak to the deep truths hidden in this simple tale.
Our gospel reading this week really has three parts to it. Firstly Jesus leaves the wilderness of temptation and preparation for his ministry to find that John the Baptist has been arrested. So Matthew’s gospel is continuing its theme of dark vs light which we were introduced to in the story of the reaction of Herod and all Jerusalem to his birth. This is amplified by the reference to the prophesy of the light dawning.
The second section is the call of the first disciples and comes in the context of a wandering ministry that Jesus had already begun. The call was to join in what God was already revealing in the world through Jesus among the ordinary folk of his world and time.
And in the third section the growing band of followers become part of this tour of healing among those most in need of healing – the paralytics, the possessed, the outcast.
So, trusting that you have all heard many very good sermons and commentaries on this text I want to explore a slightly different perspective. I want to reflect with you that this gospel story, that the gospel in general and indeed much if not most of Scripture, is the story of the divine seeking out humanity from within the ordinary, among the lowly, or if you will from the bottom up. It’s what incarnation means. To become flesh – as John’s gospel expresses it ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. The divine child is named Emmanuel or God with us as Matthew bears witness. And this means that the child of God, the fullest and most perfect expression of God in human form for humans, lives the common life among the common ones, becoming fully ordinary human and illuminates the ordinary from within.
The gospel is the story of the divine coming to dwell, descending, into the ordinary and en-fleshed world that is ours and therefore makes the divine self known among the ordinary folks and events that our life is made up of. In this way the gospel is written from the bottom up – from within ordinary human experience. But it is also from the bottom up in that the gospels are almost entirely about the ordinary, the poor, and the marginalised.
The first group that Jesus calls, and most of his disciples, are from among the ordinary working folk and those who are diseased and excluded. And here we have the first disciples being called, including Peter who will become the one upon which the new church shall be built. Not a religious person with lots of training and knowledge and contacts but one of the ordinary ones.
So what does it mean to us that Jesus’ first disciples, indeed all of them including the unnamed women and countless men, were the ordinary ones of their time? Firstly for us it is very good news. It is the reminder, the reassurance that God comes to us in the midst of life as it is – ordinary, ready or not, right where we are right where we are doing whatever we are doing. We do not have to – we don’t even get the option really – wait until we are organised or good enough or run out of other options. Jesus comes walking by where we live and work at the edge of the sea and beckons us come. Jesus, the expression of God with us, comes to our lives and seeks us out and calls us into fullness and self emptying service and adventure. For some of us that is a literal get up and come somewhere geographically different but for all of us it is the call to be where you are and follow. Journey in your heart, journey in your mind, journey in your soul and journey with all your strength. And learn how to love your fellow travelling companion or neighbour as yourself.
But the good news of the gospel from the bottom up is not easy news. Partly because that means we are being called down as much as we are being called up. We talk as though the call, the conversion, the following of Jesus the Christ is a call to respectability and holiness and modest greatness – to a form of self development. And in one way it is all of those things. But it is also a call to personal dissolution, to unravelling, to humility if not outright humiliation, a call to descent and a dying to the self before we have to physically die. And if you think I am making this up then think about Simon Peter whose story of call we are looking at this morning. Yes it is a call to his fullest potential and purpose but it is also a call to suffering and ultimately death as a martyr. It is a call to descent as much as a climb to the top.
And the bottom up perspective of the gospel is pretty inconvenient news to the church formal if we are honest. We have over centuries become so sure that we hold the exclusive truth, the power of God is on our side against others, that the church has far too often been far above everyone else looking down from its own flimsy scaffolding imaging that we are better than others. I think the one good thing to have come out of the scandal of sexual abuse in the church is that we have got to stop pretending that we are better than others.
Somehow we think we are the body of the elect, the nearly perfect, the holy, the right when the gospel actually shows that the followers of Jesus who became the body of Christ, were the ordinary, the dubious, the right one minute and wrong the next Peter’s of this world. As church we spend way too much time deciding who is in and who is out and worst of all we decide in the almost absolutely opposite direction of the gospel. Jesus lived and worked and healed among the sick, the outcast, the poor – fishers, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers. We as church spend way too much time telling people that they are not eligible for the blessings of God based on their ethnicity, their country of origin, their sexuality.
A bottom up perspective was radical then and it remains so today. It is both good news for us and disturbing news because if we are welcome then so is everyone else including those we would really like to get away from and that we would really like to be different to.
I encourage you over the next few weeks as you go about your daily reading of Scripture and other holy writings and to just put on the “ from the bottom up” glasses of the gospel as you engage and see if this is true. Does Scripture really take this perspective, has it been hiding in plain sight all this time? Does it make a difference to how you think about the value and direction of your own life? Does it make a difference to how you respond to others? And if it doesn’t then you can disregard this reflection as one of my duds. But I have to warn you that once you have the bottom up perspective in your mind it is a little hard to dislodge entirely. At least that has been my experience.
Come Lord Jesus Christ, come to us in our lives as we are where we are.