Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. (When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship)
In Matthew’s Gospel, these are the first words John the Baptist speaks:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
By the time Jesus begins his public ministry, John has been thrown into one of Herod’s prisons. At this stage, Jesus was a ‘known associate’ of John’s; what would you do in Jesus’ place? Hide out? Run away? Change the message into something safer, more palatable?
I don’t know what you’d do, but I would take one of those alternatives. What does Jesus do? He preaches exactly the same message. He cries out:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Let’s stop for a moment and look at this. John has come across political opposition. This isn’t the first time political opposition has come in the Gospel of Matthew. It was there from the beginning.
First, Herod the Great tries to trick the wise men into revealing the whereabouts of Jesus, because he wants him dead.
When Joseph and Mary return from refuge in Egypt, they live in Nazareth because it’s off the beaten track and therefore safer.
Years later, John is arrested by Herod Antipas. Herod the Great, who wanted to kill the baby Jesus, was his father.
After John’s arrest, Jesus does withdraw from Judea, the southern part of Israel, where John was baptising. He goes to live in the north, in Capernaum on the shores of Lake Galilee.
But he wasn’t going into hiding! ‘From that time,’ we read, ‘from that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”’
Jesus wasn’t being cautious. A lot of Christian people are cautious. But Jesus had a mission, and he was far from cautious.
Jesus preached about the same thing as John: the kingdom of heaven.
What is the kingdom of heaven?
It’s not where you go when you die.
It’s the same thing the other gospels call the kingdom of God. As a good Jew, Matthew was just avoiding saying the word G-o-d. (It’s the same thing when someone says ‘Thank heavens!’ or ‘Thank goodness!’ It’s more polite than ‘Thank God!’.)
The kingdom of heaven—the kingdom of God—is what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name;
your kingdom come:
your will be done
on earth as in heaven.
The kingdom of God is here and now, wherever Jesus is present. And the kingdom of God will come in all its fullness at the return of Christ.
What does this passage teach us about the kingdom of God? The kingdom exerts a call on us. In this passage, we have an alternative story of the call of the first disciples.
We heard John’s version last week, where Andrew and his friend follow Jesus and stay—remain—abide with him.
Today’s account is what we find in the other Gospels. I can’t reconcile them in a historical sense, I don’t think that’s possible; but theologically, the two stories are one and the same. Christ calls us to remain with him, to follow him, wherever that may lead.
We see that the demand of Christ upon us is absolute. Christ calls Peter and Andrew, James and John. What do they do?
Immediately they [Simon Peter and Andrew] left their nets and followed him.… Immediately they [James and John] left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Those men were leaving a good living. Yet when Christ called them, they came immediately. When Christ calls us today, he calls us with the same authority.
Let me tell you about when I gave my heart to Christ.
I was a very shy fourteen, with few friends. Mum and Dad got the son of family friends to invite me to the local Methodist youth group. I’m pretty sure he just went there for the fun!
When we got there, we found that the group was going to the Billy Graham rally. My new friend was very apologetic. He would’t have brought me if he’d known! But since we were there, we went.
When the time came for the altar call, I felt something powerfully pulling at me, willing me to stand up and walk forward. In the end, I got up and walked to where the counsellors were. I genuinely couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t walking to the front.
I made the bus very late getting home.
I wasn’t very popular.
But that was my first conscious step as a person of faith. I sometimes wonder if it was like that for the disciples too. An irresistible call.
What does today’s Gospel tell us about the kingdom of God?
Firstly, the kingdom of God intrudes upon us. There’s no going back once you become a citizen of this kingdom.
The disciples dropped tools immediately. They just went and followed Jesus. No negotiations, no quibbling about pay and conditions, no asking about the superannuation benefits. The rest of their lives was affected by this one call from Jesus.
Secondly, the kingdom of God is a gift of grace. Normally, a disciple sought out a teacher. Last week, we spoke of what it meant to be a disciple in those days. Remember, it meant
to hang on your teacher’s every word, to follow in his or her steps, to sleep outside their door in order not to miss any pearls of wisdom falling from their lips, to watch how they conduct themselves at the table, how they conduct themselves in the street,… (Rowan Williams, Being Disciples)
No wonder they chose their own teacher if they lived that closely to them!
But the disciples didn’t choose Jesus for this kind of life. He chose his disciples. Grace. Sheer grace.
Thirdly, once the disciples were recruited for the kingdom of God, they followed Jesus. Last week, we saw that John speaks of discipleship as remaining in Jesus. Matthew, Mark, and Luke talk about following Jesus. There’s no contradiction, it’s just a different image. If you stay with Jesus when he’s on the move, you follow him. But closely!
The disciples followed Jesus on an adventure of
teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
They shared in Jesus’ fame. They saw him heal the sick and demonised, epileptics and paralytics.
Fourthly, the disciples were inducted into what the kingdom of God was going to look like. Most worldly kingdoms come with pomp and circumstance, with glamour. We just have to look at Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th president of the United States to see that.
This kingdom is different. Matthew shows us this by placing the Sermon on the Mount straight after the call of the disciples.
Want to live as part of God’s kingdom? The Sermon on the Mount shows you how.
No earthly kingdom has ever come close to being anything like it.
Blessed are the meek?
Turn the other cheek?
Love your enemies?
Do not judge?
This is life in God’s kingdom, and we are meant to strive for it right now.
Notice what the Gospel passage does not say. It does not say that everyone should leave their job to be a disciple, though some may.
It does not say everyone should have a sudden conversion experience, though some may.
And it does not say that disciples who stay where they are or who have a gradual awakening to faith are not as good as others who go into the ordained ministry or who have a sudden experience.
It does say this:
The call of Jesus is a call into the life of the kingdom of God. That’s what John’s Gospel calls ‘eternal life’.
The call of Jesus is a call of grace. It is undeserved. It is free, but not cheap. We can’t take it for granted.
It was the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who first spoke of ‘cheap grace’. Cheap grace is when you ask Jesus into your heart and nothing changes. God’s grace is free, and it is costly. It is given freely, but our lives are never the same again. It is free, yet it costs everything.
This is what Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John entered into. They were graciously invited to leave everything behind and follow Jesus. Our call to discipleship is similar today.
We may not wander the countryside, sleeping in different places. We may not leave everything behind.
Most of us won’t.
But each one of us has received the costly grace of Jesus Christ, and each one is called to let go of whatever keeps us from following Jesus Christ.
What you need to let go of may be different from what I have to let go of. What you must do as a disciple may be different from what I must do.
But each one of us is called by costly grace, called to follow the Lord wherever that may lead. Let us resolve to do just that in this still-new year of 2017. Amen.