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Discipleship = Love + Transformation

A sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash.]

On Thursday night, about ten members of our community gathered on zoom to start talking about long-range planning.

Dry as that may sound, it was actually a super encouraging and inspiring conversation, because we focused on the mission that we are planning for:

We reviewed our congregational mission statement (which is just below the logo on the inside cover of your bulletin, if you were curious), and then I asked everyone to take one minute and write their own description of Abiding Peace, as a way to ground us in the identity and work that defines our purpose for existing as a congregation.

Each answer was unique, but there were also some clear themes. People talked about being a true community, a place that is committed to genuine welcome, and a place where love is taught and expressed.

All of these themes share a common emotional tone – expressing the warmth and belonging that is nurtured here.

But there was another group of words that leaned in a different direction:

A number of us talked about Abiding Peace being a place where lives are transformed, and our ministry evolves, and we nurture disciples.

Whereas the first set of descriptions reinforce our shared commitment to accepting and supporting everyone just as they are, this second set reminds us that the life of faith in this community is more than a warm hug… it is also a challenge to grow and change.

That aspect of the life of faith is the one highlighted in today’s gospel…

The one that starts with the announcement of John’s arrest…

And proceeds to Jesus’s call to repent…

And then presents us with these incredible stories of not one, but two sets of brothers hearing Jesus’s call and immediately abandoning their entire lives to follow him.

I have to admit, before our conversation on Thursday night, I was wondering what in the world I was going to say about this gospel story in my sermon, because it is all just so intimidating!

I mean, if that’s what discipleship requires, I don’t know that I have what it takes.

And I certainly don’t know how to issue the kind of call that will prompt people to immediately rush to answer it.

But on a day like today, where we are receiving new members, and gathering for our congregational meeting to plan together for the coming year of ministry… I’m kind of feeling the pressure to make the sales pitch!

Thankfully, I got to hear the “sales pitches” of members of our congregation on Thursday night, and I was reminded that people get just as inspired by the promise of change as they do by the experience of welcome.

It’s exciting to talk about people’s lives being changed by the ministry of our congregation – whether through our feeding ministries, or our worship, or the chance to be seen and welcomed in all of our individual uniqueness.

In fact, the “warm hug” aspect of our identity is, as often as not, an integral part of the transforming work that God does here. Because genuine welcome frees us from messages of judgment and fear that can hold us trapped into anxious patterns or keep us at a distance from God’s grace.

Love and transformation might not hit the same emotional note, but neither are they contradictory. They work together. They balance and empower each other.

That realization has helped me to look at today’s gospel story from a new angle:

to recognize the way that it can nourish our call to discipleship without requiring us to restrict our definition of discipleship to “immediately leaving our job and our families to follow Jesus.”

When I look at this story through the lens of how love and transformation work together, I notice three things:

First, I notice that before asking anyone else to change, Jesus did it first.

He gets the news that his cousin (and chief witness) John the Baptist has been arrested, and he leaves his familiar territory to make his home and begin him ministry in a place where he isn’t known, and he doesn’t have the security of an existing social or family network.

Matthew explains the move with reference to Hebrew prophecy (which is a very Matthew take on things),

and doubtless there was a pragmatic side to the decision, given the government’s negative attention on John, and presumably on Jesus as one of his “known associates.”

But none of that diminishes the truth that Jesus was willing to take the leap of faith and embrace the unknown before asking anyone else to follow him.

He experienced life-shifting change first.

He doesn’t ask his followers to do anything he wasn’t willing to do first.

The second things I notice is Jesus’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

I have preached on this phrase a few times before, and I always make a point of bringing up the Greek word that gets translated in English Bibles as “repent: μετανοέω (metanoéō)[1]

It comes from the pairing of two words: μετά (metá)[2] – which means “after” – and νοιέω (noiéō)[3] – which means thoughts or mind.

Put together, it means “to think differently after”, “to change your mind.”

But what is the after that Jesus is referencing to cause the change in our minds? The kingdom of heaven has come near.

I think I have generally thought that that phrase just meant “time’s up – God’s on the move, so get with the program.”

But what if Jesus is saying after you experience God’s presence at work in your life, your patterns of thoughts will change.

What if Jesus is intentionally linking the power of God’s love and grace, present and real, with the change he is calling forth in his followers lives…

NOT from angle of threat: “change now because God is here”…

But from an understanding of how love and transformation work together… just like they do in our church?

The final thing I notice from my new perspective is the nuance of the word “follow” in Jesus’s call to the disciples.

It’s the first word he speaks to them, and it is repeated with each pair of brothers in our English Bibles, but it’s actually two words in Greek.

Jesus calls them to δεῦτε (deûte),[4] which basically just means “come.”

But when the gospel reports that the brothers followed Jesus, it uses the word ἀκολουθέω (akolouthéō),[5] which means “to be on the same way with.”

It’s a shift in meaning that gives us a possible glimpse into what these early disciples understood themselves to be doing when they dropped their nets and followed after Jesus: they were joining him in his journey.

They weren’t just obeying a command. They were drawing near. They were coming to a relationship as much as they were changing their location.

Their lives were changed because they wanted to be WITH Jesus.

And that’s really the key isn’t it. That’s the heart of discipleship.

It’s the commitment that we will all reaffirm in a few minutes when we welcome our new members;

It’s the reason behind the decisions we will make at our congregational meeting;

It’s the truth that drew each of us to this community of faith:

We know that our lives are changed by being with Jesus.

Discipleship is not about a lithmus test of how much we will give up in an act of obedience.

It’s knowing that Jesus makes the first step toward us,

And knowing that we can never be the same after experiencing his love,

And embracing whatever change comes from being with Jesus, because we know that change will be good.

Thanks be to God.


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