Follow Me

Message for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year A (1/22/2023)

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Matthew 4:12-23


Reconciling in Christ (RIC) Sunday is an opportune time to consider again what it means to be church. I don’t know about you, but I often stop and wonder at how peculiar this all is. We get up and get ready earlier than we might otherwise on a Sunday morning; we in the sanctuary sit fairly close together, all facing the same direction, and on wooden benches, to boot; we hear again and again a series of stories and teachings that are thousands of years old; we admit to our deepest hurts and our highest hopes; we sing together songs we may or may not know well, yet none of which we’re likely to sing on another occasion; we willingly hand over a portion of our resources to support the work of this place, yes, but first as a pure gesture of gratitude; we give hugs or handshakes or elbow bumps as a sign of peace to friends and strangers alike; and, we come forward and stand or kneel at a railing to receive a morsel of bread and a sip of wine or juice. Finally, we sing once more, then we go about our business as if none of that was strange.

What does it mean to be church? More specifically, what draws us to this assembly? What difference does it make to be part of it? And, especially on RIC Sunday, we might add, who is here, who is not, and why?

What does it mean to be church? Sometimes the simplest answer is the best. Our Gospel from Matthew today gives a clear, albeit mysterious, reason for the church’s existence: there was a moment in history when a remarkable man called Jesus first encountered a number of ordinary people and turned their lives upside down: “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 sea—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.” That was the beginning of this great experiment, according to Matthew; that is our origin story. The simplest answer to the question, what does it mean to be church, is that we’re the ones whom Jesus has called.

And, although that’s a simple answer, it’s not an easy one. I can’t reason how any single interaction, even with Jesus, could change the course of a person’s life so spontaneously and with such significant implications. There’s no cause to believe that Simon, Andrew, James, and John were more inclined to drop everything than the average person, or that they were exceptionally perceptive or faithful. No, this story has less to say about them than it does about the one who approached them on the seashore that day. And, that’s a key to understanding discipleship in every age. It seems that people in every time and place follow Jesus for the same reason, a reason that may have little to do with their identity or circumstances. It seems that people follow Jesus because he speaks to them.[1]

On this third Sunday of the season, the truth of epiphany, of Jesus’ revelation to the world, is that he possesses the power to draw people to himself with a word: “Follow me.” Upon consideration, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the persuasiveness of his call; he is the word of God in the flesh, after all. Nevertheless, we may not fully appreciate the sheer weight of his word, either in the lives of his first followers or in ours. What brings us here? What on Earth are we doing? And, what keeps us coming back? What does it mean to be church? There may be sociological and psychological answers to that question, but the theological answer is Jesus. Jesus is the one who perceives each of us for who we truly are; Jesus is the one who calls us to himself; generation after generation, Jesus is the one who gathers the church for the sake of the world.

And so, Jesus gets to decide who belongs. One of the great tragedies of Christianity is that we’ve often drawn the boundaries of inclusion too restrictively, casting many away on account of some small-minded and self-conscious measure of holiness. But, we can never contradict the calling of any would-be disciple, regardless of their identity; we can never deny their place among this people because it is not we, but Christ, who brings us together in his name.

And, isn’t that a joy? Of course, there have always been lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer members of the body of Christ. And of course, we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, just as God intended. But, the church has too rarely affirmed the dignity of LGBTQ+ children of God; we have too rarely perceived their particular gifts; we have too rarely included and celebrated them. And make no mistake, that collective sin has caused immeasurable suffering, driving many to self-hatred and despair, even to death.

The commitment to becoming a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregation is not only a confession of the church’s culpability for rejecting and scapegoating queer saints. RIC is also a banner we carry, for the sake of our neighbors, yes, and for our sake, too, that we might be “united in the same mind and the same purpose,” to quote our second reading from 1 Corinthians today, that we might hold to the same standard for hospitality and acceptance. But even more fundamentally, RIC is an act of courageous faith in the one who gathers us in all our stunning diversity, and courageous love for all those he gathers according to his wisdom and pleasure.

Friends, affirmation is a matter of life and death. But, affirmation is also a matter of conviction. If I trust God to embrace me into the community of God’s beloved, then who am I to refuse that embrace to someone else? And, if I did, what would I be missing? If we follow Jesus long enough, we’re bound to bump into disciples we might not have chosen ourselves, but whom Jesus has chosen, and who have everything to teach us about the creativity and faithfulness of God.

Will you come along?

[1] M. Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, 170.

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