If you think our gospel reading for this morning sounds familiar, you are right. Last week we heard John’s version of Jesus calling the first disciples. This week we have Matthew’s version of the same events.
The two versions are pretty similar, of course. But what sets Matthew’s version apart is the context he provides.
Immediately before our reading, Jesus has been baptized in the Jordan River and then tempted in the wilderness. Now, in our passage, Jesus is beginning his public ministry. This is his first sermon. This is his introduction to the world as a preacher, teacher, and healer. (Think Deacon Terry in his first sermon with us last week.) As Jesus’ very first sermon, this one deserves careful attention. It sets the stage for everything that is to follow.
What comes next, just a couple of verses after our passage, is the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ longest and greatest sermon, three full chapters. That is quite a contrast with the sermon we get this morning. The sermon for this morning is just one sentence. That is another reason we should pay careful attention to it.
So here is Jesus’ first sermon, in full: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That’s it. You might wish I could learn something from Jesus’ brevity! Unfortunately for you, I am more of a Sermon on the Mount kind of preacher! But it does help to work through Jesus’ single sentence slowly.
What does it mean to say that the kingdom of heaven has come near?
When we think about the kingdom of heaven, many of us think first about where we want to go after we die. That is looking ahead to the kingdom we hope to experience. Or maybe we think about the end of history, when Jesus returns in power and great glory. That is looking even farther ahead, to the kingdom that will come.
But Jesus is not talking about where we go when we die, or what he will establish at the end of time. Jesus is talking about God’s kingdom in the present tense, as something his hearers are experiencing at that very moment. That is striking!
Now, we who know the story, can go farther than Jesus’ hearers could have gone on that day. The good news is that Jesus came to live as God with us even now. The good news is that Jesus himself brings the kingdom, that where Jesus is, there is God’s kingdom.
On that day in Capernaum, Jesus’ hearers were experiencing the kingdom of heaven because Jesus was with them. On this day, here in Agawam, we are experiencing the kingdom of heaven because Jesus is with us.
We still look forward to a deeper and fuller experience of the kingdom of heaven both when we die and when Christ returns. But the good news of Jesus’ first sermon is that the kingdom of heaven begins with Him right then.
That is what Jesus does for us. Jesus also tells us what we should do in response: “repent.”
And here again we have to go slowly. For some of us, the command to repent can sound like a command to think about what wretches we are. We sometimes do wretched things, and we should repent of them. But that is not what Jesus is talking about here.
The root word that is translated “repent” just means to turn around, to face in a different direction.
It is easy to get so wrapped up in worldly concerns that we begin to act as if this world were all there is, so wrapped up in worldly concerns that we forget about God. And so Jesus says, “Repent. Turn around. Pay attention. I am here with you. The kingdom has come near. Don’t miss it because you are too focused on other things.”
And then, as our passage goes on, Jesus says it again. Jesus invites Peter and Andrew to follow him. Jesus calls James and John. Jesus says, over and over again, in all sorts of different ways, pay attention to the good news of great joy that God loves you enough to enter your lives and invite you into intimate relationship with Him.
That is our calling, too. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Jesus invites us to repent and enter in.
Peter and Andrew, James and John, accept Jesus’ invitation. And as they travel with Jesus, Jesus shows them what kingdom living looks like, what it means to repent since the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Clearly a lot happens. But what we get is a summary of kingdom living in another single, pregnant sentence. It turns out kingdom living boils down to three things: “teaching in their synagogues”; “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom”; and “curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”
For the first, we substitute Church for synagogue. But we continue to come together for Christian formation. We gather for worship and prayer and study. And in the process we are touched by grace. We are gradually shaped into something closer to what God created us to be. We are united with Christ and with each other so completely that we become the very body of Christ.
The second, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, is the task of evangelism.
I don’t want to stand on street corners shouting at people, and I don’t want to create a television ministry, and I don’t want to travel to some faraway land to share the gospel. My guess is, most of you feel the same. But we are called to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.” Each of us, in our own ways, is called to share the good news of God’s love with a world that needs to hear that good news.
Finally, kingdom living means doing what we can to help hurting people: to heal the sick and feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the prisoners and so on. We call that outreach.
In a few minutes, we will have our annual meeting and we will talk about our common life in Christ. In the booklet of annual reports you can read a great deal more about our common life. All of it is important.
But our gospel reading offers a helpful structure for reflecting on our ongoing task of responding to Christ’s call to live as his disciples in the world. We need to think in terms of Christian formation, evangelism, and outreach.
All three are moving targets. Christian formation today needs to look different than Christian formation a few decades or a few centuries ago. So does evangelism and outreach. We have different challenges and different opportunities today.
We might ask, for example, if we are using technology effectively in our efforts at formation and evangelism. We have ways of broadcasting our message that earlier times could never have dreamed about. But we also face stiffer competition for people’s time and attention than anything our predecessors faced.
The same is true for outreach. There too we face issues that our predecessors never considered, things like climate change, opioid addiction, or the lack of affordable housing.
It can feel overwhelming. But we always return to the good news with which Christ began his ministry. Truly the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Christ is with us. And with Christ’s help, we can heed his call to be effective disciples in this time and place. Certainly that is my prayer for us. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan