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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

  Northern Great Lakes SynodEvangelical Lutheran Church in AmericaBethany on Facebook  

Pentecost 6/15

          We really don’t know a lot about the disciples as individuals; the Bible doesn’t tell us much.  We do get some information about Peter, much of it not very favorable although the book of Acts does kind of rehabilitate him; we get some about Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus.  Doubting  Thomas has his moment every year on the second Sunday of Easter and we know that Matthew was a tax collector.  There is a little bit more on the others, but not much, apart from the statements we get about the disciples as a group, and what we are told about them collectively isn’t much better.  Often they are portrayed as men of little faith, or weak faith, usually failing to understand what’s going on with Jesus.  By the time of Jesus’ crucifixion they have pretty much scattered into the background, in fear, one final failure.

          One of the themes of Matthew’s gospel is discipleship, but at least among the 12 who are specifically called disciples, Matthew doesn’t give us any real good examples to model ourselves after.  It seems that more than anything the twelve just provide a mirror for us to look into as in their weakness and lack of faith, we see ourselves.

          But if Matthew is really about discipleship you’d think there’d be more about how to be a faithful disciple.  How helpful is it to have these bad examples of discipleship?  I can’t imagine that Matthew’s intent is to merely let us see ourselves in the disciples and then quickly let ourselves off the hook by saying, “After all, as close as the first twelve were to Jesus, even they weren’t so good.”  I also don’t think the intent was for the gospel writer to say, here’s a lot of bad examples of discipleship; don’t be like them.  My teaching experience tells me that that’s not usually the most effective way to make your point.

          More likely, Matthew’s intent is for us to use the disciples as a mirror not to let us off the hook, but to leave us firmly on the hook, asking ourselves in what ways do we fail Jesus?  We ask the question not so we can feel miserable and inadequate, but so we can move along the path toward being more faithful as individuals and as a church.

          So how do we fail Jesus?  There are lots of ways but one of  the primary ways is when we allow our faith to just be kind of a warm feeling in our heart that doesn’t really ask very much of us when the Bible is pretty clear about the fact that faith in Jesus asks a lot of us.  One of the speakers I heard a few weeks ago called people like that soft-secular Christians.  Soft-secular Christians know the story; they know about Jesus and his teachings, but they don’t really let it get in the way of life.  They support the church with their attendance and their offering, every church counts on them; but their primary allegiance is to something else be it job, family, country, money, material goods, sports, whatever.  Religious faith and the rest of life are largely separated, church mostly being what you do on Sunday morning when it’s convenient.  The intent of the speaker who talked about this wasn’t to point fingers and make anyone feel guilty, it was more to help us recognize how difficult it is to follow if you take Jesus seriously. 

The truth is that most of us, clergy included, fall into this soft-secular category.  We hear the words in today’s gospel about crowds that are helpless and harassed and convince ourselves it’s talking about someone else, but it’s us; we’re included, torn as we are between competing forces in our lives that pull us in different directions making our discipleship a compromise at best.  Making it even more difficult is the fact that a lot of the things that pull at us are good things; but when we make them the primary allegiance, we fail Jesus, the one we are called to follow. 

          Further compounding the problem is the fact that Jesus doesn’t make the call to follow sound very appealing or even possible.  Failure is written into the job description:  proclaim the good news?  My guess is most of you hear that and say that’s your job pastor.  You and Luke do that, not us.  Cure the sick, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons?  At that point Luke and I join you and say, we can’t do that.  It all sounds impossible and then the rest of it just plain sounds awful; take no payment, sheep in the midst of wolves, handed over to councils, dragged before governors and kings because of me, hated by all because of my name, family members betraying one another unto death.  If I’m hearing all this I’m thinking does he really expect me to stay around for this?  I think I might be able to handle the soft-secular thing, but if this is discipleship, I don’t think so.

          Matthew is about discipleship, but here anyway, it sounds pretty much undoable.  But that may be because we’ve missed something along the way.  In our soft-secularism we know the story but we may not have really heard the good news.  We know the story of Jesus, but then, immersed as we are in what we know to be the realities of this world, we immediately make the story fit the limits of that reality rather than hearing it as something radically new and different that proclaims a new reality, the world under new management where the rules are different because fear and anxiety are no longer the driving forces.

          When the story of Jesus is softened to fit the realities of this world, it’s true that it places little demand on us because what we’re asked to do is as impossible as it sounds in today’s gospel.  It’s easy to dismiss the mission as Jesus announced it, to dismiss the call the change, and just do our soft-secular thing.  But hearing the story as a description of the kingdom of heaven come near now, not just in the hereafter but now, hearing the story as the world under the rule of Jesus, the mission he announced is then heard as what it is, which is the call to do the same kinds of things he did, and it is possible.  In fact you do it all the time.

          You may not be able to proclaim the good news by standing up here and preaching, but you can proclaim it by living it.  You live it by not conforming to the rules of this world which are largely based on fear which causes others to become opponents or competitors rather than neighbors.  You recognize that God didn’t just create you and people like you, but everyone; and he loves them too.  You trust in God’s ability to provide for you and for everyone else out of his gracious abundance and you’re satisfied that you have enough, that you’ll be OK.  That kind of living describes the kingdom of heaven come near.

          You may not be able to literally cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons but you can perform transformative acts that others might think are impossible.  You forgive wrongs done to you, you welcome those who are different, you care for those in need at times when the rules of this world might call for retaliation or separation or just looking the other way, taking care of yourself.  Then when someone says, “Well that sounds nice but it just doesn’t work in this world,” you say, “Let’s try it, because Jesus says we can do it.”  When someone says Jesus’ teachings are unrealistic, you say, “Maybe then we should look at our view of what’s realistic.”  Then…lives are transformed, your life is transformed and the kingdom of heaven comes near.

          Kingdom of heaven life is possible, but it’s not easy; all that stuff Jesus cautioned his disciples about might happen, it has happened.  Discipleship isn’t easy, but it is possible.  It’s true that for the most part the gospels don’t give us real good models to follow but maybe that’s the point.  Jesus has been calling and working through less than perfect people for a long time so in that sense we are all well qualified.  But we do have to hear the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  We have to hear it as nothing less than a new description of reality, a reality where Jesus rules.  When Jesus rules, the impossible becomes possible, because everything is different; even death loses its power. 

          Jesus does rule, so we can follow, moving from soft-secularism to real discipleship; and in his name we can do great things.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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