Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 1/26/2014

Jesus didn’t ask for volunteers, he called disciples.  That was the theme of a sermon I heard at a New England Synod Assembly twelve or thirteen years ago, a sermon preached by a woman who was an Assistant to the Bishop in the New Jersey Synod.  It must have been good because I still remember it, at least the punch line;  Jesus didn’t ask for volunteers, he called disciples.  What she was getting at was how the church is often called a volunteer organization, how it depends on lots of people who don’t get paid for what they do.  That’s true, and it’s definitely something I’m reminded of on Annual Meeting Sunday, all the work that’s done around here by volunteers; but it’s also true that nowhere in the gospels did Jesus ask for volunteers; he called disciples.

Reading this week’s gospel I thought about that and it made me wonder, what does it mean to be a disciple these days?  What does it mean to follow Jesus?  Are we a church of volunteers or are we disciples?  Matthew is a good gospel to help us think about these things because the thinking on Matthew as he wrote somewhere between the year 70 and the year 90 is that as he told the story of Jesus calling disciples he wasn’t thinking so much about a past historical or biographical event, he was thinking about how people would become disciples in his time 40 or 50 years later; it’s not a stretch then for us to pose these questions about our time even if we still might wind up with more questions than answers.

Starting with the biblical text though, one thing that’s clear is that discipleship represents a disruption in the life of those called.  In this account Peter and Andrew and James and John weren’t looking for Jesus; they were going about their business, living their lives until Jesus called out to them.  That in itself is different from how discipleship normally worked at that time.  Teachers in Jesus time had disciples, they had followers, but they didn’t seek them out, they didn’t recruit as we might say; instead potential disciples came to them with the goal of learning, the usual content of the learning being the Torah, the Jewish law. 

In other words, the student would basically offer himself to the teacher for instruction (and at that time, in that society it would have just been himselves, not herselves doing this).  That kind of discipleship though, was pretty much a voluntary thing. There was something in it for the student; the goal was to learn something, so they weren’t just giving up their time, the motivation did include self interest too, but the student initiated the process.   Clearly, Jesus was up to something else as he initiated the discipleship process.  He didn’t wait for people to come to him; he made the call and it was an intrusion, a disruption in the lives of those called.  

Those who heard the call and followed Jesus each left something behind.  Peter and Andrew left their career as fishermen behind; the text says, “They left their nets and followed.”  James and John left behind their fishing nets and their father Zebedee, both career and family.  Obviously those things are not insignificant; then and now career and family are pretty important to people and both can represent at least a degree of security and security, whatever it looks like for each of us is something we value; but the indication Matthew gives us, the point he is making is that life will not be the same after becoming a disciple; it might well be less secure as even those things we think give us security may be left behind.

All of that is tough to process as we consider our own discipleship or lack thereof, but what might be most surprising to us in this account and perhaps what completely takes it out of the realm of reality for us is the “immediately” part of it.  Immediately they left their nets; immediately they left their boat and their father.  We’d call someone crazy if they made such a life changing decision immediately.  Don’t you want to think about, sleep on it, see how you feel tomorrow morning?

What Matthew describes though, is the radical nature of discipleship.  For Matthew, following Jesus, being a disciple is not a casual, come when you feel like it, have it your way kind of thing.  It goes back to the call to repent; “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Allan Johnson, one of our retired pastors who also happens to have a doctorate in New Testament from the University of Chicago gave a presentation on Matthew for area clergy last week and he said another way to put this call to repent is, Reconsider your allegiances, God is on the march!  So it’s not repentance as feeling sorry and I’ll try and do better, it’s a call to action which includes reconfiguring our priorities.  It’s a call to action as a total commitment without compromise to a different way to be in relationship with God and each other right now.  This repentance and the kingdom of heaven isn’t about what happens when you die; it’s about God’s power breaking into this world in the present; repentance is about what you do and what I do right now.

The bar for discipleship is high, and it’s staying there.  I’m not here to lower it for any of us because I don’t think that was Jesus’ intent or Matthew’s as he wrote his gospel.  The bar remains high, but I’m also not here to tell you that to be a disciple you should do this, you should do that.  It’s not there aren’t some “shoulds,” but it’s better for you to figure them out rather than to have me or anyone else tell you.  As has been said before, people don’t come to church to be should on. 

By this definition though, is discipleship even possible?  Jesus didn’t ask for volunteers, he called disciples is true, but is volunteer the best we can do?  I’m going to say no.  I’m going to say we can be disciples and we can do it without lowering the bar.  While “Jesus didn’t ask for volunteers, he called disciples” provides food for thought, I’m not sure it’s one or the other.  The answer to the question “Are we a church of volunteers or are we a church of disciples?” may be “Yes.” 

The first disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John, immediately followed Jesus when they heard his voice and as I said, that immediately thing doesn’t ring true for us.  What I’m thinking though, is that it may be through our churchly volunteer activities and maybe others, that we hear the voice in a different way.  We hear Jesus’ call to follow and realize that the words are directed to us as much as they were to Peter, Andrew, James and John; in these voluntary activities we hear the voice.

 Then, while everything might not immediately change, things do begin to change.  Our volunteering, our following, however we do it and it is different for everyone, moves us closer to discipleship.  From the outside things may look the same, what you do may look the same, but for you, on the inside, something has changed.  The level of commitment is different so it’s no longer just an offering of time, it is more about Jesus, it’s more about following and I know that many of you have experienced this in your own way.   Your allegiances do change; things do get left behind.

These days I would include worship as one of those volunteer activities that helps us to hear the voice and moves us toward being disciples.  Worship is a voluntary activity.  You don’t have to be here; you don’t have to be here but by being here volunteering this part of your Sunday morning, you have a better chance to hear the voice, to hear the call of Jesus that will change your life and make you a disciple. 

In reality, I doubt that Peter, Andrew, James and John immediately became disciples.  What they immediately did was to follow Jesus.  They didn’t know where they were going, but they followed; they volunteered their time and opened themselves to discipleship.  In reality though, I don’t think they were really all that different than any of us.

The bar of discipleship was and still is high.  Things do have to be left behind but if a bunch of Galilean fishermen could reach that bar, I think we can too.  Are we a church of volunteers or are we disciples?  The answer is, YES.

Rev. Warren Geier


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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