The following sermon was preached by Rev. Dr Thomas Winger at the divine service commemorating St Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, 21 September 2012, in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel.
With apologies to Matthew, let me begin with a verse from his fellow evangelist John’s Gospel: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you; and I have appointed you that you go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16). Jesus speaks these profound words to Matthew and the other eleven disciples on the eve of His passion. Shortly before His death He reminds them of where it all began: He called them. The days to come would sorely test their commitment to their Lord and His mission. They would be excommunicated from synagogues, hauled before kings and councils. They would suffer like Jesus, suffer scorn, anger, hatred, even to the point of death—for the sake of His name. And if it all depended on their commitment to Him, it would be overshadowed by a dark cloud of doubt. Did they have the faith to withstand the assault of both devil and world arrayed before them? Surely not. But, Jesus says, it doesn’t depend on them. “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.” “I have said these things to you to keep you from falling away” (Jn 16:1). It didn’t begin with their choice of Him, but His choice of them, and so also will it continue. His choice won’t fail. His Word makes the promise, His Word preserves them from harm. Suffering can’t break the bond that holds them to Christ because the bond is divine, not human. When the world attacks, it attacks Christ’s mighty Word.
The disciples, yes even you and I can take great comfort from Jesus’ words. He has chosen us. In the classroom we may use this verse as a potent weapon against synergism, but it means far more than that. It’s not just data for debate, but a promise to depend on. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless before Him, having destined us in love to be His sons through Jesus Christ” (1:4). Mysterious, but precious words. And yet there’s more. For Jesus wasn’t speaking to just any gathering of believers; He was in the Upper Room with His twelve, the men whom He’d chosen not only to have faith in Him, but to go forth as His apostles. Each of the four Gospels expends much ink in describing the manner of their calling. Now, we’re told that a Jew wishing to learn the Torah would choose for himself an appropriate teacher, finding a school of thought with which he’d be comfortable. It’s a bit like your choice of seminary. We did not choose you, but you chose us. Yet, it’s not so with Jesus. He chooses His disciples; what they will receive from Him isn’t a teaching of their own choice or making. He fills them with His disciplina and they become His disciples. He “appoints” them to the office of apostle—and John uses a Greek verb normally used for the ordination of a priest or rabbi. Jesus “ordains” them, and then He sends them forth that His teaching might bear fruit. The fruit is the words they speak; they bear it because they’re branches anchored in Jesus Christ, the true vine.
And so in this way we begin to understand Matthew. How is it that a notoriously wicked man—a government taxman, no less—ends up in the holy circle of saints and apostles? The man himself records it in the Gospel account for which he’s remembered in the church. Jesus came to him, sitting there in his tollbooth counting his ill-gotten gain. And Jesus speaks, “Follow Me”. The call is twofold. Matthew is brought into the Messianic community. He’s now a Jew who knows the promised Christ. The event is so enormous that it finds a place near the beginning of all three Synoptic Gospels. And all three couple it with the account of the Pharisees’ disgust, that Jesus should visit with tax collectors and sinners—and eat with them! Prostitutes like Rahab; tax collectors like Matthew! But such is the Lord we have. If He’s willing to do that, He might even stoop to call you and me, and eat with us. You see, the Pharisees got it backwards. It’s not that the Rabbi is contaminated by common sinners; rather, those sinners are made holy by contact with the Holy of Holies, Jesus Christ. His holiness is contagious. His presence is healing. He comes not for the well, but for the sick. His Words heals; His meal is communion with God. If only we could have a bit of that! And, of course, we can, as we penitent sinners are invited to the fellowship meal without end, Holy Communion with the Holy Christ.
But don’t skip over Matthew, whose call was twofold. For when the Lord said “Follow Me”, His words effected a double change. Just as faith in Christ is a gift not of man’s choosing, so also is the office into which Matthew was placed that day. No man chooses to be Christ’s apostle—or minister. You may say, “Here am I, send me, send me”, but it’s the Lord who does the calling and the sending. The 120 disciples gathered in the Upper Room may have put forth two names to replace Judas, but it was Christ through the casting of lots who did the choosing, for the new apostle was His ambassador, not theirs. Just as salvation itself comes extra nos, from outside ourselves, as a gift, so also the call into the ministry of that Gospel comes extra nos, from Christ, not from man. To lay claim to the ministry as coming from us, as if it proceeded from our faith, is to enter into the same vicious circle as the claim that we can save ourselves, as if newborns came into the world by their own effort.
The tale of St Matthew teaches us that this ministry is not ours, but Christ’s. St Paul writes that the risen and ascended Christ, “having taken captivity itself captive”, “gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4:7-8). We know that we have the precious gifts of forgiveness and divine life—but Paul has more to say: “And He gave the apostles and the prophets and the evangelists and pastors and teachers, to perfect the saints, for the work of the ministry, for building up the Body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). The gifts of Christ cannot be separated from Christ Himself. They don’t float about in the air. Christ doesn’t abandon His Church, expecting that we’ll find our way to His gifts on our own, but He ascends so that He can be present in another way. He continues to stand among us sinners through His apostolic ministers, giving out the spoils of His victory with their hands and mouths as if they were His own. The apostles bear fruit only because they remain grafted into Christ. And so neither they nor we have anything to brag about. They didn’t choose Him, but He chose them, to go forth and bear His fruit. The fruit of Christ’s death is here today; His appointed ministers give it out to His people—not because they choose to, but because Christ appoints them to, not because the gifts are theirs, but because they are His. And so the Communion at table of Messiah and sinners goes on and on until He comes again. Tax collectors and prostitutes have come; and there’s room even for you. Amen.