The following sermon was preached by Dr John Stephenson in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel at the divine service on the occasion of St Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, 21 September 2022.
The call of Matthew highlights the difference between the Church and a club. Clubs are more often than not a good thing, of course, along with a zillion other voluntary associations and organisations. We need other people in order to thrive; we wouldn’t learn to speak apart from listening to others, imitating them, and engaging them in conversation. Solitude is necessary for a balanced life, and when practised in moderation can be a wholesome thing; but loneliness has become a major curse of our age, with so many people experiencing nothing in between themselves as isolated individuals and the vast world of everything and nothing that opens up by a single click on the cellphone. Even apart from marriage and procreation, it is certainly not good for man to be alone.
Any sociologist could rightly object that many aspects of the life of the Church function as do clubs and voluntary societies, and achieve many of the same purposes. Yes, men’s and women’s groups, youth organisations, gatherings of old folks, circles that do good inside and outside the local community, and even meetings for explicitly religious purposes serve to plug the hole of what would otherwise be a painful vacuum in people’s lives, and in terms of their fruits do not always differ in kind from parallel forms of human interaction.
But there’s something unique to the Church, something that we might label the supernatural factor. Just before He called Matthew into what would become a lifetime of official apostolate, our Lord had caused a stir by healing a paralytic. Well, report has it that there were other miracle workers in the ancient world, but what Jesus did for the paralytic belongs in a different category from whatever His pagan contemporary Apollonius of Tyana got up to. As He forgives the paralytic his sins and sets him on his feet, Christ is setting in motion the new creation, the supernatural reconstitution of all things; He is planting the age to come in the midst of this old age of decay and death.
And so it is with Matthew. The invitations we receive from other people are more or less compelling, more attractive in this case than in that; very rarely are they a matter of life or death. But Jesus’ call is charged with the supernatural power of God; in Jesus’ call, gift preponderates over demand; Jesus’ call is creative with the power that, at the outset of time and space, called all things into being out of nothing. ‘Follow Me,’ and Matthew gets up on his feet and does just that, expending his later life in foreign mission and bequeathing to the Church the first of her four Gospels.
The Greek aorist participle anastas can of course simply mean that Matthew got up on his feet, which is no big deal to a healthy person, though, as we remember from two weeks ago yesterday, it involved tremendous effort for our late still smiling Queen as she stood up to see one Prime Minister out and another in. But that Greek word is loaded with extra content, because it is used for the most astonishing thing Jesus ever did, the thing that no other human person can ever do. Our late Queen will stay in a crypt with her husband and parents until either the Lord returns in glory or revolutionaries desecrate the royal tombs as they did in France more than two hundred years ago. Jesus stood up again from death, putting soul and body back together again in such a way that death no longer hath dominion over Him. And Matthew’s standing up on his feet to follow his Lord was not just the reflex action of a healthy young man; no, it was the beginning of his recreation, the start of his experiencing the powers of the age to come, the source of everything he later did as disciple, as apostle, and as evangelist.
Like so many disciples we meet in the Gospels, Matthew had a past, he suffered a handicap, he was damaged goods. His profession basically obliged him to practise financial dishonesty, his association with Gentiles made it impossibly for him to be ritually clean, and whatever other sins he may have been prey to, he was a man who had chosen to serve Mammon rather than God. Some have turned from the ministerial path in life because being a pastor pays poorly and other more lucrative professions entice them. How many of us find it hard to dip into our pockets and give because we clutch so frantically at those things that we must leave behind us anyway when the breath leaves our bodies?
Yes, the call of Jesus is creative in itself, both the call given to every man and woman to become His disciple, and the call extended to some men to serve in lifetime ordained ministry. This truth can supply great comfort and strength to any man who anticipates entering the holy ministry less than a twelvemonth from now. Ponder your own inadequacies, and you will be engulfed by the nightmare of not being able to cope with the sort of difficult situations that tend to afflict pastors in every other week of ordained ministry. There’s no getting away from temptations of this kind, both before and after ordination, but against it, as we ponder how Jesus broke the chain that attached Matthew to Mammon, we can urge two things.
First, ‘Don’t gaze inwards on your own guilt and weakness, but look outside yourself to the One who came to be your advocate.’ These are not my words, but the first lines of a modern German hymn, written by a pious novelist who came to a tragic end during the Third Reich. Look at Jesus, and you are connected to the supernatural source of new life, to the One who even now reigns in the midst of His enemies.
And secondly, as we realise how the Holy Spirit keeps all Christian life going despite every obstacle that the world, the flesh, and the devil throw in the way, remember how the old Lutheran teachers insisted that the Lord dispenses to ordained servants what they called ‘grace of office’. This gift doesn’t exalted a clergyman over a layman or turn him into a magician with a bag choc full of sorcerers’ tricks. No, but it does promise the Lord’s assistance wherever the duties and mandates of ministry exceed what is humanly possible. It means that as you enter into difficult situations with great trepidation, you do so with even greater trust, as you rely not on your own resources but on Christ who makes all things new.