22 January 2023 – Third Sunday after the Epiphany
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
One of the most read articles on McSweeney’s humor site Internet Tendency last year was a piece by Amanda Lehr, called Selected Negative Teaching Evaluations of Jesus Christ. Lehr imagines what contemporary students taking a class from Jesus might write on their course evaluations. Things like: “Tells too many stories. Easy to get him off track during lectures.” And, “Feels like a class for farmers. Hope you like talking about seeds. Wheat seeds. Mustard seeds. Seeds, seeds, seeds.” And, “He’s nice enough, I guess, but he doesn’t vet his TAs: they all provide completely different, conflicting lecture notes. (TIP: Try to get in Luke’s section.)”
Well, we’ve ended up in Matthew’s section this week, but last week we were in John’s section and sure enough we got two different accounts of the calling of Andrew, and Peter. Remember? Last week, John the baptizer was standing around, and every time Jesus walked by, he would say (to any one who would listen), “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29-42), and finally two of John’s disciples heard and followed. One was of them Andrew, who spent the whole day with Jesus and then went and got his brother Peter to come along.
Another evaluation response: “Kind of absent-minded. My name’s Simon, and he’s called me ‘Peter’ for the entire semester.”
So last week, we heard John’s version. Then today, Matthew says that John the baptizer has already been arrested, and Jesus is walking by himself beside the sea of Galilee and sees Simon and Andrew and says, “Follow me.” Which they immediately do. So which is it, Matthew or John?
William Temple who was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940s, wrote a beautiful little book called Reading in St. John’s Gospel . And in that he argues that John (the gospel writer) was actually recounting what he remembered from his years with Jesus; whereas Matthew was relying on what he knew from Mark, who in turn was relying on what he heard from Peter. Which was a traditional understanding…but recent scholarship is much more skeptical of all of that. But Temple argues that John is a portrait painter not photographer,—more interested in capturing the essence of a person, evoking the feeling of a scene through a few, well-chosen brush-strokes. I typically find John much more mystical, and much less realistic than other Gospel writers, but in this case, I have to agree with William Temple. I think John’s version of Peter and Andrew’s call seems much more likely and (to me) feels more like what I’ve experienced “call” to be. A teacher or mentor—someone you know and trust—points out something or someone, and says, “go check that out,” and you do and discover something powerful and life-changing. That feels much more likely—to me—than Matthew’s very stark version.
Matthew’s version is devoid of a lot of detail—it’s just Jesus walking and calling these men. I always wonder…given the starkness of this scene…why would they go with him? What did they see in him? What did he see in them? In John there’s a conversation…Jesus turns and sees them following, and asks, “what are you looking for?” and invites them to “Come and see.” That sounds more like the Jesus I know. And after spending all day with Jesus, THEN Andrew is convinced, and goes to get Peter. That feels right, to me.
Matthew’s version feels stiff, and forced into this really obscure verse from Isaiah*, plus having Jesus just blurt out, “I’ll make you fish for people,” sounds…weird. I think this must have been a private joke between Jesus and the boys—“we fish for people”—but Matthew’s taken it out of context, and just doesn’t work.
Another course evaluation: “Definitely plays favorites. Calls on the same twelve guys over and over. I even heard he took them out to dinner.”
So, we have these two conflicting accounts, but I don’t think we can ever say whether Matthew or John’s version actually happened…and I don’t think that’s the point. I know that I have this felt sense that John’s call narrative of Peter and the rest, is closer to my own experience…I think Jesus is probably not really recognizable in a crowd…doesn’t stand out, necessarily, in fact, I have—at times—needed other people to point him out to me. I know that once I do see him, though, he’s always really intriguing, inviting, captivating, and once you get to know him you really are smitten.
But as much as I resonate with John, I can’t simply dismiss Matthew’s version, because Matthew and John are not just telling conflicting stories; they’re making different theological points. John seems to be saying, that Jesus really is irresistible once you spend time with him, and that conversion is likely to be gradual and not automatic…whereas Matthew seems to be suggesting that conversion can be immediate (just because that’s not my experience doesn’t mean it never happens), and Matthew puts much more emphasis on something else—Matthew emphasizes the one who does choosing—and it’s not us…it’s God. God is the one who acts first—who chooses us. It might feel like we’re the ones who decide to follow—but we follow because God has already acted—has already chosen—has already adopted us—called us beloved. John points this out as well, but waits until chapter 15 to do so. Then, at that Last Supper Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16), and calls them friends. Matthew wants to make clear from the outset that God in Jesus, is the one who does the choosing. John also makes it clear…but only after we’ve spent quite a bit of time getting to know Jesus…and letting his light enlighten our darkened hearts and minds.
So, while it’s fun to imagine the gospel writers as not terribly helpful TA’s in the course that Jesus is teaching…in the end they are still telling the same story…just through different lenses. The story of how God acts in the world, how God acts in our lives…and no matter which way it happens…in a sudden flash of brilliance, or in a gradual dawning of awareness…the light of Christ shines in all of our lives. May we have eyes to see, and ears to hear, and hearts and hands to respond to that eternal and utterly irresistible call.
*Not the “people who walk in darkness” part…that’s really well known. No, the first verse that starts, “there will be no gloom,” and talks about “former times, and later times” and Naphtali and Zebulun…in the Hebrew bible that verse is actually the last verse of chapter 8, not the first verse of chapter 9, and the scholars of the Jewish Study Bible refer to it as “an unusually obscure verse” that may have something to do with the Assyrian King? No one is really sure. It helps to remember that, “Prophecies are, are a bit dodgy.”