Following Jesus Around: How do people (outsiders) know that the kingdom of heaven has appeared? (Matthew 4-11), a Sermon (Part I)
As of January 1, My wife and I live in the Hill, an apartment on Carlisle Street, right next to the Park where we do our summer BBQ ministry. I’m even close enough to walk downtown to meetings and events. One evening, walking back to the apartment from an aldermen’s meeting at town hall, I found myself waiting at a cross-walk when two guys (you can tell, kind of down and out, probably homeless) decided to go, even with traffic coming. One guy had a walker. He walked slow across the intersection, so I headed out with him, telling him, “They’ll have to hit me first.” He smiled and said, “Thanks.” We made it safely, catching up with his friend. They continued to walk slow. I moved on ahead, walking down the block back to my apartment, when I saw a Dunkin Donuts and remembered I had a gift card in my wallet my mom had given me for Christmas. I stopped in to see how much it was for . . . there were no markings . . . $10 the barrister said after scanning it. I went back up the block to my two slow walking friends and said, “Do you guys like coffee?” “Yes,” one of them replied. “I have a gift card for $10—it’s yours.” “Thanks.” They smiled. “Good, we can get a sandwich, too.” I told them: “I can’t take credit for it, my mom gave it to me for a Christmas present.” “Well then, tell your mom, thanks for us.” (I did.) I gave them the card and said, “You’ll see me around. You will see the hat and the ponytail” . . . and, before I could get my name out . . . “Yea, we know. You’re the pastor of the church on Davenport. We know who you are.”
How about that? Priceless. Two street, homeless guys, a few blocks from the Hill knew who I was and where our church is. This reminds me that we need to be known . . . and if I get my New Testament correctly, known for the things that indicate the presence of the Kingdom of God.
This morning I’d like to bring a messagefrom a thread of passages in the Gospel of Matthew. There is a narrative thread connecting Matthew chapters 4 through 11 that we should listen to, which focuses on Jesus associating with tax collectors and sinners, the poor, the unclean, and the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew is asking the readers: How do others know that the Kingdom of Heaven has appeared? To give you the spoiler: Matthew tells us, they can see our association with the poor, marginalized, outcasts, and unclean. This is how they know.
I. We are to Follow Jesus around and repeat (what he does):
We like to take small bites on the Bible, so sometimes we miss big picture things. And, this is a Big Picture Thing we need to see so we may be better readers of Matthew's Gospel and more faithful followers of Jesus.
We begin in Matthew 4:19 where Jesus makes the invitation, “Follow [lit. come after] me and I will make you fishers of men.” The command is to come-after Jesus. That’s the command--follow after me, really follow me around. Most think the command is to be fishers of men—it is not, that’s the promise. We are called to follow Jesus around and he promises to make us fishers of men. By getting the following correct, we become fishers of men.
So, what does it mean to follow Jesus around—Matthew tells us. Straight away, just after the call to follow Jesus, Matthew reveals what it was like to follow Jesus around. There is a divine, inspired-ness to what the Gospel writers place into the narrative . . . so right after the scene where Jesus calls us to follow him around, we have . . .
Matthew tells us: we are made fishers of men by following Jesus around—and what did he do?
What we might not realize, however, is Jesus’ first encounter afterHe finishes the Sermon . . . Matthew could have introduced a dozen different encounters, but this is the one He chooses:
This is the Sermon on the Mount realized, illustrated, fulfilled. The Monday after the Sunday Sermon as it were. Now I’m going somewhere with this, so for now remember, following Jesus is actually following Jesus around, learning to do what he did . . . now, we are to repeat . . .
*This sermon was preached at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Concord, MA on Sunday, May 19, 2019. The full sermon maybe downloaded as a PDF (here). An audio version is also be available >> Audio version
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV
“. . . but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6)
There is an interesting nuance to Jesus’ commission to the twelve in Matthew 10: When Jesus instructs them not to preach and heal and cast out demons among the Gentiles and Samaritans, he, however, specifically directs them to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6).
Again, this seems a verse we read (into) as another “everyone” text, that is “go to everyone in Israel for all of them are lost sheep.”
Let’s reconsider: The word Jesus uses for “lost” here in 10:6 isn’t rendered at all very well by English translators. It is a specific word and no-where does it actually mean “lost” the way most of us modern Christians read the word and certainly doesn't carry the weight of a religious overtone of “lost” as in unsaved. The word is ἀπόλλυμι (apollymi, destroyed, banned is actually a good word). As this word is used (and rendered) elsewhere in the NT, a more consistent translation would have been “go rather to the destroyed sheep of the house of Israel.” This nuance changes how we read this charge to the twelve. If the English “banned” (a fair rendering as we shall see) is used, the resulting condition is nuanced to description, namely, of those “who have been shunned to destruction.” In fact, there is even more nuance to be heard from the word and the context.
Previously in the immediate paragraph, Matthew depicts the scene in which Jesus has been ministering to the sick, outcast, marginal, disgraced, and poor (9:35). Jesus looks upon this crowd, Matthew narratives, telling us that He “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (v. 36b). There is no doubt Jesus and Matthew are drawing upon an Ezekiel context where God interjects, “So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd” (Ezek 34:5). Yet, just before in 34:4, the people, i.e., the sheep, carry the same conceptual (sociological) description as does Matthew 9 and 10 regarding the condition of certain Israelites, i.e., “the lost sheep of Israel”:
Additionally, as you can see in the brackets above, the LXX OT (i.e., the Greek OT) uses the word ἀπόλλυμι (apollymi, destroyed), the same word use by Jesus in his instructions to the twelve in Matthew 10:6. English translators (virtually all) render this word in Ezekiel 34 and Matthew 10 as “lost” (as in “lost sheep”). In both Ezekiel and Matthew, this strong word gives a very subtle description of the people as vulnerable sheep who are “put out of the way entirely, abolished, destroyed.”
Elsewhere in the New Testament, this word, ἀπόλλυμι (apollymi, destroyed), is used to give a rather dire description of a person's condition as a result of the actions or behaviors or attitudes of others.
The more accurate rendering of “lost” as destroyed (ruined, banned, shunned) helps to further see an actual sociological condition in the use of “lost sheep” to describe people or a person. In Luke for example, the treasured images of “lost sheep,” then, brings out (for significance and application) a rather different imagination regarding those that are in a condition of “lost.”
In Luke above, we can, then, see that the lost sheep are left alone, unprotected, vulnerable to the elements, lions and tigers and bears (literally), and is, thus, in the condition of “destroyed.” Jesus juxtaposes the restoration given by Zaccharus with His own mission to seek and to save the destroyed, the banned, the shunned. In this latter text, Zaccharus' own salvation is related to making people whole since he contributed to their condition of “ruin" (of being banned, shunned, destroyed).
Now returning to the “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (of Matthew 10:6), we offer a more sociological-rhetorical reading of the verse. While apollymi (“lost” as rendered in most English transitions) in v. 6 certainly is a strong word and “destroyed” is perfectly acceptable as a translation, we should also note that this is the word used to describe those who have been banned from synagogue. Also, the raw, wooden transliterated meaning of this word, apollymi, literally means “from let loose,” “let loose from,” “unloosed”). This is most certainly its meaning later when the local synagogue leadership in Caperneum made plans to “destory” (i.e., ban) the man whose withered hand Jesus had healed: “But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy [apollymi] him” (Matthew 12:14). [Whether the antecedent of “him” relates to the healed man or Jesus, the implication is to be banned from the synagogue.]
Finally, given the nature of Jesus’ primary audiences thus far and Matthew’s summaries of His ministry (4:23-25; 9:35-36; et al), perhaps we should read “lost” as “banned sheep of the house of Israel,” specifically identifying the marginal, infirm, mentally unstable, demon-possessed, poor, outcast, and disabled sheep of the house of Israel—all whom would have been shunned away from synagogue life, not just figuratively speaking, but banned from the worshipping and religious life of Israel. Is it no wonder the temple-leadership did not like and was angered (or is that threatened) by Jesus' association with tax collectors and sinners?
Leveling and equalizing the idea of “lost” in the Gospel narratives to simply a “we all are sinners in need of salvation” (albeit true, of course) places a barrier to faithful readings that put the poor and the marginalized of society in the purview of sound application in the life of the church (a church).
If you offer mercy and care to the poor so you are seen by others for their applause, for your own glory, honor, status . . . if you pray in ways so you may be seen and admired by others . . . if you fast to be recognized and esteemed by others, you are a hypocrite like the others. And, so, you are, then, not poor in spirit, not one who mourns, not meek and you do not thirst and hunger for justice, nor are you merciful, nor clean of heart, nor a peace-maker, thus, you will not receive reward from the Father who is in heaven. The kingdom is not yours. You shall not be comforted. You shall not inherent the earth. You will not be satisfied. You shall not receive mercy. You shall not see God. And, you will not be called “sons of God.”
Seeking the applause of others for caring for the needy and seeking to be seen praying and fasting by others most certainly means you will not be persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Neither will you be reviled, and rather than having all kinds of evil uttered against you, you will be lauded with accolades and honor and status, and, therefore, you will not receive God’s gracious heavenly rewards, for you will have already received your reward. You are “shining” so others will give you glory rather than give God glory. And, in the end, you will not be able to claim that you have been cheated, for you will have been paid in full by the glory (applause, recognition, honor, status) given to you by others.
Dangerous Devotions: Our Cheshire cat problem with the Beatitudes: So, how should the advantaged hear the Beatitudes?
So many common cultural values, which came from the appearance and presence of Christianity in the world in the first place, exist today as noble virtues and ideals in and among our society, so much so that the intent of Jesus’ Blesseds are now tempered, eased, toned down, dulled, softened; their bite is taken out; their edge taken off—so that their radical, self-righteousness slaying, Christendom destroying, idol bashing, social leveling, culture reversing power is dismissed by much of the church and ignored as simplistic platitudes by the modern crowds to whom the church is supposed to be preaching the gospel of the kingdom.
We exist at a time when the Cheshire cat smile of these Beatitudes exist (in vague social and cultural forms and weak values and even as political correctness), but the cat (i.e., the intent Jesus had in the first place) is all gone.
These verses, Matthew 5:3-12 (above), were the most oft quoted, referred to, and referenced NT texts in the first 150 years. They were the call (invitation) to the faith, the test of the faithful, and the bane and annoyance of existing powers. You want to know how Christianity spread so rapidly and the church increased beyond imagination in the first 150 years--they actually believed the Beatitudes.
The early believers, mostly poor and lacking resources, small and powerless and often hidden, lived the life they (that is, the Beatitudes) described, endured attacks against the message they implied, and as a result out-lived an empire. Our problem now, is we like the smile but care not the cat has disappeared. We've turned much of the Beatitudes 180° degrees from their original intent that they no longer slay us nor confront the culture (or the church) with all its social hierarchy and status, its vertical world. The Beatitudes are interpreted and used in ways so that the rich, famous, elite, the educated, the privileged and advantaged are comforted to think that they are, as well, “poor in spirit," so they get to keep their advantage (as long as they recognize their spiritual poverty) and continue in the culture and social structures that gave them that advantage. Heck, theirs is the kingdom! Now and in the future. Who wouldn't want that deal?
The Beatitudes are not a platform for your fame, celebrity, or power . . . they are to disturb everything that made you, that enabled you to have social status, to destroy every advantage you have had to enjoy the privileges you have . . . the Beatitudes level, they turn (for those who believe the kingdom of heaven has come) the verticalization of this social and cultural world (with all its advantages) and horizontalizes everything. If the Beatitudes don't do this to you, then you are seeing just the Cheshire cat smile. The cat is gone.
How do the rich, affluent, powerful, and wealthy break and destroy the idols that blind them and make them deaf? They accept the invitation to a kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, where the poor in spirit (the actual poor among them, the outcasts, marginal, uneducated, the sick, infirmed, and afflicted, and mentally unstable; cf. Matthew 4:24-5:1), those who mourn for lack of recourses, and the meek, that is the powerless, have the kingdom, will be comforted, and shall inherit the earth. This is the kingdom to which the rich, affluent, wealthy, the advantaged, that is the powerful and resource-rich are invited.
Of course, these lines in the list of Beatitudes are for all who seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. I am here just focused on the powerful and resource-rich who hear this gracious invitation to the kingdom of Heaven. This is the kingdom to which the powerful and resource-rich are invited, a kingdom where they thirst and hunger for justice [yes, that’s exactly how I believe Jesus meant it]; where they will extend mercy because it is the merciful that will receive mercy; where the clean in heart make room for the unclean, because they see God; where they will be peace-makers, because they will be called Sons of God.
This is an impossible invitation: for those who have been made blind and deaf and immovable because of their idols, these need the gospel, the power of God unto salvation. This is why Jesus died on that cross. This is the way in which God changed the world—really, the way in which he brought into existence, the reality of his recreated world, his kingdom of heaven. Yet, still, these words of the Beatitude are an invitation, waiting for you, through the gospel of Jesus Christ, to accept. In the end, both at our death and at the end of time, this is the kingdom that matters, the only kingdom that will remain. It is the kingdom of heaven to whom God, the Most High, will give to his saints (Daniel 7). This is why it makes sense that “the poor in spirit” are blessed, “because theirs is this kingdom.”
I must make two confessions up front as I began reading through the much treasured, but very often misunderstood John 13 footwashing scene of Jesus and his disciples: First, the eighteen plus years as a planner-grant writer, program developer, and instructor in the social action field, working for agencies that help the poor and low-come, has made me more aware of the Bible’s overwhelming connection to the poor. I most definitely read the Bible differently now. I can see more clearly what I have passed over, spiritualized, and, too often, ignored. I now pick up on nuances in biblical texts and stories that were blurred by my suburban, more privileged up-bringing and how my early Christian years were shaped. I confess am no longer a poor rich reader of the Bible.
Second, and with a deep breath, I confess I am burdened and terrified by the call to minister in the Hill community in New Haven, Connecticut. I awake with burdens beyond what I could have imagined as I seek to minister in this broken, yet beautiful community called The Hill. Frankly (and some tell me, don’t let them know how you really feel, don’t show weakness), I am scared to death, sometimes awakening and wondering, “What in the world have I gotten myself and my wife into here?” Scared I’ll mess it up. Frightened that my vulnerabilities will be seen. Afraid my shortcomings, my age, may exhaustion, my weaknesses, and inabilities will be too soon noticed. Yet as Paul heard from God, I too rest in the words, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
So, with humility I approach the text, weak and a common sinner in the hands of an all-too-gracious heavenly Father . . . and you, with so many reasons to listen to others, but with hopes you will hear the text.
Let us pray . . .
Let’s time travel back to the first few hundred years of church history. Most of us are familiar with the Greco-Roman colosseums and the brutality of the gladiatorial entertainment in the days of the Roman empire. In those colosseums there was a theater of real, unashamed, and intentional death that was designed to displayed the vertical nature of society, of social order, who had status and who did not—and who was and wasn’t a person. Why do I start here? The arena of death and violence is, you must understand, still the experience of so many around the globe today and in most urban centers in the US and in The Hill community—designed by default and intention, in our very built environment—continues to affirm social vertical status and, dare I say, what we affirm as human. Yet, Jesus and the gospel itself point to a leveling . . . displayed in and through and by the church . . . John 13 will paint this picture for us.
Religion in the Roman empire was widespread, huge, and multiple. And yet, no one would have imagined that by the early 4th century Christianity would become a major world religion with adherents numbering among the most significance slice of the empire’s population. But the church didn’t start out that way: the first small congregations had no power, no leverage of status, no influence, and certainly no money. So how? As we read through the early church literature and church fathers, one would look in vain for references specifically to “evangelism” as a verbal witness as a matter of the Christian and church life . . . in fact “speaking” would have probably done nothing and no one would have listened (anyway). Literally in the first few hundred years, Christian literature makes no reference to “evangelists” and or even “missionaries.” So, how?
Back to the arena games, say around AD 203: The colosseum-amphitheater was a wonder of Roman engineering. Everything about the architecture and the events were to show off the vertical nature of life and social standing in the Empire . . . vertical . . . higher sections . . . seated by wealth and influence . . . how the stands were filled . . . the upper sections were the visual center . . . magistrates, landowners, benefactors, the elite . . . the entertainment of the populace to bolster status and prestige—all affirming the vertical values of society and civil life. All the while, who were in the death-pits, the forced entertainment of death at the bottom of the arena? Of course the gladiators and lions, but it was the bottom of society that faced death—criminals, the unwanted, slaves, the abandoned—all for sport and entertainment. There we also find small bands of Christians . . . but they faced death (face the beasts and gladiators) differently; their presence in the arena subtly subverted the carefully choreographed vertical event. The masses saw husbands (the paterfamilias, head of households), wives, slaves, doctors, former prostitutes, unwanted children standing together . . . expressing publically right there in the arena Christian horizontality. (Yes, that is a word.) When one would fall, the others would help them up to face death standing. They did not defend themselves in any way. Although the whole of the gospel and NT teaching is behind their behavior, but it is the fact that Jesus left a footwashing community and not a militia or even an academy to invade this world IS THE HOW Christianity grew to overtake an empire.
Here in John 13 we have a portrait, along with Jesus’s words, a powerful image and reminder of what the Christian community is to look like in the private habits of our worship and out in the public, in Caesar’s arena of death. The cliché is an easy one: Jesus had to leave, but he left a community. The harder thing: John leaves a community of footwashers to show his love to a watching public world: Jesus’ presence in the world is displayed by a mutually loving church that demonstrates the leveling of humanity, the horizontality of God’s love.
Our focus is John 13:33–35—and how these verses stand in the midst of the footwashing scene, surrounded by a traitor among them (Judas) and Peter’s brash, impatient display of allegiance.
Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:33–35).
Everything seems driven by these words from our Lord, here in chapter 13 and all through John 13-17. So we will center on these verses through the footwashing and the outer bookends texts about Judas and Peter in John’s narrative.
I. Setting the stage with the footwashing example–Jesus prepares his new community for his departure
II. The juxtaposition: The Traitor (Judas) and Brash, Impatient Denier (Peter)
III. The power and habits of our text: The Presence of Jesus is the loving-one-another church–the visible, tangible leveling power of the gospel
For the full sermon text, please click the download file below . . .
Dangerous Sunday morning devotions: James 5:1-6, horrified by the poor rich readers' response to this text
While attending an early morning men’s prayer and devotional time (as a guest of the one leading the study component), I was horrified by some of the strained thoughts on the passage. The study leader actually tried to stick to the James text; it was the poor rich readers that made comments to lessen the impact of what God was saying through James' words in chapter 5 of his letter. Here are some of my thoughts as the poor rich readers of the Bible commented on James’ words:
Some might not think it, but I was being charitable here. My thoughts were a bit more harsh and even more direct than what I penned above. I will grant that it took me eighteen years after becoming a Christian to begin to see how suburban, affluent, and political I had been reading the Bible--all the while thinking I was interpreting rightly. We need to stop taking the poor out of the texts that actually call us to judgment for not doing something for the poor--neutrality, distance, time, politics will not be allowed as excuses on that day God judges all of our hearts. For on "that day" our riches will have rotten and our garments will have become moth-eaten. Our gold and our silver will have rusted; and their rust, on that day, will be a witness against us and will consume our flesh like fire.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.