Sermon delivered by Jerry Mahan, special assistant for church relations at Mercer University, at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga., on Feb. 10, 2009.
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea,
across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles ”
the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Then walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea ”for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
(Matthew 4:12-22 NRSV)
I have been preaching the Bible for over 40 years, but I confess to you as a preacher to other preachers today I am at a loss about what to say. I did not choose the text. It was assigned, but the problem is not with the text. It’s a good text. It has lots of good preaching material. I have preached on this text on more than one occasion.
I have a sermon on community built on this text. Did you know there was never just one disciple? Jesus starts with two; then quickly the two become four. We sometimes say that Andrew was the first disciple. We get that from John’s Gospel, but in reality it was Andrew and an unnamed disciple who are the first to follow Jesus in John. They began the journey together. To be Christian is to be part of what Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community. I think the obsession with rugged individualism in American culture is incompatible with the Christian faith.
I have preached a sermon on this text on evangelism. Surely, to be called to be fishers of men is a call to evangelism. It seems to me that one of the great failings of moderate Baptists is our indifference to evangelism. We seem to feel that social ministries are an absolute necessity, but that evangelism is optional, take it or leave it. Recently, there was an editorial in a Baptist publication that criticized any efforts to share the faith with others. This text speaks powerfully against that kind of theology.
The problem for me this morning is not the assigned text. Dr. Younger was not content to assign a text, he also assigned the topic, Following . Of course that’s a great topic. I have preached on that topic numerous times. For me the problem is the combining of this text with that topic. From my perspective there is a contradiction in the text. The problem is Peter, Andrew, James, and John. They are not very good examples of followers. I mean if you are called by Jesus, chosen by Jesus, commissioned by Jesus, empowered by Jesus, shouldn’t your life be one bold dynamic adventure in success?
Of course, Peter is successful. He preaches at Pentecost and thousands come to faith. He preaches a few days later and even more thousands embrace the faith. He goes from one victory to another. Even today, we still feel the influence of his preaching. I accept the traditional view that Mark is based on the preaching of Peter.
Then there’s John. We used to view John as one of the greats. John outlived all the other apostles, but it wasn’t his longevity which made him great. It was his productivity. He wrote a gospel that bears his name, three epistles, and the Revelation. Then Alan Culpepper came along and took all that away from him. Modern scholarship says he wrote none of it.
But even if you are willing to give him credit for some of this and to declare that his life and ministry was productive, what do you do with Andrew and James? Andrew is certainly no Peter. Beyond his calling he is occasionally mentioned in scripture, but he is never doing anything remarkable. He’s just a kind of bystander. Oh, there are all kinds of legends surrounding Andrew, many of them contradictory and none of them believable.
Then there’s poor James. He had such high hopes. He dreamed of making it to the seat of honor, to sit at the right hand of Jesus. But he barely gets started before Herod has him beheaded. Peter is arrested about the same time and he is miraculously rescued by an angel. But there was no rescue for James, and his life ends prematurely.
Why were not all these men chosen by Jesus as successful as Peter? Gregory Boyd or other advocates of Open Theology might argue that God’s knowledge of the future is incomplete and that he intended and hoped that all Jesus’ disciples would be successful, but that some just failed to measure up. That’s certainly a legitimate interpretation of the text. What’s the alternative? That God calls some folks to be failures for the kingdom?
As strange as it sounds, there’s an example of just that in Isaiah 6. Isaiah is called to preach to a community whose eyes are closed to the light, whose ears are closed to the truth. How long will the people refuse to listen to my message? Isaiah asked. How long will my ministry be a failure?
God’s response is brutal. He says, Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken.
Of course Isaiah is not the only preacher who has failed. William Carey preached a sermon in 1792 that gave birth to the modern missionary movement. In the sermon he coined the aphorism: Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God. In less than a year Carey would be serving as a missionary himself on the subcontinent of India. For seven years he would preach the gospel. For seven years he would minister among the people. For seven years he would translate the scripture into their native language. Do you know how many converts he had after seven years? None! William Carey had expected great things from God. He had attempted great things for God. But he had failed.
He’s not the only missionary who failed. I think Paul is overrated as a missionary. I know he started a lot of churches, but have you ever looked at those churches? In fact, I would like to hear from Paul. Paul didn’t you start a church in Philippi.
Yes, I started the church with Lydia and her family, then we added a demon-possessed slave girl and the Philippian jailer.
Paul, that’s less than a dozen people. You call that a church? That’s not even a good Sunday school class. But that may not be fair. You where not in Philippi very long. However, you were in Corinth for 18 months. How many converts did you baptize in Corinth?
Well, let’s see. I baptized Crispus and Gaius, and I baptized Markus and his family. I baptized seven people.
Paul, seven people in 18 months, is a pretty pathetic record.
Is God pleased with failure? Does God call some of his disciples with the intention of their future failure? To be honest, I really don’t know. It is possible, but it is also possible that the real problem is our standard of judging success or failure.
I confess that I am guilty of judging the church by worldly standards. I see a church blowing and going, having three and four services, standing room only, baptizing every Sunday and I say, That church is on fire, God’s doing a great work. I see another church struggling to keep the doors open and I say, What’s wrong with those people? They need to get their act together. They need revival!
God may judge by a different standard. Of course one day we will know, on the great day of judgement, when the redeemed are ushered into the great banquet hall for the wedding feast and awards dinner. I know it’s not called an awards dinner, but that’s the place where the awards, or what the Bible calls crowns, will be given out for those who have contributed the most to the Kingdom.
Peter Rhea, you will be interested to note that my careful reading of the New Testament has enabled me to actually determine the seating arrangement at the awards banquet. There will be a head table with Christ in the center and those most honored seated nearest to him down the table to the right and left. Then the rest of us will be at tables streching from the front to the back, according to our position in the Kingdom.
We will all be there and the angels walking around serving us. I will turn around and say to Dr. Culpepper behind me, Alan, do you recognize anyone at the head table?
We’re so far back here it’s hard to see. A set of binoculars would help, but you see the man to the right of Jesus the third seat down, with the black beard, slumped over straining to read the menu? I’m pretty sure that’s the apostle Paul. You see the man to the left of Jesus, but further down than Paul, baldheaded and thin faced? That’s William Carey. But from this far back, those are the only ones I recognize
When Gabriel comes by with the sweet tea, I’ll say, Gabe who’s that woman sitting next to Paul?
She’s a singer.
A singer! You mean there’s a minister of music at the head table?
Jerry, she’s not a minister of music. She’s just a singer.
She must have a great voice. Is she going to sing for us? I bet she can make the bells of heaven ring!
No Jerry, she’s not going to sing. She’s not a soloist. She’s just got a mediocre voice.
A mediocre voice? Then what is she doing at the head table?
Jerry, surely you know.
Well, never mind that Gabe. You see those two women sitting on each side of William Carey?
They kind of favor each other. Are they sisters?
No, Jerry, they’re not sisters. They never met before this morning. The one on the left is a nursery worker at a little church out in the country. They couldn’t find anyone else and she kept the nursery for two generations. The other lady is a school teacher.
When Gabriel walks away I’ll say to Alan, Something’s wrong. I didn’t expect to be at the front of the room, but I did expect to be closer than this. I was a preacher of the gospel for 40 years. Doesn’t that count for anything? I won some preaching awards. Alan, would you like to see my preaching plaque? We’re back here and there are singers with mediocre voices, and nursery workers and school teachers at the head table.
Alan, do you see that fellow at the very back of the room, barely in the door? Do you know who that is? That man baptized more people than any other preacher in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention. I know he did, because I heard him brag about it one time at an evangelism conference.
Gabe, come here. Tell me, are there any preachers at the head table?
Oh yes, there are preachers up there.
I thought so. You see that tall man on the end. He kind of looks familiar. I think I may know him. Is he a preacher?
No Jerry, he’s not a preacher, he’s a custodian.
A custodian! What’s a custodian doing at the head table?
Jerry, surely you know. Shhh, Jerry be quiet. Jesus is about to give the crown of righteousness to his most faithful disciple. Then Jesus will stand and call Mary Magdalene forward. Mary will kneel in front of Jesus and he will place the crown of righteousness on her head.
Mary Magdalene? The crown of righteousness for Mary Magdalene?
Yes, of course, Jerry. She was the last to leave the cross; the first at the empty tomb. She was the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection.
I know all that, but she’s a . . . she’s a woman. That man said a woman shouldn’t. A woman couldn’t. A woman mustn’t.
Jerry, we know what he said. Why do think he’s in the back of the room?
Then Mary Magdalene will take the crown off her head and place it at the feet of Jesus. Then all the others who have received awards will come forward and lay them at the feet of Jesus. The congregation will stand as one and according to the fifth chapter of Revelation we will all join in singing, Worthy is the Lamb who was slain. Worthy is the Lamb to receive honor and glory and power and praise. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.
Now, of course, I really don’t know anything about the seating arrangement at the wedding feast, but I do know the standard by which the followers of Jesus will be judged. The standard is not success. The standard is faithfulness. Every saint longs for the beatific vision and to hear the word well done thy good and faithful servant.