Monday, September 22, 2008

St. Matthew's Day Sermon -- Matthew 9:9-13

September 21, 2008 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church -- Mechanicsburg, PA

As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and He said to Him: “Follow Me.” And he rose and followed Him.

The Gospel account for this day when we commemorate St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist, is quite matter-of-fact. Jesus calls Matthew to be a disciple. He says: “Follow Me.” And Matthew rose and followed Him. That’s all the Gospel-writer describes as happening. Jesus speaks and the action He wants to occur takes place.

But what isn’t said in the Gospel account is how changed Matthew’s life becomes. In that simple two word sentence “Follow Me” are many things that are anything but simple. In those two words “Follow Me” is a whole new way of life, an exchange of past unrighteousness for divine holiness, a setting aside of what was most important for an entirely new set of priorities.

This is seen in the events that surround Matthew’s call to apostleship. Note where Jesus finds Matthew: “He saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth.” What an odd place to find a disciple! The tax booth—the symbol of Roman occupation, the place of collaboration for unpatriotic Israelites, the tangible presence of Gentile uncleanness—in the tax booth sits one whom Jesus wants for His own. He goes up to that place with all its connotation of unrighteousness and impropriety and calls Matthew out of it, so that Matthew might follow Him.

And as if it weren’t shocking enough for a rabbi to find disciples working in a Roman tax booth, Jesus then goes to the tax collector’s house and is publicly seen with even more examples of unrighteousness: “As Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and His disciples.” The shocks keep on coming from Jesus’ actions: first calling a tax collector to be His disciple, then welcoming other tax collectors and sinners into His presence.

For Matthew and his friends and acquaintances, there is a whole new way of life that Jesus brings, something they had never before experienced. These tax collectors and sinners were part of Israel, but just barely. They were the outcasts, shoved to the edge of society because of their behavior. By their own choices, they had wandered from the righteousness of God. And the religious elite, the Pharisees who were dedicated to being set apart from such people, would not let them forget it!

Note how the Pharisees react when they see Jesus in the presence of Matthew and his ilk: “The Pharisees said to His disciples, ‘Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” Why, indeed! Just what sort of stunt is Jesus pulling? This entire enterprise—calling a tax collector to be a disciple, the eating and socializing with “many tax collectors and sinners”—is highly irregular. But so is the entire enterprise of Jesus’ mission beyond whoever happens to eat dinner with Him.

Everything that surrounded the call of Matthew was done with a purpose. But the intention was not to shock people, but rather to save them. Jesus tells the Pharisees and Matthew and the tax collectors and sinners: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. . . . I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Jesus wants Matthew and the tax collectors and all sinners to rise up from their tax booths and former ways of life, so that they can follow Him and rise up in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

That is precisely what we see happening in Matthew’s life. He leaves behind the institution of the Gentiles. He abandons the sinful practices of collecting more than what was owed and pocketing it for himself. He renounces all behavior that leads to eternal condemnation. All of it is done at the invitation of Christ: “Follow Me.” Jesus speaks and what He desires to take place in Matthew’s life happens. And it leads to a share of the righteousness and healing that Jesus provides for those who need it.

In the life of Matthew, we see a depiction of our selves. He is left as a pattern to imitate. But more importantly, it is through his faithful and inspired witness that we are called to follow Christ and leave behind all covetous desires and love of riches. Through Matthew’s Gospel, we hear Jesus say to us: “Follow Me.” Jesus speaks and what He desires to take place—our salvation—happens. We hear Jesus make the statement: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” We know that both of those declarations of Jesus are meant for our ears, applying to us, as we read the witness that Matthew handed down to us. But not only do we have the record of Christ’s words from Matthew’s faithful witness, we learn what Christ has done: laying down His life as a ransom for many, pouring out His blood of the new covenant, and on the third day being raised to life everlasting for Himself and all His people.

That is the significance of this day which commemorates St. Matthew. He is a gift of God, living up to both his name and his offices of apostle and evangelist. Just as St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, the witness of Matthew has been given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” The body of Christ is built up as sinners are called by Christ and receive the forgiveness and healing that He provides. The body of Christ is built up as you have been called to follow Him, being incorporated into Him through Baptism, participating in His death and resurrection, and leaving behind Satan and all his works and all his ways in order to walk in the way of life.

But the witness of Matthew is not just of the past events, ancient or recent. It also shows the Church what is to happen in the future, even what occurs today. The call of Jesus continues to go out as the Gospel witness of Matthew is carried by ourselves and others. In fact, the very witness of Matthew includes the statement of Jesus: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to keep everything that I have commanded you.” When that Gospel is proclaimed, there will be others called to fellowship with Jesus: other sinners will participate in the death and resurrection of Christ, finding forgiveness for their sins and gaining their own everlasting life.

So we must not fall into the error of the Pharisees were shocked and offended that Jesus would keep such company. People just like the friends and acquaintances of Matthew will also be welcomed by Jesus. So we should not ask: “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Rather, we should welcome them as our Teacher and Master does, recognizing them as the sick whom Jesus heals, the sinners whom Jesus forgives, the people whom Jesus calls to everlasting life.

Matthew’s new life, their new life, our new life: they are not different, but the same. All of us were dedicated to the pursuit of meaningless things, to covetousness, to lawlessness, to anything and everything opposite of the Lord God’s righteousness. We have been called away from that; we have a new source and purpose of life. Jesus says to Matthew and them and us: “Follow Me.” We learn what is good, right, and salutary from our Teacher and the witness of previous disciples. Like the Psalmist, we have our prayers answered: “Incline my heart to Your testimonies and not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in Your ways. Confirm to Your servant Your promise, that You may be feared.”

That is what Jesus gives to us, as we are brought into fellowship with Him, incorporated into His Body. It is first given to us in our baptisms. It is repeated as we hear and learn the witness of the apostles and the evangelists. And it is confirmed in our hearts, minds, and souls, as we eat with Jesus in the meal that our Lord provides us as a token, seal, and pledge of His forgiveness, life, and salvation.

All of this came to Matthew through the Jesus saying to him: “Follow Me,” and as he rose and followed Him. The same is ours to have through the faithful witness of Matthew who brought those same divine words and divine actions to us. And it will be given to still others, as we are also faithful witnesses to our friends and acquaintances and they are welcomed into fellowship with Christ. Jesus speaks again, and what He desires to take place in their lives happens. So it shall be through the ages until that day when all the sinners whom Christ has called will eat with Him in the banquet that has no end, receiving the full measure of healing that makes His people eternally well.

May it be so for all of you, as Jesus has told you: “Follow Me.” Rise up from your former ways of life, so that you may rise up in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come—just as Jesus desires to happen for you.

T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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