Well, Samuel and Harrison: What have you just done? What have you just signed up for?
When someone becomes a follower of Jesus, what are they signing up for? Many of us here already follow Jesus: What have we signed up for?
The Bible reading we just heard tells part of the story of the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth. He’s barely started out. In fact, all that’s happened this far in the story is that Jesus has arrived on the scene, and we’ve heard him a one sentence summary of his teaching. That was in verse 17:“From that tim, Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
That’s a summary of what Jesus taught. Then we get a summary of the response Jesus wanted from those who wished to sign up. So if we want to know what someone signs up for when they become a follower of Jesus, this is a pretty good place to look, because Matthew reduces it down to its bare essentials for us.
What happens in this story is that Jesus calls his first 4 disciples, and they sign on the dotted line and become his followers. We have to be a little careful if we’re going to learn from them what it means for us to follow Jesus. That’s because we aren’t them! Matthew does intend this little story to model what a response to Jesus looks like, so we’re not totally off-beam, but we mustn’t forget that these 4 were part of Jesus’ inner circle of 12, and they were literally going to follow him around for 3 years.
So what does someone sign up for when they decide to become a Christian?
3 things from this passage.
The first is obvious, but needs to be said: They sign up to follow Jesus. Follow Jesus.
Verse 19: And he said to them, “Follow me!” Verse 20: The left their nets and followed him. Verse 23: They left the boat and their father and followed him.
These 4 literally followed him. They went where he went.
We can’t do that, because Jesus doesn’t live on the earth anymore.
But what they were doing by following him was becoming his disciples.
We have a word for disciple today – it’s the word apprentice. They became Jesus’ apprentices. They signed up for an apprenticeship with Jesus.
That’s to say: They watched how he lived. They listened to what he said. They wanted to learn how to answer the question: What would he want me to do? How do I live like him? What would Jesus do – if he were me? If Jesus had my family, my job, my home, my illness – what would he do?
That’s what it looks like for us to follow Jesus. We follow him. We sign up for an apprenticeship with Jesus. We look at his teaching, we look at his life, we read the rest of the Bible – all of which Jesus endorsed – and we ask: What would Jesus want me to do?
The second thing involved when someone signs up to follow Jesus is that he takes first place. First place.
Did you notice that when Matthew tells us these fishermen followed Jesus, he stresses what they left behind.
Verse 20: Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Verse 22: Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. To follow Jesus they had to leave behind their nets, their boat, their father.
Their nets and boat were their livelihood. Their father was the head of their family.
Jesus had to become more important for them than their family. More important for them than their job.
Now this is where we need to remember that we aren’t them. Jesus was calling them, quite literally, to follow him wherever he went. That meant they had to hand in their notice and they had to leave their extended family behind.
We’re not in their position. In fact, it would be wrong for most of us to leave our families or to resign from our jobs. Jesus explains later in Matthew that we must not use following God as an excuse to avoid caring for our families. The rest of the New Testament is clear that we need to work if we can, so that we can provide for ourselves and have something left over for those in need.
But the point remains, does it not? Jesus calls us today to make our allegiance to him higher than our family and our work.
This is really hard for us to hear today. Actually, that’s nothing new – this has always been hard to take on board. This takes the call to do an apprenticeship with Jesus to the next level. Not only do we start to ask: What would Jesus want me to do? But that question becomes more important than asking what our family might demand or our job might demand. Jesus takes first place.
Now, those questions don’t always clash. One of the things that Jesus wants us to do is to love our families and to work hard at our jobs. But if it ever does clash, Jesus calls us to be clear where our highest allegiance is.
When I was at school, a friend of mine in the year above me decided to become a Christian in his last week at school. He was 18. The thing was, he boarded at the school, but lived in Zambia. His parents were zealous Hindus, which is what he had been. He did not know how his relationship with his parents would survive when he broke the news to them he now followed Jesus instead. What clinched it for him was looking at the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. He decided Jesus really did rise from the dead, and that meant Jesus should have first place in his life.
I never did find out how his parents reacted. We lost touch. Until a few years back, when I learnt that he’s been working in India since 2005 – initially in social development and now with children.
Follow Jesus. First place
Fish for People
Third, fish for people. Fish for people.
These 4 were fishermen. Jesus calls them to be fishers of men. In this day and age, we’d say that they were to be fishers of people, not fishers of men, but the pun with fishermen doesn’t quite work.
What did Jesus mean? Well, the rest of Matthew makes clear that they were to recruit others to follow Jesus to.
That is part of what it entails to be a follower of Jesus. Being a recruiter of others.
In England, we have relative freedom to be practicing Christians. In many countries that is not so, as Christians are imprisoned, have their property confiscated, and are even executed. The fact is that many Christians in such countries could escape such difficulty if Jesus had never said this. If those Christians were able to practice their faith in a private way, if Jesus had not said that recruiting other followers for him was part of signing up, life would be much easier.
Even in this country, many people are very happy for us to be Christians as long as we keep it to ourselves. Jesus calls us to be fishers of people. He’s not calling us to do this in any particular way. He’s not saying we have to wear a sandwich board on Oxford Street or visit Speakers’ Corner. He is saying that the good news he came to bring is too good to keep to ourselves.
Why would we do this?
You might think that sounds insane. Follow Jesus. First place. Fish for people.
Why would anyone sign up for this?
Well they’d do it because of Jesus’ authority, and because of Jesus’ goodness.
Take his authority first. We sign up to follow him because he tells us to.
Jesus may have known these fishermen before his moment. That’s certainly what John’s gospel implies. Matthew chose not to tell us about that. Instead, he pictures Zebedee left in the boat in a way that gives the impression this was all very sudden. Spur of the moment.
The tone of his command is not an invitation. He doesn’t say: If you like, if you’d be ever so kind, would you mind possibly following me? It’s a straight command. He presumes the right to tell these men how to live. Follow me, he says, and they do.
And the rest of Matthew’s gospel bears out the fact that this is not just bluster. He really does have that kind of authority. Following Jesus is not optional.
But the other reason why we’d do this is because of his goodness.
We’re naturally suspicious of people with this kind of authority, who demand this level of allegiance. With good reason.
We can all think of political leaders who have had absolute power and have asked unquestioning obedience form their followers. You must put me above your family. You must recruit others. Think of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. We’re right to be suspicious.
But we don’t need to be suspicious of Jesus. He calls us to follow him in this way, in response to what he came to do. We read a summary of that earlier in verse 17: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. When we looked at that a few weeks ago, we said that there is so much that is wrong and sad with this world, but that Jesus is the one God sent into this world to put things right. We can be part of that now, by following him. Jesus is no tyrant. He’s the opposite. He’s a ruler who came for our good.
What’s more, there’s nothing here that Jesus asks us to do for him that he hasn’t already done for us. God is his Father. Yet fixing our broken world was more important to him than staying with his family. He came fishing for us. He reached out to us, and drew us to follow him. Is it too much to ask that we might put him above our families, and share this good news with those around us?
So what have we let ourselves in for?
What have Samuel and Harrison just been signed up for?
What might we let ourselves in for if we decide to follow Jesus.
Well: Jesus is the one who carries all the authority to tell us what to do. He’s the one God sent into our world for our good. He calls us to follow him, but let him take first place, to fish for others.
Is that insane? Not at all – we’d be mad not to!