Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Conflicting Calls

In these first few weeks after the Epiphany in Year A, the lectionary authors go out of their way to establish a sense of continuity in the face of discontinuity. First, we read in Matthew 3 that Jesus comes to John to be baptized. Then, in John 1, we hear John's reflection and theological interpretation of that baptism. Finally, this week, back in Matthew, we are told that Jesus, upon hearing that John had been arrested, withdrew from Judea and went back north to Galilee, making his home in Capernaum. For that middle week, instead of giving us the intervening verses at the beginning of Matthew 4, when Jesus is led into the wilderness and tempted, a passage which we'll hear at the beginning of Lent, they jump over to John's account as if to continue the story in a way that Matthew didn't intend it to be continued.

This drive for continuity becomes itself a disruption. We heard yesterday in John 1 how Andrew and Simon came to Jesus after hearing John the Baptist identify Jesus as the Lamb of God. But this coming Sunday, we'll hear a conflicting account of the disciples' call: "As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen..." Which one is it?

Actually, I think the lectionary has given us a gift in this discontinuous succession of gospel passages. We should not be drawn into them as an opportunity to solve the problem of two conflicting accounts, discerning which author got it historically correct. Instead, we should ask how these two accounts, in their own distinct ways, present to us the good news of Jesus. What does John the Baptist's identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God tell us about discipleship? How is the calling of fishermen from the midst of their work a different expression of discipleship? How is it the same thing?

I might even back up earlier than that to start the comparison. Although Matthew does not show us that Andrew was one of John's disciples, he does show us that the calling of these disciples--and the inauguration of Jesus' ministry--is directly related to John: "When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee." John's ministry is drawing to a close, and Jesus' is just beginning. That's true in both accounts. In some ways, Matthew goes even further to show continuity between Jesus and John in that, as soon as Jesus opens his mouth, having represented God's light coming to people who sat in darkness, he declares, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

Back to the calling of the disciples. This Sunday, as I prepare to preach, I'm drawn to the exchange between Jesus and the fishermen. It would be a mistake to try to fit this account and John's account together--to somehow suggest that Andrew and Simon had a transformative experience with Jesus but went back to fishing and had to be called a second time. Instead, I want to know more about how the message that John the Baptist had delivered--a call to repentance--had been picked up by Jesus in a way that was as attractive for potential disciples in Galilee as it had been for John's disciples in Judea. These disciples drop everything to follow the one who is calling God's people to repent because God's reign has come near. I want to understand how Jesus' work isn't a break from the work of John or even a completion of it but a straight-line continuation. I'm sure that there's a lesson there for those of us who preach the good news of Jesus today.

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