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January 22, 2017

Agents of New Possibility

(Matthew 4: 12-23)

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. The final verse of our Gospel reading for today appears to be nothing more than a little bridge, something of a filler to connect one significant story … the calling of the first disciples … with another important section … the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. The final verse of our Gospel reading for today appears to be nothing more than a little bridge, something of a filler to connect one significant story … the calling of the first disciples … with another important section … the Sermon on the Mount.

But if we look carefully at verse 23, we discover that this brief passage is actually a summary of the entire life and ministry of Jesus Christ and his followers for this one sentence provides a vivid portrait of Jesus …
He moved swiftly and determinedly from one place to another …
He planted dreams, raised expectations, and opened doors of possibility …
He presented people with a dramatic alternative to the emptiness and despair that filled the lives of many and siphoned off their trust and hope.

As a people of faith, we boldly confess that Jesus Christ is the love of God in a human form and that Jesus’ ministry carried God’s love into the lives of those in need. Jesus fulfills those words of expectation we heard in Matthew’s Gospel: … 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. Here is Jesus, moving among the people … reaching out to them … healing the sick … removing barriers … and showing people how they ought to live.

But Jesus did not work in isolation … he brought samples … his followers, his disciples … those who were the first Church, the first assembly of believers. And they were samples because they demonstrated what can happen when people are open to the possibility of God’s transforming love taking hold in their lives.

In the eighth chapter of Luke, that evangelist tells basically the same story:
Soon afterward, Jesus went through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities. [Luke 8: 1-2]

Now is this not the Church at its best … making a difference in people’s lives? Jesus had a wonderful way of not only speaking in a powerful manner but he supported his words with persons who gave their witness … or as Luke puts it clearly: the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed.

Matthew and Luke both remind us of the power and persuasion that is present when someone will stand up and talk about the difference their faith has made in their lives. Furthermore, Luke’s version of this story reminds us in a way that Matthew’s lesson does not, that women played a significant role in Jesus’ ministry. The twelve disciples were men, but they were not the only followers, who traveled with Jesus. He was eagerly supported by many women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and, of course, Mary and Martha of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus.

Whether male or female, those who traveled with Jesus had one thing in common — Jesus dramatically entered their lives, asked something from them, and they joyfully enlisted in an enterprise that changed their lives and others. In short, they became agents of new possibility.

Agents of New Possibility … is that not what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ? Each of us is called to be an agent or vehicle of God’s grace … for the power is not in us but works through us.

This congregation exists to hold open the possibility of faith in a world of cynicism and unbelief. Every weekend the members of Bloom Presbyterian Church, our church, has a chance to say through their participation: … here, in this place, we worship the Living God … here, in this place, we count ourselves with the people of faith and hope, who believe there is more good in God than there is bad in us.

This congregation exists as a beacon of encouragement in the midst of people who can all too easily become discouraged. Families are under siege today. No one has a secure job anymore. We live in a world filled with violence, danger, and disappointment. Our lives as a people and a nation are threatened by the three-fold dangers: meaninglessness, hopelessness, and lovelessness. We know, all too well, that no one can live a significant life devoid of purpose, devoid of hope, and devoid of a caring community.

This congregation exists to call people to faith in a God of love and purpose. How crucial it is that we believe in a God who expects something of us, because if we did not believe in such a God then something terrible would happen … we would become a people who live for nothing but pleasure and self-indulgence … easy comfort, pleasant sensations, and physical stimulation.

Furthermore, Matthew’s Gospel makes clear the importance of the ask. Everything begins when Jesus asks: Come after me and I will make you fishers of men. Jesus asked and the fishermen responded. Such is the dynamic of life in the Kingdom of God.

The late Speaker of the House “Tip” O’Neill loved to relate a valuable lesson he learned early in his career. During his first political campaign, one of O’Neill’s neighbors told him: I am going to vote for you tomorrow, even though you didn’t ask me to! O’Neill was surprised and said: Why, Mrs. O’Brien, I have lived across from you for eighteen years, I cut your grass in the summer, I shoveled your walk in the winter; I didn’t think I had to ask for your vote! Mrs. O’Brien replied: Oh, Tommy, let me tell you something … people like to be asked!

In the Gospel today, Peter and Andrew, James, and John were asked by Jesus to assume the responsibility of being his disciples. That simple act of asking them to do something changed their lives forever. It opened for them a door to an unbelievable adventure and they would never be the same again. As Tip O’Neill’s neighbor reminded him, we need to be asked. When we are asked we are reminded that we are important … wanted … needed.

I am convinced that a vital congregation will always be asking …
It is never enough to simply welcome people when they worship with us; we must also ask them to consider becoming members of the congregation. Without a direct “ask” a deeper relationship with the Living God may never happen.
And, of course, simply joining a congregation is never enough … we must encourage our members to become involved, to share their time, their special skills, and their resources. When we watch a game, the game is enjoyable; when we play the game, we are changed forever.
Finally, I believe it is so important that we ask our active church members to go deeper in their commitment to Jesus Christ, to figure out what is for them the equivalent of leaving their nets in order to have their faith shape their lives.

Make no mistake, dear friends; a life without purpose and goals … a life without faith active in deeds that bless others … is ultimately a sickness unto death. It kills the spirit, it degrades the moral compass, and it cannot sustain us for very long.

But we are a people who have been called to follow the Living Christ. We are called to be agents of new possibility just as surely as were Peter and Andrew, James and John, Matthew and Philip and all those wonderful women who left everything to follow Jesus. Let us hear Our Lord’s invitation and be prepared to respond with faith and determination. AMEN.

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