Readings: Romans 2:10-16; Matthew 4:18-23; Isa 53:2-5
This weekend, two weeks beyond Pentecost, we get into the brass tacks of our faith, and commence our reading of Matthew. The particular emphasis of the gospel of Matthew is one that has been especially difficult for western Protestants. It is in this gospel that we hear of Jesus’ commendation of the ethics and standards of the Torah; it is here that Jesus goes to the root of the Torah (in the Sermon on the Mount), challenging his followers that their righteousness must EXCEED that of the Pharisees! It is in this gospel that we receive the call to be whole, mature, even perfect, as is our Heavenly Father. Yet our gospel reading from Matthew for this Sunday stresses the initiative of God rather than human action—Jesus calls the disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, preaching the good news rather than the imperative of the kingdom. As if to balance this, and to pull us back to the human cooperative impulse the gospel is matched in our Sunday readings with an atypical passage from St. Paul — Romans 2, which speaks, surprisingly, about being judged by our actions in the final judgment. So, as we look to the major ingredients of this Sunday’s readings, we find the wonder of discipleship, and (to keep the alliteration) a warning glance forward to “doom”—the old English word for “judgment.”
Let us take these two in turn, looking to the OT and the fathers to help us with these themes.
First, we hear of the disciples. We are heartened to discover that the first four called were ordinary fishermen—fishermen whom Jesus taught, and who were revealed, at Pentecost, to be “most wise.” Of course, not all of Jesus’ apostles were unlearned in this way, for he also called some who were in the middle strata of society—a tax collector, for example. But the first four were perfectly ordinary men. And so, taking a page from the earliest part of the Christian story, the apostle Paul (though very learned), could say:
For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord” (1Co 1:26-31 RSV).
It is especially in the New Testament that this divine habit of choosing the lowly comes into focus. After all, God himself takes on human flesh, born as a fragile child, exposed to the elements in the desert, fastened upon a cross at the most dramatic part of the story. And, says St. Paul, we are to emulate this humility, this one who did not grasp at his status as God, and to make ourselves of no reputation. But, this pattern was already intimated in God’s characteristic actions in the story of the Jewish people. After all, He chose a little, out of the way, nomadic slave people, the Hebrews, not Egypt or Babylon or Assyria: as Ogden Nash put it, “How odd of God to choose the Jews!” Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob, becomes king, benefactor and the salvation of his tribe. David, the least of the sons of Jesse, was taken from the flock to be made king! Amos, whose family was not in any way associated with the court, was called as a prophet: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, `Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ (Amos 7:14-15 RSV). And the tribe and town associated with the Messiah were of no repute, but God honored them: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Mic 5:2 RSV). And who can forget that luminous passage in Isaiah about the Servant of God, that word foretelling our Savior:
For he grew up before Him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. (Isa 53:2-5 RSV)
He had nothing that would immediately signal his greatness: indeed, the greatest sign of his greatness was his abject humility. God’s delight is to take the unlikely, the stone rejected by humans, and to make of it the corner of the whole building.
So with the disciples. Their very lowly origins pointed people to Christ: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Act 4:13 RSV). For the whole of humanity God came, to lift us up, not simply for the well-born, or the intelligent, or those predisposed to act well. The first act of Jesus, then, calling fishermen, reminds us of God’s great clemency, and his disposition to all of humanity. And they responded immediately to the unlikely call that they received—they left their family, their home, their occupation behind, so that God could redirect them to “fish for human beings.” From one perspective, the act is all of God; from another, it requires human cooperation, and takes into consideration human strengths. The same decisiveness and initiative required for a fisherman would be useful in their God-directed occupation of bringing other followers to the Master.
Though not all of us will engage in the same special activity as the Apostles, all of us who have been baptized and chrismated, are to be “taught of God,” just as disciples were. We have been taken from our original context, the world, and translated, even before the general resurrection, into the kingdom of God, that arena where God rules. For some of us, this is a concrete reality, as we may be the only Christians or Orthodox in our families, and we have left behind our familiar cultural surroundings to follow Christ. St. Gregory the Theologian reports St. Basil as saying, “Man is a creature who has received the command to become god” (Funeral Oration for Basil, 48 PG 36, col 560A).
We are taken from the earth, and formed by God like clay, but have been given the Holy Spirit and have been made brothers and sisters of the God-Man: God has high expectations of us! Discipleship as a Christian, then, means to recognize that, wherever we are planted in the Church, we have been issued a divine, priestly and prophetic calling, for we are “little Christs” by virtue of our baptism and our chrismation.
Of course there are those among us whom the Lord has set forth specifically in the Church as priests, or whom the Holy Spirit as commanded to utter a prophetic word (like the holy fool), or whom God has given the gift of administration, to make decisions, as would a king. But the calling of prophet-priest-king is for the whole people of God, as well: In Exodus, God declares, “you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exo 19:6); in Revelation, John gives thanks “to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever (Rev 1:5-6). Even more specifically, the words that Jesus gives to Peter and the twelve concerning the authority to make binding decisions seems to have been given to the followers of Jesus as a whole, amidst other instructions for following the Way: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Mat 18:18 ).
We share in heavenly things every time we receive the mysteries, and we are called to be the holy people of God, the little brothers and sisters of the King. To think about our discipleship deeply is to be moved immediately to wonder—the wonder of what God can do with a clump of clay, and how he can turn us from mere slaves to sons and daughters, on the way to glorious theosis. It is to immediately recognize, with the apostle Paul, that we should consider every other follower of Jesus “better than ourselves,” for we are in the presence of a divine being, who is being transformed by the very Spirit of God. It is to see the mystery of our life together, as we are being fashioned into the perfect body of Christ. Elisha, when he saw the departure of his master, Elijah, could not hold back the exclamation, “My father! My father! The chariots of Israel and the horses thereof!” So, too, we should delight in the work that we see God has accomplished in the saints, and that which he is doing in the lives of those around us. And be encouraged. Like the disciples, we have the ability to see in others the style of Jesus, as he went to his own people, as he taught the mystery of God’s presence among them (the Kingdom) and as he healed them.
Let us move on from discipleship to doom, or judgment. St. Paul’s words in Romans 2 are a surprise to the Protestant, who places almost total emphasis upon justification by faith—or, if he or she is more careful in reading the apostle, justification by grace through faith. We have no time today to get into the current debates about what the apostle meant by the term justification, but I commend to you the salutary challenge of N. T. Wright regarding these matters. Suffice it to say that the center of our faith is a PERSON—the God-Man, Jesus—and not a doctrine alone. It is absolutely the case that God is the great Initiator, and that our redemption was wrought by Christ alone. Indeed, our theosis, the means of glory, comes from being incorporated in Him. For all these things we give thanks to God. But God gives to humankind the supreme compliment of asking for our response. From one perspective, we are clay in his hands, to be modelled. From another, we are living beings who have received not only the breath of life from him, but if we are Christians, the Holy Spirit of truth. Made in God’s image, redeemed humankind is not simply a divine work of art, but we intended to be God’s mate, God’s friend, God’s child, even God the Son’s spouse! With the Spirit, we are to call out, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
From this perspective, Romans 2 is not so very shocking after all. It fits with the rest of Paul’s letters as the Gospel of Matthew, with its approval of the Torah, fits among the gospels. And it matches the letter of James, which speaks of the necessity of action consonant with God’s will, instead of mere lip-service. It reminds us of human respons-ibility. (Breaking up the word helps us to see the element of “response” for which God searches in us). Here is our passage:
There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom 2:10-17 RSV)
Our merciful God, the One who consented to take on all that it is to be human, even death, is also just. He shows no partiality. It is not the accident of birth—whether someone is born Jewish or Christian—that determines their eternal lot, but how they respond to God. And that response is demonstrated, we are told, by actions. “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God but the doers of the law who will be justified.” How does this fit with Paul’s statement later in the letter than no one is justified BY the law? This seems like a contradiction, but it is not, really. It is a way of incorporating a mystery. Rather like Jesus was resurrected, in the middle of time, the first-fruits of a general resurrection at the end, so we are, by our incorporation into Christ, declared ‘righteous’ (or justified) here and now in this life. We are washed, we are justified, we are sealed with the Spirit, we are forgiven of our sins regularly, and we eat the food of heaven: it is a real standing of “righteousness” in Christ. At the same time, our lives are meant to continually match this standing, as we grow up in Christ. And so, at the end of our sojourn in this first earth, when we see our Lord face to face, we will be finally justified because our lives have matched our profession. Certainly by the grace of God, we will have practiced the discipline and ascesis necessary to make us what God has called us to be—and we shall be like him, when we see his face! The person who merely says “Lord! Lord!” will be judged wanting, whereas the person who has heard little of the gospel (perhaps not even heard the name of the Lord) will be judged by the light that he or she has—and perhaps acquitted, by God’s grace. Consider Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25), told of the GENTILES—those who did not know the Bible. Some of those are put in the sheep-fold, since they have shown where their loyalties lie by responding positively to Christ’s people. They did not even KNOW the Lord, but they showed that, instinctively, they would respond to him. There are the secrets of the hearts, the things between God and each one of us, that are known to Him alone. Those who do not know the salvation story are therefore a kind of ‘hard case’ in St. Paul’s argument: if some of those can be excused, even if they don’t know God’s will, then we should take care that our lives correspond to the great light that we have received.
This teaching is not intended to make us fearful, but it is intended to inspire awe—for God is sovereign and full of truth. Discipleship is a great mystery, and it is a path, meant to lead us beyond where we now find ourselves. Abraham, when he was first called, had no idea where God would lead him, and only had a glimpse, by prophecy, of where the LORD would call his family—by means of slavery into the liberty of Israel, and beyond that, into the liberty of Christ, as the Gentiles were added to God’s people. Each of us, too, only sees part of the path before us—the part we need to know. Saint Peter was told early on in his ministry that he would be bound and taken where he did not want to go (John 21:15-22); Saint Paul did not hear this for some time, but eventually was warned of his martyrdom by means of prophecy (Acts 21:10-12), and yet he went willingly. Like the disciples, we are called to follow immediately, as we hear the music of his voice, to continue following even when the going gets hard, and to keep in our memories that the adventure before us, though arduous, leads to unimaginable glory: “glory and honor and peace for every one who does good” through the strength of the only Good One, Jesus, our Lord.