Sermon for St Matthew, Evangelist

matthewThe following sermon was preached by Rev. Esko Murto in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for a divine service on the occasion of the Festival of St Matthew, Evangelist, Wednesday, 21 September 2016. The text was Matthew 9: 9-13. 

“Child,’ said the Lion, ‘I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.”

Thus answered Aslan, the Christ-figure in the Narnia-stories from C.S. Lewis when one of the protagonists wanted to pry into his divine knowledge and ask about others. “No one is told any story but their own.”

This sentence struck me already as a child when I followed the adventures of Shasta and Aravis, and it resurfaced now as I read the Gospel lesson for this day of St Matthew. For sometimes I am struck not only by what is said in the Scripture, but also what is left unsaid. The calling of Matthew the tax collector is only briefly told, and almost nothing is explained. What was Matthew’s background? Why had he chosen a rather despicable profession of a tax collector? Was he happy? Was he sad? Did he have a guilty conscience? And what went through his head when he heard the words of Christ: “Follow me.” What made him decide to follow Jesus? What did he hope to find with Christ?

Scripture is silent, which is even more surprising if we think that the Matthew who is now called is also the evangelist who later writes these words. He of all people should be able to give answers, but he does not do so.

No one is told any story but their own. This seems to be a prevailing theme throughout the many encounters the gospels tell us. Scripture focuses on what was said and what happened then, but very rarely if ever do we get even as much as a faint glimpse into the inner thoughts and experiences of people called by Christ. The question, “What did it feel like?”, so often asked today in interviews and ‘human interest articles’, is left out.

Why? I offer you three possible reasons.

Firstly, what happens in the soul of a man when God’s Holy Spirit enters, bringing light into the darkness, is a mysterious, even delicate event. These are great and wonderful things, but also very personal and intimate, not meant to be shared simply to satisfy the curiosity of others or. Martin Luther, known for his robust language but also capable of beautiful expressions, spoke of God’s law as a maid who leads the bride to her groom, but once the two, Christ and the believer, enter the wedding chamber of the gospel to spend their night together, the maid must remain outside. It is not for the eyes of the others. And here we really encounter the limits of our language – should one try to explain the miracle of personal conversion, it seems almost unavoidable that every expression would just make it more banal and mundane.

Secondly, the silence in these matters might be guarding us, the readers, against the error of imitation. How often it has happened, that when joyful conversion stories are shared in detail with others, especially those young in faith, the joy is mixed with the feeling of uncertainty or even insufficiency. Why didn’t it go like that with me? Why didn’t I feel that way, why didn’t I go through that phase, why didn’t God address me and my soul in that manner? Is there something wrong with me, is my conversion lacking? Such is our nature that we compare and imitate, and through comparing and imitating either feel proud or insufficient. So the Scriptures might be silent just for this reason – to keep us from doing what we so naturally would do when confronted with detailed descriptions of other people’s religious experiences.

Thirdly, and I would say this probably is the main reason, Matthew the evangelist wants to direct the attention of his readers to the thing that matters: Christ’s all-powerful word. The calling of Matthew is preceded by the healing of the paralytic, and very similar ways of speaking are used. With the paralysed man, Christ said: “Rise, pick up your bed and go home. And he rose and went home.” Now he says: “Follow me. And he rose and followed him.”

The focus point in the gospel is not Matthew. It is the powerful call of Jesus Christ. The healing of the paralytic is paired with the calling of Matthew to show how Christ’s word raises both men up from their sickness. For the first man, it was very visible and bodily sickness, for the second, a sickness of spirit, the paralysis of Matthew’s heart and mind and soul. Through his word, Jesus reaches out, not touching lame legs or blind eyes this time, but grabbing the tax collector dead in his sins and giving him new life.

The brevity of this story puts the focus on Jesus and his call. It is not what happens in Matthew’s hear that really matters; it is what happened in Christ’s heart that saved him.

Calling of Matthew led immediately to a meal together with Jesus. Again, not much is told of the people who came, the focus is solely on Jesus. All we really know of them is that on this meal the Holy one of God ate and drank with ‘many tax collectors and sinners’. This is the kind of people he came to call – not the righteous (or those who imagine themselves to be so) but sinners. With Jesus, they, the moral rabble, are taken into the mysterious, glorious tradition of God eating with humans. The promise of the seed that would come to be a blessing to all nations was given to Abraham over a meal. It was a sacred meal that God instituted as a sign of his people’s freedom from the slavery of Egypt. On Sinai the elders of Israel celebrated the covenant by eating and drinking on the mountaintop as they saw God. And the feast on the Holy Mountain of Zion is the image Isaiah uses to describe the ultimate salvation of mankind. Throughout the history of God’s people, their Saviour has sat down to eat with them, and here he is, in the man Jesus, eating and drinking with sinners.

If only Jesus would call me and you in likewise manner! If only he would come and ask us to similarly dine with him!

But he has. And he does.

Even today through his word he says again, his words always fresh and new: I have come to call sinners. He says to you: Follow me! He sits down to eat and drink with you, saying: Eat! This is my body, given for you. Drink! This is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of your sins. Those who have no sin, don’t need to bother. But all those who are sinners, sick and dying, paralysed in their hearts and spirits, come! Let me feed you, forgive you, heal you he says. No one is told any story but their own. But with Christ, his story becomes our story. We become part of the story of his people. And so we too are taken into the same table with Abraham, Isaiah and the elders of Israel, the disciples and Matthew as we eat and drink the meal of salvation, forgiveness and healing.

 

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