“Following Jesus with St. Matthew” (Matthew 9:9-13)
On the church year calendar, September 21 is the day for commemorating St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. And since this year September 21 falls on a Sunday, today we are celebrating the Festival of St. Matthew.
Who exactly was this St. Matthew, you ask, and why should we remember him? Well, first of all, as to who he is, as I mentioned, we refer to him as St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. Each of those terms, apostle and evangelist, puts Matthew in pretty select company. St. Matthew is an apostle, and there were only twelve of them–Peter, James, John, Andrew, Matthew, and the rest. Twelve apostles, twelve disciples of Jesus, called and chosen by Christ and sent out by him to carry the good news into the world. Besides being one of the twelve apostles, St. Matthew also has the distinction of being one of the four evangelists, that is, the four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So being both an apostle and an evangelist makes Matthew a very significant person in the history of the church.
But we don’t honor St. Matthew simply for his own sake. No, and Matthew wouldn’t have it that way, either. Indeed, as an apostle and an evangelist, Matthew would not point people to himself. Rather, he would point us to his Master, his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. And that, really, is why we are remembering St. Matthew today: for how he helps us to follow Christ. And so our theme this morning: “Following Jesus with St. Matthew.”
Following Jesus with St. Matthew: in repentance; in faith; in service; and into everlasting life. That’s where we’re going with this. So let’s begin. Following Jesus with St. Matthew in repentance. You know, St. Matthew did not get to be a saint until he first was a sinner. And that’s what repentance is about: being called by Jesus, as a sinner, to come and follow him and receive his mercy and belong to him alone. That, in turn, is what it is to be a saint, a holy one, that is, one of Christ’s set-apart people. So St. Matthew the sinner, first of all.
Hear again our text: “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him. And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”’ But when he heard it, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’”
So this fellow Matthew was a tax collector. Big deal, you say. Why make a point about that? Well, to be a tax collector in those days carried with it some particular associations. Tax collectors were seen by their fellow Jews as traitors of sorts, collaborators, since they were working for the hated Roman government, the pagan empire that occupied the land of Israel. And besides that, tax collectors generally had the bad reputation of being corrupt, crooked, lining their own pockets at people’s expense. And so Matthew, as a tax collector, would have been looked down upon by more moral folk as a sinner.
And yet Jesus calls him. “Follow me,” Jesus says. And he says this to all sinners. Do you qualify? I hope you can say yes. Because, like St. Matthew, you don’t get to be a saint until you first are a sinner. The Pharisees in our text didn’t think they were sinners. And perhaps they did lead more respectable lives than tax collectors and other more blatant, more obvious sinners. But they were just better at hiding their sins–sins of pride, of self-righteousness, sins of lack of mercy toward others. But those sins are not hidden from God. He sees. He knows. The truth is, we all, each one of us is a sinner. Each one of us needs to repent, to acknowledge our sins before God, to turn in contrition and confess our need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Jesus does not come to call the righteous, but sinners. And that’s you and me.
And that was St. Matthew, a sinner called to follow Jesus. The call of Christ carries with it the power to make it happen. And that’s what it did for Matthew. He rose and followed Jesus, in faith. He sat at his Master’s feet and learned from him. He followed Jesus around in his ministry and witnessed all that he was doing, preaching and teaching and healing. He heard the authority in Jesus’ words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He heard the the wisdom in his teaching, as Jesus unfolded the true meaning of the law. He heard the authority in Jesus’ commands: “Rise and walk.” “Storm, be still.” Matthew heard Jesus’ parables and began to understand the secrets of the kingdom. Matthew, like the other disciples, was mystified, though, when Jesus began to say that they were going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man would be betrayed and handed over and be killed. That did not make sense to him at the time. But still, Matthew and the other disciples kept following Jesus. God kept them in the faith, and even brought them back when they fell away and were scattered. All the glory goes to God.
And so will we follow Jesus in faith, as his disciples. Like St. Matthew–in fact, through St. Matthew’s gospel–we follow our Master and hear his voice and grow as his disciples. As we hear and read and study the Gospel according to St. Matthew, as it is preached and taught here in church–as we hear and read and take to heart the rest of Holy Scripture–we grow as Christian disciples. Our faith and life are strengthened. St. Matthew the Evangelist does us the great service of giving us his gospel account of Christ, which draws us into the life of Christ, and through this gospel we follow Jesus in faith.
And just like it did for St. Matthew, the call of Christ leads us into a life of service. For Matthew, it was the unique service of ministry as an apostle and evangelist. What are the areas of service God has for you? Well, where has God planted you? Start there. Are you a husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter? Each of those situations has its own set of responsibilities. Are you an employer, an employee, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick-maker? Well, then, be the best candlestick-maker you can be. Are you a citizen of this community, this state, this country? You have civic responsibilities to carry out. Are you a church member? How can you better serve in our church, supporting this congregation financially, generously, speaking well of our church out in the community, inviting your friends and relatives and neighbors to join you at church? These are all areas of service you already have, just to begin with. And God will help you to fulfill your various vocations, as you live a life of service, following Jesus, the Servant par excellence.
Following Jesus, with St. Matthew, in repentance, in faith, in service. And now one more: Following Jesus, with St. Matthew, into everlasting life. And this is what it all comes down to. It’s not what you do for Jesus. It’s what Jesus does for you. It was that way for St. Matthew. It is that way, thank God, for you and me. Even as we follow Jesus in repentance, in faith, in a life of service–none of that, as our doing, could accomplish anything for our salvation. No, it is all a gift. It’s what Christ does for us that counts. It is Jesus, the Son of Man, the Messiah, who goes the way of the cross for us. Jesus himself says, in St. Matthew’s gospel, “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” There it is! That’s it! That’s what the gospel is all about! Jesus giving himself for us! He is our Redeemer, the holy Son of God who sacrifices his life to set us free from our sins and death and everlasting condemnation. Jesus is our Redeemer, who purchases our release and our forgiveness; Christ our risen Lord, who leads us into everlasting life. That, my friends, that is what St. Matthew was so eager to record in his gospel, so eager to tell us today.
Matthew the Evangelist has been telling us this from the get-go. “And you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” Yes, Jesus is God with us–with us in mercy, with us in forgiveness, with us in bringing in the kingdom of heaven here on earth. Jesus is God with us, here in the church. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I with them.” Jesus is God with us, here in the Sacrament. “This is my body, this is my blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus is God with us, through all the days of this life, until he comes again. “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” And when he comes again, then we will follow Jesus on into the eternal age to come, with St. Matthew, with all the saints, with all those redeemed by Christ and given the gift of everlasting life.