believing as Stephen

A sermon for the third Sunday after the Epiphany, Matthew 4:12-23

This season following the day of Epiphany is about cementing the personhood of Christ by clearly stating the divinity that he possesses. Thus, this whole season of the church is centered upon the act of recognition.

It begins on the day of Epiphany with the arrival of the wise men who have the wisdom to recognize that the star they follow is an abnormal occurrence that portends something great. Their recognition at Jesus’ birth sets us on this path towards understanding Jesus’ fully human and fully divine reality, as he becomes the king of kings and yet unlike any king that has come before. It continues with the baptism of Christ celebrated on the Sunday following Epiphany. This theme of recognition carries us through to Lent, with the final Sunday after the Epiphany focused on the transfiguration of Christ, that one moment where the divine reality is made clear to select, devoted disciples.

Even as Christ begins his ministry, we get this sense of recognition that something about this teacher, this healer, this prophet and leader, is different. Last week we spoke about how the disciples joined with Christ in the invitation to “come and see.” We tied that to our own understanding of how we come to recognize Christ at work in our lives and the calls that lay before us in our practice of faith and ministry through the practice of prayerful discernment.

This week, we get a different spin on how the disciples join up with Christ, but the impetus for following remains the same: the disciples recognize something different about Christ, and in that recognition, take a leap of faith to follow this man in a call of ministry that none of them could’ve ever dreamed of.

We know that for the disciples, especially these first disciples who encounter a Christ who is ministering solo, their recognition of what is in Christ, what is in the power of the word that is being shared, the ability to heal, the presence to lead in a way the world has yet to see in time before, is so powerful that it causes them to act in a remarkable manner themselves: they respond immediately to Christ.

The action of these new followers to drop everything, to drop all that they have, any stability (however tenuous it may or may not have been), without any thought of what their life will become, the call that they will be asked to answer, and they do so, in that very instant, this reaction speaks to a powerful recognition that the call of Christ is something different than the world has ever known.

Clearly, the disciples didn’t necessarily engage in measured, careful, prayerful discernment, but they also had the benefit of having Christ literally standing before them and calling to them.

So, these disciples immediately begin to follow Christ.

Why?

What motivates them to answer this call, to recognize this wandering holy man as someone set apart from all the others that have come before, legitimate and not so?

I think there is a certain power in the turn of phrase Christ uses that cuts to the very hearts of these disciples. A juxtaposition that distinguishes work for self from work for others.

In the reading today we heard this phrase uttered as such, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

In the King James Version of the Bible, the translator offered the following to play off of the words found in the original Greek writings, with the fishermen having Jesus call to them with, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” The words fishermen and fishers share the same Greek word in the original text, creating a beautiful play on words that puts the two activities in conversation and perhaps competition with one another.

This turn of phrase is what causes these disciples to recognize Christ, and in recognizing Christ, to recognize what they must do. In their recognition, they have the call to immediately respond to Christ and begin new lives as followers and carriers of this message.

When we as people of St. Stephen’s church think about what it means to recognize the call of Christ, to live wholly and fully into our faith, to lead in our faith and be willing to immediately respond in faith to the challenges of the world and the call that Christ gives us, we don’t have to look too far for an example of someone’s life that can inspire and shape our own recognition of Christ’s call to us.

St. Stephen, who we remember today as we celebrate our Annual Meeting this evening, has left a legacy for our own understanding of what it means to be a people of faith and what it means to so fully and immediately give ourselves over to Christ through our faith.

Stephen is remarkable for his complete devotion to the faith that led to him being counted among the first of the deacons of the church, a role designed to spread this Good News of Christ further and further out into the world, work that could not be accomplished by the apostles alone, and in that call, facing the greatest adversity in faith as his very life was challenged for following this dead man named Jesus Christ, and rather than capitulating or giving into the threats against him, recognized that through Christ and in Christ he had found something greater than this world and knew that even if he were to die, that his death would be a catalyst for the growth of the faith and his reward would outweigh anything he could receive for throwing away his faith. 

Thus, Stephen became the first martyr of the Church.

And, in carrying his name on our building, as naming ourselves of members of a church called “St. Stephen’s” we are challenged to live into the legacy that Stephen leaves for us, we are challenged to recognize Christ at work through our practice of faith, we are challenged and we must rise to that call.

How do we do this?

We do it through Radical Love.

We do it through FISH.

We do it through Winter’s Night @ Baird House, and Family Promise, and supporting the KLMA Severe Weather Shelter.

We do it through opening our building to the community so that others feel welcome to come and learn about the world around them, locally, nationally, globally.

We do it through formation for all, creating a welcoming and loving worship space for all, treating all as beloved children of God.

We do it by making it clear that no one in our lives, in our community, in our world can question our bonafides.

We are Christians. 

And not just Christians, but Christians in the mold of Stephen, recognizing Christ’s call to spread the Good News to all, to stand up for and defend our faith, to know that in Christ we have a promise of everlasting life.

If we recognize the reality of who Christ is, we cannot help but drop everything and immediately follow him.

If we recognize the reality of who Christ is, we cannot help but give our lives to the Church so that others may learn about and come to recognize Christ in their own lives.

When we recognize Christ, we recognize within ourselves the power of faith, the draw to respond to the call that has been left before, the knowledge that in and through Christ we have more strength, more power, more wisdom, and more ability.

In the annual meeting we mark the end of one year and the beginning of the next in terms of the administrative life of the church. Let us embrace this opportunity this year to embrace the call to a life of faith that is modeled on Stephen, that recognizes Christ, that inspires us to immediately depart and engage in the work of faith.

And, we have the unique opportunity this year to start here in this service in answering this call. As we baptize Brandon this morning, welcoming him into the faith and family that we all share in Christ, we begin immediately in supporting his life and journey in faith, and we answer that call from Christ to make new disciples and create new followers of the way.

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