St Matthew - Called to work together

A sermon preached at St John's Holland Road by Martin Carr, 21 September 2014

Many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

During the recent Scottish referendum campaign I found myself musing on a somewhat odd question – are there countries in heaven? The much-loved hymn ‘I vow to thee my country’, written a few years ahead of the Great War, in its second verse refers to God’s kingdom as ‘another country’, which could be thought of as heaven, or possibly a transformed earth. A more scriptural image is of heaven not so much as a country, but as a city, the New Jerusalem, where God and his people dwell in harmony. There were certainly nations in the time of Jesus, and the Jews among whom Jesus and his disciples lived were a proudly nationalistic people, but Jesus sits loosely at times to the boundaries of his compatriots. In his parables Jesus talks of a pan-national ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. And who are the citizens of this heavenly kingdom? Do they include the gentile centurion whose slave Jesus heals, the Syro-Phoenician woman who astonishes Jesus so much by her faith that he cures her daughter? Today, St Matthew’s Day, we reflect on another episode from Matthew’s gospel, the calling of Matthew himself. At dinner in the house, possibly Matthew’s own home, we hear, ‘Many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with Jesus and his disciples.’ The Pharisees question Jesus; their own dining customs would have been to eat only with fellow Jews. Jesus rebukes them, God desires mercy not sacrifice, and his mission is not to the righteous, but sinners. At Jesus’ table all are welcome; in God’s kingdom, there are no borders of nation or race.

Yesterday I cycled from this church on Holland Road to St Dunstan’s church in Stepney, via 21 other places of worship across London. This was not simply a crazy whim, but as a participant in the National Churches Trust’s annual Ride and Stride event, raising money for our roof appeal. The day showcases the diversity of sacred spaces in London, from mediaeval to contemporary, simple to ornate, and includes not only historic Anglican buildings but a variety of other traditions. I personally visited a tiny but beautiful Roman Catholic Church off Bunhill Row, and the London headquarters of the Church of Scientology, a grade 2-listed structure close to Blackfriars. Also taking part were a Lutheran church, a Quaker Meeting House, and a Hindu Temple.

Perhaps more impressive than the buildings were the people I met, wonderfully diverse as London people are, making their spaces, whether opulent or humble, come alive with cups of tea, cakes and conversation. Perhaps some tax collectors and sinners would have passed through those open doors yesterday, even shared coffee and biscuits. Would it matter if they had? ‘I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners,’ says Jesus.

Today in London there was another great coming together of people. The People’s Climate March left Temple Place at lunchtime bound for Parliament Square, and welcomed people of all faiths and none who have concern about the threat of climate change. As world leaders prepare to meet in New York to debate action to avert global catastrophe, those marching today are part of a worldwide movement to demand change. There will be huge costs if we are to avert the threat of global warming: economies will change, our lifestyles will be radically altered, but if we are to safeguard God’s creation, doing nothing, or too little, cannot be an option. We are responsible to each other, the marchers will be telling our leaders, especially the poor and vulnerable who have done least to cause climate change yet are at the sharp end of its effects. How can we as a community respond to that challenge? ‘I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners,’ says Jesus.

Most great movements in history have come not from the towering stature of eminent individuals, but from collective action. For every Tutu or Mandela, Wilberforce or Luther King, there are thousands who march, debate, converse, write letters, make tea, gets the chairs out, or sweep the floors. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he speaks of the body as made up of many parts. If all were an eye or an ear, there could be no body. But by the collective action of the many diverse organs, the body is able to function. So it is with the Church, he argues; some are teachers, pastors, prophets, administrators, coffee makers, but all are essential if the gospel is to be fully proclaimed. In Jesus’ great high priestly prayer of John’s gospel, Jesus prays that they, that is his followers, may be one as he and the Father are one. In praying this he does not pray that they may be similar or the same, but united in, and perhaps because of, their very diversity.

What would the other disciples have made of Matthew? Would they have been suspicious of this tax collector joining their ranks? Matthew’s response is instant, he gets up and follows Jesus. But this would not have been without cost. ‘I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners,’ says Jesus. So presumably Matthew would have had to get used to a new way of life, not taking bribes, nor a cut of the tax revenue. Team Jesus was no band of erudite socialites but a ragbag of fishermen, zealots, and perhaps worst of all, a number of women of ill repute. Did Matthew have doubts about joining this crazy group of misfits? If so we are not told. Matthew joins the disciples, becomes one of the twelve, and thus becomes part of a collective movement which, though he may not have known it at the time, would transform human history.

The Scottish referendum was, by and large, debated along grounds of practicality and patriotism rather than theological reflection, but I do think that to understand the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus refers to it in Matthew’s gospel, as a diverse place of mutual flourishing, will help us get beyond the tribalism of so much of human history. In dining with tax collectors and sinners, and rebuking the Pharisees, Jesus is indicating that they too, flawed as they are, also have a place in God’s kingdom. Collective action by many rather than the superheroism of the few is the hallmark of human progress. Even God’s Son did not act alone, he called Matthew and the other disciples, and today he calls us, to be on his team as together we transform and protect the world God gives us.

Working with others can be hard work. But Jesus calls us to be one Church, not many churches, one human family, not a fragmented and warring world, and in our diversity we have the gifts to achieve what we could not even dream of alone. So in the days and weeks ahead, I would encourage you to ask, how can I play a part in building up the communities to which I belong, whether that be this church or another, or a charity or community group you belong to? How can I work alongside others for a more peaceful world, a more just world, a more united world? And, like Matthew leaving the tax booth, what must I leave behind if I am to follow this new path in the company of those who will be my co-workers?

‘I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners,’ says Jesus. And sinners indeed we are, but we are also God’s children, and Jesus sits down to eat with us and calls us to follow him. May the prayers of St Matthew support us in our calling to follow Christ and work for a heavenly kingdom here on earth. Amen.
Holland Park Benefice