Why am I conflating two Gospel readings that seem to give significantly different accounts of the same event (John 1:35-42; Matthew 4:12,13,18-25)? It’s true that those who wish to undermine the authority of Scripture point to this and other apparent discrepancies in the Gospel narratives as grounds for dismissing the inspiration and authority of God’s Holy Word. And that’s precisely why I have combined today’s lectionary Gospel with the one for next Sunday, so that we can address the differences head-on and see what we can learn from them that’s actually of considerable value!
The first encounter between Jesus and Andrew occurs the very next day after the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. For the second time John the Baptist sees Jesus coming and exclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!” For two of John’s own disciples, this testimony was sufficient for them to leave John and follow Jesus, even with no idea where they were going. They go with Him to the unspecified place where he was staying. Of the two, only Andrew is named, and it’s interesting that he’s only identified as Simon Peter’s brother. What a shadow!
Peter must have been somewhere close enough for Andrew to find him and bring him to Jesus, declaring that he has found the Messiah, the Christ. That was a momentous claim to be making after such a brief acquaintance. Clearly Andrew had enough credibility and spoke with enough conviction that Peter went with him to see Jesus. When they arrive, Jesus does one of those things that we will find Him doing again and again: just looking at a person whom He has never seen before, with a penetrating look that goes straight to the heart of who this person really is. Jesus found a quality in Peter that we don’t see quite as clearly 2,000 years later: a “rock-solid” stability that, while severely tested and sometimes found wanting, was to mature to the point that Peter would become a leader in the Church, one who would endure severe persecution and, ultimately, his own crucifixion. Yet he remained steadfast in his faith. Seeing this underlying quality in Peter, Jesus immediately changes his name from Simon to Cephas, Peter, the Rock.
The Gospel account tells us that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist, and it’s not unreasonable to assume that Peter may also have been part of that following. At the very least we know that Andrew was a true seeker who had been sensitized through the ministry of John the Baptist to his need for repentance and his responsibility to be expectantly looking for the Messiah, the One whose sandal thongs John felt unworthy to loosen. When Andrew encountered Jesus, he knew that he had found the Person about Whom John had been speaking. He shared his discovery with Peter with an excitement that is conveyed in the Greek by a change of verb tense that can’t be communicated as effectively in English: suddenly the narrative switches to the present tense, a means by which a story-teller in Greek could convey the heightened energy of the moment.
Now, there’s a void in the story just where we would like to know what happened next. John’s Gospel has Jesus returning to Galilee. At some point on this walking trip of over 100 miles, Jesus finds Philip and says, “Follow Me.” John tells us that Philip was from Bethsaida, and adds that this was also the city of Andrew and Peter. By this he may mean that it was their city of ancestral origin, just as Bethlehem was the ancestral city of Joseph. We know that Peter’s family had settled in Capernaum where Jesus Himself was to move after leaving Nazareth, as Matthew tells us in our Gospel reading. Here, in Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus spots the “two brothers, Simon who was called Peter and Andrew his brother,” who had resumed their occupation as fishermen. The fact that they had met Jesus earlier on and that at least Andrew had acknowledged Him to be the Messiah accounts for why they were disposed to leave their nets “immediately” to follow Jesus the moment He speaks the words, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
And perhaps just moments later, He encounters two more brothers, James and John the sons of Zebedee, and they, too “immediately” leave their boat and their father to follow Jesus. Perhaps they already had heard Andrew and Peter speaking about the Messiah they had met when they still were following John the Baptist. It would be hard to imagine Peter keeping anything to himself, and clearly he would have had to explain to his fellow fishermen why his name had been changed from Simon to Peter.
That’s all there is to the narrative at this point with regard to the calling of these disciples. But in the very next verses Matthew relates how from the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, the word spread like wildfire about His miracle working, not just in Galilee but throughout Syria to the east, to the cities of the Decapolis to the south, to Jerusalem and Judea even farther south and beyond the Jordan to the southeast. And in the process He accumulated a large and unwieldy following from all these regions.
Matthew devotes the next three chapters to the great Sermon on the Mount, portions of which we will be studying in the weeks immediately ahead, and he relates several more miracles of healing before we find Jesus once more in Capernaum, where he calls our Gospel writer, Matthew, from his table as a tax collector. Once again we hear the words, “Follow Me,” and once again the response is immediate. We’re told several more times that a great multitude of persons was following Jesus, and it’s not until Chapter 10 in Matthew’s Gospel that the inner circle is pared down to the 12 who are specially commissioned to a ministry of preaching and healing.
This is a wonderful story with a certain flow to it that, when understood as we have just followed it, is entirely free of contradictions. It’s a blessed story of persons who, hearing the simple command of Jesus to be His followers, obey at once without consideration of the cost. There must have been moments of doubt and wavering, a few of which are recorded here and there, perhaps just to remind us that these obedient disciples were nonetheless human beings with some of the same flaws with which we easily identify. This should be a source of encouragement to all of us whose feet continue to make contact with terra firma. But there’s much more to it than meets our eyes in the Gospels of John and Matthew. We know from Church history that both Peter and Andrew met their deaths by crucifixion because of their faith in Jesus and their proclamation of it. James was the first disciple to be martyred, beheaded by order of King Herod Agrippa I in 42 AD (Acts 12). John spent the last years of his life exiled on the island of Patmos.
For them, this was the cost of discipleship. For many Christians throughout the history of the Church, persecution, torture and death were their lot. For thousands of Christians in the Middle East, this is their lot today. What is it for us? Quite literally, almost nothing. Even though we live in what our president has called a non-Christian nation and what many are calling a post-Christian society, we continue to meet safely and largely ignored whenever and wherever we choose to assemble for corporate worship. The rest of the time we are generally content to keep our faith to ourselves, not because failing to do so would cost us anything in terms of persecution, but simply because, unlike Peter and Andrew and James and John, we are disinclined to subject ourselves to the scorn of others who have no interest in religion in general or Christianity in particular. Nearly everyone today claims to be “spiritual,” yet ever decreasing numbers of persons in the Western world assemble regularly to practice their faith. Few of us are actively involved in proclaiming that faith, in accepting the charge to be “fishers of men.”
How could we hope to recover the evangelistic zeal of discipleship exhibited in the Early Church and throughout past Church history and in the Middle East today? It’s certainly not a matter of seeking martyrdom: for one thing, the very chance of that remains negligible. But how many of us would leave our nets or our lucrative tax-collecting business just to respond to a Jesus Who still says, “Follow Me?” We may give passing consideration to such self-sacrifice, but we’re more likely to thank God for those others who have truly followed Jesus than to offer ourselves to follow in their footsteps.
This is not a new message. It’s one that has been preached from the pulpits of churches of every denomination in every century and every country ever since the days of John the Baptist and Jesus and their disciples; and already in that time, the numbers that at first were astonishingly large dwindled down to a mere handful within the three years that Jesus ministered in Galilee and Judea. Despite the proliferation of church buildings in our country, church attendance continues to fall off and the number of passionate followers of Jesus is ever diminishing. We have many signs that the end times may be approaching rapidly. Perhaps they will be deferred by our longsuffering God Who desires that all should come to repentance. As Peter himself wrote, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9). Does this mean we should relax a bit and assume that we still have more time? Not if Jesus is calling us to be His witnesses in a world that desperately needs the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Whenever God calls us, we could hop on a ship going the opposite direction. But God will find us, just as He found Jonah. David asked in Psalm 139, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to You” (vss. 8-12).
And so, instead of trying to resist the call of Jesus to be His witnesses, may we renew our commitment in the words of the hymn we sang before the Gospel reading: “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea; day by day His sweet voice sounds saying, ‘Christian, follow me.’ By Your mercies, Savior, may we hear Your call, give our lives to Your obedience, serve and love You best of all.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.