Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.Matthew 4:12-23
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
One Sunday I preached about Luther’s distinction between a Theology of the Cross and a Theology of Glory. I contrasted the way of the cross (a way of humility, weakness, surrender and faith in Christ) with the way of glory (a way of positiveness, strength, autonomy, and faith in oneself). I mentioned Joel Osteen, Pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas as a modern representative of the Theology of Glory (prosperity theology). I pointed out that his message “God wants you to be successful in every area of your life” is misleading and dangerous, as it ignores all those who are weak, unsuccessful, and miserable.
A woman came up to me after service and said, “I need to ask you about what you said about Reverend Osteen. He’s such a nice young man, and I’m thinking if so many people follow him and watch his show, he must be doing something right.” I told her that in my book Joel Osteen is successful because he tells people what they want to hear, adding that his “positive thinking” is not biblical but derived from the dominant culture in which we live.
That “dominant culture in which we live” wants us to believe that who we are can be altered, bought and sold. We are told that our identities can be molded and bent. We are constantly offered new ways of getting an “extreme makeover,” and with every new offer there comes more pressure to “better ourselves,” to choose a better identity. Relentlessly bombarded with the demand to avoid negativity and to embrace positive thinking, it is important to figure out our motivation (does the reason come from inside ourselves or from others?) and our identity (are we becoming who others want us to be, or do we feel it comes from the inside?).
In Sunday’s gospel text we run into a culture very different from our own. When Jesus issued his call to Simon and Andrew, James and John, identity was not something to strive for: it was a given. These fishermen didn’t spend years considering their vocation. Vocation was who they were, who their fathers were; they were born to it. They identified with it like they did with their village and their family. It was their life. Nobody had questions about it. And then Jesus broke into their contentment. Matthew the Evangelist begins his story of Jesus with a stunning announcement.
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. … From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4: 12,17).
Mark’s (older) account of the very first words spoken by Jesus adds a few important details: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).
When Jesus issued his call, he would have turned heads. That is because when he said “time”, he didn’t say the word that describes everyday “clock time,” chronos. Instead, Jesus used the word kairos, a word that announces a critical juncture. People listened up, because that word provokes a radical response, an urgent choice, or a fundamental reorientation – and all of these are true for what happened to the four first disciples in our story.
Jesus’ ministry has just begun. He defines the shape of his mission as he identifies the coming of God’s reign with his own person. Once that is done, he immediately goes to work to find some staff for his work. He calls these men into service. His simple words hit the mark: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (verse 19).
To these four men who have never questioned their place in life, Jesus offered a new identity, one that had nothing do with their geographic or social location. Instead, it would be about movement, a willingness to walk with Jesus. The story doesn’t ask what they were working for, or for whom, at their nets. They did the work that would feed them and their families. They were part of the local economy, waking early, following the patterns of fishing, and selling at market. It was an identity that offered sources of happiness as reliable as any they knew – family and friends in the village, and children that would carry their names and care for them in their old age.
Jesus offered them a radical makeover with both its components: high excitement and high cost. In following Jesus, they would break the chains of doing things the way they were always done, and they would have a chance to form a new community. But they were to leave behind all the comfort and security. The price of admission was their lives as they knew it and as their friends and families recognized it; they lost their identities as sons of their fathers, members of their village communities, as fishers in the market.
In this critical kairos moment Jesus called these fishermen to follow him; in doing so, he revealed that the identities that had been constructed for them by the people around them and their expectations. Their identities had allowed them a place, a location, a source of power and knowledge, but Jesus asked them to surrender.
Reverend Osteen and other leaders of the “prosperity gospel” offer believers a way to avoid surrender. They say we can be disciples AND still be in control, but in exchange our inner voice is ignored and eventually stilled. Their emphasis on self-improvement has no room for Martin Luther’s catch phrase for why the cross of Christ is central to Christian faith: “sin, death and the devil;” in fact, their approach ignores all that is dark and negative in our everyday lives.
Martin Luther’s words, describing his own struggle, would seem incomprehensible to many in Joel Osteen’s congregation:
Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay, Death brooded darkly o’er me,
Sin was my torment night and day; In sin my mother bore me.
But daily deeper still I fell; My life became a living hell,
So firmly sin possessed me. (Lutheran Book of Worship #299)
The teaching of the “prosperity” preachers is based on principles developed by Norman Vincent Peale, Pastor at Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue, in his 1952 bestseller “The Power of Positive Thinking”. Even though the book was embraced by many, psychiatrist R.C. Murphy stated in his review, “Mr. Peale refuses to allow his followers to hear, speak or see any evil. For him real human suffering does not exist; there is no such thing as murderous rage, suicidal despair, cruelty, lust, greed, mass poverty, or illiteracy. All these things he would dismiss as trivial mental processes which will evaporate if thoughts are simply turned into more cheerful channels. This attitude is so unpleasant it bears some search for its real meaning. It is clearly not a genuine denial of evil but rather a horror of it. A person turns his eyes away from human bestiality and the suffering it evokes only if he cannot stand to look at it.”
I recently learned that one man who enthusiastically embraced Reverend Peale and his philosophy was President Donald Trump. Tom Gjelten quotes Trump: “Norman Vincent Peale, the great Norman Vincent Peale, was my pastor. … He was so great. And what he would do is, he’d bring real-life situations, modern-day situations, into the sermon. And you could listen to him all day long.” What’s more, The Washington Post quotes Trump saying of Norman Vincent Peale, “He thought I was his greatest student of all time.”
Gjelten adds that it seems only logical that Trump has surrounded himself with prosperity preachers, the spiritual heirs of Norman Vincent Peale’s soft and shallow version of Christianity. Matthew Schmitz writes of Donald Trump, “Peale has had no more perfect disciple,” and goes on to say, “Peale meant to preach a gentle creed, one that made hellfire and terror into mere afterthoughts. In Trump it has curdled into pagan disdain”.
In heaping his disdain on the weakest (e.g. immigrants, children, disabled persons, the poor) and “othering” whole groups of people (Muslims, Black and Brown people, LGBTQUIA people), Mr. Trump has proven time and again that he lives by the motto, “I win, you lose.” Those of us who identify as People of God surrender to Christ the Crucified who told us, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). As disciples of our God who became a weak man and died as one, we are called to love all those regarded as losers and failures by the President and his disciples.
No matter what the prosperity preachers around him say, Mr. Trump’s creed of greed and contempt has nothing to do with the Christian faith. As John Pavlovitz wrote: “Christians need to speak the truth that sets them free: Donald Trump is not a Christian. He can do every ceremonial, photo-op Bible Study he wants.”
There is no true discipleship, no true Christianity, without surrender. As people of the cross, we surrender to Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Lord, who sends us out into the world to seek those who are lost. Meanwhile, as Schmitz relates, since its founding in 1628, no cross was found at Peale’s church, Marble Collegiate, until a crucifixion window was added in 2016.
I am closing with words by Howard Thurman, American theologian, educator, and civil rights mentor:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart