Sermon on Matthew 4:18-23
Synaxis of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Lands [National Saints]
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As we discussed on the Feast of the Synaxis of All Saints (last week), the saints—who have shone forth with extraordinary splendor throughout the world in diverse times and places—are a sign of the fulfillment of God’s promise to redeem fallen humanity. Their examples encourage us to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily besets us” and to “run with patience the race that is set before us” [cf. Hebrews 12:1].
Today (in sequel) we celebrate the Synaxis of All the Saints Resplendent in the Russian Lands—together with the saints of the other local and national Churches. These particular saints teach each one of us—by their examples—how to live as a ‘disciple’ of Christ in, and through, the context of our specific national, cultural, and ethnic reality. Moreover, they teach us the cost of discipleship—that is, what we can expect to endure for the sake of the Gospel [cf. Matthew 16:25]. Jesus said:
“Remember the word that I said unto you… The disciple is not above his master… and the servant is not greater than his Lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you… He that takes not his cross, and follows after me, is not worthy of me. He that finds his life shall lose it: and he that loses his life for my sake shall find it”
[cf. John 15:18-20; Matthew 10:24, 38-39].
The call to discipleship
Today’s Gospel reading is a call to discipleship. It is the call to become a dedicated and devoted follower of the Lord Jesus Christ—in both word and deed. The call to discipleship is simultaneously a call to active sainthood or holiness, because holiness is only manifested, evidenced and confirmed in the community of believers.
In today’s lesson, Jesus says to the fishermen Peter and Andrew: “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men” [v.19].
His words to Peter and Andrew were a call to action. He did not merely tell them to believe in Him but to move, to change, and to act. The reaction of Peter and Andrew to the call was: “And immediately, having left the nets, they followed Him” [v. 20].
The Greek word used here for ‘follow’ is ēkolouthēsan (ἠκολούθησαν), which is from the verb akoloutheō. Akoloutheō is derived from ‘a’ (which denotes union or linkage) and ‘keleuthos’ (a road or way); more properly, it means to be in (or on) the same road or way with or specifically accompanying or following a master as a disciple.
The word that we now use for the ‘order of a worship service’ in the Orthodox Church is akolouthia, which reminds us that one of the principal ways in which we ‘follow’ the Lord is through worshiping Him. Likewise, the word that we use for the young men who serve at the altar—‘acolyte’ (or follower)—is etymologically rooted in the word akoloutheō.
A disciple is different from an apostle. A disciple is one who learns as an apprentice under a teacher or master. An Apostle is a messenger—a delegate, and more especially, a commissioned ambassador—who is sent forth, or away. In Christianity, apostles -who were hitherto ‘disciples’- proclaim the good news and establish new communities of believers, or disciples.
The word ‘disciple’ was commonly used to describe the followers of the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, whose ‘disciples’ quite literally ‘followed’ and imitated their master or teachers’ entire way of life in the hope of eventually becoming ‘functionally identical’ with them -that is, with their teachers or masters.
Similarly, in Christianity, a disciple was originally someone who knew the Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh and followed Him—but after He ascended into heaven, anyone who committed himself to ‘follow’ the Lord Jesus Christ was called a ‘disciple’.
Discipleship was a deliberate and focused apprenticeship that transformed the fully-formed ‘disciple’ into a living copy of the Master. Hence, we have the word ‘Christian’, which comes from the Greek, Χριστιανός, and means ‘follower of Christ’ or ‘little Christ’. The term denotes ‘adherence to Christ’ but moreover, ‘voluntary submission (as a slave) to Christ [cf. Acts 11:26]. This is now your sacred calling as you seek to ‘follow’ Christ.
A Christian ‘disciple’ is a believer who follows the Lord Jesus Christ in the hope of eventually becoming, at the very best, ‘functionally or energetically identical’ with Christ
To recap, a Christian ‘disciple’ is a believer who follows the Lord Jesus Christ in the hope of eventually becoming, at the very best, ‘functionally or energetically identical’ with Christ. The disciple then offers himself as a likeness of Christ (or model) for others to follow [cf. I Corinthians 11:1].
A fully developed ‘disciple’ leads others, and attempts to faithfully convey Christ to his apprentices with the goal of this process repeating itself (or looping)—that is, a disciple makes disciples and those disciples make disciples [cf. I Corinthians 4:16-17; II Timothy 2:2]. This is what the Lord Jesus Christ calls all of us to do. At the beginning of His public ministry, the Lord Jesus Christ said to Peter and Andrew: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” [cf. Matthew 4:19].
At the end of the Lord’s earthly ministry, in the ‘Great Commission, the Lord Jesus Christ commands His disciples, to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” [cf. Matthew 28:19-20]. Some people mistakenly believe that the ‘Great Commission’ has to do with quantity. There is nothing farther from the truth—it is about quality.
From fishermen to ‘fishers of men’
Fishing as a commercial enterprise requires discernment—not everything that finds its way into the fishermen’s nets is of equal value—some of that which is in the net must be thrown back into the sea. We too, have to discern those who only wish to passively hear the Gospel vs. those who are ready to be ‘disciples’ and then share in the ‘fishers of men’ ministry. Christ’s invitation to the first disciples (and to us) is to ‘follow’ Him in order to become ‘fishers of men’. The invitation to become ‘fishers of men’ is actually one of the conditions for becoming a ‘disciple’. Following Christ involves service to God as ‘fishers of men’.
In the ‘fishers of men’ analogy, Christ is speaking to us. To change from fishermen to ‘fishers of men’ signifies a complete change in our value system. An Orthodox Christian is defined by that primary dynamic existential choice in which he submitted his every thought, his every desire, and his every action to God.
Just as the brothers Peter and Andrew accepted Jesus’ invitation to become ‘disciples’ and immediately left their ‘nets’, we must not postpone answering God’s call. All else is to be laid aside in order that we may attend to sharing with others our life of following, or worshiping, God.
In Christianity, the Greek term, mathētḗs (mathētḗs) is translated as ‘learner’ or ‘disciple’, but more properly it refers to: ‘one who is learning or acquiring knowledge through experience, practice, and mental effort -that is, through reflection and critical thinking- and moreover, in which knowledge-experience-practice integration is realized through knowledge-transfer by a master’.
It is interesting to note that the word mathētḗs (disciple or learner) is akin to the word manthanein (μανθάνειν -to learn via effort), which also gave us the following terms: ‘memory’, ‘mind’, ‘remind’, and even ‘mathematics’. Therefore, through effort, the Christian ‘disciple’ places God at the center of his worldview and ethical or moral system, and relies on God’s will as revealed in Christ as a guide for his every thought, desire, and action.
For true worshipers, followers, and ‘disciples’ of ‘The Way’, God is the measure of all things. God alone provides the standards that we must live by in order to live an excellent (or virtuous) life and experience well-being [or blessedness]. Orthodox Christianity is not a system that helps us ‘get what we want’, but instead, it provides a systematic, enlightened way of life that teaches us how to ‘get what we need’—which is ultimately virtue that leads to ‘blessedness’.
We must begin or complete a deliberate apprenticeship that will transform us into living copies of the Master
However, Orthodox Christianity has limited power to affect change, in a potential ‘disciple’, when faith is just one more of many compartments or ‘add-ons’ in a life filled with emotional angst and driven by faulty desires. Orthodox Christian practice is not a topical balm. Instead, it works from the inside out. The practice is a plow that digs deep and turns the soil of troubled psyches upside down to expose our misguided thoughts and misdirected desires.
However, turning our lives upside down is no simple task; it requires a complete paradigm shift. We must come to see that, from the perspective of Orthodox Christianity, a life directed primarily by self-centered thoughts, desires, and actions is unnatural.
Polycrates ("much power") suggests that this paradigm shift requires ‘a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at things’ and argues: “We are to switch our ‘human’ vision of reality—in which our values depend on our passions—to a ‘blessed’ vision of things, which apperceives each event through the Divine perspective”. In order for this to happen, we must begin or complete a deliberate apprenticeship that will transform us into living copies of the Master.
Participation in oneness with God and His cosmos
This transformation of vision occurs when we begin to practice the ‘spiritual disciplines’ discussed last week. These are:
- the ‘discipline of desire’
- the ‘discipline of assent’
- the ‘discipline of action’
These disciplines are designed to transform the foolish and lost wanderer into a naprednik—one who is advancing in righteousness or holiness. The related exercises in these disciplines involve all of a person’s faculties—and not just the intellect or reason. The ultimate goal is to reduce human angst or suffering and increase spiritual happiness. This is achieved by teaching people to detach from their egocentric, individualistic, and dualistic mindsets and become aware of the possibilities and benefits of participation in oneness with God and His cosmos.
Through the practice of these spiritual disciplines, ‘the individual raises himself up to the life of the objective Spirit’, that is to say, he replaces his own perspective with an apperception that proceeds from the Vision of Light “for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light” [cf. Ephesians 5:8].
The ‘disciple’ must abandon his partial and egotistical vision of reality in order to rise to the point of seeing things as God sees them.
Spiritual disciplines and exercises together with our ongoing submission to the will of God—as manifested in the affordances of each and every event or circumstance—raise our consciousness to a cosmic level.
Our perspective changes when the self—as a principle of freedom—recognizes that there is nothing greater than enosis (Ένωσις -union or oneness). Freedom is not strictly the exercise of the will but rather the experience of accurate vision—which, when this becomes appropriate, occasions action. The soul then wholeheartedly consents to that which has been willed by God as revealed in and through the Lord Jesus Christ.
Such discipleship engenders cheerful obedience to God. Through discipleship we ‘follow’ the Lord Jesus Christ; this in turn enables or empowers us to cope with, and overcome, the world. By submitting our wills to the Lord Jesus Christ, and identifying ourselves with Him, our participation in ‘oneness’ is expanded. The Apostle Paul writes: “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” [cf. Ephesians 2:19]. Oneness transcends the limits of our broken individuality.
Freedom is not strictly the exercise of the will but rather the experience of accurate vision
In accordance with the teachings of St. Nektarios of Aegina, the ‘disciple’ experiences the happiness -that is, eudaimonia, or wellbeing, abundant life, and spiritual joy- that can only be found in Christ. In fact, this happiness is but a likeness of God’s ‘blessedness’ (in Greek, makariótita).
Christ and His ‘disciples’ share the same mind—which is perfect in the Lord Jesus Christ but perfectible in His ‘disciples’. The Apostle Paul says: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, Who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” [cf. Philippians 2:4-7].
The ‘disciple’ can attain perfection by submitting his heart, soul, mind, and will to the Divine Will.
The original ‘disciples’ considered that universal Reason—the Divine Logos—is immanent and accessible in the cosmos. Therefore, they believed that a ‘disciple’ can, and indeed, must bring his life into harmony with Providence or Divine government. For the ‘disciple’, a life in accordance with Providence provides the only path to moral excellence or virtue and the life of abundance or blessedness.
Modern man, as a whole, possesses more knowledge and material wealth, suffers less hunger and privation, and lives longer with less physical hardship and pain than at any other time in recorded history. Nevertheless, as a whole, we are unhappy and suffer from profound existential angst. Why? Because we have disconnected ourselves from the ‘One Who Exists’.
Meanwhile, modern man insists that he is the measure of all things. He believes that he is the source of rationality in the cosmos. He believes that happiness can be found in more knowledge, more possessions, and more dominion over creation. Orthodoxy provides humankind with the prescription for a better life—an abundant life where ‘every thought, every desire, and every action’ are ‘guided by no other law than that of the love of God’.
We who have come into the net of the Apostles—to the Ark of Salvation which is the Orthodox Christian Church—are called to be ‘fishers of men’. We are mystically united to the Apostles, Martyrs, Hierarchs, Monastics, and the Righteous (or Just) on the ‘highway to holiness’ [Isaiah 35:8] and moreover, in their disciplic work as ‘fishers of men’.
This very imagery of ‘fisher of men’ is in juxtaposition to the image of passive recipient-believers. Christ’s ‘fishers of men’ seek out lost souls in need of salvation.
The same ‘fishers of men’ then serve as models of Christ for the new believers in a process of discipleship that transforms the new believers into fellow co-workers who spread the Gospel of Christ and fulfill Christ’s command to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded…” [cf. Matthew 28:19-20].