Laudabo Nomen Domini
Jesus saw Levi son of Alphaeus at his seat in the custom house and said to him ‘Follow me’, and Levi rose and followed him. Mk 2.14
Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house and said to him ‘Follow me’; and Matthew rose and followed him. Mt 9:9
A very happy birthday to you all. And thank you for the honour you do me by inviting me to preach this morning.
It is quite something to change your name. It’s not likely to apply to most of us. Our ‘Johns’ and ‘Mary’ - even ‘Wesley’ - go back into the mists of antiquity. But ‘Matthew’, that was a new name for a tax collector. First century people loved tax-collectors even less than we do. Even in these days, when relations between taxer and taxed are correct, letters or phone calls from the Inland Revenue terrify.
A few years ago I submitted my return as usual to the Inland Revenue. Eventually a reply came, which was the most threatening letter I have ever received. I was advised that my return was false, that I should look through it immediately. that I risked prosecution and so on. I phoned the named officer and asked her what was wrong. ‘I’m not allowed to tell you’, she replied. I responded that I had been severely threatened and courtesy alone would suggest that they might direct me to an area where the supposed error lay. Eventually she agreed to suggest I looked at telephone expenses. I looked and behold I had left out a figure which had subsequently appeared on my P11D.
It was worse – far worse – in the Roman empire. There it was in the taxman’s interests to bully and harry and falsify. All tax-collectors were disapproved of by official Judaism: they did business with Gentiles and handled their money; they were legally impure, socially outcast. A Jewish Rabbi would be bold indeed to invite him to join his inner circle of disciples: it would be a gesture of defiance to established prejudice.
When Jesus passed, he saw Levi sitting at work in the customs-house and said to him, ‘Follow me’; and he rose up and followed him’ (Mark 2:14). The call of the tax-collector is reported in the first Gospel too, but there he is called ‘Matthew’ (Matthew 9:9ff.), thus identifying him with the Matthew who appears in all the apostolic lists and to whom a gospel is attributed. Matthew and Levi are two names for one person.
I wonder, too, whether Jesus himself gave him the name Matthew (Mattai, ‘gift of God,’ in Aramaic) as he gave Kepha to Simon. Until he followed Jesus he was Levi the tax man. But he became Matthew. And it was a pun. ‘You were once a taker, the taxman; now you are Matthew –the gift, the example of grace, God’s gift, what the kingdom of heaven is all about.
Today in Westminster you celebrate 150 years of bearing the name Matthew. The Church of St Matthew is to be the place of divine grace. And to be this in a turbulent world is quite something. The church we say is founded upon the apostles. In that setting we usually think first of another disciple to whom Jesus gave a second name – Cephas, Peter the Rock. But it is not on some geographical rock like the temple or on some internal rock like religious faith that the church is founded. ‘Upon this rock I will build my church’. The rock is the man Peter, personal strengths and weaknesses alike. To this Matthew now adds another human dimension: that the church is also founded upon God’s gift – the sign of grace.
Instead of things - structures and or institutions – the world is sustained by people. If I may refer to our programme at the Abbey, where Fr Philip makes so valued a contribution as one of our priest vicars, in Recovering the Calm we deliberately set out to ensure that visitors meet people. They may come as tourists with their assumptions about the building; we hope that they leave at least as visitors and even pilgrims, having met people, our marshals, cashiers, vergers, cleaners, works staff, assistants and our highly valued duty ministers – even the dean and canons. The task of representing God is daunting. But Matthew reminds us that we only have to be human: God will take what we are and make us a gift for others.
The second mark of God’s gift - Matthew - is to be ablaze with divine passion. The human side of the first disciples and the early church was marked by catching enthusiasm for the cause of the gospel. Knowing themselves to be saved sinners, they were eager to bring others to a knowledge of God. That’s why disciples (followers) became apostles (sent). Matthew by tradition (probably no more) went to Ethiopia. More importantly he may have written a gospel that lies behind what we know as St Matthew.
The same is surely true of a church like yours that stands confidently within the catholic tradition of the Church of England. The gift of God to you is historically marked by reverence for the sacraments and social action. These two dimensions to Christian life continue – though the setting changes and we must change in our style of response.
One of your famous priests, Frank Weston, who became Bishop of Zanzibar, addressed this topic in 1923 at the Anglo-Catholic conference. It is a dated address but at its heart you can discern St Matthew. Weston speaks of ‘duty as Anglo-Catholic’; surrender to Christ, sin, life in the sight of Jesus, strictness for priests, confession for the laity, and concludes;
But I say to you, and I say it with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country , and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slums. …
Where has this spirit gone? Has perhaps the catholic wing of our church become preoccupied with catholicity and discounted the sense of being catholic? I find it strange that a more sustained questioning of, for example, so-called ‘flying bishops’ has not emerged from the catholic wing of the church. Affirming Catholicism has done its bit, but seem already to be tired. It is fascinating to compare Geoffrey Brown’s article in Oasis with Frank Weston. Here is less confidence but more awareness of the wider church than of the catholic group alone.
The question for you on your 150th anniversary remains simple: are you disciples (followers and learners) or apostles (those sent with risk and with a message)? You have to make up your mind which is to be the primary model. They are not mutually exclusive – but it makes much difference which one you start with – which is primary. This persistent ambivalence between following and leading is every church’s vocation. But it is especially one for a church dedicated to St Matthew. And I suggest we move towards the apostle for a while rather than just the disciple. It is to know and proclaim Christ and the gospel through public worship, private prayer, generous hospitality, wise counsel and above all service.
So, Matthew people, can you do this? You can so long as you remember always that any name – yours or mine, the Abbey’s or St Matthew’s - is a gift: ‘You are Peter the rock’; ‘You are Matthew the gift’; ‘You are John or Mary the catholic apostle – the people who bear the name ‘Matthew’ – God’s gracious gift.