The tax collector no longer sits in his booth on the street corner. At this time of year he appears instead on television and the radio urging us to complete our self-assessment forms before the end of September. St. Matthew’s day is now conveniently set as a reminder of a key date in the fiscal calendar. Tax, we are told, doesn’t have to be taxing.
Tell that to my eldest son, who is setting up his own business not far from here and who is making the painful discovery of just how much of his earnings the government will claim by various means. Tell that to thousands of people like me who put off filling in their tax forms to the last possible date. In my case normally the last week in January.
Tax doesn’t have to be taxing. But on the feast day of this converted tax collector, what about the Christian faith? How taxing, how demanding do we expect it to be? How do we interpret the call to discipleship in our own lives? How do we interpret that call to others both in our example and in our teaching and preaching and our common life?
The dilemma is a real one for the Church at the present time. We know we are called to be a church in mission. We are called to do as Jesus does in the gospel story: to go and be with those who are outside the grace of God. Matthew calls such people tax collectors and sinners. Perhaps you would have different names for them. I’m tempted to suggest some but will leave it to your imagination.
We recognise, I think, that Jesus did not come to call the righteous but sinners. We’ve begun to invest time and energy in creating new Christian communities alongside our parish churches with all their rich tradition and heritage. These new communities, like Moot, share in the life of the Church of England but seek to express that life in different forms and shapes and patterns. To paraphrase William Temple: they are church for the benefit of those who are not members.
There are already hundreds of these fresh expressions of church across the country. They take many different forms. Most are still fragile. Some look very different from church as we know it. Some are simply taking familiar forms and making them available on different days of the week in different venues. All of them have as their motivation the pattern of Jesus in the story of Matthew’s call: going to where people are, on their terms, ministering to their needs, creating new community and carrying the message of faith.
So far so good. But we have to ask a further question. What vision of the Christian life do we hold before those who are beginning to discover Jesus? What medicine do we offer to those who are sick in our cure of souls? What guidance do we hold out to those who are lost in the confusions and temptations of this naughty world (to use the language of the prayer book)? What patterns for discipleship do we model and live?
Will our attempts to go to where people are and build fresh expressions of church create a generation whose Christianity is only skin deep? Who give up at the first sign of cost or danger? Or can we grasp the bigger vision to make disciples who have the capacity, by God’s grace, to change the world and who will leave everything, give everything, go anywhere for the sake of the gospel?
Earlier this summer, I was feeling that question particularly deeply. I took it to Matthew’s great legacy to the church, the first gospel which has inspired every generation of Christians. Over about six weeks, I read Matthew from beginning to end – just the text with no notes or commentaries. And I asked Matthew the question: what are you saying about discipleship? What vision are you holding out to the Church in every generation.
We all know, Matthew, that your gospel ends with the great commission to make disciples. But in the way you tell the story, what do you teach us about the kind of disciples you have in mind? Did you mean for people to dabble in this Christian faith? To take it on their own terms? Does Christianity have to be taxing?
It was some years since I’ve read Matthew’s gospel like that. Luke has been my favourite gospel for more than a decade and a lot of my own thinking and writing and preaching has sprung from the way Luke tells his story. Luke has a gentleness to his narrative, an ability to round off the harsh edges somehow, to draw you in gradually, to make things easy to understand and to take in. Above all Luke is the gospel for a church which is learning again to be shaped by mission.
Matthew does not pull his punches on discipleship. From the very beginning in the birth narratives we have a story which emphasises cost and suffering: the sacrifice of Joseph; the slaying of the children; the journey of the Magi; the flight into Egypt. The message of the Baptist is particularly uncompromising. Jesus’ own first act, as recorded by Matthew, is to call disciples: Peter and Andrew, James and John. What do these disciples do? Immediately they leave everything behind and follow.
It was clear as I read on in the gospel that Matthew had faced the identical question to the one we face today. It is Matthew who tells us that the church will always be a mixed community: wheat and tares grow in the same field. He has clearly observed varieties of Christian commitment. It is Matthew who tells us over and over again of the tests of true discipleship: not pious outward observance but inner transformation and mature fruit in our lives evidenced by our actions. It is Matthew who sets before us in the beatitudes the vision for Christian character: humble, full of sorrow for the world, gentle, passionate for justice, full of mercy, pure, seeking peace, willing to suffer for the gospel. It is Matthew who tells us that demands of Jesus go deeper that the demands of the law: they are about the pride and lust and hate and judgement nestling in our hearts.
I cannot read Matthew’s gospel and believe that Jesus did not intend to found a new community, the church. It is Matthew who gives us the vision for this community characterised by the humility of a child; the treasuring of the lost, the maturity to handle conflict and make its own decisions, the ability to forgive seventy times seven times because we have been forgiven.
The Church of England has needed to hear again over the last twenty years the great messages of the Gospel of Luke as we have struggled to recover a sense of God’s mission at the very heart of our life.
Perhaps in this next part of the journey we need to hear again the message of the Gospel of Matthew: the gospel of discipleship; the gospel of the church as we rebuild mature Christian community in fresh expressions of church and in traditional parishes.
You are St. Matthew’s Church, Westminster. What better place to centre your common life than on the gospel of your patron saint. What better lead to give to church and society than the challenge of building a mature community of mature disciples, each bearing fruit in their season.
The gospel bears witness to Matthew’s discovery that tax was not, in the end, particularly taxing. A career and a life based on becoming rich and influential did not satisfy then and will not satisfy now. Meeting Jesus was enough for Matthew to realise that his life was without direction and here was a guide. Meeting Jesus was sufficient for Matthew to recognise that he was sick in the heart of his being and needed strong medicine. When Jesus called, Matthew got up and followed. A new life beckoned.
In this Eucharist we meet Jesus in Scripture, in the people of God, in Communion. We bring our lostness and seek guidance. We bring our sickness and seek health. We hear the call to become a disciple with all that means.
Will you get up? Will you leave everything? Will you follow?