A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on All Saints’ Sunday, 2 November 2014:
Wise teaching, hidden instruction, and the vision of a kingdom that is always close at hand for those who search for it stand at the heart of tonight’s readings (Isaiah 2.1-6, Matthew 13.44-53). The kingdom our readings speak of is at once near and far off. It is open to all people from ‘all the nations’ (Isaiah 2.2), and yet may remain elusive to those who do not care to search for it. And our readings promise that those who persevere in their search for the kingdom ‘will shine like the sun in their Father’s house’ (Matthew 13.44), will be numbered among God’s servants; his saints: the faithful people of every age we celebrate this All Saints’ Day.
Our gospel reading from Matthew’s story of Jesus takes us to Jesus’ home town: not the city of his birth, Bethlehem, nor the city in which he grew up, Nazareth, but the city in which he made his home to teach the people of gentile Galilee, ‘Galilee of the nations’, about the kingdom of God (Matthew 4.12). Early in Matthew’s story, we read how Jesus ‘left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea of Galilee’ to proclaim the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 4.13-15). From his home in Capernaum Jesus taught the people of this regional centre, a busy fishing port and cosmopolitan trading hub where Jews and Gentiles freely mingled and lived together. The way in which Jesus taught takes into account his multi-cultural, international audience: he chooses poignant short stories as his vehicle to teach them about his vision of a kingdom where people from all backgrounds would come to know God, both those who already knew themselves to be among God’s chosen, and those who were yet searching for God.
A few verses before tonight’s Gospel reading commences, Jesus explains to his followers who had gathered at his home, why he chose stories as a way to explain to those who were yet searching about the mystery of God’s kingdom: ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven’, Jesus tells his disciples, ‘but to them it has not been given’ (Matthew 13.44-53). For Jesus’ disciples, the secrets of the kingdom of heaven were an open secret, as it were: the open secret that stands at the heart of the gospel—the secret that God sent his only Son into the world to save it from perdition. The ‘secret and hidden wisdeom of God’ is, in fact, and open secret which underpins all Christian teaching: it is the secret of ‘knowing nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2.2, 7). The stories Jesus tells in his home town, then, are first of all a way to reach out to those who do not yet know about God, and God’s purposes: to reach ‘those to whom the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have not been given’.
Matthew has assembled for us three small vignettes as an example of the way in which Jesus taught in Capernaum. There are, of course, much longer teaching stories or parables: the story of the Lost Son, who squandered his inheritance and returned to his Father in shame, only to be feted and restored to his rightful place—a parable about repentance; the story of the differing soils and the Sower we heard a fortnight ago—a parable about spiritual growth, and the extension and growth of God’s message. And then there are the three, short stories that make up tonight’s Gospel reading: two- or three-line verses that speak evocatively of the way in which people may discover the secret of God’s kingdom, and how their knowledge of that secret utterly transforms them. Jesus retells the same story three times, each time a little differently, giving his multi-religious and multi-cultural audience the opportunity to examine his claim that all people may find God’s kingdom, and how the people who become caught up in God’s kingdom react to that revelation.
All of the short stories we hear Jesus tell in tonight’s Gospel speak of the spiritual treasure of knowing the secret of the kingdom of heaven in terms of material value: knowing the secret of the kingdom of heaven is like searching for, and finding an incredible treasure. It had been hidden in someone’s field long ago, and was recovered by a treasure-seeker, who then gives up all his possessions in exchange for the newly-found treasure. The finder ‘sells all that he has’ to gain the treasure he found (Matthew 13.44-45). This story may well have resonated with those who farmed the rolling hillsides around Capernaum, places where past settlements had made way to farmland; where treasures of the past could be unearthed: it is a story addressed to the settled community of Capernaum.
The second story Jesus tells may have been addressed to the itinerant community of foreigners that lent the region its name ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ (Matthew 4.15). It speaks of a merchant who travels far to buy and sell pearls. Again, the merchant uncovers a treasure beyond expectation: he finds a pearl of rare beauty and value, and ‘sold all that he had and bought it’ (Matthew 13.45-46). Discovering the secret of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus suggests, is greater than any value, wealth or treasure. It requires risk and determination, requires our all, to gain and possess it.
Tonight’s final short story is addressed to the third group of inhabitants who made up the cosmopolitan port city of Capernaum: those who made their living on the waters of Lake Galilee, like many of Jesus’ first followers. It speaks of the kingdom of heaven not as treasure in itself, but as a means of gaining treasure: ‘the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind’ (Matthew 13.47). A net that catches all in its wake, brings in all kinds of fish; a net that is carefully lifted out of the Lake and brought to port, where its contents are processed: ‘the good fish are collected into baskets, and the bad thrown back’ (Matthew 13.48). Becoming caught up in the kingdom of heaven is easy, Jesus suggests: all are called to be caught up in this large net that is thrown into the sea. It is remaining in the net, being drawn out of the net and collected into the baskets to provide value and treasure for the labourers of the kingdom, that requires a deliberate change of heart. ‘So it will be at the end of the age’, Jesus explains to his hearers: ‘The Son of Man will send his angels to separate the evil from the righteous’ (Matthew 13.40, 49-50).
At the end of the age, Jesus tells in his short stories, it is God, and not the religious, who will separate saints from evildoers. Jesus’ saints are those who are not only caught up in the large net of the kingdom of heaven—many will be drawn into its wake, Jesus confirmed—but those who react to this engagement. It is those who find themselves caught up in the life of the kingdom of heaven, and then decide to take the risk to invest their all into that kingdom, who will ultimately be numbered among the righteous, among the saints of the kingdom.
For the people of his multicultural home town this would have been radical news: in three short stories, each tailored to a specific cultural subgroup of his community, Jesus does away with the established belief that only a certain group of religious people can enter God’s kingdom. While the story of the net would have excited Jesus’ gentile audience, it may well have irked some of his Jewish hearers: it would have been unsettling news to hear the goal of the life of faith described in terms of a broad net that brings together people from all families and nations. It would have been even more unsettling to hear and understand the undertones of Jesus’ Greek – the Greek word Jesus uses when he speaks of catching the fish is the same as that used for the Jewish place of worship: synagagouse. Just as the Greek words for ‘all kinds of fish’ can mean ‘all kinds of peoples and nations’. God’s vision is for all people to be gathered in his kingdom, Jesus tells, is for an assembly—a synagogue—of saints that encompasses Jews as well as Gentiles.
Jesus’ short stories are clearly told within the context of his home town: a unique melting pot of Jews and Gentiles on the crossroads between the Jewish heartlands and the Gentile diaspora. But his stories are not only there for the people of Capernaum. Matthew includes these three vignettes among his collection of longer parables to make a theological point that is also made in our first lesson: that at the end of the age, God will bring together people from any nation and any background to be his saints: ‘all nations shall stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house; many peoples shall come’ (Isaiah 2.2-3). The secret of the kingdom of heaven is there for all people, tonight’s readings assure us. Everybody is called to learn the secret of God’s plan: his hope that all people may come to him, and live with him. Everybody is called to make known that secret, share in its future: the secret of the crucified Son of God, through whom sinners can be made saints. The secret of the treasure that exceeds all we can ever possess or own; the secret of the treasure that fills us with such longing that we embrace the risk of losing all in order to gain it, and share in it.
Tonight, we give thanks for the saints throughout the ages, who have responded to the invitation to discover for themselves the secrets of the treasure of the kingdom of heaven, and share in its future. As we celebrate their response in faith to the good news that all are called to share in God’s kingdom, it is my prayer for you and for me, that we like them may show forth in our own generation something of the great treasure entrusted to us: the secret at the heart of God’s kingdom—the open invitation that is extended to all who will hear it, and who will respond to it in faith.
Now may ‘the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe’ in Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord (Ephesians 1.17-18). Amen.