Sunday February 1st @ St Barnabas and St Michael’s
Why did Levi decide to get up and follow Jesus just like that? I guess when we read a gospel, we take it for granted that when people meet Jesus, they get up, leave everything behind and follow Him. But the more you think about it, the more you realise it is an extraordinary thing to do. To give up your work, your circle of friends, your income and stake it all on one person – it’s kind of odd, isn’t it? Occasionally you meet people who have decided to take a year out to go round the world, or do some voluntary work for a charity, but even they have a home, a place of their own they can return to later. But for Levi, there was absolutely nothing. Following Jesus he left everything behind and walked away. Just like that. So why did he do it?
Well, maybe Levi was one of those people who had a lot of respect for authority, and when he heard Jesus say Follow me decided he better follow. That may be to some degree true, but it can’t fully explain his actions. True, as a tax collector he worked for the Roman authorities and did what they said, but he certainly didn’t respect the people from whom he collected his tax. In those days tax collectors were notorious for collecting more money than they were due, and making a pile on the side. It’s how they earned their living – looking after number one, always putting themselves first.
So if that’s the case maybe Levi was so unhappy he decided anything was better than what he was doing now. As you can imagine, being a tax collector meant he was unpopular and looked down upon by his fellow countrymen. You certainly didn’t get a wide circle of friends doing dirty work for the Romans. But there is no indication from our reading he was unhappy, and by following Jesus he wasn’t necessarily going to make himself any more popular – in fact as time wore on completely the opposite.
What then was the real reason Levi decided to get up and go when Jesus called? There surely can only be one answer. There must have be something about Jesus that was so attractive, so compelling that when Jesus called, he had to obey. And perhaps we can see that in the words Jesus spoke. Because up until that point, no teacher or Rabbi had ever said, “Follow me”. They had said, “Follow my teaching “ or “Listen to what I say”. But they had never claimed to be such a good example that their followers should copy their actual life. They were acutely aware of their own faults and failings, they knew that the way they behaved fell short of what God expected.
Yet here is Jesus, the son of a carpenter, someone with no formal religious training, standing before Levi and saying, “Follow me”. And the moment Levi meets Jesus, there is something about Him that makes Levi obey. He must have seen in Jesus such goodness, such purity, even such love, that here was someone whose life he could copy, someone who could show him the right way to God. And so as the gospel writer Mark tells us Levi got up and followed.
So what has all this got to do with us this morning? Well, I think there are three things we can learn from this encounter: Firstly, the Christian faith is a relationship, not a religion.
Now I always find it funny that, when I ask people what they believe or whether they go church, 9 times of 10 the answer comes back, “You know, I’m not a religious kind of person”. Let me tell you this morning – neither was Jesus. Jesus refused to play by the rules of the Pharisees or the teachers of the law, and he rejected their way of worshipping God. As far as they were concerned, worshipping God was all about observing law and regulations. It was about trying to be the best kind of person you could be, and making sure you observed every last detail of religious observance. But Jesus said the way to get right with God is follow Him. It doesn’t matter that you are tax collector, or that you are a sinner. It doesn’t matter that you know all there is to know about the Church of England. What matters is that you are prepared to believe and trust in Him, and accept Him as your Lord and Saviour.
In the end, you see, the Christian faith is about love, and the only way you can love someone is not by following rules and regulations but by making a personal commitment to them. And it’s exactly like that when it comes to Jesus. After all, as John 3:16 reminds us, God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Not “whoever tries his best to live a good life”, or “whoever has been baptised in the Church of England” but whoever believes in Him. And it is to that faith, that belief, God is each and every one of us this morning.
The Christian faith is a relationship, not a religion. Do you, I wonder, have that relationship in your life?
Secondly, the Christian faith is not only what you believe. It’s also what you do.
In our reading this morning Levi didn’t decide to follow Jesus and then carry on living the same as before. He broke away from his old way of life, from his habit of making loads of money at the expense of others. And surely there’s a very simple and very important lesson for us all here. Believing in Jesus is about turning away from an old way of life where we do what we want to a new way of life where we do what Jesus wants. That’s why, as we have seen over the past few weeks, when Jesus starts His earthly ministry His message is repent and believe the good news. Belief, you see, always need always to be accompanied by repentance.
And although that sounds a very religious, very church term, in fact repentance is a very practical, very down-to-earth word. It’s about letting Jesus setting the agenda for our life, about giving Him the right to change the things that are wrong. So for example, like Levi, it might involve the way we use our money. It might involve the way we use our free time. It might involve the type of people we mix with. Because as Jesus is against religion as the way to get right with God, so He is also against people who say they believe in Him but never let Him shape and mould their lives.
Some words of Jesus from Matthew 7:21: Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of God, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Strong stuff isn’t it? And if quite reasonably we ask how we know what our Father’s will is, then the answer comes back that we need to pray, to read our Bible, to meet with our fellow Christians week by week. Because it is as we pray, as we read our Bibles, as we meet with our fellow believers, that we discover in fact Jesus speaking to us and showing us how to live. And that’s why these things are not, if we may put it, optional extras for super-spiritual believers, but the way all of us find out what it means to love and to serve Jesus day by day.
OK, we’ve said so far that the Christian faith is a relationship, not a religion. We’ve also said that the Christian faith is not only what you believe. It’s also what you do.
And the third and final point to make is that the Christian faith is good news well worth sharing.
Why? Well, there are many people, perhaps even some people here this morning, who know they fall short of what God wants. They may have a secret addiction, they may have done something particularly wrong, they may just be ordinary folk who are vaguely dissatisfied with life. The message of Jesus is, whoever you are, there is the possibility of new life and a fresh start with Him. You don’t need to carry around your failures, your broken dreams, your longings. You just need to give them to Him, and let Him take control of your life. And that’s got to be good news, hasn’t it?
The problem is, I think, is that when we talk about Christians sharing the good news, we think of angry evangelists shouting at congregations, or people going out door-knocking. But how did Levi share the good news of discovering Jesus? That’s right – he simply invited everyone round his place for a meal. And I want you as we go on through Mark’s gospel to notice what a large part meals play in sharing the good news.
And thinking about, our own situation, I don’t think it is a coincidence that our growth has flattened off at the same time our number of social events have fallen away. Not that it’s a choice between mission or social events. The meal at Levi’s house clearly involved both. But the way Jesus gained a hearing was by the fact He was prepared to sit down and eat and drink with those motley crew of tax collectors and so-called sinners. Through entering His world these people, whoever exactly they were, began to trust and to accept Him, and so were prepared to receive the message He brought them that day.
And I think that’s a point that we as a church would do well to think about. After all, many of us already know that the Christian faith is about a relationship, and we know that our relationship with Jesus has to be sustained and nurtured by prayer, by reading the Bible, by worship together. Yet if you talk to the majority of people in the street they still think of the Christian faith as a religion, that rather like the Pharisees and teachers of the law we are standing on the sidelines offering criticism at every opportunity.
So how we overcome this? Prayer, of course, is a large part of the answer, and we’ve already seen how Jesus made sure he spent the first part of his busy day alone with His Heavenly Father. But even more than that, Jesus was prepared to identify with those He was seeking to reach. Our reading from Hebrews this morning tells us that, He had to be made like his brothers in every way in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. And maybe for those of us already know Jesus personally here, there’s something here about us becoming more closely involved with our family, our friends, our neighbours in order to point them to that same great high priest who provides atonement for sins even today.
Jesus could have said to Levi, “Well, thanks for your invitation. But I’m not sure about some of your guests, and I don’t really drink any way. Besides which I have an important meeting at the synagogue I have to go, something about the flowers we’re going to have next Sabbath”. But no, Jesus accepted, Jesus went and Jesus was given an opportunity to talk about the kingdom of God, to people whom the establishment had already written off. And I am sure that as a result others like Levi saw such goodness, such purity, such love that they themselves left their old way of life behind and followed Jesus.
Because in the end I believe that only through entering people’s worlds in this ways will they ever hear the wonderful, outrageous and totally scandalous message of Jesus, I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. Jesus, you see, isn’t looking for dull, boring people who will inflict religion on other people, but for people who know their need of new life, and are prepared to embrace that message of new life when it is offered. So what is it that you and I are offering each week? Is it the old wine of rules and regulations bottled up in a church on Sunday morning? Or is it the new wine of love and grace and peace that bursts out and flows into our daily lives, pointing others to the one who calls to men and women everywhere, Follow me.