Today we are commemorating Matthew – called from his tax collecting to follow Jesus, became an Apostle and one of the gospels is named after him. It’s the latter of that list which is a bit problematic, being one of the Evangelists, one of the writers of the four gospels.
No one actually knows who wrote what we call ‘Matthew’s Gospel’. There is a second century reference to him as the author, but there are problems with that, so it’s not the most reliable source. At best the Apostle might have collected together memories and stories about Jesus that others stitched together along with about 90% of Mark’s Gospel and a source used also by Luke. But even that is not certain.
So which do we celebrate – the Gospel writer or ex-taxman disciple? Well, both because the themes in Matthew weave both together. In being called from the tax booth, Matthew acknowledges that there is something greater than his own self-interest and there is a higher authority than the Roman one he was serving through those taxes. He puts into practice the themes the gospel conveys.
Matthew sets out his stall at the beginning of his gospel. Jesus is the Messiah, the promised one longed for by the Hebrew people. He fulfils the hope. He is ‘Emmanuel’ because ‘God is with us’. He is to be called ‘Jesus’, which means ‘God saves’. So not just an earthly Messiah, but a divine one. With the Magi, the kings, a story only in Matthew, earthly wisdom and rulers, bow down before him.
Matthew’s gospel was a favourite of the early church in the first Christian centuries. It was seen as their manifesto, setting out who they are, what their mission is and where they find their life and hope. And if we are still wondering how we see this, as the story of Jesus ends with his death and resurrection, the story of the Church begins with the great commission to go, baptise, teach and make disciples of the whole world. Matthew wants his readers to live the story he tells, to see the story of Jesus continuing in his followers.
And there are major bits of teaching which have shaped the church down the centuries. He gives the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10) – the statements that begin ‘Blessed are’, followed by the peacemakers, the pure in heart, the poor, the humble, those grieving, the meek, those hungry for the holiness of God, the merciful and the persecuted. From these we can identify core values for Christian living.
- ‘The poor in spirit’, brings humility and dependency on God;
- ‘Those who are mourning’ brings longing for the Kingdom of God – back to those kings and who counts most;
- ‘Meekness’ brings compassion and a quiet confidence in God, whatever comes – it’s a good value for pandemic anxiety;
- ‘Hunger for righteousness’ brings a commitment to grow in Christlikeness, to be orientated towards God’s kingdom;
- ‘Mercy’ brings with it justice and respect for all;
- ‘Purity’ brings integrity where who we are is seen in how we live;
- ‘Peace-making’ brings the call to restore relationships and that may well bring confrontation, challenge, and the need to reconfigure, to reshape;
- ‘The persecuted’ brings a life which stirs up opposition because it stands in such contrast.
The Beatitudes, as with Matthew’s Gospel, set out what it looks like when we follow Jesus. It is what it means to be a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven where God’s Messiah sets the tone because in him ‘God is with us’.
Matthew’s Gospel bridges the old, as in ancient covenant, and the new one, its fulfilment in Jesus Christ. Old doesn’t mean useless and of no use any more. The first Christians knew their Jewish roots and the very first were themselves Jews. Matthew is important in a time when Anti-Semitism is still being seen because it reminds us that we are brothers and sisters, and share sacred texts, we are part of a spiritual continuity.
Throughout this year we have been reading Matthew’s gospel each week as our set Gospel for the year. Slowly exploring it in small bite-sized chunks. The tax-collector who changed his life to follow Jesus, to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of God, has given his name to a gospel which asks us to do the same.
So when we wonder who we celebrate today – Apostle or Evangelist, well it’s both because the distinction is a false one in Matthew. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. We are invited too to learn what this means, remembering that Christ calls not the righteous but sinners, that they may become ones who orientate themselves to live the story he tells, to become Christ-like.
Sermon for Feast of Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 20th September 2020.