Normally when this text comes up, we talk about Simon and Andrew, James and John, and Jesus calling them away from their nets to fish for people. That’s almost always how I’ve preached on this text. But if that’s all we hear, we overlook some other pieces of text — parts that may not be as obvious but are also important and just as relevant.
Look at the first two verses of this text. “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum”.
At first glance, we may well ask, “So what?” What’s that about? He heard John the Baptist had been arrested, so he moved. Why does that matter, and what does it have to do with us?
Actually, a lot more than you might think.
In this text, Jesus has just been baptized and tempted in the wilderness. This move to Capernaum is, in fact, his first act as the announced “Son of God.” And so, in this gospel, moving the 30 miles from Nazareth in Judea to Capernaum in Galilee makes a major statement about the nature of Jesus’ ministry. Here are some things that would catch people’s attention when they heard that:
- Capernaum was in the region of Galilee, which was about as far from Jerusalem as you could get in Israel — way on the north end. Away from the political power, away from the religious center. It was largely ignored by the rulers and the priests. Like what we might refer to as an east-coast bias.
- Galilee was surrounded by Gentiles and pagans. Phoenicians on the west. Syrians on the northeast, Samaritans on the south, and the sea of Galilee on the southeast. No good God-fearing people anywhere nearby. Kind of irreligious.
- Unlike Jerusalem and other cities in Judea, Capernaum was a crossroads for major foreign trade. It had been invaded and conquered over and over. New people, new ideas, new ways of thinking, new cultures were constantly being introduced. Foreigners had flowed in and and sometimes even took over. If there was anything weird going on in Israel, it probably started somewhere in Galilee. So if recreational marijuana had become legalized, Capernaum probably would have been first.
- Galilee was Jewish, but it was a forced Judaism. It had been in all kinds of different Gentile hands for about 600 years, but in a previous war the Jews had revolted and all the residents had been circumcised at “gunpoint.” So their loyalty to the established religion in Jerusalem had always been questionable.
So think about that. To bring God’s vision, Jesus moved from his hometown, not to the religious center of Jerusalem that everyone knew, but to a place completely different and largely ignored by the religious people. A place surrounded by people who didn’t know God, a place whose culture had changed significantly over the generations, and a place of largely independent people.
Does that sound familiar? Jesus didn’t move to the Vatican, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, or ELCA headquarters in Chicago. He moved to Denver! God’s vision he was bringing wasn’t like anything the religious people knew. He chose not to make this vision fit where the Jews used to be. He chose to make it fit where non-religious people lived at the time.
This is my biggest problem with Lutheranism in the United States: we have a history of making our faith fit where we used to be instead of where we live at the time. We’re always looking back to Jerusalem instead of revealing God’s vision right here and right now. As Lutherans, we’ve always preferred Jerusalem to Capernaum.
Lutheran in the U.S. were European immigrants who kept their homeland languages and customs (where they used to be) so were looked on with suspicion.
Lutheran missionaries from the U.S. taught their European-rooted values and doctrines (where they used to be), so it never took root in our neighboring countries.
Even now, the centers of Lutheranism in the U.S., 400 years later, are still largely where those European Lutherans settled — and Lutherans are still trying to duplicate the Midwest Lutheran culture (where they used to be). Garrison Keillor is entertainment, not the model. This isn’t Jerusalem. It’s not Minneapolis. It’s not Dallas (or wherever the heart of the so-called Bible belt is). This is Denver. This is Capernaum. Lutheranism had better look different here. Jesus is making clear that context means everything. Many of us remember Jerusalem, but we live in Capernaum.
The surrounding context here is moving further away from where many of us came from in our faith lives. This culture aroound us doesn’t automatically value what the church values. They question, they doubt, they are very slow to commit. For them, the way the church has been sharing Jesus is a negative thing, and something they simply have no use for. They are savvy, techy, impatient, self-proclaimed authorities on anything thanks to the internet. They balk at authority and hierarchy, despise rules for their own sake, and therefore make up their own. And any rules they come up with are different than the church rules in Jerusalem where most of us came from. They can smell inauthenticity a mile away, long to make a difference, but don’t see the church as a way to do it. They aren’t from Jerusalem. They are from Capernaum. And our message and ministry better fit there. Because as a church, we are here for their sake.
So as we continue to understand the changing culture and context in which we live, our very core Lutheran identity, including the Theology of the Cross, the Priesthood of All Believers, and the Paradox of Being Both Saint and Sinner will look different than it did even 5-10 years ago. The gospel and the Jesus we proclaim don’t change. But the way we proclaim this has, and it will.
That’s hard for those of us who expect the church to be understood in Jerusalem, where we used to be. But as Jesus makes clear as he makes his home in Capernaum, that’s where we, as church, need to be understood.