Journey w/ Jesus (Mark) - Calling of Levi
Mark 2:13-17, Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 111
We are in the third week of a five-week sermon series called Journey with Jesus. We are following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. So far we have seen that Jesus has the power to heal and Jesus has the power to forgive sins. Forgiveness of sins breaks down barriers. Forgiveness of sins through Jesus breaks down the barrier between us and God. It also breaks down the barriers that we build between each other. We build barriers between ourselves and people who we think are sinners; or sometimes we think we are a worse sinner than everyone else and we build a barrier between ourselves and others in that case as well. Forgiveness of sins through Christ breaks down all of these barriers. And in fact, what we will learn today, is that as followers of Christ we are even called to intentionally cross the barriers that separate us from others. We are going to go through our Mark passage this morning. Then we will see how two Catholic priests lived out Jesus’ message: Saint Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary who lived around the time of the Reformation, and Father Emmett Johns, who founded Dans la Rue here in Montreal, who recently passed away.
Let’s start in Mark 2:14: “As [Jesus] was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” Just like the other disciples who Jesus called in chapter 1, Levi leaves his work and follows Jesus immediately. The calling of Levi is significant in the context of establishing that Jesus forgives sins. Notice that the calling of the fishermen happens earlier, before Jesus’ public declaration that he has the power to forgive sins, the power to break down the barrier between God and humans. The calling of Levi happens after this. The placement in the narrative is significant.
(All information on tax collectors taken from Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” NIB, vol. VIII, pg. 552 (Abingdon Press, 1994)).
Tax collectors were considered to be dishonest cheaters. Their job was to collect taxes, but they were allowed to charge whatever amount they wanted as long as they sent the required amount to the authorities. Often, tax collectors would charge more than the required taxes and keep the extra to enrich themselves. Last week we saw that Jesus forgave the sins of a paralyzed man, but this week, Jesus takes the concept of breaking down barriers through forgiveness of sins even farther: he calls an untrustworthy, tax-collector, sinner to be one of his disciples. What this is saying is that forgiveness of sins through Jesus not only breaks down barriers between God and humans and barriers between people, it also has the power to transform lives. And, as we will see next, not only does Jesus invite Levi to follow him, and bring Levi into his inner circle, but the relationship is genuinely reciprocal: Jesus goes into Levi’s inner circle, too.
Let’s see what I mean, starting in Mark 2:15: “And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples-- for there were many who followed him.” The words translated here as “sat at dinner” and also “sitting” also mean to recline. They communicate the dining of the inner circle of the host’s guests. The way that these dinner parties worked was that an inner circle would recline together and eat the more choice food and wine than the other guests (Perkins, pg. 552). Not only did Jesus invite Levi into his inner circle of disciples, but Jesus and his disciples went into Levi’s inner circle, and dined with them. Even though it is highly likely that the expensive food and wine was bought and paid for through Levi’s inflation of the tax rates, Jesus did not decline the invitation to dine with Levi on principle. He went to dinner. He went in genuine relationship and through the genuine relationship with Jesus, Levi’s life was transformed.
Now, as we should expect, this radical open concept of forgiveness of sins through Jesus, breaking down barriers and transforming lives, bothered the religious leaders. We should understand that the religious leaders loved God. They wanted to do what was right and so they had constructed rules to follow in order to help them always do what was right. To this day they still have these rule books that supplement the law. They just had no framework to understand the gracious compassion of God that was revealed in Jesus, God made flesh. So, they butted heads with Jesus.
Let’s see what happened in Mark 2:16-17: “When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’” When Jesus responded to the scribes he used a very well-known proverb at the time to explain what he was doing. He took something from the wider culture that everybody knew: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” He took that common knowledge and used it to explain the new thing that God was doing: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Perkins 551-2). Today we would call that being missional. Jesus took something from the local culture and used that to explain the Gospel in a way that people would understand.
What we learn from Jesus’ response to the scribes is that the very heart of God is compassion for the lost. That when God became flesh, God did not go and hang out at the temple with the religious leaders. The religious leaders were already trying to follow God. Jesus sought the people who were lost. When Jesus said that he has not come to call the righteous but sinners, he meant that he was seeking the people who have left God behind. Levi was not with the crowds following Jesus. He was at his tax booth, continuing to engage in fraud, in cheating the people. Jesus noticed him, sought him out, and said, “Follow me.” The heart of God is to seek those who have rejected God. Jesus does this. And He doesn’t do it by telling Levi everything he is doing wrong. He does this through genuine reciprocal relationship. Through genuine reciprocal relationship, the lost receive new life in Christ, they turn toward Jesus and start following God themselves.
Last week we saw that the healing power of Jesus was taken to a whole new level because he could also forgive sins. This week we see that forgiveness of sins is taken to a whole new level. Jesus doesn’t just forgive the sins of people who seek him. He also seeks people who aren’t interested and offers them forgiveness of sins, genuine relationship, and a transformed life. He goes to them and explains the message in a way they can understand. As followers of Christ we are called to do the same thing. I want to look at two Catholic priests who lived this calling: Saint Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary who lived around the time of the Reformation, and Father Emmett Johns, who founded Dans la Rue here in Montreal, who recently passed away.
The reason why I want to tell you about Francis Xavier is because there is a very famous relic of his coming to Montreal next Sunday. Relics are a tradition in the Catholic church. They are bits of clothing or body parts of saints. Xavier’s left forearm is coming to Montreal. ... Relics are not a part of Presbyterian tradition. We do not have a tradition of encountering God through relics; the Catholic church does. But, regardless of what you think of relics, Francis Xavier is worth knowing about.
(All information on Francis Xavier is taken from Irvin, Dale T., and Scott W. Sunquist. History of the World Christian Movement, Volume II: Modern Christianity from 1454-1800. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, 2012 (pages 61-5).
Xavier was a Catholic Jesuit missionary in the 1500’s. The Jesuit order began during the Protestant Reformation. It was, and still is, a Catholic group that refocused on Jesus and the Scriptures. (The current Pope is a Jesuit.) Xavier was a Spaniard who traveled with Portuguese sailors to a city called Goa India in 1542 (for you church history buffs, this was around the time that Calvin’s Institutes were translated into French). The Portuguese had already been in Goa for 44 years.
Xavier discovered that many people had become Christians under Portuguese rule, but did not understand what Christianity was at all. He tried something new. He worked with three local men “to translate a basic doctrinal statement into the local language,” which was Tamil, and also to translate a sermon into Tamil (Sunquist, pg. 62). People responded in droves. According to Scott Sunquist, “he preached so much and baptized so much that he complained that he was losing his voice and his arms were aching” (Sunquist, pg. 62). Xavier put the Gospel into the language of the people so that they could understand it and he attracted crowds.
This experience shaped Xavier’s missionary strategy for the rest of his life. Xavier is known for learning the local culture and language in order to present the Good News about Jesus in a way that people could understand. Today we would say that he was missional. In India he focused on sharing the Gospel with low-caste people, neglected children, the sick, the imprisoned, but later in life he traveled to Japan to share the Gospel and had to change his strategy.
He realized that in Japan, he needed to approach the local ruler in order to share the Gospel with the people. The local Japanese rulers would never have accepted him if he wore clothing befitting his “apostolic poverty,” so in Japan he wore silks and brought gifts with him (Sunquist pg. 64). Just like Jesus sought Levi and then dined with him, so Xavier sought Japanese rulers and adapted himself to fit in so that he could share the Gospel with them. He also learned the language and preached in Japanese.
Xavier’s missionary work was very successful because of his willingness to adapt to the local culture and languages of the countries he was sent to. He also trained local leaders which enabled the Christian communities he started to thrive after he left. Another reason why he was successful is that he was a man of integrity. The Portuguese sailors he traveled with were greedy and violent. If he had remained associated with them, the Good News about Jesus would have been tainted. People would not have believed the message because the actions of his companions would not have reflected Xavier’s words. While Xavier was in India, he wrote letters to the king of Portugal accusing him of greed and negligence. When he went to Japan he did not sail with the Portuguese sailors. Had he gone with them, the Japanese would never have accepted the Gospel: they would not have believed someone associated with the greed of the Portuguese Christian merchants which contradicted the message of the Gospel.
Saint Francis Xavier embodied Jesus’ compassion. He sought people who did not know God and found a way to communicate the Gospel message so that they could understand. He was radical at that time in history because of his ability to see that Christianity was not tied to culture. It was Good News outside of culture and thus could be communicated using the uniqueness of any culture. Just as Jesus associated with the lowest in society and the greatest, Xavier did the same.
And finally, Father Emmett Johns, also known as Pops. (I can tell you some things about Pops, but many people at the 10:00 service knew him personally and can tell you more.) Father Johns started an organization in Montreal called Dans la Rue. His goal was to help homeless and marginalized youth. He drove around in a motorhome, seeking homeless youth in order to give them a hotdog, a coffee, help and hope. He never gave up on people, even when they made the same mistakes over and over again. According to the Dans la Rue’s facebook page, “[Pops’] enduring legacy is one of acceptance without judgement” (quoted in the Montreal Gazette, January 15, 2018, “‘Pops’ dedicated his life to helping homeless youth”, pg. A1) He destigmatized the issue of youth homelessness during a time when no one would talk about it. He saved hundreds, if not thousands of lives. Our very own Jim Murray used to be chairman of the board at Dans la Rue. He could tell you more, I’m sure.
You know what I noticed this week? Father Johns’ attracted a crowd. He was dedicated to following Jesus in seeking those who were lost. He brought transformational forgiveness of sins to people who had turned their back on God. People noticed. In Quebec, the culture is so anti-religion, so anti-church. The government wants to start taxing churches… And yet city and provincial government leaders have come out to remember Father Johns. The Montreal City Hall flag was at half-mast when he died. There was an article in the Gazette about Father Johns almost everyday this week. I’m sure when he started out driving around in that motorhome with hotdogs that he wasn’t trying to attract a crowd. He was just trying to bring the Gospel and a chance at new life to people who no one wanted to talk about. I’m sure he expected it to be thankless work. And yet, now, he has left a legacy of genuine love in his wake and a powerful witness to the transforming, non-judgemental love that we receive through Jesus Christ.
You know, Francis Xavier and Father Johns never expected to do such amazing things. They simply did their best to be faithful and to love the people who God had called them to serve. They were truly missional. They followed Jesus’ example, building genuine, reciprocal relationships with those who were lost. We can do the same, in our small ways. Who has God placed in our lives? Where are we called to live? To work? To play? How can we be missional in our own context, in our own culture? This is the task before us. The best way is to start small, where we already are, with things we already know how to do. We, too, can be missional, sharing the Gospel with the people around us in a way that they can understand. Spreading salt and light wherever we go. Amen.