I believe I mentioned some time ago that when my Grandma Greenlee died, my Mom gave me Grandma’s recipe box and I decided to put all the recipes in a cookbook for my family. Each recipe brought back so many memories of the times when the dish had been served, the people I’d enjoyed it with, and the dear friends who’d shared their recipes with Grandma. They offered a little peek into the culture of the times; there’s a lot of Jello in those recipes! And, of course, they are wonderful reminders of Grandma herself and how she expressed her love for us by giving us delicious food to eat. I realized that those recipes were too precious to keep for myself. So, I created the cookbook.
It wasn’t easy, though. Some of the recipes had been cut neatly from the newspaper or magazines, but most were hand-written on note cards or hurriedly jotted down on the backs of bridge tallies or scraps of envelopes. Sometimes a key ingredient was left off the ingredient list, only to appear at a crucial moment later on. Some ingredients that were listed never showed up again. Some recipes were clearly just memory-joggers for Grandma and had barely any instructions at all. There’s one recipe that, to this day, I’m not sure how it’s supposed to end up.
I thought about leaving out the more confusing recipes but decided against it. Each one had been important to Grandma, so I included them all, even when I wasn’t sure what she intended or why she’d kept it.
But, as I worked my way through the box, I realized that something important was missing: the recipes for all our family’s favorites, like Grandma’s pecan rolls, and a dumpling dish called kinedli, and especially Grandma Greenlee’s spaghetti. So, I wrote to my family and, without telling them why I wanted to know, I asked them to send me their recipes for these Grandma Greenlee favorites. The results were surprising, to say the least. Not one of us makes these recipes the same way, including Grandma Greenlee’s spaghetti which, I know for certain, had exactly three ingredients: spaghetti, tomato juice, and shredded cheese.
My cousin Rachel adds an onion to hers. Uncle Bill uses garlic salt and mushrooms. My brother Craig’s family makes it with a combination of Swiss and American cheese, rather than the Colby I remember or the cheddar/longhorn combination my brother Doug uses. I clearly remember going from store to store with Grandma to find her preferred brand of tomato juice, but only Doug specifies Campbells (and I’m not sure that’s right). Peyton makes single servings with angel hair rather than regular spaghetti, and she cooks it on the stovetop rather than in the oven, because that’s how she watched me make it for a quick lunch.
Not only were the recipes themselves different, but the writing styles of the contributors were different. Most are straightforward recipes, but Doug’s version reads like a story; you feel like you’re next to him as he cooks, and you can practically see, smell, and taste it right along with him.
One grandma, one dish, and as many ways to make it as she had children and grandchildren. Which recipe is the right one? Who got it wrong? Which one is exactly the way Grandma made it? We’ll never know.
But while we don’t know the facts of how to duplicate that recipe, we do know the truth that it embodies: that Grandma loved us. That she nourished our bodies and that, at her table, the bonds of our family were strengthened. We know that, as my brother David reminded me, the details of the recipe itself aren’t the tradition; it’s the fact that we all continue to make some version of it and are passing it down to our children, along with stories of Grandma so that they will know who she was. We will never know which version of the recipe is factually accurate, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is the truth that dish represents and the role it plays in our lives today.
You may be wondering, “What on earth does Grandma Greenlee’s spaghetti have in common with the story of Jesus choosing his first disciples?” What they have in common is that, like the recipe for Grandma Greenlee’s spaghetti, we have multiple versions of this event—four of them, in fact. And, while they differ in the details, they are all true. They all teach timeless truths about Jesus and about what it means to be his disciple.
Last week, we heard John’s account of this event. He told of how John the Baptizer called te attention of his own disciple’s to Jesus in the village of Bethany. We heard how Andrew and an unnamed man were the first to tag along after Jesus. Jesus doesn’t tell them to follow him, but he invites them to come and see where he’s staying. They do, and they come to understand for themselves that Jesus is the Messiah. With this insight, Andrew went and shared the news with his brother Peter, who then came to Jesus.
In John’s account, Jesus doesn’t say the words “follow me” until he goes to Galilee later on and finds Philip, who then finds Nathanael. James and John don’t show up by name in John’s Gospel at all. We don’t even hear about them until the 21st chapter, where they’re listed simply as “the sons of Zebedee.”
If you look at the accounts of Mark and Luke, you’ll find two more versions. Matthew used Mark as the basis for his own Gospel, so they’re pretty similar. The two tell the story a little differently, and Matthew leaves out some details that Mark included, but they’re pretty close.
Take a look at Luke, though, and we get a third, entirely different story. Jesus had been a visitor in Peter’s house. He even healed Peter’s own mother-in-law along with many others who came to him there to be healed of their physical, mental, and spiritual illnesses. As Luke tells the story, at some point, Jesus got into a boat in the Sea of Galilee to preach to the crowd that had gathered—a boat that, as it turns out, belonged to Peter who had called it a day after a lousy night of fishing.
When Jesus finished preaching from his seat in Peter’s boat, he told Peter to try again and told him where and how to do it. They end up with an enormous catch. It’s then that Peter realizes who Jesus really is. He falls to his knees and confesses that he is too sinful to be in Jesus’ presence. Jesus reassures him and tells Peter that he will now be catching people rather than fish, without any command or invitation to follow him. Luke doesn’t tell us whether Peter’s partners, James and John, heard this conversation, but the three of them leave their nets and follow Jesus. There’s no mention of their dad Zebedee, and Andrew doesn’t show up until the next chapter.
One Jesus, one event, four gospel writers with four different versions of who the first disciples were and how they came to be followers of Jesus. Which story is the correct one? Who got it right, and who got it wrong? Which one tells exactly the way it happened?
None of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, those who had first-hand knowledge spread out and began telling the good news of Jesus Christ as they understood it, telling the stories that were most memorable to them, as they remembered them.
They formed communities of Christians in different places, and each community had its own needs and concerns and frame of reference—rich and poor, urban and rural, Jew and Gentile. Their leaders related stories about the historical events of Jesus’ life in ways that would best communicate to their own communities who Jesus was so that they could live faithful lives as his followers.
Later generations of these communities wrote down the gospel as they had learned it—the Gospel according to Matthew, the Gospel according to Mark, and the Gospel according to John. We believe that Luke wrote his own, but even he was recording what he had learned from others and, as he puts it, “after investigating everything very carefully.” The gospel writers sometimes included stories that only their own communities had preserved; sometimes they borrowed from the work of others.
The gospel writers, like other writers of their time, didn’t have the same concern for historical accuracy as we do. There were no fact-checkers, and there didn’t need to be. The gospel writers were writing to teach something important about Jesus, not making documentaries. And, they wrote for their communities, not for us sitting here two thousand years later. So, what we end up with is four different accounts which are similar in many ways and very different in others.
So, does that mean that someone wasn’t telling the truth? Does that mean three of the stories are wrong? If you want to be a stickler for factual accuracy, you’d have to conclude that, because we have four different stories.
We may never know which story is factually true, any more than my family will ever know which version of Grandma Greenlee’s spaghetti is the actual, true recipe. But, rather than searching for facts in these stories, we need to be looking for the truths they convey about Jesus and the life of discipleship.
So, what does Matthew want us to learn from his account of Jesus calling the first disciples? First, Matthew wants to emphasize that Jesus is indeed the one whom God sent to fulfill the prophecies of a Savior. He was writing for a community of Christian Jews, whose faith in Jesus increasingly put them at odds with their synagogues. It was important to them as Jews to remain faithful to the God of Israel and to Scripture. So, Matthew affirms that their faith in Jesus is in keeping with their Jewish faith.
Matthew tells Jesus’ story in a way that reminds his readers of Moses. He frequently reviews the Old Testament prophecies and how Jesus’ life matches up. That’s why you’ll find lots of Old Testament quotes in Matthew’s Gospel, like his quotation from Isaiah at the beginning of our passage today, about how light had dawned on the people of Zebulun and Naphtali. The light that would illuminate the darkness in those places was prophesied in Scripture. Jesus’ adopted home in Capernaum was in that region, affirming the truth of the prophesy and its fulfillment in Jesus.
Why is this important for us? Because we, too, believe that the Old Testament stories and prophecies are our story. We see in them the promises God made, and we see in the story of Jesus that God kept those promises. The God who spoke through the prophets came to us in the human form of Jesus, and our faith in Jesus is inseparable from the God who acted in Israel’s past. There is consistency between what God spoke through the prophets and the Word God spoke in Jesus.
Matthew wants us to know what discipleship means. For Matthew, discipleship is obedience coupled with faith. You can’t have one without the other. Throughout his gospel, Matthew will flesh out this marriage of faith and obedience through his accounts of Jesus’ teachings. But here, Matthew shows us that Peter, Andrew, James, and John heard Jesus’ call and acted in obedience—immediately, without knowing where he was going, without any promises, leaving their old lives behind. Likewise, Jesus’ call to us demands that we act—that we show our faith in him by how we live.
Matthew wants us to know when and where and how Jesus chooses his disciples. Jesus doesn’t wait until the perfect moment, when a potential disciple’s heart is in the right place, when she’s in a good mood, or when his schedule is free. Jesus calls in the midst of everyday life—at work, among family and friends. His call comes as a disruption of ordinary life, because faithful obedience always requires leaving something behind, as the first disciples left behind fishing nets and family.
We can see from other teachings of Jesus that he doesn’t expect us to actually abandon our families or even our livelihoods. But we may need to re-order how we think about them in relationship to our faith in Jesus. We may need to leave behind comfortable habits, priorities, opinions and attitudes, or even relationships. We need to replace what we once relied on with a trust in him, above anything or anyone else. Because, Jesus calls us to follow him with the same unquestioning trust of the first disciples. As we grow in faith and become more Christ-like, we will find more and more to leave behind, and we’ll find the power to do the leaving.
Matthew wants us to know that it is Jesus alone who does the choosing and the calling. In Matthew’s story, there is no indication that the fishermen knew Jesus before that encounter on the shore. They don’t trail along behind him, seeking to become his students, as they did in John’s story. He hadn’t stayed in their home as he did in Luke’s. We can speculate that they might have heard of him and his preaching, but Matthew doesn’t tell us that. In Matthew, Jesus knew them before they knew him. He chose them before they chose him. He spoke to them before they ever said a single word to him. His word was enough to call them into a life-changing decision to follow.
Is Matthew’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples the right story? Is it the one accurate report of the actual event? We don’t know. We’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is the truth that Matthew shares in his story: that Jesus knows us, even before we know him. Jesus chooses us, before we choose him. Jesus speaks to us, and his word is enough for us to follow him into life-changing discipleship. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young