Sermon for Sermon High Mass Epiphany 3
When Matthew writes of the call of the first disciples, there is no suggestion of any hesitation on the part of the four fishermen. Matthew does not tell us why they follow Jesus; nor do they ask for his credentials. The story is simple: Jesus calls them and they follow him. There is no hint about where they are going; there is no detail about what following Jesus will involve. Nothing is promised; nothing is signed. Matthew is clearly not interested in these questions; he is more concerned to show that the disciples are called by Jesus and how their discipleship requires the leaving of everything that pre-occupied them until that moment.
Probably things did not happen quite as abruptly as that. One imagines that the disciples didn’t leave the security of their homes and jobs on the spur of the moment to follow a stranger they had never seen before. As Luke and John tell the story, there is a lapse of time during which the disciples find out about Jesus before they are called. Matthew doesn’t bother telling us about that because he wants to focus on something that is clearly more important to him: the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, the compelling urgency and excitement of it all (including the call of Peter, picking up, for us, from John’s Gospel last week).
With John the Baptist now in prison, the great voice of wilderness is silenced. It is time for Jesus to begin: it is time for the Word himself to articulate the mind of the Father on the breath of the Spirit. Matthew proclaims that Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah, one of our favourite Christmas prophecies:
the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light; on those who dwelt in darkness and the shadow of death, a light has dawned.
Jesus, Matthew says, is the great light that has dawned; he is the one who begins his mission in ‘Galilee of the gentiles’, uncouth northerners as far as the Jerusalem metropolitan bubble is concerned. His is a mission to all peoples, so it has to start somewhere else than in Jerusalem.
The swift calling of Peter and Andrew reinforces the focus on Jesus: the authority of his word and the power of his healing. Discipleship is centred on Jesus: because of who he is, others will change. Without the person of Jesus the call is meaningless: you have to be following someone to be a disciple.
And Paul insists, in today’s second reading, on Jesus as the one focus of Christian discipleship. Jesus is the great light and no one, however exalted, can take his place. Paul confronts cliques and dissension in the Christian community at Corinth because they are making lesser lights out to be the great light. That church is divided into factions, not over doctrines but, as is more often the case, over personalities. Some are following Apollos, an eloquent and enthusiastic teacher who attracts the well-educated to Christianity. Some, mainly Jewish Christians, rally to the name of Peter. Some stay loyal to the memory of Paul, preferring his passion and bluntness.
Paul, aware of this, recalls the Corinthian congregation to an overriding unity under Christ: to follow anyone else is not to be a Christian. All Christians are baptized in his name, thereafter belonging to him. Paul wants the community at Corinth to be a Christian community, not a collection of factions, not slaves to personality cults. As Paul says later in this letter, there is only one foundation of the Christian community:
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.
1 Cor. 3.11
That image of the building also reminds us that no particular building, form of worship or group of friends ultimately defines the Church.
Paul ‘s Gospel proclaims that we are to understand God’s presence in the world (and the meaning of scripture) through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Religious leadership and all forms of church structure exist only to lead others to Christ.
As Matthew shows us the urgency of the call to the first disciples, and Paul wrestles with the distractions which bickering church members place in the way of that urgency, a single important question arises.
When asked ‘who are you for?’ Paul reminds us that the Christian must answer ‘I am for Christ’. Preachers often bewail the distractions of materialism or media which seduce people from faith, but attachment to religious leaders and religious things – styles, environments and cliques – is far more likely to get in the way. We are called only to follow Christ, and him crucified.
For the last couple of weeks I have been talking about what is distinctive about what we do here and why it is important to make that offering coherent and confident. Today’s gospel is a reminder about why that matters. It matters because we need to make a confident and coherent offering of worship, not as an end in itself but precisely to show our commitment to Christ, incarnate, crucified, risen and truly present for us in the Blessed Sacrament.
That last point is as important as the others. The sacramental presence of Christ, freely offered, is crucial to our presentation of the Gospel and the welcome it extends.
I’ve been struck recently by a repeated question from a series of Roman Catholic visitors to weekday Masses here Anglicans like us tend to worry about whether our orders are valid. But these Roman Catholics do not ask me ‘are you a validly ordained priest?’; their question is always ‘do you believe in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament?’ When I answer ‘Yes’, most of them want to receive communion here, even if they know they shouldn’t according to the Canon Law of their church. Just like those first disciples described by Matthew, they aren’t looking for credentials, a legal guarantee; they are looking for Jesus.
There is no other point in coming here.