Sermon for Sunday 22 January 2023
Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Matthew 4.20
As Jesus called the first disciples, so he calls us. Jesus calls us; we did not choose him, he chose us. Jesus calls us, not just to sit at his feet and gawp at him, but for a particular task. John Henry Newman said: God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. We can be confident disciples. When Jesus calls those first disciples, he uses the metaphor of fishing; the proximity of the Kingdom of God is described in ways familiar to those fishermen. Their little finite world, the shores of Galilee, fits perfectly into the larger, infinite space of the Kingdom of God, and it will be the same for you and for me. Our finite lives, lived day by day, are embraced by the infinite mercy of God.
What can possibly go wrong? Bishop Erik Varden, former Abbot of Mount St Bernard, identifies our problem. We have pledged to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, to climb the Lord’s holy mountain. We sign up for a Mount Everest expedition, but then go on a casual picnic of our own choosing. I’m all for a well-furnished picnic, but Christianity is no picnic. It is the discovery of the Kingdom of God. Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. The Kingdom of God will become visible to us, known to us, we shall discover, in the context of a relationship, and a relationship only. We don’t become Christian disciples by learning stuff. We ought to know that really, but it’s hard to break the exam passing habit. We don’t become Christian disciples by agreeing solemnly to lots of ideas and doctrines. There’s time for that later, if we’re interested. Think of a relationship, any relationship. We don’t need to know everything about the other person when a friendship begins. It’s probably better not. But what does grow naturally is trust. “In simple trust like those who heard, Beside the Syrian sea.” The transcendent beauty of the scene on the shore of the Sea of Galilee is in the trust which the disciples give to Jesus, because they can see how totally Jesus trusts his God.
Where are we in that story, really? Sometimes we’re those left mending the nets. We prefer to go for something attainable like personal wholeness and wellbeing rather than follow Jesus. We would rather minimise the relationship, than risk being a failure. Hence the fear, never quite getting our act together.
I have just spent a few weeks in North East India, the Christian state of Mizoram, where very few tourists go. I was there for a wedding, and in the course of the celebrations I was warmly embraced by the Presbyterian Church of India. This church is peculiar to the tribal states of the North East, who were converted to Christianity in the late nineteenth century by Welsh missionaries. Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer, Cwm Rhonda, still floats across the valleys of the country known in imperial times as the Lushai Hills. I learnt a lot. This is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, so I’ll tell you just one thing I learnt on my visit. Sunday School isn’t just for children. Not for them a few children in the parish room with their colouring books. The entire local church membership, say 1500, is divided into classes which meet before the main service for biblical instruction. And yes, there is an attendance register. During the week, each household holds Evening Devotions. They’re on the road to Zion, the path to glory, the way of holiness, a journey to the Promised Land, not an indulgent personal wholeness picnic of their own choosing. Guide me, O thou Great Redeemer. The nearest I got to a picnic was the feast for 800 guests following the wedding, and similar feasts for Christmas and New Year, all in the local parish which was called Bethlehem. In Mizoram they have what our communion hymn [Dear Lord and Father of Mankind] calls “ordered lives”. Their Christian discipleship is a decision to be transformed by love, whatever happens in life. Now we might live on a knife edge all our lives, between yes and no, light and dark, between belief and unbelief. We shall need help on our journey. A good way to start is with a daily, simple, humble meditation on a chapter of God’s Word in the Bible, seeking not information about God, but transformation by God. As Newman said, Heart speaks unto heart. God speaks to us. Transformed people transform others. So here’s a simple New Year Resolution for all of us: less housework, more homework, making time for God. What Jesus transformed in those fishermen in the Gospel was their idea of God. God is found in the ordinary, now, in human beings by the Sea of Galilee. God is incarnate in every moment. Discipleship is a given in our religious life; it is the reality to which we awake; it is a relationship which God offers us, “the gracious calling of the Lord”, and therefore the opportunity for each of us to respond in joy and thanksgiving.
What happens then? In our relationship with God, we stay very much the same. We’re neither different nor nicer people. But we see ourselves and others in a different light, as transformed by the love of Christ. Whatever our divisions may be, there at least, in the call of Christ, we can find unity, Christian unity. The best expression of Christian unity is the silence in which we leave our nets, all that binds us, all that ties us down, and follow him. We decide to be made whole by divine providence rather than go through life being fragmented by fate. There is no turning back; there is nothing to reconsider. We can duck and dive, and we probably shall, but it will always be there in our lives somewhere, the call to follow Jesus and live in the Kingdom of God. “Let us like them, without a word, Rise up and follow thee.”
Fr. Julian Browning