Sermon for Epiphany 3 – Year A
Sunday January 26th, 2014
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake,
and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ Mark 8:35
One of my, as yet unrealised, dreams is to teach in a Seminary, a place where men and women are trained for ordained ministry in the Church. Of course dreams are deceptive – they promise much and even should they deliver, the reality never matches the dream. In my imagination I see a community of committed prayer, 100% harmony, and total dedication to the cause of the church. I have in mind of course the Seminary I attended in England – and those of my former tutors who might be reading this may well chuckle at my rose tinted perspective. Yes it was a Good time, a good place to be, but Not a place of total harmony!!
I was alerted to this almost violently one morning as I sat with the rest of my class awaiting our tutor. One of if not the best preacher it was ever my privilege to be challenged by, a man of literally passionate faith, tried in the field of mission, with a quiet but steely desire in all things to follow Jesus Christ, he was, probably unbeknownst to him one of the greatest influences on my life and ministry. In dark and difficult times his memory still inspires Faith, and his occasional messages of prayerful support do more than he can know. He was, unusually late – I think the staff had been in a meeting and obviously it had not been easy. He stormed in – quite clearly far from happy – threw his folder down on the desk and asked rhetorically of us all ‘What is this ‘Spirituality’?? Whatever happened to discipleship?!!’ The question was left to hang – we didn’t explore this, it clearly wasn’t the time, but it has stuck with me these past 17 years.
Another small incident also stuck with me. Sarah and I for many years hosted a church small group. One year our Vicar asked me to write a course on discipleship for all the small groups to follow through. Most everyone in the church belonged to such a group. So I worked hard to come up with a ten week course exploring discipleship – to be met by the oddest comment at our first meeting. Cath, a wonderful Christian lady, who’d been brought up in a rigourous tradition, who knew her bible better than anyone else in the church probably, said ‘Oh I don’t think we should be studying this. We’re not all called to be disciples, you know.’
One has to ask, ‘Why the avoidance of Discipleship?’ Why do we increasingly spend far more of our time and energy studying ‘spirituality’? Why do some think ‘discipleship’ only for the few? Why, when the last words of Jesus to his followers is to make Disciples, is this at best reduced largely to ‘making converts’ – which is not the same thing at all. Perhaps our Gospel reading today confronts us with the answer. Discipleship costs us everything.
John the Baptist has heralded Jesus as the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with Fire. Jesus has been baptised at the Jordan – a baptism which as I have said is our baptism too. He has been declared to be the Beloved of God, and we in Him are also so declared. But then, before any rose tinted dreams are allowed to intrude, he is led, or indeed driven up into the wilderness to be tried, as gold in the furnace – to have Everything called into question in that repeated phrase of the devil ‘If you are the Son of God . . .’
Which is where we come in today. Jesus returns from the wilderness – Luke tells us he is ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ – he hears that John has been arrested (already we see that the gospel is hugely costly) – and he withdraws to Galilee – the place of almost all of his preaching and enters into ministry.
And What an Entry!! Matthew moulds the words of the great prophet Isaiah to declare that God is powerfully at work “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John, the Herald of the gospel, has proclaimed this same message – but now in Jesus, the Good News has taken on flesh and Nothing can be the same. Now Everything is up for grabs – there is No allegiance which can stand up to this gospel proclamation. Jesus walks onto the stage and all of a sudden, all that was fixed, all that was certain is thrown up into the air. Life is Revealed to us – and the call comes to abandon all else.
Imagine if you will, the scene. There on the shores of Galilee, the people had been fishing since time immemorial. From father to son the business had continued, generation to generation – one generation learning from those that went before. It was all they knew, it was their livelihood in the strongest terms it was their security. Jesus walks into the middle of it and they abandon it all.
Like the Servant of the Lord that he is, Jesus’ face set like flint. There is no gentle dialogue – he strides into the midst of the fishermen by the sea and seeing Peter and Andrew casting their nets, he walks up to them and Commands them – it is an order – Follow me! And I will make you fish for men. They abandon their nets – the precious tools of their trade which they had tended, fixed, looked after – the source of what meagre income they could make – just dropped – scattered on the shore.
Jesus casts around, the net of his eye scans the crowd. He breaks in through to another boat – perhaps a larger concern ‘Zebedee and Sons’ – You, James, John!! Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
He became their life.
Why Spirituality – why not discipleship? Why do some think we are not all called to discipleship? To Obey his call to follow Him? Because being a disciple of Jesus will cost us everything we have. We give up our life and follow him. I can think of more than one person of my acquaintance who has seen this quite clearly – who has seen that it is all or nothing – who has found clear descriptions of the life of Discipleship to be utterly terrifying. And Jesus doesn’t as it were ‘sweeten the pill’.
A little later on in the journey, Peter will declare, Lord we have left everything to follow you – homes, husbands wives, parents, – and Jesus doesn’t suddenly stop and say ‘hmmmm . . . I think I may have overdone this . . .’ He doesn’t suddenly turn round and say ‘Hey I didn’t mean you to take this stuff literally!! It’s all metaphorical!!’ Put another way, Jesus doesn’t say – ‘you don’t need to follow me, just sign up to read a few books on Spirituality and do some daily spiritual exercises . . .’ The first disciples set the pattern for those who will follow. They find their Life in him alone . . .
SO we can of course think of a thousand reasons why we should ignore the call of Jesus – Family and work commitments being right there at the front of the queue – and indeed the world is full of those who claim to follow Jesus and at the same time have devised clever schemes and rationales for avoiding following Jesus disguised as obedience to His call. Ways of making it Jesus AND . . . But it cannot be thus. His call is Everything. Something we have lost sight of. But this was not always so.
For the first three hundred or so years of the life of the church – followers of Jesus were terribly persecuted, not least because their way of life together was seen to be so destructive of all that the world held dear. The early Christian apologists found it an almost full time task to rebut suggestions that their way of life in following Christ was not sending the world ‘to hell in a basket’, but actually was the way God was using to save the world from itself. St Augustine’s City of God is in part a significant part of that rebuttal.
But nowadays who would accuse Christians of this? Who would look at Christians now and see anything but a reflection of their own lives? Where is the critique of family or work or indeed a way of living together that those first disciples obedience created?
No-one now can accuse Christians of the foolishness of leaving everything to follow Jesus, as following Jesus has been reduced to some ‘inner journey’, in opposition to simple obedience to his command.
For Christian faith became the religion of Empire – and whenever the Gospel is accommodated to the World it is no longer the Gospel. The Roman Empire and every power since required stability if its goals were to be met. ‘Family values’ were and are often trotted out in defence of the status quo. As we are all taught to fear that God ‘Economy’ – then there are those who will write and speak at length of the value of ‘Work’. But all such speech and writing, almost entirely coming from those with most invested in the world as it is – the rich and intelligent and powerful – can only do its work by avoiding the words of Jesus; by making a special case of those first disciples; by making out that only a few are called to this path; by turning concrete obedience to Jesus into an inward journey or ‘spirituality’.; By avoiding the Word made flesh, and the Cross which is obedience to his Command. We have all largely grown up in a church which is much more to do with the preservation of the things we have been taught to hold dear, rather than a church committed to taking Jesus at his word. And so much of so called spiritual writing takes this as its starting point. God as chaplain to the world and the hope of heaven at the end, as opposed to God as Saviour of the World in Jesus Christ, calling men and women to follow him, that Light might shine in the darkness. This is very clear when we consider Jesus definitions of family and work.
For the disciple of Jesus, ‘family’ is the community of brothers and sisters who have been called by Him. Work is what we do to put bread on the table – to support the community in its desire to follow Jesus. Of course for those with nothing, then family is whoever you find yourself with and work is what you do to feed. The poor, those who are blessed by Jesus have neither the time nor often the deceitful sophistication, or ‘eloquent wisdom’ to impute more meaning to them than Jesus did . . .
A couple of brief reflections to conclude. This call of Jesus will persist until he returns – the Risen Christ still calls men and women to follow him, and as a model of Church largely founded on accommodation of the Rich and powerful with Empire turns to dust, his voice is once more heard. The call to follow – the call to the church to once more become what it truly is, a community of disciples of Jesus, who live for him and through him alone.
Yes, Seminary wasn’t perfect – the church never has been – but there was amongst us a very real sense that we knew what we were about. In the early days of the current obsession with ‘Spirituality’, my tutor’s anger rang a lot of bells. We were part of a community called to follow Jesus in costly discipleship, recognising that to those who clung to the things of this world the way of the Cross was foolishness, that Jesus meant what he said – that it wasn’t clever metaphors for ‘the spiritual journey’
And secondly, I don’t know if you remember your first Bible? When I was very young I remember reading my fathers old ‘National Service Bible’ – lacking a sense of irony it was stamped with the stamp of Empire – the Insignia of the Royal Air Force. But the first Bible that was given to me was by my godparents at my confirmation. It was unusual in that it was a ‘Red Letter Bible’. That is, all the words of Jesus were in red.
As the church in the West stumbles out of the ashes of Christendom, one of the bright lights are those Christians who have once more heard the call to discipleship, who sometimes are called Red Letter Christians. In other words the focus of their life together is the words of Jesus, as opposed to those who wish to maintain the Status Quo, who can only do so by ignoring Jesus and his words.
As we seek a way forward together as the community of those called by Jesus to follow him in this place, to rediscover what it means to be a community of Disciples, the words of Jesus seem as good a place as any to start. After all, Simon Peter, having left his work, and his family behind discovered, ‘To whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of God’ Jesus Was the Life of those first disciples – and He desires to be Our life also.
Let us together seek to Respond to his Word to us ‘Follow me!’