Friday, 24 January 2014

Jesus calls: Epiphany 3

Readings for this week are:
Isaiah 9:1-4
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

I have always loved this story of Jesus calling the first disciples. Jesus says ‘follow me’ and the fishermen – Simon & Andrew and James & John, leave everything and follow.
I loved singing the song in Sunday school:
When Jesus saw the fishermen 
in boats upon the sea,
he called to them, 'Come, leave your nets
and follow, follow me'.
They followed where he healed the sick
and gave the hungry bread,
and others joined them as they went,
wherever Jesus led.
And now his friends are everywhere;
the circle once so small
 extends around the whole wide world,
for Jesus calls us all.
In this great circle we belong,
wherever we may be,
if we will answer when he calls,
'Come, follow, follow me'.
And I used to wish that I was lucky enough to be like the fishermen and meet Jesus and hear his call. And I used to wish that I was brave enough to be like the fishermen and leave everything to follow Jesus.

But maybe it’s time to leave behind my childish picture that the disciples meet Jesus just this once, like a bolt out of the blue, and are immediately called and immediately follow. Because just last week the lectionary reading offered as a different story of how Andrew and Simon first met Jesus, according to John’s gospel. Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist, and it was John who said “Look, the lamb of God” – Andrew then follows Jesus and goes & fetches Simon to tell him “we have found the Messiah”.

So where does today’s story fit in with last week’s?

Matthew tells us that this call happened after John the Baptist has been arrested – so had Andrew given up his quest to find someone to follow. Left the Jordan river and returned to lake Galilee and to fishing? Was this the first time Jesus, Simon & Andrew had met – or ,perhaps, they had already spent some time with Jesus in Judea or in Galilee and this was a second, third, fourth, who knows how many times meeting.

It is a slightly less romantic idea, but I think it’s one that feels more true to life. The fishermen know Jesus a little, they’ve heard him preach, they know he is special. But now – on this day, it is time for them to choose – do they want to follow Jesus, begin a whole new life, and be his disciples in this movement to preach and show and live the kingdom of God?
Will they accept Jesus’ challenge – now you are fisher-people, but I will make you people-fishers. Will they follow Jesus and see their lives turned upside down?

Err.. yes. They will.
Perhaps the real question is – will we?
The call of Jesus isn’t a one off, blink and you missed it, never to be repeated call to follow. As we get to know Jesus, as we learn more about who he is and what he does, as we see what he means by God’s kingdom, so the challenge grows – will you be part of all this? Will you follow Jesus ? Will you become a people-fisher – someone who actively seeks others to come and walk with you in following Jesus? Will you join with the company of those who call themselves Christian, and do everything you can to bring the gift of God’s new life to the world around you?

The call comes many times, in many different ways – and just as the call is not a one-off, neither is our decision to follow. If we can say ‘yes’ to following Jesus today, we must also say yes tomorrow, and the day after, and every other day of our lives which follow. Following is a step-by step process – and we have to keep orienting our steps in the direction of Jesus and of God’s kingdom of love, joy, peace and justice.

It’s a long, patient work of obedience. And I wonder whether that is why Jesus called fishermen first.
I was talking to someone who goes fishing last week, and she reminded me that the first thing you need if you’re going fishing is patience. You never know when the bite will come. Another friends commented ‘of course fishing with a net is not much different – I once went fishing on a mackerel boat – and first of all nothing happened – for a long time – and then everything happened all at once’.

Fisherpeople know how to be patient – and people-fishers, following Jesus , have to be patient too. Nothing happens for a long time – and then everything happens all at once. Does that sound a bit like your life of being a follower of Jesus or your life as a church?

Patience, faithfulness, the refusal to give up when nothing seems to be happening – all these gifts make for good followers of Jesus, as we perform the core activity of being people-fishers, gathering people to hear and to live the gospel.

Why fishermen? Well, maybe they would be the ones who would find it easiest to understand that following Jesus wasn’t just a once-in-a lifetime choice like buying a farm, or setting up a business, but was a decision for each new day. They have jobs which are hard and unpredictable – even on the sea of Galilee fierce storms could rage. They had jobs which needed them to go out every day for a fresh catch to make enough to survive.
Going out fishing in their boats was a daily activity involving physical nerve and early mornings.

Jesus begins his ministry with a call to repent. This is not just a one-off decision, but a continuous call to turn in God’s direction – to walk along with Jesus & continue to make the right choices, day by day. Fishermen understand the daily rhythm of choice.

And these are not people of great subtlety. These are not men who fish for leisure, with carefully selected live bait or carefully crafted fly and beautifully flicked and placed line. They have nets, they trawl and drag their catch into the boat.
Maybe Jesus calls fishermen because he’s not looking for subtlety and cleverness. When they are told to become ‘fishers of people’ they won’t get side-tracked into asking what bait they can offer people to entice them to experience God’s love.
Fishermen understand that God’s net of love catches us all whether we want to be caught or not!

Perhaps you’re unconvinced by my suggestions as to why Jesus called these fishermen first: maybe you have your own suggestions, or maybe it’s just that these were the first people to really show an interest in what Jesus had to say.

But surely if we are to follow Jesus we would do well, like the fishermen, to understand the daily decision to walk in the way of Jesus, understand the patience and persistence that it takes, and understand the unstoppability of the gathering of all people into God’s love.
We know that following Jesus is not straight-forward and easy, and we need all the understanding we can muster to help us as we walk in Christ’s way.
So it’s good that we’re not in this alone – but are privileged to be part of a community of Christians, all trying to walk God’s way. It’s good that we’re part of God’s church. We heard today another part of the Letter of Paul to Corinthians. It got off to such a good start last week ‘to God’s church at Corinth, called to be saints’…and now just 10 verses in, Paul gets to the real purpose of writing, not to tell the Corinthians how well they’re doing as followers of Christ, but to tell them off for all the dispute and division between them.

Paul is realistic about how hard it can be to follow Jesus, and he gives us a great message to us, who have just celebrated the week of prayer for Christian Unity:

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”.

We need to share our different understandings of what it means to follow Christ, if we are to grow together in faithfulness and in understanding.
Perhaps another reason for Jesus calling the fishermen is that they understand team work – they know that they need one another.

May we learn, day by day, to follow Jesus more faithfully, in company with those fishermen and in friendship with all who call themselves Christian, to the greater glory of God. 

Friday, 17 January 2014

Epiphany 2 - 'Look, the Lamb of God'

 John 1:29-42; Isaiah 49: 1-7
What strikes me most, hearing or reading this passage from John’s gospel is all the language about looking, seeing, finding, things being revealed – I counted about 12 references just in that short passage.
John wants us to see what he’s talking about, so
what do you see, what do you notice, what are you looking for, what do you find.. in this story?

This is John’s account of the baptism of Jesus – and it’s not like the other 3 gospels: it’s very much a second-hand account from the mouth of John the Baptist, rather than a kind of direct description as you might have heard if you were in church last week.
Why does John’s gospel tell the story that way?
John is very concerned that we understand for ourselves who Jesus is: and in this passage John the Baptist wants the people who up until now have been his, John the Baptist’s, disciples, to see Jesus for themselves, to understand who he is, and then to follow him.

John the Baptist says ‘look – there is the Lamb of God – I know how special he is because an amazing thing happened when I baptized him – he is the one you should follow now, not me – look there he is – see for yourselves’.

So the 2 disciples of John the Baptist – and we know one of them is Andrew – start following Jesus. Actually it’s a bit more like what we might call stalking Jesus. Jesus notices them following him and asks ‘what are you looking for?’ and they, perhaps a bit startled, ask the seemingly rather irrelevant question ‘where are you staying?’. I wonder if this is just the first thing that enters their heads? They can hardly say ‘John the Baptist says you’re the Lamb of God – is that right?’. But however silly the question ‘where are you staying?’ Jesus invites them into a proper conversation with him when he says ‘come and see’. Instead of just stalking Jesus they walk and talk with him – and they spend the rest of the day with him.

That’s enough for Andrew – he immediately goes of to find his brother Simon and tells him ‘we have found the Messiah’ – and then Andrew takes Simon to see Jesus for himself.

At the heart of this passage is the truth that when people notice Jesus, they see God’s love in action: and when they see that happen, they want to share it with other people and invite them to come and see God’s love for themselves. Noticing, sharing, inviting…

We heard a similar thing happening in the passage from Isaiah. God says to his people through the prophet ‘listen to me – see how I have shown you God’s love and taught you God’s word. Now, having seen the light of God’s love you will become like light to others, so that all the world will know God’s way’.

Notice God’s message of love, share in the light it gives, invite others to walk in the light too.

This is always how the message of God’s gospel of love spreads – like wildfire, one to another – someone is touched by God’s love and sees the light and then becomes evidence of God’s love so that another sees the light and shares the love, and so it goes on: down the centuries, through the churches, generation to generation, person to person, until it got to you.

And now what?
Are we going to keep this gospel to ourselves? Are we simply going to shut our church doors and remind each other what a wonderful gospel of love we have heard and go home with a warm glow?
Or will we allow ourselves to be challenged by John’s gospel to notice what God is doing in our lives, to share that love with others, and then to invite them to come and see for themselves?
This is the week of prayer for Christian Unity – so the good news is that we are not alone in our challenge to share the faith – it is not all down to us – there is a whole worldwide church of Jesus Christ in all its myriad forms, noticing God’s love, sharing it with the world around & inviting others to see it for themselves.
But the bad news is that the challenge to us is not just to go and invite people to this church, but to work with our ecumenical partners around us for the good of the world around.
It is a challenge to see how God is acting in the lives of other churches, different from ours, to understand something of the diversity of ways in which God acts and relates, and to be part of something much wider than our own interests experiences, and history.
But as we face the challenge to notice God’s love in new ways, share in that love, and invite others to know that love for themselves, God gives us the gift of this bread and wine of communion.
Here it is in front of us – a sign of God’s love, inviting us to notice and celebrate; a meal to be shared with one another, and with others who are not here today; an invitation to the whole world to come and know God’s love for every single person that there is.
So may we be filled with God’s love, and inspired to share it and to invite others to be part of the amazing body of Christ that is the Christian church – in the power of the Spirit, in the name of Jesus, and to the glory of God the Father. Amen

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Baptism of Jesus

Matthew 3: 13-17; Acts 10: 34-43

I am preaching at the celebration of a church being a United Methodist /United Reformed Church for 30 years.

The Baptism of Jesus
Why did it happen?
It nearly didn’t. At first John the Baptist refuses to baptize Jesus – he says ‘I should be baptized by you !’ But Jesus talks him into is “it is proper in this way for us to fulfill all righteousness”
The Contemporary English Version translates this as ’For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do’– in other words, Jesus says to John that this baptism is the right thing to do.

But at the risk of sounding like a toddler, I still want to ask  - Why?.
Jesus says it is not just about him – it is about God the father. Seeking the right way, the right ministry, the right path – the path of submission to God the Father’s will & rule.
Jesus submits to baptism, and then God acts.. and speaks “this is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased”

Jesus is baptized because it is not just about him – it is about the whole world. How Jesus carries out his ministry will affect everyone who comes after. Jesus has come to walk God the Father’s way – to bring the love of the Father to the people of the earth.

This is why this baptism is followed immediately – in the gospels of Matthew, Mark & Luke -  by the temptation of Jesus. Chosen by God the Father, named as the chosen, setting out on ministry – immediately Jesus is faced by decisions about how to conduct that ministry, how to choose good over evil.

It is not just about him – it is about us. It is about you.
From the very early days of the church followers of Jesus has been baptized as a sign that we are one in Jesus – on the team, part of the movement of God’s kingdom.
We have surrounded the act of baptism with all sorts of theology – about God’s grace, when we baptize infants; about God’s church when we have made baptism the point of entry into the church; about God’s giving of himself in Jesus, when we have talked of descent into the waters of baptism as being a dying and rising again like Christ.

But perhaps the simplest understanding of baptism is that we do what Jesus did – we submit ourselves to the action of another person and we follow and copy our Lord as we are baptized as he was.

In one church I served as minister we had a church member who proudly brought us back a bottle of water from the Jordan when she had visited the Holy Land.
I used to love to add a splash of this water to the font for all our baptisms, and always pointed out to people that this water was from the same river in which Jesus was baptized.
I think it helped people to focus on a wider understanding of what we were doing at baptism: we are each baptized in the same water in which Jesus was baptized. But the scientist in me wants to point out that thanks to the water cycle of our planet it may be that the water coming out of our bath taps this morning was the actual water in which Jesus was baptized.
But whatever the water, there is something wonderful in thinking that we are truly following Jesus when we are baptized – it is a great gift to us that we can copy Jesus in this way.

But of course the whole of Jesus’ life, not just his baptism, is about being where we are, so that we might be what he is.
Baptism is just one sign of Jesus sharing our human life, setting an example for us, walking where we walk, so that we may give our lives to him in discipleship and in service.

Peter gives this whole picture in his sermon to Cornelius and the other non-Jews in the book of Acts.
The early followers of Jesus were Jewish, as Jesus was; men, as Jesus was; mostly workers with their hands, as Jesus was. The church had to work out whether those who were unlike Jesus is some ways, who were of a different race, or a different gender, or a different background, could still be followers of Jesus.
Peter has come to see that everyone can be accepted by God as one of God’s people – anyone who tries to honour God and do what is right in God’s sight. Everyone who believes in Jesus can receive forgiveness and new life. Anyone who accepts that Jesus is exactly who God the Father says he is at his baptism – the beloved, the chosen, the one in whom God the father delights, the one in whom we see all the grace and truth of God become a human being, like us – anyone who accepts al that is a child of God and can be a follower of Jesus Christ,

Baptism is one way of saying ‘yes’ to Jesus’ way of living – yes to healing and forgiveness and new life and truth and justice and grace. Yes to being one of God’s own in the world, to share this amazing gospel of love.

Baptism unites us with Christ and declares our intention to be God’s people. It also unites us with one another.

For 30 years now you have been united as one church, around one font for baptism, serving one Lord.
Every now and then I come across someone who wants to tell me that ecumenism is a thing of the past, or that it’s good to have diversity in our churches and we shouldn’t worry so much about seeking unity. But if we follow Christ in his baptism, we see there can only be one body of Christ, one people of God, one church: just as St Paul declares there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

You declare your oneness in Christ and with one another in this united church, for the sake of the town around you.
This morning I’d like to invite you to recommit yourself to following Jesus by using this water from the font. If you have been baptized, it can serve as a reminder of your baptism; if you have not yet been baptized, it can be a commitment to seek to follow Christ; if are only starting out on the way to follow Jesus, it can be a chance to receive a promise that you, too, are God’s beloved, in whom he is well pleased.

Come & share in the water – and be blessed  - you can either make the sign of the cross on your forehead with the water, or simply dip your hand in the water.. as you prefer.
We’ll sing the hymn as you com forward if you wish – but if we still have people coming forward when we’ve finished I’d like the organist to keep playing, if you would…. And may God’s blessing be on us. Amen.