Sunday, 27 January 2008

The Call of the Apostles

            This Sunday's gospel may be short, but it is full of material for reflection. It shows us Jesus at the beginning of his independent ministry and, very importantly, it shows us the call of at least some of the apostles: the two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew and James and John. This morning I want to reflect on what this account tells us about discipleship and ministry.

            It begins with Jesus at a very difficult time in his ministry -- John the Baptist, his cousin and in some respects his mentor, has just been arrested by Herod for his defiant preaching in response to Herod's marriage. Although Matthew doesn't tell us about it here, we know from John's Gospel that, prior to the arrest, Jesus and some of his disciples had joined the Baptist's ministry in the Judaean wilderness. Hence Matthew tells us that Jesus withdrew to Galilee. Perhaps he went home to Nazareth to spend some time with Mary -- we're accustomed to think of John the Baptist's arrest as a setback in Jesus' early ministry, but are inclined, I think, to forget that it was also a personal blow. Not only had the two men worked together closely, they were related, and there was clearly a strong bond between Mary, Jesus' mother, and her elder kinswoman Elizabeth, since it was to Elizabeth that Mary went when in need.

            In any case, Matthew tells us that Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum, a larger and more cosmopolitan community on the Sea of Galilee. Characteristically Matthew links this choice of a new base for the start of Jesus' preaching ministry with the prophecy from Isaiah we heard as this morning's Old Testament reading, a very fitting prophecy for this season of Epiphany. "In the former time," Isaiah wrote, "he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined." The light that has shined on the Gentiles of Galilee is, Matthew makes clear, the proclamation of Jesus, "Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near."

            However, after telling us about that proclamation, Matthew does not go on immediately to describe Jesus' ministry in Galilee. Instead he describes the call of four of Jesus' disciples by the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the large lake by which Capernaum was set. Only then does the preaching tour begin. There are three things about this account that I think we need to spend some time over: the context of the call in Jesus' ministry; the context of the call in the lives of the apostles themselves; and the difference between Jesus' proclamation before and after the call. These three things point us toward a way of thinking about discipleship and ministry that can help us in our own.

            As soon as Jesus begins an independent ministry, he looks for others that he can join with him in that work for God's kingdom. We know from John's Gospel, from the passage that we heard as last Sunday's gospel reading (among others), that some men had been associated with him already, even some who had begun as followers of John the Baptist and then transformed their own ministries to follow Jesus -- Andrew, Peter's brother, was one of the latter group, and probably also John the beloved disciple. In the confusion following John the Baptist's arrest, it looks like those early disciples, like Jesus himself, found their way home to Galilee. And there Jesus found them again.

            So we can see that Jesus' ministry was from the very beginning a shared one. Whether in the wilderness with John the Baptist or by the Galilean shore, he made others partners in ministry with him. In fact, as we can see here, Jesus did no more in his independent ministry than announce it before he sought out the apostles and made them part of the programme. If even God does ministry like this, it should be a powerful message to us, both clergy and people, to work together in our ministries. Jesus shows no desire here to protect his turf; instead he seems to want as many people involved as possible.

            The old saw has it that "he travels the swiftest who travels alone" but reaching a destination as quickly as possible is not the goal of Christian ministry. Instead the goal is to expand God's kingdom, widening its boundaries to bring more and more people within. For that kind of work, which is a sort of spiritual construction job, we need lots of people in partnership, each employing their own particular gifts.

            From the apostles' point of view, things were quite different. Jesus had left his home and moved to Capernaum specifically to carry on the work of preaching he had begun with John the Baptist. And he was looking for the best way to proceed. But Andrew and John and Peter have returned to their old lives -- fishing for a living, rejoining family businesses. Yes, their time with John the Baptist and Jesus was important and worthwhile, but now it was time to get back to real life.... Or was it? Jesus' call breaks in unexpectedly on a day that must have appeared to be just like any other day -- Peter and Andrew are out with the boat casting their net and James and John were doing the necessary and no doubt tedious job of mending the nets.

            Jesus' call comes in the midst of ordinary, everyday life. This is what makes it a shattering experience, not that he is a stranger to them. In fact, he was only a stranger to James, and James must surely have heard about him from John, if not from others. We tend to picture the call of these apostles as a situation in which an unknown Jesus encounters four strangers and somehow charms them into following him on some kind of secret mission. I don't think so! Rather the strangeness comes from the disconnect between the call to join in his ministry and their workaday activities. We too expect to hear a call to discipleship in some appropriate, spiritual surroundings -- while we're at church, or praying -- and we must be careful not to miss calls that come, like this one of Jesus' calls, when we are in the midst of everyday life, at work, or grocery-shopping, or shovelling the walk.

            Jesus' call interrupts getting on with daily life, with family life -- answering it was not without its cost. Imagine the reaction of Zebedee, the father of James and John -- sorry about the nets, Dad, gotta go -- it's really important.... No matter how much he might have heard about Jesus and John the Baptist, I doubt he was very open to his sons' sudden decision! But discipleship has a price, not always quite so dramatic a one as this, but a price. It's true that Peter, Andrew, James, and John were not completely cut off from family and their work by answering Jesus' call -- we see later in Matthew's gospel and in the other gospels as well that they continued to have contact with their families and access to boats and nets -- they did not lose touch with their old way of life. Like Jesus himself, they were living and working with Capernaum as their base. But this must have made it harder rather than easier to transform their lives from being fishermen to being men who fish for people, God's people. There would have been a tension between the values and expectations of their new lives as followers of Jesus and the values and expectations of their old lives. If we answer the call to discipleship then we will also have to learn to live with that kind of tension as well -- it can be hard enough to explain to people that you get up on Sundays and come to church without also explaining about making time for ministry!

            Having looked at this call from both sides of the event, it's time to look at the final point to consider -- the difference in Jesus' proclamation before and after he called these four apostles. Matthew tells us that after Jesus moved to Capernaum, he "began to proclaim, 'Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.'" This is very similar to John the Baptist's preaching as recounted in the previous chapter, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near." But after the call of the first apostles, everything has changed: proclamation has become just one part of a new mission: "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and sickness among the people." The new mission, now far beyond that of John, is three-fold: to teach, to proclaim, and to heal. The synagogue teaching would have been explaining and opening up the scriptures; the proclamation, preaching the good news of the kingdom to those outside the synagogue walls; the healing, caring for the bodies as well as the souls of those he wanted to claim for God's kingdom.

            This three-fold mission is also our mission as a parish and as a church. Look at the list of ministries on the back of the service leaflet -- in one way or another, they all serve some aspect of this three-fold mission. Even our building and our efforts to restore and expand this space are part of it, because we, like Jesus and the apostles, need a home base to work from and a place to do ministry. Although we all have different gifts to give and participate in different parts of this three-fold mission, no one part can stand alone or be elevated above the rest -- it is not enough to offer sound teaching within our walls unless we also proclaim the good news of the kingdom outside, not enough to teach and preach without also caring for the needs of a broken world. May God give us grace to hear our call and find our part in Jesus' mission and ministry to our world. Amen.