Sunday, January 19, 2014

"At Once They Left Their Nets." A Homily for January 26, 2014, from Matthew 4:12-23.

January 26, 2014
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A.
(edited and revised from a previous 
Homily posted 1.17.11)

The Lectionary Gospel reading for this Sunday brings to us the startling vocational stories of two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew, and James and John. 

To begin, we must see that the missional transition is now complete. Herod, for political reasons, has driven John the Baptizer from the scene, and as the text tells us Jesus' ministry now opens in earnest, beginning with his preaching for a national repentance -- "Repent, for the Kingdom of GOD is at hand." 

This, of course, has continuity with the Baptizer, but it is also is a step beyond his vision, for again as the text reminds us, it is the moment when the "great light" is beginning to shine in the land, a light meant to overshadow the fermenting call for revenge and violence which the humbled Hebrew nation wished to inflict upon both her tormentors in Herod’s palace and her captors in Rome.

In contrast to revolt, Jesus will soon outline what life under the Kingdom rule would be, but before this he moves to create a social circle into which he could pour his message of "new wine." These were men and women (e.g. Luke 8:1-3) not only supported his message, but believed it to the point of leaving all, following him daily and devoting their resources to his movement.

As has been pointed out by others, these followers did not come to Jesus as a Master asking to be his apprentice. No, the initiative came from the other direction with Jesus inviting them to be part of his Kingdom project. What also seems clear is that Jesus calls these people into an interdependent community where the teachings of the Kingdom can be shared, lived and disseminated to others also willing to take on the heavy rule of Kingdom life.

So, when these sets of brothers are confronted with the call to follow Jesus we read they "at once they left their nets" and "immediately left their boat and their father and followed him."

As I say, this is startling! Matthew's use of at once and immediately seem exaggerated. How could these men make such a life-altering decisions with such speed and freedom? What seems likely is that they already knew Jesus and had been drawn to him and his person (John 1:35-42). Even so, to make this decision with such abandonment seems overpowering to us. How could they do this?

The only answer seems to be the person of Jesus convinced them. Later will come the miracles and the teachings, but now it must have been that in Jesus they found their purpose and meaning. Their emotional ferment and revolutionary rumblings gave way to this offer of true life and repentance. Here, in Jesus, they saw the truly human alternative to violence; here they were confronted with the true way of true humanness in Jesus’ humanity.

But, isn't this how we and all individuals become Jesus-followers as well? Weren’t we somehow challenged by the Spirit of the risen Christ, which opened to us our own lostness? Weren’t we offered an alternative manner of life in the ways of the Christ, each of us seeing in the Christ one who identified with her own brokenness and pain, and in the end each one finding in Jesus’ words and works the path to truth. Wasn’t it in that existential moment of personal conflict upon meeting him how we now explain our own biography? "Once I was this, but I met Jesus and now I'm that."

Also of importance here is the truth that this one moment of vocational calling did not end the story for Peter and Andrew or James and John. Daily, these men would have to remember their initial calling and then renew it by decisions they would make each day. This is anything but simple. Just look at Peter’s discipleship trajectory. It is one of sputters and lapses and then eventual victories, only to fail again.

This, too, should serve to define our our continuing vocational moments with the Christ. So much so that our positive response to the question Jesus put to us long ago -- Follow thou me? -- still lingers within hearing and still stings, for we will actually question it everyday. That is, will we offer him our lives today? Will we follow the path of self-denial today? Will we live for the common good today? Will we today strive for peace in a world at war with itself, today?

The calling to follow the Jesus-way is not for the fainthearted. No, the life he offers is rugged and involves difficult everyday decisions. How will I respond to this provocation or that insult? How will I spend this dollar or that fifteen minutes. How will I move beyond the pain in my soul? Will I self-medicate?  Will I self-absorb in entertainment? Will I find healing in openness and genuineness? 

What I am driving at here is that a one time acceptance of Jesus' call does not make us a disciple. Discipleship is, instead, the very small, subtle commitments that eventually create a life under the rule of the Christ. Remember: "strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." (Matthew 7:14)  

Finally, we should take a moment to think about the arrest of the Baptizer. One wonders if this event informed the brother’s decision, but it would be amazing if it had not. It would seem certain that these men would have realized that they were playing a dangerous game by throwing in with Jesus. For, neither Herod or Rome would appreciate any rival to power, and there were plenty of movements afoot in the land that would allow these men to grasp the peril that would come from following Jesus.

Yet, they followed. This should remind us, as we have said many, many times from this pulpit, that unlike our reality of security and safety in the West, many people in other places face the prospect of death for baptism and for naming the name of Christ.

Think about the year just past. According to the latest report
(go here and here):

[In 2013 there were] 2,123 Christians killed…due to their faith, compared to 1,201 in 2012. More than half of those reported killings (1,213) occurred in Syria, followed by Nigeria (612) and Pakistan (88).
…North Korea — a country of more than 24 million, with an estimated 300,000 Christians — remained the most dangerous country worldwide for Christians for the 12th consecutive year, followed by Somalia, Syria and Iraq.

As we our blessed to take ease, our sisters and brothers in Christ fall to regimes of hate. They have willingly taken-up the costly challenge of following Jesus, and therefore we must stand with them, especially in prayer. Would you be willing to dedicate this year to pray for the persecuted church. Will you offer a time each day, even ten minutes, to intercede for the church that stands bloody under the hate of others?

Let us pray:
Heavenly Father — This morning we pray for the Persecuted Church around the world. We pray that their strength of faith, their courage of hope and their sacrificial love would flourish and flow from their hearts to this broken world at war with itself. We pray that your holy presence would steam through their love of neighbor and their love of you.  
We also pray that you would continue to reveal yourself to the radically religious who would kill and destroy the church. Allow the faith of the persecuted to overcome the hate of the persecutors. Allow the testimony of the tortured to bring the torturers to their knees, so that justice would flow like a flood through streets of the world.
Protect your church. Live through it in power and love.

Matthew 4:12-23