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July 26, 2004

Sunday Sermon

The Monk was the preacher at the Solemn Evensong for the Feast of St James at the Abbey last night and this sermon would have been posted immediately after - if AOHell had allowed me to access MT to put it up. For some unexplained reason it would allow the front pages to load, but refused to load any of the applications. Never mind, the sermon is now in the extended post below! The reading on which it is based comes from St Mark Chapter 1, verses 14 - 20.

St James was one of the four brothers selected on the shores of Lake Galilee to be a disciple, according to St Mark's Gospel. We know very little of his ministry, and he makes only infrequent appearances in the Gospels and once in the Acts. It is there that we learn that he was the first Apostle to suffer martyrdom - at the hands of Herod Agrippa, who had him beheaded.

Legend has it that he had journeyed to Spain and founded a Christian Monastery at Compostella, which has been a pilgrimage place ever since, certainly from the 7th Century onwards when it was declared that his bones had been found there. It is still a place to which pilgrims flock every year from all parts of the globe. Those who have been on this pilgrimage rarely return unchanged in their outlook and their faith; in fact, most come back refreshed and filled with the Holy Spirit.

It is fitting that we remember James and remember particularly what he represents as both one of the first disciples and as the first Apostolic martyr. A man who heard the call to serve God and was faithful even to his death.

+ May I speak in the Name of God,
May his Word be upon my lips, and
His Spirit be within my heart.

“Come, follow me,” said Jesus, “and I will make you fishers of men.”

This must be one of the most well known of the stories concerning the calling of the disciples to follow Christ, yet do we fully understand all that is implied in Mark’s rather abridged account? Probably not, as we are removed in time, in language, and in culture from these events on Lake Galilee. There are several things in play here, some subtle, some reasonably obvious. I have remarked in the past and in my articles on the subject of reading the scriptures that Mark, and the other writers of the Bible, frequently omit to mention things they knew their initial reader would know or understand. It is mentioned only if there is a clear relevance to the narrative, or the intended reader might need to know something else about the events described.

That is very much the case with this beginning of Mark’s Gospel. He begins with the prophecy from Isaiah relating to the ministry of John the Baptist, whose entire ministry is summarized in a total of eight verses. For Mark, clearly, the important events were those that concerned Christ and His teaching, the Baptist was merely a necessary precursor to the main event.

As with the other Synoptic writers, he begins Christ’s Ministry by calling out His disciples, and here, too, we may miss one of the nuances unless we are specially familiar with the Middle Eastern culture. The key lies in the words “to follow”. These are the words of the more modern translations, some older translations use the words “walk with” instead, and this reflects the cultural pattern of the Middle East at that time - where to walk abreast or side by side with a leader or teacher or some superior was unheard of. You walked behind such a person, never at their side, yet in the Biblical sense, and in the mind of the writer of this Gospel, it is this “following” which is required when God speaks to us and calls us to “walk with him”. Thus, our Gospel passage tonight is clearly intended to convey the fact that the call is to follow wherever Christ leads.

A second facet which is much easier to miss because of our own preconceptions is the status of the young men He called. Then, as now, the owner of a large commercial fishing boat - whether he works aboard it or not - is a man of some substance with considerable capital investment. So, in following Christ as they do, they are in fact making quite a sacrifice. James in particular is identified as falling into this category by the fact that his father owned the boat and hired men to man it.

This is also the kind of sacrificial service that Jeremiah was called upon to engage in as well. Surely no one in his right mind would, unless filled by the Holy Spirit or driven to it by a death wish, stand in the Temple Gate or, even worse, inside it and denounce the hierarchy, the government, and the nation, proclaiming that they were on notice to change or the city and temple would be destroyed? Yet this is precisely what Jeremiah was called upon to do - and did. The reaction was predictable and swift. So it would be with Christ and his small group of disciples as well. It just took a little longer to get going.

James, John, Simon (Peter) and Andrew were called from their jobs in the family fishing firms and willingly left parents, families, and livelihood to follow Christ. Would any one of us simply lay down our tools and follow a wandering preacher? Would we obey that call if made here and now? But, the call is one thing; it is quite another to find out what ministry we are individually called to perform. Fortunately perhaps we are not all called to be the sort of prophet that Jeremiah was, or to give up home, family, and livelihood to be disciples as Simon, Andrew, James and the others were. That said, we are called to be disciples in our own community, in our work and in our homes. We are also called to make sacrifices to further the work of God’s Kingdom by spreading the Gospel.

Sometimes that will mean risking rejection as we make our faith known to others and sometimes, as I said last Sunday at the 1100, we should be identifiable by our conduct as disciples, and, in so doing, we risk ridicule by being identified as disciples. Mark’s account of the calling of the disciples is sparse in its details. You are left with the impression that it all happened quickly, that this perfect stranger wandered into their lives and simply called them away. In all probability it was a decision made after a long gestation. They had more than likely known him and heard him many times. Slowly the Spirit grew stronger within them until they were ready and ripe for the call that He made. This is frequently the way any ordinand would describe their growing awareness of a call to follow Christ into Holy Orders, and the church recognizes this by a process of testing and examination designed to make sure that the person is indeed called to that ministry.

This is where the congregation has a problem - we have little to help us explore our vocations as “lay ministers”, for that is what we are, and so must explore and test for ourselves the manner in which the Spirit is calling us to exercise a ministry. We should not forget, either, that none of the disciples was a priest, and neither was Christ. They would not have called themselves clergy, yet they ministered to each other, to those who came to hear the Word of the Gospel from Christ, and to Christ Himself.

Simon, Andrew, James and John heard the call to follow and did so, probably not fully realizing that they were in fact entering a period of testing and preparation toward a ministry which we have called apostleship. These men were called to carve out a new beginning and a new structure for teaching, for healing, for the rescue of the human soul. In much the same way, Jeremiah was called to bring his people back to God, to show them the right way, and to turn them aside from their arrogance and their slothful disregard of God.

Today the Church faces challenges as never before. We live in an age when, like Jeremiah’s people, we have reached a comfortable level of wealth, we have a sense of security, and we have an arrogance in our knowledge and in our own ability to shape the world around us. We have forgotten just how much is God’s grace and not our own efforts. In short, we are in danger of forsaking, if we have not already forsaken, the God in whom, and through whom, we have everything.

So, a question: are we prepared to sacrifice family, friends and comfort in showing that we have faith? Are we prepared to give up some of our comfortable luxury to minister to our fellows? Are we prepared to find out what we are called to do as ministers in Christ?

I am reasonably certain that there must have been many times during the three years that James and his fellow fishermen walked with Christ through Galilee, Judea, and Israel that he and the others felt downhearted, despondent, and wondered if they had made a terrible mistake. I know that in the slightly more than twenty years that I have been a Reader, there have been many days when I wondered what my ministry was all about. I still have days like that, and so I am sure do you. The amazing thing is that, if you continue and persevere you find that things do become clearer, new things open up, and new opportunities become apparent.

God calls us all, but He also gives us all a choice. It is your choice to accept the call or to reject it, to accept it and explore where and how you are called to minister, or to hide your faith under a proverbial bushel and make your excuses. The simple fact is that, having made the commitment to be a Christian, you have already accepted part of the call, it is very difficult to reject or to avoid the rest.

The analogy He used in calling the four men named in tonight’s lesson was apt - “I will make you fishers of men”. They knew how to catch fish, now they would learn how to capture the hearts and minds of men. This is the trick that we must learn, it is not simply a clergy function, it is the call to each and every one of us as well, fishermen or no.

“Come, follow me,” said Jesus, “and I will make you fisher’s of men”

If we proclaim ourselves as His followers, then we must follow where He leads. That means discovering the Ministry He requires of us all - and the willingness to exercise it.


Posted by The Gray Monk at July 26, 2004 08:06 AM