Andrew McKearney’s Sunday sermon for 18 January 2015
One of the strongest impressions about Jesus’ ministry that you get from the Gospels is that he wasn’t just interested in healing people, important as people’s needs clearly were to him, and he wasn’t just interested in teaching people either, even though he gave a lot of time to that. Jesus wanted people in some way or other to ‘follow’ him.
Near the beginning of Jesus’ three-year ministry he calls together the 12 disciples, and they do quite literally ‘follow’ him – up mountains, across lakes, from village to village and finally to the city of Jerusalem.
And on later occasions too during his ministry Jesus invites people to ‘follow’ him. Sometimes excuses are given – let me first go and bury my father – can I just go home and say goodbye to my family? So it’s not that everyone dropped everything and followed Jesus, but certainly it looks as if the 12 disciples did – Matthew the tax-collector gets up, leaves everything and follows Jesus – the fishermen Simon and Andrew, James and John leave their nets and their relatives and follow Jesus.
Saint John’s Gospel from which we heard this morning implies perhaps a less dramatic and a more organic process. The bit before the passage we just read recounts how John the Baptist first points Jesus out to two of his, John’s own, disciples, and as a result they move on and follow Jesus. One of these, Andrew, then goes and gets his brother Simon. It’s only after this, that we hear John’s Gospel describe Jesus going, as in the other Gospels, to Galilee where he finds Philip and says to him:
When reflecting on Christ’s ministry it’s often helpful to remind ourselves of what was going on in the society of the time, to put the Gospels in context.
Galilee where Jesus was exercising his ministry was an oppressed area suffering from chronic political and economic instability. The country was occupied by the Romans, and that led inevitably to resentment and frustration.
In their frustration, some people left home to become freedom fighters, part of the Resistance movement, zealots as they were called. And the Resistance Movement recruited people to follow them into the hills to fight the occupation.
However because of the political and economic instability some people took to the hills as their way out of trouble. When faced with large debts, for instance, as a way out from being trapped by their debts people took to the hills to there live a wandering life – desperate people who resorted to violence, recruits for the Resistance movement.
Others disappeared by emigrating. They dreamt of a better future in another country. There were the usual stories of people getting rich and famous abroad, and some people took this option and went abroad – Alexandria in Egypt was a favourite destination.
Others became beggars and homeless people. As debts rose, landowners evicted people out of their houses and so they took to the streets and roads, finding places to sleep and to beg. If you were in any way disadvantaged or handicapped, blind or a leper, this was your permanent way of life, but others joined you, forced to by the economic pressures of the day. And many of these, (we hear of them often in the Gospels referred to as demon-possessed), were struggling mentally or soon became so from their way of life.
So people were desperate, families were torn apart due to the chronic political and economic instability of the day. Individuals disappeared abroad to seek fame and fortune – to the hills to join the resistance movement – to the streets to beg and avoid imprisonment – and still others to the wilderness.
The ones who went into the wilderness rejected armed resistance but opted instead for a radical religious life in community, somewhat similar to monks and nuns, praying for God to intervene.
That’s a very brief sketch of the social, economic and political context to Jesus’ ministry. And in his ministry, alongside listening and acting on his teaching, beyond gratitude for needs being met and blessings received, Jesus invited people to ‘follow’ him:
“If any want to become my followers,” he said, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
This, if you like, was the option that Jesus offered to people in the difficult times in which they lived – not taking to arms – not fleeing in some way (the fight/flight response which is so deep within us) – but instead living a life as a disciple, entering into a living relationship with Christ, and finding ways to live differently with the struggles of the day.
This Christian discipleship is not unlike a marriage, where a commitment is made, an agreement entered into, a covenant signed with no guarantees at all of how it’s going to work out. Two people giving themselves to each other in love throughout their lives, for better for worse, for richer for poorer. The same logic, if you can call it that, lies at the heart of being a disciple of Christ, because of course it is the logic of love! Both marriage and discipleship are acts of love; and mysteriously love, the precise thing we need most, both then and now, we often resist!
We heard Nathanael’s resistance this morning!
When Philip tried to share his new found faith in Christ, Nathanael latched on to the fact that Philip mentioned that Jesus came from Nazareth, so says dismissively: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
It’s a great one liner!
Nathanael may have been the first but he certainly wasn’t the last to resist the attractiveness of Christ! There are all kinds of voices both around us and within us, if we choose to listen to them, that can strengthen our resistance to this bond of love that is at the heart of Christian discipleship.
We are here to say ‘No’ to those voices and ‘Yes’ to the voice of Christ.
Whether our journey of discipleship has been organic or dramatic; whether we feel just at the beginning or some way along the path; whether times are tough or lovely; whether we feel open or resistant; wherever we are Christ is here.
With an authority that comes only from the deepest compassion, he says to each of us:
“Trust me. Turn to me. Follow me.”