Sunday, 23 January 2011

"Follow me" : a sermon by Kevin Bright

Epiphany 3

1 Corinthians 1.10-18 & Matthew 4.12-23

Where does this sound like to you?

A diverse, competitive, multicultural society. A society where wealth creation and trading attract people of many religions and races to settle. An ethos difficult to permeate with God’s message when so many are caught up in this.

21st century London and surrounding area or 1st century Corinth? Well, both it would seem.

A church with disputes and divisions, that drives some to split off into new groups. 21st century Anglican Church or 1st century Corinthian church? The same answer seems true.

In Corinth at the time of Paul’s letter it wasn’t the prospect that women may become bishops which was causing problems, it seems that fierce loyalties had developed to the missionaries who brought the gospel message to the different groups, at the cost of the gospel message itself.

So this is what Paul is addressing when he asks the sort of question an angry schoolmaster bellows at you states, ‘Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul? Of course not and the people of Corinth knew the answer as well as we do 20 centuries later, we should be united in Christ, he should be our common focus. If the gospel message were lived out our communities would look different, the weak and poor would be pushed to the front because they need the most help and resources would be shared equally for a start.

Whilst this answer may seem obvious our natural desire to compete, our insecurities and fears will regularly get in the way of making it a reality.

I’d love to be all smug and critical of over competitive people but I fall into all the typical categories along with many others.

Try telling the parents of a child attempting to get into a top school that their daughter shouldn’t be competitive in her exams and interview. Would a businessman who just completed a deal feel so good about it if his competitors weren’t bothered that he had beaten them to it? Would winning the Ashes mean so much to us if we thought it meant little to the Aussies? I’ll be going after this service to see the Luke’s semi final match for Sevenoaks Town FC and I really do care whether they win.

Some may say that this sort of competitiveness is natural and perfectly acceptable but there will be those who can’t relate to it or even deem it unhealthy.

In my view it is the further development of our natural competitiveness which needs to be most guarded against. Such as the notion that because we are well rooted and firm in our own beliefs that there is not room for others to co-exist in a positive way. Such as the need to dominate other people to the extent that when things don’t go our way that we escalate them beyond the original point of difference with the intention of forcing them to back down, of weakening and humiliating them.

What we need to do is look at how God shows his power. How his values make much of what we strive for unrecognisable from anything he would see as power.

To those of us who have been sitting in these pews for many years it is that familiar message about Jesus turning the world upside down, about a demonstration of love that really goes against the grain. Are forgiveness, sacrifice and suffering what we recognise as symbols of power today?

So when Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee what was it that drew Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John to him? As far as we can tell they are not aware of Jesus baptism and time spent in the wilderness let alone the visit of the Magi.

There is no mention of advantage, position, status in a new organisation and yet still they are prepared to leave what is a steady family business and follow Christ without question.

We’ve considered the modern day equivalent many times, drawing parallels with people called to ministry and to serve in all sorts of ways. Whilst this is all relevant it’s often the case that Jesus doesn’t actually ask everything of us, if fact for the majority of us our relationship with Christ is more likely to be shaped by many small visits, more similar to Jesus saying ‘can you do me a small favour’ than ‘I need you to leave everything you value and follow me’.

We spoke last week of what are our ordinary daily routines and it is by making regular spaces in these to hear Christ’s call that we can heighten our awareness of his love for us. The more we do this the easier we will recognise his ‘voice’.

It might help to think of it as the neighbour who needs a hand, the new person who needs to be introduced and included, the charity that needs some help, the relationship that needs to be rebuilt, all these and more are the sort of reasons Jesus asks us to follow him.

The other part of the message Christ proclaims is ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ We know that to repent is to change direction, to stop what we are doing, turn around and do the opposite.

Some have misunderstood repentance and interpreted it as wallowing in guilt, and ‘beating yourself up’, whereas true repentance is a very positive life affirming action that requires effort, willpower and a mind open enough that it can be changed.

At the time Jesus brought his message of repentance this would have been understood by those bent on military action against occupying Romans that their hopes for a military victory were seriously misplaced, that this was not God’s way. They needed to change their thinking that a violent uprising was the way forward because the kingdom of heaven (or God) had come near through the presence of Christ and this kingdom was not one where violence had any place.

Could it be that the fishermen that gave up everything to follow Christ could somehow understand and take on board this message, despite all their imperfections and weaknesses they seem prepared to try a whole new way of living?

Tom Wright suggests that many people may not be quite so keen to follow Christ if they new at the outset where it was leading. This may seem a strange comment coming from a recently retired Bishop and current biblical scholar. I don’t recall seeing it in any literature for the Church of England. Considering becoming a Christian? You might not be quite so keen if you knew where it was leading! At first glance it’s right up there with other classics such as ‘being told to pray for those sick of this Parish’ and ‘don’t let worries kill you, let the church help’!

Yet if you take time to think about it the reason we may not get it straight away is that it is so painfully honest. It gets to the crux of what following Christ is all about and is a stark reminder that being a Christian isn’t some sort of protection policy against life’s problems and sad times.

Would Peter and Andrew have had any idea that they would end up being crucified when they set out with Christ? God wouldn’t burden them with such knowledge, if our futures were all known this would be too much to bear and mercifully God intends it that good and bad they are unveiled to us one day at a time.

In trying to understand how God is with us, how he can grow us to face lifes challenges it may help to look back at the first time we met someone who turned out to be a lifelong friend, or when we met our life partners. We set out on a journey with good intentions but over time a deep bond develops and there reaches a stage where we realise we would do anything for them, comfort each other through heartbreak, do whatever it took to protect them and even give up our own lives if it meant that they would be safe. Relationships can grow in ways beyond our initial understanding both with God and each other.

Thankfully most of us are not called to the dramatic but Christ still wants us to follow him in the ordinariness of our lives.

So let’s be alert for the time when he says:-

Follow me to the supermarket and do your best to buy ethically
Follow me to work and trade honestly
Follow me to school and make an effort to include those who get left out
Follow me into the quiet places and make time to reflect and pray

If we try to do this, despite all our imperfections we will find that we are gradually changing direction and may even get a glimpse of what Jesus meant when he said ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’


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