The painter Edouard Manet is now recognised as one of the great masters of
Impressionist art, but his career didn’t get off to a very promising start. His
first ‘commission’ was as a sixteen-year-old sailor visiting Rio de Janeiro. The
ship’s cargo of cheeses had deteriorated during the long sea voyage, and Manet
was asked to touch up the rinds, which had been damaged on the journey. Unfortunately
the paint which he used had lead in it, and the cheeses caused a local outbreak
of lead poisoning.
Beginnings. For Manet, a disaster. For some of us, an
embarrassment. But sometimes, beginnings show us in microcosm what is to come. Beginnings
can show us the foundations on which the subsequent building will take shape.
In Jesus’ case, we have a story of beginnings here. Matthew
records the beginning of his public work in today’s Gospel reading. In this
short episode, we see some key features that would mark Jesus’ life from now
However, why look at these foundational features of Jesus’
life? Because it’s interesting? No. Because Jesus is our model for life and
discipleship. What might we find?
Some translations say that Jesus ‘withdrew’ to Galilee. You could understand
that, given that this follows John’s arrest (verse 12). But if it is a
withdrawal, it’s a strange one. He hardly goes undercover. This is not the
disappearing act of a stock market trader who has lost his bank between three
and four million pounds!
No. The movement of Jesus is not a withdrawal to hide away,
in case the same forces who despatched his cousin John come knocking for him. Jesus
makes a tactical move to a place where he can launch his public ministry
fruitfully. There is no cowering in the face of opposition here. Admittedly,
Capernaum might be a favourable location: it was within the more tolerant Galilee.
On the other hand, Galilee was historically a base for the Zealots who opposed
Roman occupying forces with terrorist-like guerrilla tactics. And – as the
quotation from Isaiah shows – it was known as ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’. Some of
the synagogues excavated in the area show this influence: when I visited in
1989, you could see the signs of the zodiac on the floor of one, indicating an
interest in astrology. That suggests a fusing of Jewish faith with something
the Scriptures forbid.
So there were pros and cons to Jesus basing himself in
Galilee, and Capernaum in particular. It could be tough, but there were the
prospects for a sympathetic hearing, too. We can be sure of this: Jesus wasn’t
one to batten down the hatches. He didn’t go on the defensive in the face of
I used to know a vicar who had previously been a travelling
evangelist. He said that whatever town he visited in order to conduct a
mission, the local Christians always told him the same story: ‘It’s so hard for
the Gospel here.’ They might even tell him it was the hardest town in the
country for Christian faith. My friend would have no truck with this. He was
not prepared to let their stories daunt him. I think he had a Christ-like
attitude in taking that stance.
It is easy to feel daunted about the prospects for the
Gospel today. Certainly, there are hard places and factors that discourage us. However,
Jesus does not allow us the excuse to pull up the drawbridge and retreat inside
our Christian castle. He calls us to be on the move, looking for opportunities
to be Gospel witnesses. The movement may be geographical – to a new place. The movement
may be one of change in an existing situation.
It is not that I am guaranteeing hordes of converts swarming
into the church. The Jesus who moved about his native country so much in three
years of public ministry saw as many people put off by him or reject him as he
did embrace his message. But wherever he went, he brought light to people
living in darkness. And he calls us to be on the move for the sake of the
Gospel. Moving forwards, that is, not retreating.
Jesus has a simple message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’
(verse 17). You want foundations? You have them here. In these words is the
core of Jesus’ message. The kingdom of heaven has come near – what will your
response be? In Jesus, God’s reign comes close – how will you react? More
bluntly, God rules – what are you going to do about it?
God rules. Jesus will demonstrate that. He does so in this
passage, with the healings. He will do so in other ways, with his command over
nature, and by teaching with authority – unlike the religious leaders. God rules.
God does not simply have the title of king, God acts as king. Jesus shows this.
How will people react? Some will respond with joy. It will lead to them
following Jesus. Others will follow while the going is good, and then slip
away. Others will be offended. They will oppose him, and kill him.
One thing you don’t see is apathy. It was hard to encounter
Jesus and just shrug your shoulders as if nothing had happened. Because something
had happened. Someone had happened. You had to lean one way or another. You couldn’t
stay in the middle of the road.
When John Sentamu was enthroned
as Archbishop of York in November 2005, he pointed to this issue in his
“The scandal of the church is that the Christ-event is no
longer life-changing, it has become life-enhancing,” he said. “We’ve lost the
power and joy that makes real disciples, and we’ve become consumers of religion
and not disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Perhaps that is our problem. Jesus never meant his message
to be life-enhancing, something that would make a good thing better. You can
see plenty of adverts for such products in a consumer society. However, Jesus
is not a product. Jesus is Lord, and he represents his Father, the King of the
universe. Jesus is not a deluxe addition to life. Jesus is life or death. We rely
on him, not on touching wood.
If we truly believe this, it will show in our lifestyles. There
will be something special about us, not just as individuals, but also as the
community of the church. People will say again, ‘See how those Christians love
one another.’ Society will be alternately seeking us for help, and in awe of
us, keeping their distance. If the world can see that Jesus orders our lives,
and the difference that makes, we shall earn the right to speak and challenge
people to walk in his ways, too. While Jesus is just a consumer choice, though,
we shall have no such cutting edge to our proclamation.
I have dim and distant memories of starting Sunday School as a small boy. In the
Beginners’ Department, we marched round in a circle to put our offertory in the
box, singing the same song every week: ‘Hear the pennies dropping.’ They were
such joyful days, singing away, that I bawled my eyes out when I moved to the
Infants’ Department on Promotion Sunday one year.
The singing left a mark on me in those early days. If I ever
see a book of the old CSSM Choruses, I have fond memories. When Rebekah first
came back from the Edward Bear Club at St Mary’s singing ‘Wide, wide as the
ocean’, I went misty-eyed.
And one song in particular formed its shape on my memory. ‘I
will make you fishers of men, if you follow me.’ Of course, it quotes our story
today. Jesus sees two fishermen, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, casting a
net into the lake (verse 18), and he says, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish
for people’ (verse 19). They leave their nets straight away to follow him
(verse 20), and he repeats the summons to James and John, the sons of Zebedee
It was common for young men following a rabbi to imbibe both
his teaching and his lifestyle. However, normally, the young man would make his
own approach to the rabbi. It was highly unusual for the master to take the
initiative in calling someone to follow him.
But that’s what happens here: Jesus says, ‘Follow me’. He is
intentional about gaining disciples. For mission is at the heart of his life. Not
only that, the disciples are to reproduce that emphasis on mission, if they are
to imitate him. Thus, it becomes, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for
Mission, then, for Jesus, is not an optional extra for
particularly enthusiastic disciples. It is for all. Not all of us are
evangelists (research suggests about one in ten might be). However, we are all
witnesses. We all have a part to play in God’s mission.
I read a
along these lines yesterday. A man who rejoiced under the name Catfish
occasionally darkened the doors of a church building. He wasn’t regular, like
his wife. He was diagnosed with cancer. Someone regularly visited him in
hospital. Twice, the visitor asked Catfish if he’d made his peace with God. Every
time, he gave the same answer: ‘The Lord’s Spirit don’t strive with me anymore,
because I denied him and I missed my chance.’
The third time he visited, Catfish was waiting to die. The visitor
said, ‘You know what I’m going to ask, I want to know if you’ve made your peace
with God.’ Back came the usual answer. ‘The Spirit don’t strive with me
anymore. I’ve missed my chance.’ The friend squeezed Catfish’s hand, looked him
in the eye, and said, ‘My God is more merciful than that.’ Catfish broke down
in tears and found the peace of God before he died. All because one friend had
the courage to fish, and tell him what God was really like.
The story naturally ends at verse 22, but for some reason the Lectionary gives
us verse 23, which is the first verse of the next episode in the Gospel:
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues
and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every
sickness among the people.
Here, Jesus puts it all together and applies what he has
already modelled. There is movement –
‘throughout Galilee’; the message – ‘proclaiming
the good news of the kingdom’; and there is mission,
as he heals the sick.
I can sum up the theme of Jesus’ ministry by recounting a
story. I mentioned earlier that I visited the Holy Land in 1989. When we
visited Galilee, we had the privilege on the Sunday morning of attending a Melkite
in the village of Ibillin. The priest was a Palestinian man called Elias Chacour.
He is internationally famous for promoting reconciliation between the warring
communities in the Holy Land. Since his church was in communion with the Pope
and most of us weren’t Catholics, there was a delicate question about receiving
Holy Communion from him. We expected to hear that we couldn’t partake, and at
most could receive a blessing. We reckoned without Elias Chacour. He said, ‘Nobody
ordained me to check someone’s membership ticket. You are all welcome at the
It was pure grace. No checking whether we met his standards;
Father Elias gave the bread and wine to all who would receive whatever God
would give them. And in that simple but rebellious act, I see an echo of Jesus.
As he travels around Galilee, preaching and healing, there is no hint that he
only offers the benefits of the kingdom to those who are good enough, to the
respectable, to those who tick the right boxes. He gives the love of God in
every way, to all and sundry, in an unconditional manner. He is not like the church
I once heard of that used to bus in elderly lonely people for socialising and a
meal, but which would not feed them until they had agreed to listen to the Gospel.
Jesus behaves here like the sower of his famous parable, who recklessly and
generously threw the seed here, there and everywhere, and waited for the
results. May the same sense of abandon characterise the way we spread around the
love of God.
Melkites are ordered like the Eastern Orthodox, but are in communion with Rome.