I expect that, like me, most of you have heard the story of the call of the disciples many times. You could almost recite it from memory. The fishermen by the lake; Peter and Andrew, James and John and their father Zebedee – strange name…. Jesus simply asks them, ‘Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men (and women..)’, and they leave their nets and follow him. I’ve known this story since I was a child and I’ve imagined myself right there.. putting down the nets and leaving it all behind for Jesus. A simple, charming story…
But actually, when you think about it, it’s a really difficult story too. If you imagine how this story sounds beside stories we hear now about young people leaving their families and going off who knows where to join ISIS or something similar, we suddenly see that this story is quite challenging.. The story seems to equate being a disciple with being quite mad, with leaving everything else behind at the drop of a hat for someone you hardly know; family, work, responsibilities, everything, the sort of behaviour that we usually think very strange and even dangerous. We might happily sing, in Whittier’s hymn:
In simple trust like theirs who heard
beside the Syrian sea
the gracious calling of the Lord,
let us, like them, without a word,
rise up and follow thee.
But in the real life of the week, we think very differently about those today who suddenly join even a radical Christian group ‘without a word’ or who give up a well paid and secure job to do something much more uncertain. How would we really feel today about anyone who ‘beside the Syrian sea’ took up a new life to follow a religious teacher? Radical discipleship in the light of day seems rather less charming than in Matthew chapter 4. And all the scholars tell me that this story is meant to convey what all disciples need to do, and not just the ones like some in our own congregation who once did leave home and family behind to follow Jesus very far from home. Is it really as mad as this to follow Jesus? Are we really asked to become the kind of radicals we often fear..?
There’s a great story about the Christian essayist Phyllis Theroux who once began an article by saying that years before, she had taken a Civil service entrance exam that contained some questions designed to sort out the people who were more than a bit off beam. The questions were easy to spot. But the one she remembered all those years later was the question, ‘Do you think you are a special agent of God?’. She remembered that she had paused over this question, thought about all the government benefits which hung upon her answer and then wrote, ‘No’. She liked to think that under the same circumstances many sensible, but devout Christians would have lied too.
I suppose that we have become caught in the tension between the conventions of the world we live in – which has generally taught us, those of us above a certain age at least, that being a Christian is quite normal and rather sensible – and the call of Christ to a truly radical, and rather unconventional, kind of life. We have got used to thinking that being a Christian is normal, whereas in fact it’s really anything but. We’ve got used to thinking that the words that are actually written on our wall, those beatitudes, are quite sensible, moderate, gentle.. But they are as radical as Lenin’s call for ‘peace, land and bread’. We’ve got used to hearing cathedral choirs in posh boys’ voices singing at Evensong about the powerful being toppled from their thrones as though this was a sentiment expected of the middle classes, whereas in fact it’s revolution. Weve heard so often the call to a radical new way of life, turning the other cheek, walking the seond mile and loving even our enemies, that it sounds now just like common sense, whereas it’s the most uncommon and astonishing madness really.. No less mad than believing that God has asked us to be his special agents in the world.
I was very impressed by some people I got to know when I was living and working in Manchester. They were from the USA and they were (they are) Mennonites – radical Baptists from a peace church tradition – the kindest, wisest most gentle and warm people I’ve ever met, and people who are as committed as anyone I’ve ever known to following the ways of Jesus. I remember them saying how Christianity has come to be thought of as ‘normal’ over the centuries. Whereas the truth is, if you think of the kind of life that’s more common for human beings in this world, then being a Christian, really being a Christian is not normal at all… Following Jesus is, sometimes at least, about walking away from what everything else thinks is normal and choosing a different path.
I was reminded recently of Martin Niemoller’s words, as he reflected upon his own experience of living in times when ‘normal’ became really challenging, the days of the rise of Nazism. Niemoller was a devout Christian, a pastor within the Reformed Church. But he came to see that he had let the culture in which he lived persuade him that he could behave like everyone else. He had learned to be a certain kind of normal. And later, when he realised that being a Christian should have helped him resist what was ‘normal’, he wrote this..
‘They first came for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Catholic.
Then they came for me…and by that time there was nobody left to speak up.’
He had been a well behaved, normal kind of citizen and he did not make trouble, , until suddenly he realised too late what he had failed to do. His experience might tell us something about how the call of Jesus – a call that asks us to be brave enough not to be normal. Christ calls us to a way of life that has values and rhythms of its own – values which will sometimes cut across what the surrounding world asks of us. The challenge is to go on hearing that voice when all around would silence it, to answer the call to step beyond convention, to be brave in laying down the nets and to walk away in another direction.
Whatever the times we live in, our task and our gift is still to listen for the voice of Jesus, a voice that can be silenced as much by dull apathy as by strident evil. The voice of Christ speaks as challenging a message now as ever. The Christian call is as counter-cultural as ever it was – and it may be that there are nets of a different kind to be left on the shore.
All of us, at least sometimes in our lives, listen to the wrong voices – maybe most often to the voices of convention, the voices that echo in the prevailing winds, the voices that tempt us to live our lives in ways which – if we could really hear with clarity – we would not hesitate to leave behind. We are not called to live by the voices that become ‘normal’ in the world. We have another voice to listen to. And we should be careful with our lives because they are the only lives we have in this puzzling and perilous world – they are precious and what we do with them matters enormously. We have one life – and the choice of how we are going to live it lies with us – it is up to us to choose whose voice we listen to.
There’s a New Testament scholar whose work I love. After a lecture he was once asked to say whether he thought he was more or less radical than some other New Testament scholar. And he just said that he thought that wasn’t the point. However radical he was, he said, he knew that he would never ever be as radical as Jesus. The challenge of following Jesus is keeping up with him, of pursuing that radical hope, that radical love, that radical offering – of recognising that even when you think you’ve ‘got it’ – this being a Christian thing – you won’t have done quite and there’s always something more to learn and discover, something more to change your life. And part of what I love so much about meeting and being with Christians of other traditions is that they always show me something more about the radical heart of Jesus that opens my eyes to the crazy and astonishing wonder of his life.
In this church there are about forty of us today, all I imagine searching, and being searched out by God. In a world in which all sorts of things can become normal and accepted (how easily have some apparently been able to forgive or overlook the norms of someone who is now the President of the United States) we are looking for the light which will pierce the dark. In a world with a blaring cacophany of voices, we are straining our ears to hear the voice of Jesus Christ, because we know somewhere deep within us that he knows better than anyone who has ever lived what it means to live a good and holy human life. And we are hoping that, if we do hear his voice, we will find the courage to listen and to go on listening, even when everyone else would indeed think us mad. In a world noisy with so many sounds, we wait for that voice – and hearing it, we would lay down every net that might ensnare us and follow him. If we truly hear his voice, what else could we do. Let anyone say we are mad. Let anyone say we are not ‘normal’. All the time it is not normal for enemies to be loved, not normal for the poor to be blessed, not normal for hope to rise, then let us rejoice in being weird and dangerous radicals – for Jesus’s sake. Amen.