(Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1-10; 1 Corinthians 1:1-18; Matthew 4:12-25)
A number of years ago I had the privilege of attending the ceremony for a friend who was becoming an Australian citizen. He had moved from the UK a few years earlier (not that this is relevant, but even at citizenship ceremonies it is nice to get one over the English). He had recently married and Australian girl, and the paperwork was complete. All that was left was for him to make his public promises to our nation.
As a part of our ceremony, new citizens are required to take an oath. In it they, essentially, make promises to be good Australians and to abide by our laws. Of course, it is necessary only for people becoming Australian citizens to take this oath. The rest of us were invited to stand for this part and, if we chose, to also pledge our allegiance.
Perhaps strangely, I found this to be a bit of a conundrum. Did I really want to make promises to my country? Was I comfortable with pledging to obey the nation’s laws?
Our gospel reading opens Matthew’s account of the public ministry of Jesus. Galilee, – land beyond Zebulun and Naphtali – is far from Jerusalem, the centre of Israel’s power. It is on the edge, the fringe of the nation. Yes, Jesus’ first movement is to ‘withdraw’. It is a movement from.
But it is from here that Isaiah’s expected ‘light’ will begin to shine over the ‘darkness’ of humanity.
Jesus’ mission was always building on the mission of John the Baptist. Matthew emphasises this by summarising the call they both embrace: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
This is a beautifully simple and disarming bringing together of the call of the Gospel: Turn and change for the reign of God is coming to the earth. It seems to me to draw together not only the call of John and Jesus, but also of the early church’s call in the face of the might of Rome. There is a coming reign – not of Caesar – but of God.
From this very broad description of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew, immediately takes us to what is a delightfully personal and intimate version of this call of God. We find ourselves suddenly on the beach at Galilee being introduced to working families as they go about their daily business.
These are fishermen. Their work is anything but glamorous and, perhaps by most, it is easily overlooked. Their nets were heavy and ‘casting’ them ‘into the sea’ was backbreaking work. The daily chore of cleaning and mending also have had elements of challenge. I do not imagine it as the most stimulating of careers.
I can’t help but see Jesus’ continuing his pattern of ‘withdrawal’ here. Jewish Rabis would often pick the most promising young scholars from the local synagogue for further training. Their words: ‘Follow Me’. Jesus’ willingness to offer the same invitation to these working class fishermen may imply something of the second chance. Have these local lads already been overlooked by the Galilean synagogue?
If so, Jesus (and I would suggest that is a life-long habit of his), is seeing these labourers in a way that others have not. More than this, he has come to their place of work and is using their language: ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people’. I wonder what this might have looked like in another context: to the cafe waitress: ‘Follow me and I will teach you to serve God’; to the accountant: ‘Follow me and I will teach you the economy of heaven’. There is something dignifying about using the language of another.
I wonder what might come of imagining yourself and your gifts into this situation. What would Jesus invite you to?
Whether it was his use of clever language, the offer of a second chance, or some other compelling characteristic of the wandering man from Galilee that compelled Simon and Andrew to consider Jesus, we may never know. But we do know that they chose that day to ditch their nets.
And all too soon that are joined by James and John. Matthew’s wording of Jesus’ this account emphasises their willingness to leave not only their boat, but their Father, Zebedee, as well.
But it would seem that neither of these encounters can be treated with justice as only‘leaving’ stories. They are, at least as much, ‘coming’ stories. Jesus is not simply inviting them to say goodby. He is, importantly, inviting them to embrace an alternative. His is an invitation to learn from him another way: ‘Follow me’.
Jesus asks more than simply our repentance. Jesus also asks us to embrace and live the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.
This is an interesting thought given that today many in this country celebrate their sense of belonging and identity to Australia. Of course, this allegiance manifests itself in many different ways – some positive and creative and others, perhaps, not so. For better or worse, today, citizens of this nation remember that we are Australian.
I am not opposed to this. But I do find myself each Australia Day feeling somewhat torn. I am an Australian citizen and am grateful for all that this land and society has offered me.
But before this, I am a citizen of heaven. This is, as Jesus taught, a somewhat broader category than any one nation can claim. All that talk of the ‘gentiles’ or ‘nations’ is, at the very least, a call beyond allegiance to mere culture or man-made borders. As you know, this God-for-all-nations concept caused some grief in the early church as they struggled to learn how they may live out such a radical ideal.
Our reading of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians suggests that early on there was also a struggle with artificial borders within the church. The temptation to divide along the lines of the various missions manifest itself in the claims to follow people other than Christ. Paul is far from content with this situation. He fights it with his repeated questions: ‘Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised into the name of Paul?’
We have good reason to be grateful for these struggles. After all, we, from the perspective of Jesus’ Galilean community, are representative of these other ‘nations’. And we are certainly not beyond dividing the church. Their struggle is our call and an expression of the ideal we falteringly strive toward.
I do not seek to play down culture (in fact, I find cultures quite compelling and intriguing – even if never perfect). I do, however, in an attempt to be faithful to the gospel call, want to suggest that there is a higher, more radical, and edgy call. We have seen it in our gospel reading today. It is the call to join ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’ or, as Jesus put it, to ‘Follow me’.
I opened with the story of attending my friend’s citizenship ceremony. I chose, that day, not to take our oath. I suspect, quite genuinely, that I could have chosen otherwise, but, as I said, I felt strangely torn.
My reasoning was centred around my faith. Not only was I rebellious enough to feel uncomfortable with pledging to obey the laws of our land, but, that day I also had a deep awareness that I already had an allegiance – one into which I had been publicly baptised.
I was aware that I belonged to the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.
When I read the stories of the persecution of the early church under Rome – and also of the persecution of the more recent church – I am often deeply impressed by the sense of belonging, allegiance, even citizenship that followers of Jesus have discovered, and radically acted upon. They belong, firstly, to the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.
But, I am more than merely impressed. I am challenged to make the Kingdom of Heaven more central to all I do and say.
Perhaps it is a challenge we all do well to ponder again.