Today we continue to consider where God might be calling us to by looking at what it might mean to be a church – a Christian community rooted in a particular place, on the Wilford Peninsula. The ‘modern’ parlance encourages us to ‘be church’ and talks about ‘being church’ but that is an awkward and unattractive phrase. If we can speak of being a church or being part of the church, it is clear we are not talking about the physical building – stone and mortar. We are familiar with speaking of ‘the worldwide church’ or the ‘Church of England’ without getting confused about whether we mean an actual building. So why, when we talk about ‘our’ church, or even the church in our village – do our minds – and those of other people – immediately form a picture of a familiar and much-loved building? Perhaps because it is easier for us to identify with and feel a sense of belonging to something which is real, which is located in time and place. We are physical beings; time and space and place are important to us; that is how God created us; that is why He came to join us here in time and space in the person of Jesus Christ; that’s why Jesus instructed his followers to remember him and to draw close to him by eating physical things – bread and wine. The church – whether it’s the church on the Wilford Peninsula, in Suffolk, or the Church of England – cannot survive without expressing itself in time and place.
Even in the early church – the church, the community of Christians, in Corinth, the community of Christians that Matthew wrote his gospel for – even before church buildings were built, Christians struggled with how to live out the gospel, how to be true and faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
In today’s first reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians at Corinth, we find that all is not well – even though in the first 9 verses of the letter Paul mentions their faith and the gifts that they have been given by God. But there is division amongst the Christians of Corinth as we discover as we read further into the letter. Being human, they are forming allegiances to different leaders and forgetting their primary allegiance to Jesus Christ. Of course we will find some ministers and preachers more inspiring than others – that is human nature – but we must still remember that all are servants of Christ and, like John the Baptist last week, are (hopefully!) pointing away from themselves and towards Jesus and saying – there, there is the Lamb of God, He’s the one you should be following. And so Paul brings the Corinthians back to the central purpose which is to make known the Good News, the gospel. Part of the intercessions from last week’s worship resources asked that God would enable us to be ‘good news’ in our community; to embody the gospel. How can you do that – be good news?
St Francis is alleged to have instructed his followers to ‘preach the gospel – use words if you have to’ – implying that it isn’t just what we say; not just a case of telling people the good news – whether it’s standing on a street corner, in a pulpit or in a one-to-one conversation. Actually, that’s the easy bit. And probably the least effective. We are called to BE good news. How might we do that – as individuals in our daily lives? as the body of the church on this peninsula
‘What do you do?’ is often the first question people ask when meeting someone new. It can be difficult or even painful to answer, for example, if your role is difficult to explain to outsiders, if you’re unhappy with your work or life, or especially if you are unemployed. But more often than not, it’s a convenient way in towards finding out about someone’s day-to-day life, as long as you meet the answer with compassion.
In the media this past week there have been a number of stories touching on how people end up in the jobs and roles that they do – and what keeps them out of others. I caught part of a discussion on the radio about prostitution and whether it was a ‘choice’ for women or whether they were forced into it by circumstance. Both National Service and the royal family have also been in the news in the context of the advantages and disadvantage of freedom of choice when it comes to employment.
In the passage from Matthew’s gospel, we are introduced to four men – Simon and Andrew, James and John – for whom the answer to the question, ‘And what do you do?’, would have been simple. They were fishermen. We don’t know whether the profession suited them or what they thought of it, but when it comes to the question of what led them to it, we can guess that James and John had followed their father Zebedee into the family business. The story was probably similar for the other brothers too. For some of us, our future seems mapped out from the start. Prince Charles is expected to follow his mother into full royal duties at some point, while at the other end of the spectrum those growing up in jobless households may expect the same fate to befall them. Breaking free of such expectations can be enormously difficult. When the kingdom of heaven is near, however, things can change unexpectedly, as it did for those four men in Galilee.
‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ wasn’t the place you would expect the Son of God to go to choose people to help him bring in the reign of the kingdom. It was a place ‘in darkness’ (Matthew 4.16) and held in ‘contempt’ (Isaiah 9.1). Jesus opts to base the first stage of his ministry among despised and marginalised folk. A fisherman’s son from Galilee was unlikely to have had the networks or privileged education to get a glittering career in government or the priesthood, just as a child growing up on an estate or in a jobless household might find the odds stacked against them entering many professions today.
Sadly, opportunity isn’t equally distributed in the world. But Jesus chose men from Galilee. And in the kingdom of heaven, all of us are called to come, just as we are, fisherman or prince. The opportunity of the gospel is for everyone. We don’t need special qualifications; we don’t have to change before we come – but we do have to be prepared to be changed.
Jesus begins his ministry not at the centre, but on the margins- the Jews of Galilee weren’t considered “proper Jews”. We see him healing those who are ill – illness was often considered as punishment by God. Again Jesus is on the edge and the margins. How do we minister to the people on the edge and margins of our villages?
But we are told large crowds followed him, and these people came from the centre of faith and the margins – Jesus unites them. How does our church act as a centre of unity, of bringing people together?
James, John, Simon and Andrew may have enjoyed being fishermen. But on the other hand it may just have been what they were obliged to do to make a living. We don’t always get to have as much control over our lives as we would like. But whatever our circumstances, we can choose how we react and respond to those circumstances. Indeed, it is often through faithful perseverance in difficult circumstances that we grow (see also Romans 5.3-5).
Whether it was by obligation or choice that they had become fishermen, Jesus recognised something in those four men that equipped them to do something else too, to ‘fish for people’. Sometimes, even if we cannot see it yet, the things we are called or obliged to do today are helping us to get ready for what God will call us to do in future. Whether that is a high-profile task like leading our people, as faced by Catherine Samba-Panza in the Central African Republic, or just the everyday challenge of trying to treat those around us with grace, trying to be good news, we can all pray to hear and obey the call to follow Jesus, right now, today, as we are, no excuses.
We are called to ‘Come as we are’ as a church community too. ‘As we are’ with the resources – both in terms of buildings and skills and people – that we already have. No wishful thinking, ‘if only…. the church didn’t need repairing/we had more money/more people came to church/we had a full-time vicar/etc. etc. A wise archdeacon who is now a bishop used to say ‘God has given you all the resources you need for the work He wants you to do’. Come as you are and join in Jesus’ ministry to proclaim the good news of God’s love and bring His healing to those around us.