Third Sunday Before Advent 2021
‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’
So they did! It all seems rather dramatic and possibly even improbable.
There were two pairs of brothers, all comfortable and secure in their business – fishing the sea of Galilee. (That was possibly less complicated than fishing in the English Chanel! And possibly not!) And they left it all behind. It seems that at the drop of a hat, they responded to a stranger’s call to follow him.
It says a lot about the one who was doing the calling. There was obviously something that was utterly compelling.
Though those in leadership who have had the experience of people following them may always be preserved from misplaced pride and false perspective by the reflection of Colin Powell; ‘You know you are a good leader when people follow you out of a sense of curiosity.’ Was this what was going on for these men who would become giants of the early church, one even the first pope, no less?
Perhaps for those of us who have had the experience of a particular calling in life, perhaps this doesn’t seem improbable. The swift nature of it seems odd, yes. Today, any bishop enticing people away from their secure professions and family responsibilities with such speed would be unlikely to find a selection conference to recommend them for ordination. Discernment takes time, we would think.
Having said that, I suspect there are plenty of lay people in churches up and down the country who have been called into some role or other, and, before they have had time to think about it, they have found themselves responsible for some important dimension of the local church’s ministry. (It wouldn’t happen in a cathedral, of course!)
The point is that many of us will have some experience of being called; we will have our own stories of how we responded and the difference it made to our life’s journey.
The call of Simon and Andrew, and James and John, as well as hinting at the remarkable personality of Jesus, brings us to the very calling of the Church itself.
Just before describing this scene on the shores of Galilee, St. Matthew shares with us his version of the very beginning of Jesus’s public ministry.
John the Baptist had been arrested. In other words, the one responsible for preparing the way of the Messiah was off the scene; the true Messiah was now centre stage. And what does he do? He comes to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.
And what is that good news?
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news – the gospel.’
Long years – centuries – of waiting were over; God who had seemed so distant, was at last acting and intervening. And in Jesus, he was restoring the world to what it was intended to be all along, the kingdom of God – heaven itself – in the here and now. No wonder fishermen left their nets, wanting to know and learn and experience more of it.
Well, for those of us who would follow Christ today, the message and the offer and the promise are still the same. We are invited to get caught up in a mission which is about the transformation of this world – in all the ways that Jesus demonstrated and taught about.
In this kingdom season, leading up to Advent, with a gospel that speaks of the kingdom of God, I hope all members of the community of Ripon Cathedral are at least vaguely aware that there is something familiar here.
As a community we too have discerned that we are called to grow God’s kingdom – because we follow Jesus Christ and continue his work. And over the last 5 ½ years we have been clear about the ways in which we think we are being called to do that now: Growing the worshiping community, Promoting our spiritual and built heritage; supporting the diocesan bishop in mission; and responding to the world in its needs. These are the ways in which we have been laying down our nets and following.
In September, Chapter spent 24 hours prayerfully revieing how we are doing and pondering how we should adjust these priorities so that, in response to Christ’s calling of us now, we might be doing the things that he would have us do to further his kingdom over the next five years.
Our hope is to launch the revised vision and strategy at our 1350th Festival weekend next May – exactly 6 years after launching Growing God’s Kingdom. Those four broad priorities will probably remain. But it seems clear that one element of the strategy which has always been there will be recognised as of top priority – responding to climate change and ensuring that the whole operation of the cathedral is carbon net-zero by 2030. Some priority! Some challenge!
Now, through its long history, the church has probably always tried to follow its Lord, turning this world into something more like heaven, by responding to human need, and filling in the gaps of society’s provision, or moral compass, or hope. We think of the provision of education or health care in this country in the past. We think about campaigning for the sake of the marginalised, and outcast; speaking up those who suffer because of injustice, or racism, or religious bigotry and so on. This is what it now means to leave our nets behind us and to follow Christ.
None of this is to say that our salvation comes through our worldly efforts; but it is to accept that when we let God’s grace and Holy Spirit flow through us, when we follow the call of our leader, living in a Jesus-shaped way, our praying and worshiping and church building inevitably become complemented by world-transforming service.
We have heard much about COP26 in the news, I don’t need to repeat that, but it is part of this sermon. We could say much about the diocesan net zero strategy – and we will do so as a cathedral in time. Today, we simply acknowledge that to follow Christ – today – includes, in part, responding to climate change. It requires, in part, that we do our bit, as individuals and as a community together – in addition to our essential praying and worshiping, in addition to our essential feeding on divine word and sacrament – we do our bit, to counter climate change.
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news