Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 23 January 2011
23 January 2011 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon Treasurer and Almoner
Isaiah 9.1-4; I Corinthians 1. 10 – 18; Matthew 4. 12 – 23
It just so happens that about ten days ago I was walking and being driven by the Sea of Galilee and in the hills above, in the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali as mentioned in the Old Testament and Gospel for today; it is a particularly beautiful part of the world. Being in Israel of course reveals the contrast between the New Testament land of the mind and the New Testament land of physical reality, and the physical reality does modify what otherwise is a mental picture, in a way bringing the whole thing closer. To walk in the synagogue of Capernaum, a later building than the one Jesus would have known but on the same site, and from there just to stroll a few yards to the Galilee shore is to make the New Testament feel very close in the town that, as the Gospel for this morning explained, Jesus made as his home.
But that might also happen through what may seem to be a rather obscure translation point in our Gospel passage of this morning. Mathew was following St Mark’s Gospel in the passage we have just heard, and normally when Mark puts something into the present tense ‘Jesus says’ Matthew puts it into the past tense ‘Jesus said’. But in verse 19 of our Gospel passage he does the reverse. In Mark in the Greek when Mark says “Jesus said to them ‘Follow me’” it was just that ‘He said to them’, or, literally, ‘he called to them.’ But despite how our translation has it in English, in the Greek of St Matthew’s Gospel that phrase is in the present tense “Jesus says to them ‘Follow me’”.
And that, I believe, is what that means for us today here in Westminster Abbey. We are not simply hearing a story of something that happened two thousand years ago in a part of the world far distant from here, that same Jesus addresses each of us now in the present tense as he did to Simon and Andrew, James and John by the Sea of Galilee, and he says to us now as he said to them then: ‘Follow me’.
Follow me in seeking to see the world not though our own so often self-centred eyes, but try to see the world through God’s eyes, and to see what it means to live in a universe that has a loving God at its centre and running through it all, giving it, and us, life. Jesus says follow me, in putting that truth above all others in determining the priorities of our lives. He says follow me in putting the needs of others, including the needs of the poor, the disposed, the infirm and the persecuted at the very least on a par with our own needs and wishes. And above all he says follow me, if necessary even in the path of self-sacrifice, because it is in giving our lives for the sake of others that we find our own true life. It is a compelling but demanding call that Jesus addresses to each of us now, but then, as the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews wrote, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
But then the epistle for today shows just how complicated that can all become. All those in the church of Corinth no doubt felt they were following Christ, they had responded each in their own way to his call, but we also discover from Paul’s letter that nonetheless even then the church was fractious and divided, with various factions competing for pre-eminence. If ever you are tempted to get despondent by the state of the church today just sit down and read the epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, and you will see that is has ever been thus. So against that fractious background Paul’s plea that they should be of the same mind and the same judgement is understandable. And perhaps that should find an echo here among us today, in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
But then ever since Paul’s time different churches have then gone their own way. Last Sunday I was in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the possible site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, and we heard a Greek Orthodox Service clashing with an Armenian one, and with other Christian groups each with some stake in different chapels in the church holding their own services. Christian Unity was not obviously evident.
But then perhaps in another way it was, especially if you do not think that unity implies uniformity. Each of the churches represented in that building has its own history, its life moulded by events often outside its own control, the debates and discussions that have taken place over the years among its members, each making its contribution to their life today. We should not be surprised that 2000 years of diverse experiences and debates and temperaments have produced diverse churches with different emphases. And even within the Church of England there are diverse traditions and practices; high and low church, Evangelical and Catholic, conservative and liberal, social activists and those more quietist in their approach, we all rub up against one another even in a single national church with much of its history in common.
But I do not believe that diversity matters as long as we all recognise that what unites us is that we have heard that call to follow Christ. That is the glue that holds us together, for all our diversity. Inevitably it will mean different things for different people in different circumstances, but the core remains the same, a response to the call to follow Christ, and it is to that we should commit ourselves in this Eucharist.