The Outrageous Demands of Jesus

Sunday 8th February 2004
Year C, The Third Sunday before Lent
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Isaiah 6:1-13
Luke 5:1-11

Imagine that some time this week you are walking up the High Street, engaged with the comforting prospect of a good lunch, when you come face to face on a narrow part of the pavement with an ordinary looking woman. She doesn\'t move to one side and shows every sign of not letting you past; and she says: "My car is in the car park, we are going up to the East end to work with the poor and those who have not heard the Word of the Lord". By some force which you cannot understand you find yourself in a beat up camper van on the A23 and this woman is telling you how you can forget the grandchildren and the church fund raising for quite a while. You will be working flat out seven days a week for a couple of months before you are allowed home and you will be sleeping in the van, so that\'s all right. And then you vaguely remember a media snippet about a woman from East Grinstead who calmly climbed into a pulpit after the Gospel and, while the Vicar fumed, preached a sermon about unconditional love and holding all goods in common, before leading some of the congregation off to work with drug addicts in Brighton.

Naturally, you are upset to your conventional, comfortable core. "You must be joking?" you say to yourself first and then to the woman, sounding like John Mackenroe in full flight. But she isn\'t; she just concentrates on the road ahead. "This" you almost shout: "This is unreasonable"; to which she replies that of course it is unreasonable; she isn\'t really interested in reason but rather in unconditional commitment.

This is as close as I can get to helping you imagine the position of the fishermen and other workers whom Jesus called to follow Him. He told them that he wanted them; and he wanted them now. No time to sell off the goat, no time to re-locate granny (the first being much more important than the second); no time, even, to kiss your wife and children "goodbye"; and no forwarding address.

Even allowing for the high level of part time employment in Palestine, this was unreasonable; even allowing for the vagaries of the Galileean fishing industry, it was outrageous; for people born into a tradition so committed to family loyalty, it was unthinkable. And for the next three years the people Jesus called made an uneasy compromise between the demands of this charismatic spiritual leader and their fretting families; they saw him die ignominiously and rise gloriously; they saw him ascend into Heaven; they felt the power of the Holy Spirit; they spread out across the world; and, if we are to believe the stories that grew around their later lives, most of them suffered a martyr\'s death for Him.

The Old Testament Reading and Gospel for today each have a modern hymn which we regularly sing down the road at Holy Trinity. I THE LORD OF SEA AND SKY directly quotes from that tantalising piece of dialogue in Isaiah: "Whom shall I send?" to which the reply is: Here am I, Lord; it is I Lord!", while WILL YOU COME AND FOLLOW ME (which we did sing earlier today at Holy Trinity) refers to Luke\'s story about Jesus seeking "Fishers of men". The ballad format of the first hymn might, for some, reduce the impact of the words; and the bouncy metre of the second makes following Jesus sound rather jolly, as if licking lepers clean would be rather a lot of fun. But we are all too apt to get worked up about liturgical preferences when what we should really be doing is thinking of what the words mean.

When it comes to following Jesus, most of us, I think, were brought up with a rather rigid formula. Mine, at least, had two rather forbidding aspects to it: the first was the emphasis on routine church attendance, the second laid down the centrality of obedience. As to the first, it can be difficult to turn duty into worship, particularly if the duty is only exercised on a weekly basis. As we all know from literature and music, intensity has to have a context; it emerges from a dense texture of ideas and emotions. How much intensity of feeling would be generated within us if, for example, we went to the opera, one aria per week, with the first act climax on Christmas day, the second on Easter Sunday and the final curtain coming down at Pentecost? If we had to live the full drama of the opera that way, we would surely want the score, a good recording and some reference books that we could use on a daily basis to allow us to live inside the work as a whole. Similarly, as we have not disrupted our lives in the way that the Disciples did, as we are not with Jesus as they were, in the flesh, on a daily basis, we can only be alive to the full drama of His life by pulling different strands of our experience of Him together and patiently building up intensity. What we do here in church, in following Christ, should be the most visible part of our spiritual commitment, the tip, if you like, of our iceberg of prayer and study. The Old Testament may be full of rubrics about sacrifice but it also contains powerful testimony, from Amos and the Psalms in particular, that The Lord is not interested in ritual sacrifices if His People do not offer them with a faithful heart. When attending church is instead of rather than because of, a rooted spiritual commitment, we are in trouble.

As for obedience, it rather depends on who is giving the orders. And if the kind of people who are giving the orders, setting the agenda, do not change, then we tend to get set in our ways. We become introverted, taking refuge in what is comfortable, our horizons narrow, we cease to be creative.

If we allow ourselves to be just a little self critical, we might ask: what kind of fishing for Christ are we doing outside our tight knit church community? how much fishing are we doing down near the bottom of the Cuckfield Road? What would we think of a harvest of benefit claimants and people with unbelievably messy and complicated lives? How would we react to the contemporary equivalent of the leper: people with AIDS, alcoholics and drug abusers? In fact, come to think of it, are we fishing at all or are we like those people who own boats at the Marina and spend a lot of time fiddling around with them but only go out once or twice a year on the calmest of days?

Don\'t worry, I am not going to take that thought any further, for the moment, because I want to go back to the effort of imagination I asked us to make at the beginning, what does it mean to answer: "Here am I" and to follow Christ? Well, most of us, I am sure, emphatically hope that we are not asked to respond to the tap on the shoulder from the charismatic leader asking us to abandon all we know and love. We can\'t all live like the dogged St. Peter nor the hyperactive St. Paul. But we can attempt to deepen our intensity and really focus on whatever we are doing. If we only pray for five minutes every morning, you might expect me to want us to double it to ten minutes; but I\'m not asking for that. All I am asking of us is that during those five minutes we absolutely focus. If we occasionally read Scripture, let us try to read it more slowly and carefully, noting perhaps one thing that we don\'t quite understand, that needs some explanation. If we have a few minutes before the beginning of a service, why not seek out the stranger? Look for the lonely, the uncomfortable and the distressed and try a smile and a friendly word. We are, of course, frightened of being embarrassed or, worse still, of being rebuffed; but what is that compared with the suffering of Jesus? We might, in any case, consider the root cause of the embarrassment or the rebuff rather than worrying about our own feelings.

If we are not to be called to follow Christ literally in the way that the Disciples followed Him, then we can still follow Him in our daily lives every minute of every day; and if we work hard to achieve intensity of study, contemplation, feeling, love, that very deepening will bring about a broadening. But not only should we try to live with more intensity, we should also live with more gratitude for God\'s creation, with more joy as well as with more suffering, and we must try to be more sensitive to God in other people.

We are what we are, as St. Paul says, but this is not a message of complacency. We are God\'s creatures, packed full of His goodness, living in the world that He made, and so the least we can do is to follow Him in the way we lead our lives from moment to moment.

And then, if we do that, when we hear the question: "Who shall I send" we will be clearer in our own hearts what we mean when we answer: "Here am I, Lord!"

Kevin Carey

January 2004