January 22, 2023. Third Epiphany and Cathedral Day
“Jesus went throughout Galilee,… proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”
Every year at this time we hear this good news and the invitation from Jesus: “Repent, follow me.” We read of the dramatic response of the disciples: they drop everything and follow him on the Way. They hear the voice of Jesus, and their world turns upside down: all priorities change. Business, family, security, all of these become unimportant as they devote their lives to the good news of the Gospel.
But the call to follow Jesus isn’t the whole story of this Gospel. We might need to pay attention to what comes before that invitation: Jesus first says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Before we set off to follow Jesus, we have some homework to do. We are to repent; we are to spend some time in reflection on our past lives and come to terms with the mistakes and wrong decisions we have made. We are to face the idols in our lives, whether money, or power, or ambition, and resolve to knock them down. We are to free ourselves from the past in order to step forward into the future. And why should we do this? Because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.
When Jesus moves into the neighborhood, the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Jesus brings with him a new way of life, a life focused outward, a life of generosity and gratitude, a life that is content with enough, a life that creates connection and community, that lets go of fear and anxiety, and embraces the surprising power of the Holy Spirit. That’s Kingdom living. The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t something in the distant future or the next life: it is here and now, if we only dare to embrace it. It is a way of life that can transform this world, in this time.
Jesus says, “From now on, you will be fishing for people.”
When I was growing up in Northern Ireland we used to eat a lot of herring – a smallish cold-water ocean fish. It was a cheap and plentiful source of protein. There were tons of herring in the waters close to the Irish coast, and it was easy to harvest them. But as time went on, herring got more expensive, because they were overfished in the North Sea, and fisherfolk had to go further and work harder to fill their nets. The UK almost went to war with Iceland over access to fishing grounds. We had to change our diet, and the fishing industry had to make some major adjustments.
There was a time in the last century when a church could simply open its doors and people would flood in: pews and Sunday School rooms were packed, and there was no need to make any effort to attract people to church. Today that is no longer the case. The institution of church has lost much of its credibility thanks to revelations of abuse and discrimination. The social revolution of the 60’s produced a generation who didn’t raise their children in church. People now have many more options for how to spend their time – and they have less free time to spend, thanks to an unhealthy work culture that demands more and more from employees, plus the cost of housing which forces so many to take multiple jobs.
For these reasons and more, people aren’t lining up to spend several hours a week in our churches. If we are really going to fish for people, as Jesus says, we will need to go out to where the people are. That’s the rationale for Ashes to Go, for making our space available for popular cultural events, for walking the neighborhood. It’s why we started streaming our services and why we created Faith to Go. The model that served us well 50 or even 30 years ago no longer works, and we have to work harder to bring home the harvest.
As we celebrate Cathedral Day today, Paul’s call to the Corinthian Christians to be united is a great message. In a culture where we are encouraged to always put our individual needs and wants ahead of everything else, it can be hard to set aside a personal preference for the sake of the whole community. But the church is one body with many members. Jesus never meant for it to be made up of one segment of the population: not just old folks, not just kids, not just social justice warriors, not just Democrats, not just able-bodied or white or middle-class. But a place for all sorts and conditions of people to come together around a shared value, the value of sacrificial love, personified by Jesus Christ.
Paul writes that the message of the Cross is foolishness. I believe that he is contrasting the reality of life as a follower of Jesus with getting tangled up in theological theories and intellectual explanations. We are like those ancient Corinthians, in that we too are sophisticated, educated people who strive to understand every element of our world. Indeed, in this era of the internet we may feel entitled to know everything about everything, or at least to be able to find the information on Google.
But the way of Jesus isn’t like that. We don’t have to explain it or understand it in order to live it. Children receive the sacrament of Communion, a deep mystery, without understanding what it is, just as they can receive their mother’s milk in infancy: no exam required. It is a message and meaning that transcends differences of culture, language and economic capacity. And for us as Anglicans, a crucial tenet of our faith is that there is a kind of understanding that comes through doing. We live out the theology of our faith through the way we act. Our worship book is our theology manual, and the patterns of our lives will reflect what we believe about ourselves, the world, and God.
The Anglican vision of unity without uniformity is a great blessing, because it saves us from having to judge each other by some litmus test of doctrine. We can live as a community of love whether we believe that the sacrament actually becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus, or that Communion is a symbolic act of commemoration. The true litmus test is how we treat each other in spite of our differences. Can we live lives of gratitude, generosity and selflessness? Can we make do with less so that others can have enough? Can we remove our own egos from the center of our inner worlds and replace them with the God of love?
And what of our corporate life at St. Paul’s? In the specific context of this moment in our history, when so many of our assumptions have been shaken, when our community has been wounded by COVID and divisive politics, when fewer and fewer people see the benefit of belonging to a faith community, resolving to follow Jesus means letting go of our image of how church has been and leaning into new models, new experiments, new ways to be church. It’s a steep challenge, but I know we are up for it.
The church may and must change with the times, but the message of the Gospel has never changed: Jesus calls us to shine a light in the darkness of the world. There have always been people who sit in deep darkness and who need to know the light of Christ. It can take a long time and a lot of grace to get to a place where the light of Christ shines brightly. Maybe you are listening to this sermon today and thinking to yourself, “Yes, I’m in darkness right now. When will the light of Christ shine in my life?” If that is the case, you need to know the love of this vibrant community, and we need to demonstrate it, because when we show love and compassion, when we truly follow in the footsteps of Jesus, sharing his good news, we are reflecting God’s love and compassion, and the world desperately needs more of that. So, hear the good news: “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.” Jesus is calling us: let’s go fishing.