Sunday, 6th February 2022
This year we follow the story of Jesus in St Luke's Gospel. Luke's story goes from the Annunciation and on into the Acts of the Apostle, which finishes with Paul preaching in Rome. In the last two weeks, we have heard Jesus announcing his mission in Nazara – and then facing local opposition. Today he is undaunted as he calls helpers to take on that ministry with him. What might we learn?
Firstly, Jesus has shown that he is taking on an extraordinary and unsettling mission. He challenges ordinary people to be part of that amazing journey. His huge draft of fish challenges the apostles to believe that unexpected things are possible. We so often underestimate what can be achieved. Peter says that they have fished all night and caught nothing. Now a carpenter tells them to fish during the heat of the day when they are tired and disheartened. The greatest enemy of Christ is not those who oppose his message but those who dumb it down and expect little. There is a temptation to paint a gloomy picture of the future and then desperately hope that such a future materialises. It is easy to think that we are wise – but Christ is much wiser. Jesus does not want us fishing merely in shallow waters. He challenges us to put out into the deep, despite all excuses for not bothering. A frightened church will never bear witness to the courageous Jesus.
An exclusive church that seeks only the perfect and that dreams of being small and pure is afraid to put out into the deep. Jesus takes us where we are but loves us too much to leave us where we are.
by Bishop Donal McKeown
Secondly, as Peter discovers, the encounter with Jesus involves a conversion. He allows himself to be amazed by what has happened and he knows that he is standing before someone special. As Isaiah discovered in the first reading, we have to recognise that God is in charge. But Jesus does not take our weakness as a failing. Peter is honest and Jesus simply reassures Peter that he should not be afraid. Jesus calls people to follow him who know their failings. There is the temptation to think that we have to be strong and talented in order to be of use to Christ and his mission. Isaiah and Peter show that we have to check whether we are weak enough to be disciples and missionaries. Those, like the Pharisees, who are very confident of their own holiness are obstacles to people knowing the foolishness of the Cross. Jesus calls those who know that God's love is a gift, not a reward. That is why Jesus went to those who believed they were useless failures, those who were pushed to be the back and told to keep quiet. A church that is wealthy and strong is easily tempted to be judgemental and possessive of grace. A church that follows the example of Isaiah and Peter knows that all is gift - and that this gift is readily available for anyone who come to Christ. Thus, an open and welcoming church is not a chummy group that says there is room for a 'whatever you like' form of discipleship. But Christ's followers will make room for people whatever their past and present, so that they grow in their faithfulness to Jesus. An exclusive church that seeks only the perfect and that dreams of being small and pure is afraid to put out into the deep. Jesus takes us where we are but loves us too much to leave us where we are. The deep water of our failings is where Jesus wants to fish. For Isaiah, becoming a disciple meant being forgiven. We are church of forgiven sinners and not a proud clique of the elect. You don't have to b a saint to be allowed in. But coming in commits you to becoming a saint.
Thirdly, there is a sign outside some churches that the carpenter of Nazareth seeks joiners. I like the pun. But Jesus actually seeks followers who are prepared to leave something behind in order to follow him. He asks a lot from Peter. The Gospel tells us that Peter and his companions left behind everything and followed him. In every generation, Jesus invites people to leave everything and put out into the deep. Jesus will encounter those like the rich young man who will be too attached to too many things and walk away from the invitation. But he never stops calling people by name to trust him and accept Christ's agenda. There is the temptation to have many other priorities – things to do, places to see, the bucket list of adventures that are supposed to be part of a young person's list of boasts. But in every generation Jesus asks people to be fools for his sake. I was talking to a young woman n his 20s recently. She has entered a community of religious sisters. She describes the first year of formation as a steam-cleaning, stripping away all the illusions that she has about what is necessary to be thoroughly modern. The great reforming saints all went through that process of removing the numerous temptations and distractions that keep Christ and the Cross at a distance. A courageous church putting out into the deep will come about, not when we dumb down the Christian message to make it more palatable for the pampered – but when we make space for the Isaiah and Peters of this world to recognise their weakness and to empty themselves so that the Spirit of Christ can fill them to become fishers of people.
Jesus is at the beginning of his ministry, and he knows that it will be tough. The Church in our own country is at the beginning of a new stage in its history. We can learn from our scripture readings. And the message begins with St Paul's message about the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is the message that he has been called to proclaim – and it will cost him everything. As the Irish church seeks to discern where God is calling us to bear witness, we might learn from Peter, Paul and Isaiah to do the following
- Learn to recognise our weaknesses rather than bemoaning the failings of others;
- Dare to believe that Jesus asks us to cast out into the deep where we are told we are wasting our time;
- Be open to Christ's voice calling us to leave behind so many of our trinkets, in order to model his sacrifice for us.
And he invites us together each week so that we can celebrate his death and resurrection – and be equipped for the outrageous mission that he is still carrying out in the world. He doesn't just want joiners. He calls for missionaries.
+ Donal McKeown