21 January 2018
As Christians, can we
stand passively by
the bank or on the shore?
Sunday 21 January 2018,
The Third Sunday after the Epiphany.
9.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.
Readings: Jonah 3: 1-5, 10; Psalm 62: 5-12; I Corinthians 7: 29-31; Mark 1: 14-20.
May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Many years ago, while I hitch-hiking and youth-hostelling in the Peaks on the borders of Staffordshire and Derbyshire in my late teens, and staying in Ilam Hall, I came across the work of Izaak Walton (1593-1683), who wrote biographies of John Donne, George Herbert and Richard Hooker, and who also wrote The Compleat Angler.
In The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton says fishing can teach us patience and discipline. Fishing takes practice, preparation, discipline; like discipleship, it has to be learned, and learning requires practice before there are any results.
And sometimes, whether it is fishing in a river or fishing in the sea, the best results can come from going against the current.
Walking along the pier in small Greek fishing villages, I sometimes watch the careful early morning work of the crews on the trawlers and fishing boats. It is a lesson that good fishing does not come about by accident. It also requires paying attention to the nets, moving them carefully, mending them, cleaning them after each and every use, hanging them out to dry.
Most of us, when we think of Jonah, who is at the heart of our Old Testament reading, immediately think of the big fish, which may help make connections with the fishing scene that provides the setting for our Gospel reading.
Jonah is the archetypal reluctant prophet. Earlier, God calls him to ‘Go at once to Nineveh ... and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.’ Jonah tries to escape by sailing to the ends of the earth.
But God is not going to let go of Jonah; and God now calls him a second time. This time, Jonah obeys, and he goes to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. But it seems Jonah is easily distracted and happy with half measures. He goes to the city, but after a day he only got half-way into Nineveh.
Even then, God works through Jonah. The people of Nineveh react positively: they believe, they acknowledge their godlessness, and later their king repents.
We can see in that story the outward signs of repentance: a change of attitude to others, or turning away from evil and violence; and acknowledging God’s freedom in how God responds to our repentance.
In our Epistle reading (I Corinthians 7: 29-31), the Apostle Paul writes from Ephesus to the Christians of Corinth, calling them to live a life of repentance, for ‘the time we live in will not last long,’ reminding them that ‘the present time is passing away.’
He reminds us that we live in a time between Christ’s first coming and Christ’s second coming, a time in which the Church is called to bring as many as possible to believe in him and to follow his ways. And so, our epistle reading too is an important preparation for hearing the Gospel story of the call of Andrew and Peter, James and John, and for being reminded of our own call too.
In our Gospel reading (Mark 1: 14-20), we move from being told of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness to his return to Galilee. His message begins with ‘the time is fulfilled’ (verse 15): the time appointed by God, the decisive time for God’s action, has arrived. ‘The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’ (verse 15).
To repent does not mean to feel badly or guilty. It means to change my behaviour, to re-align it with new principles, new beliefs, new understandings, new insights, new objectives, new goals and new values. The feelings that accompany repentance can range from sorrow over past deeds, to joy for new options; from anger over past false hopes, to confidence in now finding firm ground.
To ‘believe in the good news’ could also be translated as ‘trust into the Good News.’ This is not a call to believe in terms of having an opinion about the factual accuracy of Good News. Instead, Christ is calling for a radical, total, unqualified response in which I base my life no matter what the risks may be.
Now we too are called to adopt God’s way, to ‘believe in the good news’ we hear about the very beginning of the Gospel. It could be said that the whole of Saint Mark’s Gospel is a working out of the meaning and implication of this.
When the first four disciples are called they immediately leave their previous occupations, and follow Christ. This immediacy of response is a mark of this Gospel. These disciples owned nets (verse 19), and they had employees (‘hired men,’ verse 20), so they were people of rank. They gave up security and family to follow Christ and to devote themselves to his mission.
It is interesting to note how one of the first things Christ does is to recruit followers. Proclaiming the Good News and that the Kingdom of God is near is not a one-man show. Instead, it involves building up communities, and creating relationships that embody the Good News.
Fishing was carried out at night so that the freshly caught fish could be sold as soon as possible in the morning. So, being out at night – and smelling of fish – made fishing a disreputable occupation.
Christ sees Simon and Andrew at night, or just before dawn, as they are actively fishing. He then sees James and John after dawn – they have finished their night’s work and are in their boat, mending their nets.
The first four people Christ calls are engaged in a dirty and demanding occupation. Their friends and neighbours must have reacted with alarm and suspicion, and probably talked about how their response was breaking up their families and breaking down the social fabric of their community.
Are you finding your calling to follow Christ difficult when it comes to family relationships and maintaining your relationship with your community, with those you work with or those who are your neighbours?
Sometimes, like Jonah, do you feel like taking another journey, or just going half-way?
I do not know which was a more difficult and demanding task: being a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, or being a Disciple of Christ … especially when the call comes from someone who has withdrawn to Galilee after the arrest of his cousin, the one who publicly baptised and acclaimed him, Saint John the Baptist.
Either way, the four first disciples were going to have no lazy day by the shore or the river bank, or as followers of Christ. Becoming ‘fishers of men,’ ‘fishing for people,’ is going to bring these Galilean fishers into a relationship not only with Christ, but with their families, with their neighbours, with the tax collectors, with Pharisees, with Sadducees and Zealots, with the powers of this world, with Gentiles, with the people who sat in darkness and in the region of the shadow of death.
Sometimes in the Church, we do not cast our nets far enough or deep enough. No wonder then that most of the time, when we pull in those nets, we find them empty.
There is a saying that fish come in three sizes, small ones, medium ones and the ones that got away.
As Christians, can we passively stand by the bank or on the shore, content with two sizes of fish. We are called to go after the one that others let get away, not just those who come to Church regularly, but their families, their neighbours, the tax collectors, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots of our age, the powers of this world, the Gentiles, and especially with those people who sit in darkness and in the region of the shadow of death.
Time and again in the Gospels, the Kingdom of God is compared to a huge net cast over different numbers of people and species. We are the ones called to cast that net. But to do so we need to attend to our own discipline, endurance, and patience.
Being a Christian is not passive following of Christ. We cannot hang any sign outside our church doors saying: ‘Gone Fishin’.’ There is a sad and broken world out there that needs to hear about God’s unbounded and generous love.
And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, 21 January 2018.
The Penitential Kyries:
God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
whose Son revealed in signs and miracles
the wonder of your saving presence:
Renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your mighty power;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world: