Sermons

Sun, Jan 22, 2017

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Series:Sermons

So far, five are dead and there are about thirty injured—

including a number of small children––

ploughed down in Melbourne’s Bourke Street pedestrian mall…

by a car driven by a young man of Greek descent…

with a history of drug use, domestic violence, and mental health problems.

He was already wanted by police for stealing a car and the attempted murder of his brother.

It’s a shocking and tragic event.

At the same time that this was happening…

on the other side of the country…

Pauline Hanson was doing a television interview…

when one of her advisers whispered in her ear…

and, with the faintest trace of a smirk on her face, she announced…

“I’ve just been told there’s a terrorist attack that’s just happened in Melbourne”…

before proceeding to roll out her trade-mark Islamophobia…

“People don’t look right…

have different ideology, different beliefs…

they’re not going to assimilate into our society…

don’t let them in”.

When pressed on why she was targeting Muslims, she responded…

“All terrorist attacks in Australia have been by Muslims”.

And she looked none too pleased when a brave journalist interjected…

“no they haven’t”.

 

Leaving aside the propriety of making such comments in the face of grief and tragedy…

she’s not the first politician to jump to conclusions…

and to interpret a scenario according to a personal ideological narrative.

Take a few known facts…

construct a story around them based on what you would like them to say…

and you have the essence of what’s now called, politely, “spin”…

but used to be known as “propaganda”.

And yet, more benignly, that’s sort of what historians do too.

They try to construct a plausible narrative to make sense of raw facts…

based on what is known of other contemporary events and social forces…

along with insights from disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, and sociology.

And, of course, it’s also what we see in religious narratives––

such as stories from the Bible.

Taking, perhaps, a fact or two––

or, sometimes, even a legend––

the writers will construct a plausible narrative…

one that reflects their particular socio-religious outlook…

and their particular theology…

with an aim to persuade their readers.

They weren’t recording stories for posterity…

they were trying to make a point:

to persuade people to believe something and to do something.

 

In our story last week from John’s Gospel…

Jesus didn’t go out looking for followers.

He didn’t call them.

He didn’t ask them to leave behind their boats and nets…

or their homes and families.

He didn’t ask them to give up their way of life.

Rather, while Jesus was walking along, minding his own business…

John the Baptist pointed Jesus out to his followers…

and made some cryptic comments about him…

whereupon some of them left and started following Jesus…

and then invited some of their family and friends to do likewise.

For the author of John’s Gospel, following Jesus is not a divinely-ordained call or vocation…

it’s part of a spiritual quest or journey…

one that we initiate ourselves.

In the other Gospels, however, Jesus does call people to follow him.

And yet, there are significant differences in their stories.

In Luke’s Gospel, we have the story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth…

and upsetting the locals.

He then goes and preaches, specifically, in Capernaum––

where this call to discipleship takes place––

and he audaciously heals a man on the Sabbath.

Following that, he goes to Simon Peter’s house where he heals his mother-in-law––

as well as others––

and then leaves to preach elsewhere.

When he returns to Capernaum…

Jesus preaches to the crowds from Simon Peter’s boat…

before instructing him to put out to the deep and cast his nets––

despite having toiled all night for no catch.

The call to discipleship comes after they have hauled in a huge net-full of fish.

In other words, in Luke’s Gospel, the call comes within a particular context.

It’s the result of a significant history of interaction…

which primes Simon Peter and the others…

to ponder and to reflect on who Jesus was.

In light of that, then, the commitment that they make in response to Jesus’ call seems quite reasonable…

even if it is demanding.

But not so in Matthew’s version.

Here, even truncating Mark’s minimalist story…

the call to follow comes completely out of nowhere.

Although there’s a brief mention of Jesus preaching––

probably in Capernaum––

it’s pretty vague.

There’s nothing specifically implying that Peter, Andrew, James, and John had heard it.

Instead, Jesus simply appears at the Sea of Galilee…

calls…

and they up and leave.

Theologically, of course, the author is trying to highlight Jesus’ divine authority…

or, perhaps, imply that he wielded enormous charismatic power.

But taken from the other side––

from the perspective of the would-be followers––

it’s all a bit unrealistic…

and a bit scary.

It’s unrealistic to expect anyone just to drop everything––

their home and family…

their means of support…

all that gives them identity and purpose––

with no clear sense of what it means or where it will end up.

It’s even more unrealistic within a first century context…

where commitment to family was absolutely sacrosanct;

where the average person struggled to make ends meet;

and where their parents were completely dependent upon them for support as they aged.

And, more than any of the others…

the author of Matthew’s Gospel specifically emphasises––

indeed, labours the point––

that they left behind their families.

To up and leave everything like that suggests

a degree of commitment with which none of us…

rightly…

would, or should, feel comfortable.

Of course, the author constructed his narrative to make a specific point.

Writing some fifty or so years after Jesus lived…

by suggesting that these men up and left everything to follow Jesus…

with little to go on…

he’s having a none-too-subtle dig at his own audience:

how much more should they be prepared to change their lives…

and give their allegiance to Jesus…

given what they know?

But, in reality, I’m not sure if that makes it any more palatable.

Perhaps, in fact, even worse.

The story, as it’s crafted and narrated…

seems to encourage a level of blind faith…

unquestioning allegiance…

and total commitment…

that is potentially quite dangerous.

It’s the sort of attitude that we associate with cults.

It’s also the sort of attitude that is expected from…

or indeed shown by…

those who belong to the more rigid, conservative, fundamentalist churches.

It’s the very attitude that we––

of the more liberal-progressive religious persuasion––

rail against.

We urge caution.

We expect people to use their brains…

to think through…

critically…

any and all claims to truth…

and any and all claims to allegiance and discipleship.

This sort of blindly spontaneous…

almost emotive…

religious response is the antithesis of what we value and encourage.

 

And yet, on our personal spiritual journeys…

as we explore the God who is mystery––

above, beyond, and beneath all that we comprehend––

and we carefully weigh all competing truth claims…

is there not a sense that…

perhaps…

we go to the opposite extreme?

Do we not…

in many respects……

specifically exclude any sense of the spontaneous?

And, in so doing, do we actually close ourselves off…

to the God…

who might just call to us out of nowhere? 

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