Sermon Sunday 26 January 2020
Sacrament of Holy Communion
Lesson St Matthew 4: 12 – 23
Prayer of Illumination
Rock of our life, Guardian of the soul, help us to rest in You. Bless us with the medicine of meditation that we may be one with You and resolute in our devotion and affection for You. Amen.
John the Baptist had been arrested by Herod Antipas, a first century ruler of Galilee. In time, Herod the Tetrarch, ‘King Herod’, would have John executed. On the bleak and dark news of John’s arrest, Jesus made His way to Capernaum, to a more distant and remote region of Galilee. For personal safety and spiritual solace, Jesus travelled to the land of Zebulun and Naphtali. What must it have felt like to receive this news? It was not so long ago that John had stood with Jesus, held Him and immersed Him in the flowing waters of the Jordan. It was John’s influence and direction which led Jesus to that most intense mystical encounter. With the soul, Jesus saw the Spirit of God descend upon Him and He heard the words, ‘This is my beloved Son’. Now John had been taken, Jesus knew what that meant.
It was from this time apart and His forty days and nights alone in the desert that Jesus emerged strengthened and nourished; His faith, having been tested, was now deepened and renewed. He returned to public life proclaiming, ‘Repent, the kingdom of Heaven is upon you’. The phrase ‘kingdom of Heaven’ appears only in the Gospel of Matthew but does so twenty-two times. The author chose the word ‘Heaven’ to avoid using the name of God; this avoidance reflects Jewish respect for the sacredness of God’s name. The ‘kingdom of Heaven’ is not so much a place, somewhere up there, out there, but a state of being; a consciousness of the Eternal and an awareness, openness, to seeing God everywhere, permeating the whole of creation, every day. With the inner eye, we can ‘see’ the Sacred hidden in the profane; each day a sacrament.
For Jesus, a Wisdom teacher, the kingdom of Heaven was not some far off future moment; it was now. We are to be present to the Presence and cultivate a sense of the Sacred. The term ‘kingdom’ or ‘reign’ is the Divine Presence. In Judaism, God’s Spirit or Presence is the Shekinah. The word is feminine: Shekinah is She who dwells with us. The word ‘repent’ means to turn to a God-centred awareness, a sense of going home. After His time alone, perhaps many months, Jesus emerged with the message, ‘Open yourself to God-consciousness, to awareness of God; return to your spiritual home and, with the inner eye, see the Eternal everywhere’. Jesus invites us, encourages us, to develop a true sense of the spiritual.
It is this life-changing message to which He called the first disciples. As He walked by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus called two brothers, Simon and Andrew. Later, He called James and John. What is most striking about these stories of call is that none of the disciples speak. They are silent. It is from this silence, from a moment of encounter with Jesus, that they step forward to a life of discipleship. We are to read these crafted narratives imaginatively. Simon, Andrew, James and John encountered Jesus in the ordinariness of their lives; their encounter, that inner voice or intuition, inaudibly spoke in the silence of their souls. The Eternal, the Immortal, is unavailable to the tools of science: She is felt within.
After the apostle Paul, the greatest writer in the history of the Church is the fourth century mystic and theologian, St Augustine. Augustine’s conversion or moment of awareness came in August 386. He said his first instinct was to find time ‘to be still and see God’. He loved his solitude, but most often preferred to search for God in the company of friends. He said, ‘Prayer at its deepest is more than words’. Of his spiritual journey, Augustine said that it was not about going out or seeking God outside us; it was a journey inwards. Augustine said, ‘He bade me shut the door of our secret chamber and pray in secret. That is, in the soundless secret places of our hearts. For we pray to him in the silence of our hearts’. For Augustine, silence was not the absence of sound; it had a substance of its own. Is this the sacred silence we hear in the wordless response of the new disciples?
What of the fish? Is there more to this image than meets the eye? Jesus said to Simon and Andrew, ‘Come with me, and I will make you fishers of people’. In the Jewish Torah, in the opening creation narrative of the Book of Genesis, the first time God spoke to any living creature it was to fish. God blessed them saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters of the sea’. When the patriarch Jacob blessed his grandchildren, he said, ‘Let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth’. In Hebrew, the word ‘grow’ is from the root meaning ‘fish’. The name ‘James’ is derived from the Hebrew name ‘Jacob’. In the Jewish tradition, it is said that the eyes of a fish are like the eyes of God because they never close; fish symbolise God’s protective gaze. Within the Jewish tradition, it was believed that the messianic banquet, the feast we share with the Messiah, would be fish: fish is a foretaste of the world to come. Is it possible that in our Gospel story fish and fishing have multiple layers of meaning?
We are caught by Christ; by a God-consciousness, an awareness that the Eternal, that the Immortal, the Shekinah, fills all things. With practice, some of us will relish the discipline of silence, and some not. Some of us will prefer the company of community. Some of us are called to regular reading of Scripture, others to practical caring; some to leadership, others education, and others again to daily prayer. Each of us is truly called, called in manifestly different ways and to different roles, but nonetheless called to walk with the Divine. Today we are called by Jesus to this Table and invited to receive the Bread and Wine from His hands.