Sunday 25 January 2009

Choosing your team

An address given at Shinrone and Aghancon on Epiphany 3, 25th January 2009.

You can hardly have missed all the fuss surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration as 44th President of the United States!

We certainly didn’t in my house: my wife Marty is a dual Irish-US citizen and actually voted for him, so immediately after his inauguration speech we toasted him with a glass of champagne!

Perhaps you too have a special interest in him – while Moneygall have claimed him as a native son, I’ve heard rumours that his earliest traceable Irish ancestor really came from Shinrone!

There is such an outpouring of emotion about Obama, not just in the United States but right around the world. I find it both heart-stirring and also a bit scary. He has great charisma. His words speak to American hopes for an end to division and a return to peace and prosperity. They speak to all of us, I think. But I fear too many see him as a Messiah who can deliver the change they voted for in the twinkling of an eye. How can he possibly live up to their expectations? And how will they react if he doesn’t?

When a leader takes on a great mission, two of the many things he or she must do are these:

First, to find words clear and simple enough to inspire people to achieve his mission – in horrid business jargon, that’s a vision statement.

Second, to choose the team that is needed to implement the vision.

This is what President Obama has been doing over the last few weeks of transition. His inauguration speech is in effect his vision statement. Very wisely he has tried to use it to manage the expectations of the American people. And he has been choosing the team who will make up his Government and implement his vision.

And surely this is just what Jesus did as well, at the very start of his ministry, as Mark tells us in today’s Gospel reading (Mark 1:14-20).

As Mark tells it, Jesus first went to be baptised by John the Baptist in the Jordan - perhaps that is when he got the first inkling of his own significance. Driven by the spirit, he then spent 40 days being tempted by the devil in the Judean desert – perhaps this is where he refined the vision that would define his mission. Only when he learned that John the Baptist had been arrested did he actually start his ministry in Galilee. Only then was the time right for the kingdom of God to come near.

Today I’m going to reflect both on Jesus’s vision statement, and how he chose his team, because I think there’s a lot we can learn from them.

Mark summarises Jesus’s vision statement, in these few words: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

Mark has so compressed Jesus’s vision that I find it is not easy to grasp the meaning straight away. Let me try to unpick it.

Jesus sees that the time is right for his great mission, which is to lead every one of us into the kingdom of God. In other words his mission is to show us all how to be the men and women that God wants us to be. It is in fact no less than the salvation of humanity.

What prevents us from being the people God wants us to be? We are all created in God’s image, and in our heart of hearts we can all tell right from wrong, can't we? – in other words we are souls with consciences. But we all know only too well - it is a matter of observation, if we are honest with ourselves - that nevertheless we repeatedly do what we should not do and do not do what we should do. In other words we all sin; some more and some less, but we all sin. And that sin cuts us off from God’s kingdom.

Jesus teaches us that God loves us, every one of us, as a father loves his children. More than that Jesus teaches us that God like a loving father will forgive us our sins and give us entry to his kingdom. All we have to do is to acknowledge them and repent - of course we must really mean it, we must truly repent. This is the good news that Jesus proclaims and asks us to believe.

‘Repent, and believe in the good news’ sums up Jesus’s vision for every one of us.

Mark also tells us how Jesus chose his first followers, Simon and his brother Andrew, and James and John the sons of Zebedee.

The other three Gospels have similar stories, and no doubt Jesus called the rest of the Twelve who he would send out as apostles in much the same way.

Let us think a bit about the men that Jesus picked out to be his very first followers. Here are some things I notice about them.

First, notice who they are: they are ordinary folk, working fishermen. Like Jesus himself, they aren’t part of the Jewish elite; they are neither learned nor wealthy. They are part of that honourable class the common people. Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘God must love the common people – he made so many of them.’ Jesus clearly did.

Notice what they are doing when Jesus calls them: they are just going about their ordinary day’s work, catching fish and mending nets. If we are alive to God’s world and listening for him, his call may come to any one of us, at any time, in any place.

Notice how Jesus calls them: he simply says, ‘Follow me!’ I don’t imagine this is the first time they have seen Jesus. No doubt they had stood in the crowd and listened to him. Perhaps they had lingered afterwards and talked to him in person. Whatever, they must already have been captured by his charisma – if Obama has charisma now, then I think Jesus must have had it in spades! Their response I feel sure is an emotional one, not an intellectual one. It is love that draws them to the person of Jesus, not his arguments, just as love has drawn so many to him ever since.

Lastly, notice what Jesus offers them: a task to do. He calls them not to a life of contemplation, but to a life of service to others, as ‘fishers of men’, in that lovely phrase from the King James translation. It is a task in which they will spend themselves, burn themselves up, and in the end die for his sake, and for the sake of others. It is also a task in which they will find eternal life in God’s kingdom.

So to conclude, among the things we can learn from Jesus’s vision statement and his choice of disciples are these:
  • We should listen well to Jesus’s words, ‘Repent, and believe in the good news’, because they sum up his vision for us.
  • And we should try to model ourselves on Jesus’s first disciples. They are ordinary people, just as we are. Like them we should stay alert and open for Jesus’s call. It may come anywhere, at anytime. It is a call to love, to love him and to follow him in his life of service to others. It is a call to enter the kingdom of God.


Stephen Neill said...

Love that Sermon Joc and couldn't agree more re the danger of Messianic expectations of Obama - You strike exactly the right balance - I tried to say something similar last Sunday but you nailed it.

Joc Sanders said...

Thanks, Stephen. To turn it on its head, I wonder if Jesus's contemporaries also found his words both heart-stirring and a bit scary? I certainly do!