Tuesday 10 January 2023

Follow me and I will make you fish for people

'I will make you fish for people'
Duccio di Buoninsegna

Reflection for morning worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 10th January 2023

We have just heard Mark’s account (Mark1:14-28) of how Jesus recruited his first disciples. Beside the sea of Galilee, Jesus spots Simon and his brother Andrew fishing. Jesus says to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’. And immediately they left their nets and followed him”. A little further on he saw the brothers James and John mending their nets. ‘Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee … and followed him’. Matthew gives us an essentially identical account (Matthew 4:18-22).

Have you ever wondered why these 4 very ordinary men dropped everything to follow Jesus when he called them? Jesus clearly had great charisma, as all the Gospel stories about him show. But I doubt if you or I would leave our loved ones and our livelihoods to follow a charismatic stranger we had only just met.

The answer is that they already knew Jesus, or at least knew all about him, and Jesus had already impressed them with his presence, teaching and authority.

John in his Gospel (1:35-42) tells us how Andrew and Simon first met Jesus. Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. As Jesus walked by, Andrew and another disciple of John the Baptist heard him exclaim ‘Look here is the lamb of God!’. Andrew and the other disciple followed Jesus, who invited them to come and see where he was staying. They came, they saw, and they stayed with Jesus for the rest of the day. Afterwards Andrew went to find his brother Simon to tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’. Andrew brought Simon to Jesus, who recognised him and named him Cephas, meaning rock in Aramaic, or Petros in Greek, Peter in English. This must have happened well before Jesus called Andrew and Peter to fish for people, as Mark tells us that happened after John the Baptist had been arrested.

What of James and John, the sons of Zebedee? that they were partners with Simon in his fishing enterprise. I feel quite certain that Simon and Andrew would have told them all about the man they had met, who they thought might be the Messiah. We are not told so, but they might even have introduced James and John to Jesus. Luke also adds some lovely detail to the bare story given by Mark and Matthew of how Simon and Andrew, James and John, came to leave everything to follow Jesus.

Jesus did not convert Simon and Andrew, James and John in a sudden ‘born again’ conversion experience, causing them to drop everything to follow him. Such experiences do happen, but rarely – remember St Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus. Rather, I feel certain that these four disciples came gradually over time to follow Jesus, as they encountered him in their lives, and heard about him from others. This is still the way most disciples are made, sometimes over many years.

Most of us, like Simon and Andrew, James and John, must come to know Jesus intimately, as a friend we admire, before we can respond to his call, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’.


Sunday 8 January 2023

The Baptism of Christ


Today the Church asks us to remember the Baptism of Christ.

Picture again, in your minds eye, the moments after John baptised Jesus, as described by Matthew in his gospel (3:13-17).

Here is Jesus, a man in the prime of his life, about 30 years old. He is glistening wet from receiving John’s baptism of repentance, as he walks up out of the river Jordan. Then, suddenly, the heavens burst open. The Spirit of God descends like a dove to alight on him. And the voice of God declares from heaven, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’.

What a strikingly vivid and dramatic scene – it’s easy to imagine being there, isn’t it?

Matthew describes an event – an epiphany - in which God reveals Jesus to be his Son and anoints him with his Spirit.

The same epiphany, bringing together Jesus at his baptism, the dove and a voice from heaven, is also described by Mark, Luke and John. It must have been part of the common tradition of the earliest Christians on which Matthew and the other evangelists drew when writing their gospels.

For Christians by the 4th Century these baptism passages were seen as supporting and illustrating the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that the one God consists of three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are the only passages in the NT where we encounter all three persons together at the same time, in the same place.

Matthew would have known the book of Isaiah well, like all educated Jews of his time. He would have seen the parallels with today’s OT reading (Isaiah 42:1-9), in which God declares, ‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him’. But there is this crucial difference: for Isaiah, God identifies his chosen one as just a servant; whereas for Matthew, God identifies Jesus as his beloved Son.

What did John the Baptist make of Jesus’s baptism?

John recognised Jesus when he came to ask for baptism - not surprisingly since they were cousins close in age. John says to Jesus, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ What’s going on here?

John proclaimed ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). He called people to repent, and baptised them as a sign that God forgave their sins. John knew that he needed baptism, repentance and forgiveness himself. But I think he must have believed that Jesus was such a good and holy man that he had no need of baptism, repentance and forgiveness.

John would also have recalled Isaiah’s description of God’s chosen servant in today’s reading, ‘He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.’ Perhaps John recognised the Jesus he knew in Isaiah’s description - softly spoken, filled with compassion for the damaged and the weak, yet determined and passionate for justice.

Despite John’s reluctance to baptise him, Jesus insists, and John consents. Then John experiences the epiphany described by Matthew: When Jesus had been baptised, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him’ – that is, to John – ‘and (John) saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on (Jesus). And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”.’

Only then does John realise the full truth, that his cousin Jesus is the promised Messiah, the incarnate Son of God, not just a remarkably holy man.

I wonder what his baptism meant for Jesus himself.

Jesus very deliberately chooses to ask John for baptism, and insists on it – it must have been very important for him.

Matthew gives us a clue when he records Jesus saying to John, ‘it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’. For Jews, righteousness meant obeying God’s law and doing God’s will. Jesus clearly believes God wishes him to be baptised by John. But for what purpose?

Perhaps God wanted Jesus to seek John’s baptism at the very start of his ministry in order to demonstrate publicly that Jesus was God’s incarnate Son, not just a good man like Isaiah’s servant. This was certainly the effect on John. But Jesus himself surely also needed to be certain who he was before beginning his ministry. Is it possible this is also the very moment when Jesus finally understands that he is Christ the Messiah, the Son of God?

Whatever the truth of this, Jesus clearly associates himself quite deliberately with John’s proclamation, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt 3:2) - he went on to proclaim it in his own ministry (Matt 4:17). And I like to think that Jesus chose to be baptised by John because he wanted to show his solidarity with sinful human beings like you and me, who desperately need to repent and be forgiven, even if he had no such need himself.

So what does Jesus’s baptism mean to you and me, 2000 years on?

Well, no doubt there are many answers. But this one strikes me.

The epiphany at the baptism of Jesus marks a great new insight into the nature of God as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As God says through Isaiah, ‘See the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare’.

Before it, Jewish religious thinkers could only conceive of the relationship between God and a human being as that between a remote master and a terrified servant. After it, Christians could see the relationship as one in which God takes our human nature upon himself, to be incarnate as a human being, like you or me.

Everything is changed, everything is made new. God ceases to be a remote figure and we are no longer afraid. God comes near to us, as close to us as our own skin. We feel his presence to be like a loving Father, to be like Jesus his Son, our friend and brother, to be like the Holy Spirit which inspires all that is good and true in us.

Let us thank God for Jesus’s baptism, most particularly for the insight it gives us into God’s intimate and loving nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word:

Almighty God,
who anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit
and revealed him as your beloved Son:
inspire us, your children,
who are born of water and the Spirit,
to surrender our lives to your service,
that we may rejoice to be called your children;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen