Saint John the Evangelist (Lockport, IL)

Sunday, January 23, 2005

A good sermon on discipleship

Sermons and Reflections from an Episcopal Priest
Sunday, January 23, 2005
Follow the Lord
SJF • Epiphany 3a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said, follow me and I will make you fish for people. Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

In last week’s gospel from the book of John we heard one version of the calling of Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. This week we hear Matthew’s version of this call; and a very different version it is, with a very different message. Last week we heard about Andrew, as a disciple of John the Baptist, following the Baptist’s lead and inquiring after Jesus; and then going to find his brother Peter. Today we hear of two pairs of brothers, all four of them fishermen. And all four of them, upon hearing the compelling call of Jesus Christ himself — not an intermediary like John the Baptist, but the Lord himself — all four of them drop everything and immediately leave their familiar world of work and family to follow this fascinating stranger. So it is that Jesus gathers up the first four disciples as he strolls by the seaside, catching these fishermen with the net of his word, and hauling them off to do his work.

These are Christ’s first four disciples, and it is discipleship I want to talk about today, what it means for us and for the church of which we are members. Disciple is a word we are likely to misunderstand. We often think of a disciple as someone who carries out a ministry. But we can see the true meaning of discipleship at work today in this call of the first four disciples. For to be a disciple is to be one who follows. A disciple of Christ is one who follows Christ, one who upon hearing the call of his compelling voice sets all else aside: livelihood, family, and sometimes even life itself. The disciple is devoted to the one he follows, and leaves everything else behind.

In the reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, we see what happens when disciples forget who it is they are supposed to be following, and instead get focused on their own more domestic issues, their own personal problems,their own needs, their own desires, and most importantly the persons and personalities of their earthly leaders. The Corinthians have taken their eyes off of Christ, and instead have turned to their favorite teachers, the ones who brought them the word of God, rather than the incarnate Word of God himself. Some of them are saying, “I belong to Apollos,” while others claim to belong to Cephas or to Paul. And Paul himself reminds them that the one they belong to is Jesus Christ, who is not divided into bits and pieces and parts and parties, but who is the head of the body of the church which builds itself up in unity through the Spirit. By ceasing to focus on Christ, and turning to their own earthly leaders, the Corinthians have become quarrelsome, divided and disagreeable.

Now, this sounds very familiar. It is no secret that our own Anglican Communion has been going through some very rough and quarrelsome times over the last year. Division abounds, and some would like to make the division permanent: some bishops are claiming not to recognize other bishops — a few of them have said they won’t even be in the same room together with them, let alone talk to each other. Some say, “I belong to Robinson” while others shout “I belong to Duncan” while others appeal to Kolini or Akinola! A few parishes here and there have refused to allow their own bishops to walk through their doors, and instead are calling on bishops from other dioceses or even other churches to come to them for visitations.

How did we come to such a state of affairs? I think it is in large part because, just as with the Corinthians, many have taken their eyes off of Christ — who cannot be divided — and instead focused all their attention upon the various leaders of the church, as if what really mattered most to God was who gets to be a bishop or not. All around this country, people here and there — not in large numbers, but enough to be troublesome — are lining up behind their favorite bishop from some other diocese, or even from some othercountry altogether, claiming all the while that the reason they’re doing so is to remain true to the gospel.

But what does the gospel have to say about bishops? Not one word! The only time the root of the Greek word for bishop is used in the Gospel, Jesus is talking about himself — and Jerusalem’s failure to recognize him at the time of his visitation. (Luke 19:44) For Christian discipleship, as Saint Paul reminded the Corinthians, is not about following another Christian, but about following Christ. It is Christ’s visitation, not the bishop’s, that should concern us. And when it happens that following another Christian, whether a priest or a bishop or even a Primate, leads to division in the body of Christ, then something has gone terribly wrong.

Various solutions to this problem have been proposed. A blue ribbon panel appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a report last fall at Windsor. Unfortunately, the solution the Windsor Report recommends seems to raise more problems than it solves. Bishops who don’t get along with each other shouldn’t meet with each other; people should apologize for doing what they believe they were right to do, and if they don’t they might get voted off the island, when, as the panel suggests, a new world government for the church, an International Anglican Congress, is established that will get to decide who is in and who is out. Instead of finding a solution in the promise of unity in Christ, this blue ribbon panel dangles ecclesiastical division as the ultimate threat, hanging on the big stick of big government.

There are two problems with this approach. First, if you see division in the body of Christ as a possibility, you have already missed the call to Christian unity that God issues in the first place. It is rather like someone crossing his fingers during a marriage ceremony, and while his lips form the words “till death do us part” he thinks in his heart, “until I change my mind.” You cannot build unity by threatening division! For Christ is not divided, and he does not call us to division. Rather he calls us to staytogether for better for worse, for richer for poorer, till death do us part. He calls us to leave behind the familiar and to follow him into the unknown promise that lies before us, knowing it can only be realized in him.

Second, if you look for unity not in Christ himself but in some form of world church government, you are simply replicating the mistakes that we Anglicans felt the Roman Catholic Church made hundreds of years ago. If we Anglicans have learned anything — and given the current state of affairs I’m wondering if we have learned anything — it is that we find our true unity in the one who is Truth incarnate, Jesus Christ the only Son of God, not in some governmental structure, most certainly not in an international church government that cannot possibly be robust enough to contain all of the many cultural differences which exist at a human level, differences which ultimately only can be subsumed through the spirit of Christ, in whom, as Saint Paul assured the Galatians, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female — but all are one in him.

Our own House of Bishops met last week and made an initial response to the Windsor Report. And I’m glad to say, and proud to say, that they kept the focus on Christ, rather than on the political expediency of denying what they believe, or trying to find unity through anything other than our common baptism. They are committed, come what may, to following the Lord. This is the only form of church unity that is ultimately meaningful, for only as disciples of Christ can we have trust that we are one in him who is our Savior and our God. In the coming weeks and months and years, let us pray for the Spirit of wisdom to descend upon all the members and the leaders of the church, wherever they may be. May the Spirit of our loving God turn their hearts from quarrelsome division and tiresome dissent, towards Jesus Christ our Lord in whom alone our unity is assured, and whose visitation we await with hopeful and devoted hearts.


posted by Tobias S Haller BSG at 2:42 PM


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