Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Killiney, Co Dublin on Sunday, 22nd January 2006
“At once they left their nets and followed him. “
When I was a curate, there were around 1,000 households on our parish list. Fifty or sixty of those would have been people who were frail or housebound and we would visit them on a regular basis.
There was one lady who lived in a terrace near the middle of the town who fascinated me. She lived a hermit-like existence in her house, that opened directly onto the street at the front and that had a yard at the back. She rose at six every morning, summer and winter and made her fire and cleaned and tidied the house. She had neither television nor radio and took no newspapers; her only reading matter was a large black leather-bound Bible. She rarely ventured further than a shop down the street. Occasionally a friend or neighbour would call.
I asked her once what she did all day and she said she did her housework and read her Bible and said her prayers. She was a lady who possessed complete tranquility and was one of those people who made you feel better about life.
The lady was one of the most devout people I had ever met, her life would have matched that of a monastery or a convent, but had I asked her if she was a “Christian, I suspect strongly that she would have said ‘no’. To be a Christian in our town meant that you had to belong to one of the conservative evangelical or fundamentalist churches. You were a “Christian” if you belonged to the Brethren, or the Baptists, or the Elim Pentecostals, or the Free Presbyterians, or the Reformed Presbyterians, or one of the other brands of Northern evangelicalism. You might be a “Christian” if you were a Presbyterian or a Methodist. It was most unlikely that you could be a Christian in the Church of Ireland and you could not possibly be a Christian and be a Catholic.
To be a “Christian” in the town in the 1980s meant having a particular view of the world that ruled out such activities as going to the pub; going to the cinema or the theatre; reading a Sunday newspaper; having friends who didn’t share your thinking; watching most television programmes; and a list of other misdemeanours, the most minor of which could lead to a split between church members and people leaving to go somewhere else, or even starting another church, to add to the twenty-three that were already in the town. Being a “Christian” did not rule out bigotry, prejudice, racism, malicious gossip, self-righteousness, and a spiritual arrogance that would have made the most Pharisee of the Pharisees look modest and humble.
The experiences of those days made me often reflect on “what is a Christian?” If being a “Christian” meant something different than being sectarian, then what did it mean?
It needed to have some sort of definition. In a recent opinion poll in England, 67% of people said they were “Christian”. I asked two friends in England, who are not in the slightest bit religious, what did it mean when two-thirds of the population said they were “Christian”? It means, they said, not Muslim. “Christian” seemed in that case to mean to people something to do with their ethnic and national identity, it didn’t mean that they had particular religious beliefs.
“Christian” can be defined in a way so narrow and sectarian that even Jesus would have problems being counted in; or it can be defined in a way so broad and so vague that Jesus would be hard pressed to recognise it as having anything to do with him.
Being a good Anglican, I, of course, think that we find Jesus in the middle ground. Being a Christian is not about being a member of a tight little sect; there were plenty of those around in Jesus’ time, groups like the Zealots appealed to very narrow and very extreme thinking, and Jesus would have nothing to do with them. Nor is being a Christian about some vague idea of the country or the community; if it was then Jesus could have regarded the whole Jewish people as followers and none of what happened need have taken place.
Words from the opening chapter of Saint Mark’s Gospel, I think, give us a benchmark for what being a Christian is about. “At once they left their nets and followed him. “ “At once they left their nets”, tells us that being a Christian is about commitment; “and followed him”, tells us that being a Christian is about discipleship, about copying Jesus’ example in our daily lives.
Being a Christian is about heart and hand; it’s about thoughts and actions. Was the lady I used to visit a Christian? Of course, she was. There was a commitment in her heart to Jesus and there was a discipleship in the routine of her daily life.
Were the members of the various churches who called themselves “Christian” actually Christian at all? I’m not sure. I really didn’t see any sign of commitment in them, they might go to church and to the weeknight meeting, but there wasn’t much sign that their hearts were changed. As for discipleship, as for action, there was no sign at all; they felt they were saved by what they believed, they saw no need whatsoever of living lives that reflected the teachings of Jesus.
“At once they left their nets and followed him.“ The call of those first disciples, asks questions of us. We need to constantly look at our own commitment. “At once” Simon and Andrew left what they were doing; how readily do we respond when we know that God is calling us to something? How easy it is to make excuses, and each time we make an excuse we slip that much further away from God. They “followed him” and we must ask about how much the way we live our life is shaped by Jesus’ example; if we’re not following him, then we’re going our own way and the gap between where we are and where we should be is getting bigger and bigger.
“At once they left their nets and followed him. “ Do we match up to that definition of Christian?