In today’s readings we have 2 examples of ordinary people coming face to face with the power of God.
Firstly, we have Isaiah’s powerful and compelling vision of an encounter with God in the Temple, in which God’s might and majesty are powerfully displayed. Isaiah must have been completely overwhelmed by the otherness of God. God is the Holy One and this holiness is the very essence of his diving being, which causes human beings to tremble before him as they worship him. In coming face to face with God’s power, his moral perfection, his love, his faithfulness, Isaiah’s human failings were thrown into sharp contrast and he realised his own unworthiness. What an awesome and terrifying prospect to be forced to measure our imperfections against God’s perfection.
In the Gospel reading we have a further demonstration of the power of God, but this time it is a power veiled. It is also more firmly rooted in normal human experience.
Earlier in his Gospel, Luke had written about Jesus teaching in the synagogues of Galilee and healing the sick. As one of the people that Jesus healed was Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, it is clear that Simon already knew something about Jesus. It is highly unlikely that after a frustrating night trying, without success, to catch fish that Peter would obey a total stranger who had the temerity to sit in his boat and ask to be taken away from the shore!
After Jesus had taught the crowds from the boat, the carpenter’s son told the professional fisherman how to catch fish! Such was Jesus’ air of authority that Peter obeyed. He displayed his trust in Jesus in doing so, but even he was amazed by the sheer quantity of the catch. Just like Isaiah, Peter, when faced with evidence of God’s amazing power, even though that power was veiled, experienced a deep sense of unworthiness. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”.
Both of these manifestations of God’s power are followed by an invitation to serve God. In Isaiah’s vision God said, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us” and Isaiah’s unhesitating response was, “Here am I; send me!” In the Gospel story Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” The immediate response, not only from Peter, but also from James and John, was to bring the boats to shore and then to leave everything to follow Jesus.
We, too, have been called by God. If we have not, then why are we here in church today? Our call may have been dramatic and awesome, like Isaiah’s vision in the Temple. It may have come at a time of frustration and disappointment like Peter’s. (There cannot be much more frustrating and disappointing than to work all night long in order to make a living but have nothing to show at the end of it!) It may have been the still, small voice after the earthquake, wind and fire that spoke to Elijah. It may have been the blinding light of revelation that utterly transformed Paul’s way of thinking. But in all probability it was not like any of these, because God knows each one of us completely and recognises us as unique individuals and so the way he calls us will be unique and tailored-made for us.
If we recognise that we have been called by God and we are ready to respond to that call what does that imply for us. What does it mean to be a disciple? The word “disciple” comes from the Latin discipulus meaning pupil, or learner, and might be used to refer to the pupils of a Rabbi, in the Hebrew world, or of a philosopher in Greek world. Since pupils often adopted the distinctive teaching style of their masters, the word came to signify the adherent of a particular outlook in religion or philosophy.
However, when we talk of Jesus’ disciples we usually something mean something rather different. The disciples in the Gospels were people who gave Jesus personal allegiance, which was expressed in following him and giving him exclusive loyalty. In some cases, at least, it meant literally abandoning home, business ties and possessions. In all cases it meant readiness to put Jesus first, whatever the cost.
So what about us? What kind of disciples are we? Do we have a purely academic interest in the words of Jesus, or are we prepared to put him first in our lives? Are we ready to fish for people? The evidence of the empty pews in our churches suggests that perhaps we are not.
Only God is able to meet the deepest needs of each one of us. Only through Jesus can we find forgiveness for the past, a new life for the present, and a glorious hope for the future, but Jesus never promised an easy life to those who follow him.
Christ did not come to set up a comfortable club which exists entirely for the benefit of its own members. He came to build a church that was to be his body on earth, to be God’s agent for the healing of the whole of creation. Far from existing solely for the benefit of its members, the Church should exist mainly for the benefit of its non-members! As Martin Luther said, “A faith that gives nothing, costs nothing and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.”
If we want to be Jesus’ disciples, we must accept his supreme authority as Lord over every part of our lives. If we are not willing for him to be our Lord, he cannot be our Saviour.
To be true disciples, we must accept the values of our Lord and to recognise that these are not the values of the world around us. We live in a society that says, “Me first”, and “Look out for number one”; Jesus requires us to look out for others. Our culture is strong on rights, but much less strong on responsibility; Jesus asks us to take responsibility for protecting the rights of others, especially the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. Our society worships wealth, status and celebrity; Jesus values humility and service.
Jesus’ call to us is also a call of love. Jesus loves us and laid down his life for us and obedience to him means trusting in that love. We must trust ourselves to a God who demands all, but who loves us more than anyone could love us and who longs only for our highest good.
We can kid ourselves that we can get by with less than total and uncompromising obedience. We can delude ourselves that modern culture is so different from the first century that we can dilute this demand on us and reinterpret the teaching of Jesus so that we skilfully avoid its direct and disturbing challenge. We can fool ourselves that when Jesus said, “Love your enemies”, what he really meant was “Don’t take active revenge against someone who has wronged you”; that when he said, “Seek first the kingdom of God” what he really meant was “Although there will be many other things you must seek first in order to exist and have a normal life, make sure that you do not leave God’s kingdom out of your life altogether.” It is really tempting to accept this comfortable, diluted version of Christ’s teaching, but in our heart of hearts we must know that this does not wash.
Christ’s way is hard and challenging; we will not always succeed in following it; there will be temptations and distractions and we may lose our way for a time, but these are not reasons not to try. Winston Churchill said, “Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It is courage that counts.”
Do we have the courage to answer Christ’s call in our lives?