“Immediately he called them; and they left…”
Are we following Jesus? Have we really “left” the world and its allegiances and made Jesus the centre of our life?
That may seem an odd question. If you’re reading this, you’re a parishioner, or a friend of a parishioner who is visiting our website, or just a fellow Catholic who has stumbled across our website. The question might strike you as an accusation (please, don’t take it that way!). Haven’t we made that commitment through our regular sacramental life (COVID-19 lockdown, notwithstanding), through our prayer, through our tithing?
Well, I’d like us to pause and reflect on this famous story from the gospels today: the calling of Andrew and Simon (later, Peter). In film and television, this is often represented as quite dramatic—Jesus comes, seemingly from nowhere, and the brothers are witness to this “stranger” surrounded by throngs who hang on his every word, and desire his healing touch. What is communicated to us in this version of events is that Jesus’ personality, the spiritual force of his presence, has such an impact on people, that some dimly perceiving his greatness, drop everything and follow him after a single encounter.
Very compelling stuff, and if you’ve ever seen, or been to a charismatic Christian gathering, you’re apt to see a present-day manifestation of this: someone dramatically, perhaps emotionally overwrought, tears streaming yet joyously laughing, makes their way to the stage of the meeting to proclaim that his or her life is now being given over to the Lord.
I won’t be so callous as to question the sincerity of these individuals, or the authenticity of what is happening; I just want to say that we can’t bring that to our understanding of what happened in today’s story. Most Christians, including our own patron St. Augustine, did not happen upon the faith and make an instant decision. Rather they were familiar with Christ, and that dramatic moment was a “tipping point” or the culmination of many moments comprised of minor epiphanies, small revelations, subtle messages received from out of the fleeting silences of life.
Scripture clearly tells us this: Andrew and Simon already knew Jesus when he summoned them from their fishing boat. They knew him; but until that day, they had not followed him. But then he called them.
Remember last week’s story? John the Baptist speaks with Andrew and gestures toward Jesus saying, “here is the lamb of God”—that story tells us, not only do Andrew and Simon know who Jesus is, they had spoken to him long before the encounter at the lakeshore.
There are some things we need to remember about the society of the 1st century in what we now call the Holy Land.
Today families are spread out across the world, and communities increasingly are made up of transient populations, that is, families don’t stay for generation after generation in the same town or village. In Jesus’ day, society was pretty static in terms of where people were found. It was things like plague, famine and war that made people move. The overwhelming majority of people stayed where they were born, worked at a trade or farmed there, and only traveled for special occasions (e.g. Jews were enjoined to make an annual visit to Jerusalem for the Passover—a pilgrimage most made by walking there!). It was possible to know which families were associated with the towns and villages of a given region, even if you didn’t know particular individuals.
Kinship was far more important than it is today, and very meaningful. It helped situate individuals in the minds of others (i.e. a person was seen as being the child of so-and-so, the brother of so-and-so, etc.). Indeed, for all that the Jewish people had gone through in terms of being scattered by war, they still had a sense of themselves, not only as a distinct community, but as I’ve said and written elsewhere, they understood themselves as an extended family—descendants of the sons of Jacob whom God renamed “Israel.” So, this made them all cousins; and because in Hebraic thinking there was no distinction between cousin and sibling, everyone who belongs to their community/family is a brother or a sister. There was an interest in placing people a Galilean or Judean met in terms of who they were to him as family.
Lastly, as I mentioned in last week’s written homily, Jesus comes in a time of religious ferment among the people of Judea and the surrounding regions like the Galilee. Men like Simon and Andrew who travelled down from their home on Lake Galilee to see John the Baptist, may have been “ordinary” people, but they lived in extraordinary times of political and religious crisis. Like a lot of others, they were looking for answers, but had to make a living as well. As true working men, they couldn’t focus solely on the political and religious questions of the day even as they knew these to be important. So, they would have been attentive to the names of preachers and teachers making the rounds and proposing a way forward, out of the unacceptable situation of a dismembered Israel, absorbed into the Roman Empire.
So, Jesus was someone they had met, even spoken with, likely knew even before then through family connections (he’s the “son of Joseph from Nazareth”) or the local “news” network of traders who moved throughout the Galilee selling their wares who would share the news of marriages and births, and other interesting events among the villages of the region.
The Church today resembles that 1st century community of faithful who were the Galileans and Judeans, and believers spread out across the Roman Empire and beyond. Spiritually aware of the sickness unto death of our culture, our politics and even our economy that has come unmoored from Christian principles, but not certain how to reestablish the ties of community and restore faith to the many who have wandered away toward other creeds and ideologies. Many of us have connections to other parishes, even other dioceses and are aware of who are the good and faithful and effective priests and laity, seeing in them possibilities for a true renewal of the Church and at last, the advent of what St. John Paul II called “the New Evangelization.” It’s a search for someone to lead the way.
We all know Jesus in some sense. He’s the familiar figure we’ve known from our Catholic schooling (if we attended a Catholic school) and from going to Mass with our families as children then as adults. We may read our Bible, and say our rosary, and send money to the missions, and he’ll be central to all those activities. All good things through which we know him.
Yet have we dropped everything at his summons to “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of people”? Do we remember, and truly believe that he is “the way, the truth and the life.” Do we think that this is supposed to be something so utterly dramatic that it has to be sudden, and if it hasn’t happened then God is quite content for us to follow Christ from a close yet safe distance?
Have we moved from being, to paraphrase St. James in his famous epistle, knowers of Jesus to doers of his will? Are we out in the world fishing? Or are we still cutting bait?
St. Paul has been telling Christians for generations that “the time has grown short.” It is always growing short for each generation of the faithful; to evangelize the world, summoning the renewing Spirit of God, and by doing so bring salvation to the many who are lost and afraid, and the many more who are oblivious and doomed.
“Nineveh was an exceedingly large city…” we’re told; a daunting task for anyone, impossibly huge for the reluctant Jonah. Yet he walked its streets in obedience to God’s mandate, proclaiming His word and offering salvation through repentance.
So whether we are latter day Jonahs, or Simons, we are called to be Peters and Pauls, to walk the streets and the virtual highways of our world today proclaiming the gospel; crossing the oceans of opposition to bring the message of repentance, trawling the internet for people who long to be free.