Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Epiphany 3 2017

Isaiah 9:1-4
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

It was an inauguration, but not like any seen before. The people there were not the usual suspects you would have expected to see, in former times. The new leader broke with precedent, speaking with blunt directness to the crowd, calling to anyone who would listen. What did he say? “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!” Who was he? Jesus, the Messiah. Where was he? Not in the centre of power, not in the sacred city of Jerusalem, but out in the provinces, up north. Specifically, in Galilee.
We heard today the account from Matthew’s Gospel of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. One of Matthew’s trademarks is the way he connects everything that Jesus does with the Old Testament scriptures, and he sees the move of Jesus to Galilee as fulfilling the prophesy of Isaiah that we heard as our first reading.
That passage of Isaiah is a wonderful poetic passage, but also a bit unexpected. Galilee of the nations, that is “of the Gentiles” was regarded by the religious elite as not quite proper. It was a melting pot of cultures and peoples, with open borders, and through it ran the “way of the sea”. That’s not a piece of poetry but the real name of a road, just like the M1 or the North Circular. It was the most important trade route connecting Syria and Asia in the north with Egypt and the prosperous African coast in the south. And along that trade route came all sorts of people from every land.
It’s really significant that Jesus inaugurates his ministry there, a long way from the centre of power in Jerusalem, but right in the middle of a mix of cultures and peoples, a place with open borders with people coming and going from all over the world.
Trade routes, like the “way of the sea”, were very important to the spread of the gospel immediately after the time of Jesus. Trade was the main reason for travel, and some of those who travelled were believers in the Gospel, ambassadors for Jesus Christ. Christianity spread out on the map, fanning out along the main trading routes and becoming established in every major city on the way. And then each city where a church started to grow became a new hub from which Christians travelled to new places.
As the Gospel travelled, it adapted to the new cultures it encountered along the way. The essential truth always remained the same, the world is saved through Jesus. But that truth was expressed in ways that people could relate to, as the frontiers of the gospel expanded further into the world.
We can even see this in the four gospels themselves, which were written down around forty to sixty years after the time of Jesus. The gospels were written in Christian communities in different places, with different cultures, facing different issues. This week we heard Matthew’s account of the call of the first disciples, and you may have noticed that it’s different to John’s account which we heard last week.
We can infer from John’s gospel that its community included former disciples of John the Baptist, as well as Samaritans and Greeks. It’s a community in which those people are significant. So John’s gospel tells the story of how those people come to be disciples of Jesus, and the first of them do so when John points out Jesus to them.
But Matthew’s gospel was written in a more Jewish community facing opposition from the religious elite, so Matthew is concerned to explain how faithful Jews can also be followers of Jesus, even if that comes at a personal cost. For Matthew it is the compelling attraction of Jesus himself and his message that is enough for people to leave everything and follow him.
Like the first disciples, our call is to follow Jesus, and make the gospel known, in the culture and context in which we find ourselves. The frontiers of the gospel are all over the place today, and its expression needs to be clear and accessible for all of them. London is in many ways a global city, a bit like Galilee of the nations. People come here from all over the world, and go out to the world from here as well. And Christians come and go carrying the gospel – alongside those who live here full time.
Today trade is still very important of course, but alongside trade routes like the “way of the sea” there are new highways along which people travel. The networks in which we are involved extend beyond the places in which we live. Like the first disciples in Galilee work and business can take us to many places. But we also have the internet and social networks that connect us to the whole world. We are Christians in those networks, as well as when we are in Church on Sunday. We are ambassadors for Jesus Christ wherever our daily lives take us, 24/7, following him where he calls as did the first disciples.
We are to attend to the culture and context in which we find ourselves, to make sure the expression of the Gospel is suited to our times, so that the eternal truth of salvation can be heard, and is accessible, to the people we encounter. The frontiers of the gospel are not far away on the edges of the Empire, but right where we are.

Like the first disciples, we do not know where we will end up. Or call is to follow. Whatever may happen in the world in the next few years, the Gospel has open borders, and disciples are to follow Jesus everywhere. And whatever threats or anxieties may menace our world, we have a different message, a message for every place, every culture, every time. For the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.

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