So here we have Peter, Andrew, James and John in our Gospel today (Matt 4:12-23) leaving their normal life as fishermen and going off to follow Jesus and become, as he called them, fishers not of fish but of men! What we easily fail to realise however is how young these 4 men were. We tend to see images of them as old bearded apostles, and I sometimes wonder if older people commissioned pictures like this just to stop young people getting too uppity! Yes, Peter was married, because we know he had a mother-in-law, but he may well only have been about 20. The others, particularly John, could have been as young as 16. I was reminded of this when I was watching “Human Planet” this week. We were shown a 16 year old taking his herd of cows across the desert to find water, and bravely driving off a large herd of elephants by throwing sticks and stones at them! In some parts of the world, as well as in ancient times, young people have to grow up early!
I have started by pointing this out, because it’s worth examining what made these people follow Jesus, and the answer surely must be youthful enthusiasm! The people who oppose Jesus in the Gospel are almost always old, the scribes, the Pharisees, the Temple priests. So that’s a big warning to those of us who are over 50! Yes, because in those days to be over 50 was to be old! Remember that the average life-span until the medical improvements of the 20thC was about 45. Us old people (with a few notable exceptions!) tend to be a bit suspicious of anything new, and that was surely the same at the time of Jesus. Scholars reckon that Jesus himself was only about 30 at the time he called the disciples, so you can just imagine how these older people were scandalised by this young upstart with his new ideas about how to interpret the Bible.
The older Jews were very good people. They had great faith in God, but for them being faithful to God was largely about preserving the faith, keeping true to the faith. They didn’t want to share their faith with a lot of foreigners! And they certainly didn’t want God to tell them to leave their homes and go off to strange foreign places to share their faith with others, and maybe risk getting killed for it. Inevitably therefore they practised their faith in a quiet steady way. They had met too many young men with crazy ideas that they were the Messiah – the chosen one of God – to pay much attention to yet another one, called Jesus!
We old people tend to moderate our passions, don’t we? We’ve faced great sadness in our lives and it has made us more careful. We’ve had our times of great joy and gladness when we were young, and are perhaps aware now that too much emotion isn’t very helpful when your body isn’t quite as supple as it used to be! Sometimes I’m asked whether I’m going to the World Youth Day in Spain this coming summer, and I say very firmly that I’m not, because such things would simply exhaust me! But that doesn’t mean that I am not enthusiastic about it! I know that it will be an absolutely exhilarating time for many young people, as it was in Australia for the last one.
If you talk to young people who have been on some youth event like a World Youth Day, or have been on a Gap year project working with the Church in foreign parts, they will tell you what a difference it has made to their faith – the hard bits as well as the fun bits. Surely it was the same for the young disciples of Jesus. They didn’t really know what they were getting into, but they just upped and went and only gradually discovered that what started out as a great adventure would completely change their lives.
We talk about such events being a call from God, but we have to be careful here because God mostly uses ordinary human events and ordinary human emotions and enthusiasms to call us, and it’s only later (looking back) that we can say “That was a call from God!” This week we celebrated two young saints from the 3rdC. The young St Anthony of Egypt heard the Gospel and left his rich comfortable life to live in poverty and simplicity in the desert and became the inspiration of the great monastic movements that have supported and sustained the church since. St Agnes, at 12 or 14, bravely maintained her faith in the face of torture and death and became one of the youngest martyrs of the Church. So today I say to the young. Don’t let old people make you too cautious. God may well use your enthusiasm in ways beyond belief. And to older people. Don’t forget the joy of your youth for in it, even if there were many mistakes, God was at work, as he is working in you and me still!