Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- It is always difficult to imagine what kind of events would cause us to completely change our behaviour and our way of life, and many of us may in fact find this concept rather alien. After all, most of us have been brought up as Christians, or become so as adults, without the understanding that doing so would profoundly affect our world. Certainly if one lived in a country predominantly of a different faith one could understand that becoming a Christian would be very difficult and even dangerous, but for us in the West, apart from the incredulity of our friends or a certain degree of scepticism and scorn, that would be it. We ourselves would not expect such a move to alter our entire existence, though hopefully it would be deeply meaningful and its effects would be observable in our actions and attitudes to some extent, as we live out the implications of the faith.
When St Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth (1 Cor 7:29-31) we see that the new Christians were finding things very difficult. In much of this letter Paul gives the converts, largely from paganism, a thoroughgoing ticking off. Earlier parts of the letter deal with their continued resort to pagan courts even against fellow Christians in this highly competitive society; it deals with the issue of a son sleeping with his young step mother; with the question of easy divorce in a society where faithfulness, fidelity and the permanence of the marriage bond was not to be taken for granted – quite the opposite in fact. Paul had to challenge the great social norms in this class conscious and highly structured society in which one’s place in the pecking order was rigidly predetermined and which threatened the equality demonstrated in reception of the Eucharist in which all were equal in their relationship with God and each other. For Paul, the Christ event had inexorably altered human reality, making us all ‘sons of God and heirs’ and this demanded a totally different way of life whilst remaining part of the Roman Empire, and playing one’s part in the cities and towns of the Empire. It was a very tall order, and as we see from Paul’s surviving letters, something converts found extremely difficult to fully engage with, even if they were greatly attracted to the Christian message and desperately wanted to enter fully into the new and eternal life given by Christ.
Yet, as we know there were Christians who explored the implications of the Christian way, and that it did profoundly alter their lives. St Antony of Egypt, whose day we celebrated last Saturday, was one who took the plunge and deliberately altered his whole existence in service of the Lord, to become the founder of Egyptian monasticism. Our Old Testament reading from the Book of Jonah (3:1-5.10) witnesses to a similar and widely espoused reformation in behaviour. Jonah had been chosen by God to go to the pagan city of Nineveh, originally the Assyrian capital and subsequently a busy trading city, to preach the message of God’s call to the inhabitants. Quite clearly he did so so effectively that we are told the people repented and changed their ways. The extraordinary thing is that Jonah was reluctant to go on this divinely inspired journey, being either indifferent to their plight, or simply too preoccupied with his own affairs. We all know of his encounter with the whale which preceded his successful trip to Nineveh. What we also find is that despite the favourable response of the people, Jonah took the hump and appeared angry that his preaching had been so successful until God intervened once more. Clearly, the Lord can work through agents of a quite unwilling disposition! One wonders about the quality of Jonah’s own life after these many encounters with God and all his missionary work. Are we perhaps to see in these crazy stories a message of the gradual enlightenment and growth of the reluctant follower, and a message of hope to us all?
Our Gospel (Mark 1:14-20) to the contrary appears to present a picture of the immediate and almost unquestioning response of the 12. However, appearances may be deceptive. John’s account, which we read last week, was much more nuanced and full of possibilities of a more gradual shift. However, even in Mark’s bald account, there are hints of a gradualism in the disciples understanding of the course of events. This is expressed by the hint of a time span suggested by Jesus’ walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and by his stopping off to speak to different sets of brothers in a situation in which they had clearly witnessed his call to repentance earlier, just as they had previously responded to that of John the Baptist. Mark’s favourite phrase ‘and immediately / at once’ should not be taken literally, but as part of his dramatic style, by which he attracts the attention of his audience and by which he paints a picture of Jesus and his compelling ministry. Quite clearly, the sons of Zebedee did not simply leg-it and leave their father in the lurch so that his fishing business went bust. On the contrary, they seem to have discussed possibilities with him in which all parties came to the decision that it could survive by being reliant on hired staff. These are clearly not slaves, and it indicates that Zebedee had a thriving and lucrative fishing business and that plans and arrangements were discussed and made for the future. What was significant was that all these young men were capable of responding to the challenge of the gospel, the Good News brought them by and in Jesus, and that they do appear to have been ready and willing to completely redirect their lives in his service. As it is very unlikely that these young men were celibates, it is clear most would have had wives and families as well as jobs at home, suggestive of a truly remarkable shift in their allegiance, and their families’ appreciation of what they were to embark upon. One way or another, it becomes clear that the lives of the disciples were radically affected by their encounter with the Lord Jesus and perhaps we too need to allow that encounter to reshape and remould our lives as well.