Tuesday, December 11, 2012

God's word is close to us: Sermon for the Feast of Saint Andrew

This sermon was given by Pete Williamson at the HDS Episcopal/Anglican Fellowship on November 24, 2012, for the Feast of Saint Andrew. Pete is a student at Harvard Divinity School.

Saint Andrew is really only a minor character in the New Testament. It always confused me as I grew up, that it was so clear that there were 12 disciples, yet we only really heard anything interesting about a few of them. When someone thinks of St Andrew, they think only of his call, and his brotherhood of Peter (a much more interesting disciple), and not much else. And that’s simply because after this, he scarcely exists in the Biblical narrative. Like any apostle worth their weight in salt, tradition holds that St Andrew went off and founded a church somewhere, became a bishop, and was ultimately martyred in some dramatic fashion. For St Andrew, he was supposed to be martyred by crucifixion on an X-shaped cross, so that he would not share Christ’s fate, and this X-shaped cross is preserved in the flag of Scotland, of whom Andrew is the patron saint, and so this
cross finds its way onto the United Kingdom’s Union Jack (the United Kingdom is a nation just a bit East of here), and thereby ultimately onto the flag of God’s favorite nation, New Zealand. As pleased as you clearly all are to hear this, it’s just trivia and isn’t what I want to focus on about St Andrew. I found myself more intrigued by his presentation in the Gospels.

In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), from which today’s Gospel reading came, Andrew is called at the same time as Peter with the words ‘follow me and I will make you fishers of people’, they become followers on the spot, and little else is said on the matter. On this passage, many a great sermon has been preached regarding obedience, faith, and the willingness to drop everything to follow Jesus. But as I looked into the character of Andrew, I was more entranced by the telling of the story in John’s Gospel. Let me read it:

John 1:35-42
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed or Christ). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

Here we have two of John the Baptist’s disciples who hear John call Jesus the Lamb of God, and they proceed to follow Jesus. Now, we super-spiritualize the idea of ‘following Jesus’, but here it is quite literal. In fact, Jesus doesn’t seem to notice them straight away, and spins around and sees them, and asks the same question that any of us would, “what do you want?”. They follow him to where he’s staying, and the next day, Andrew, one of the two, introduces his brother, Peter, to Jesus.

There’s a few interesting tidbits here. Firstly, who’s this second disciple of John who also follows Jesus? We never hear of him again! Some suggest that he ought to be identified with the beloved disciple, the purported author of the gospel. But there’s nothing really to suggest that. It’s all speculation, but let me propose that perhaps he wasn’t as captivated by this Jesus character as Andrew and ended up following another path, and simply exits the story.

Secondly, St Andrew is the first here to give Jesus the label of ‘Christ’ – a first confession normally reserved for his brother in the other gospels.

Thirdly, in a sense he is the first disciple, earning the name in Greek Christianity of Prōtoklētos, or ‘first-called’, but, in another sense, if you read closely, he is not called at all. He hears John’s proclamation and initially seems to follow Jesus without his consent, or even knowledge.

Finally, of course, it is Andrew who brings Peter to Jesus, and proceeds to take the back seat to his brother from here on in. And it is on this final point that I want to dwell.

Perhaps, it is here that I ask us to consider our individual faith journeys. To consider those times when you felt God’s call. Was it grand, and lofty? Was God’s word placed high on a pedestal, that you felt that you were stealing something which you didn’t deserve? Was it proclaimed by some larger-than-life preacher? By someone who had the appearance of a superhuman? Or was it much closer to home? A friend, or sister, brother, mother, father guiding you towards God? Towards Jesus and his message. I suspect that we have all been beneficiaries of Andrews in our lives.

In our other readings today, we have in the Deuteronomy passage (30:11-14), Moses exhorting Israel that God’s message, his word, is not far away. It’s not too high to reach, too hard to attain. In fact, it’s right next to us. In our heart and mouth. It’s our brother; our sister. Our Psalm (19) today proclaims that God’s message has gone everywhere, even if without words, “Their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world.” It’s not something we must travel far to hear. And the reading from Romans (10:8b-18) brings these two passages together, quoting them, talking about how God’s word has gone out, and how it is in our heart and mouth, and proclaims that faith comes from what is heard, and challenges us with the question, “how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”. It is challenging us to be the Andrew in the lives of others, not necessarily to be the Peter whom history remembers, but to be the Andrew who introduces Peter to
God and God’s message of freedom and love.

It makes me speculate about the second follower with Andrew, who simply disappears from the story. Maybe, just maybe, if he had found something in Jesus, which he had valued so highly enough that he shared it with his brother, perhaps he wouldn’t’ve been forgotten so readily. Ya see, Andrew knew that he had found something special in Jesus. He had found the Christ, the Messiah, the saviour for an oppressed people, the one who would make them free. And it was this awareness that made him want to share, that meant that he couldn’t keep it to himself.

Because, if we’re called to share, like St Andrew, then what is it that we want to share? Well, in the first instance, what we ought to share, taking St Andrew as a model, is Jesus the Christ, and discipleship of him. The one sent from God so that we might be restored to God and to one another.

But we find ourselves in a tense spot with this idea. We may feel uncomfortable with the idea that we want to convince anyone of anything. Any talk of ‘conversion’ at HDS is essentially used in purely negative terms. Whatever someone has found to be truth for them is right for them, and we have no right to seek to alter this. And often the culture of HDS would encourage this attitude.

But I think the story can’t really end there, and in reality doesn’t end there for any of us. Because, if an issue is not core for us, then we don’t have to comment on it. But sometimes we get reminded how much we care about something; how essential something is, and we can’t but comment. I know I often feel more comfortable sharing my views on politics or on current affairs, than I might do about core aspects about my faith in Jesus.

A poignant example might be the recent decision where Church of England narrowly rejected a push to allow the ordination of women as Bishops. Now, with pride I have told people about how my mother, in fact, was the first woman ordained by a female Bishop in the Anglican Communion. I have since found out, after talking with my mother, that that’s not strictly true, but we should never let the truth get in the way of a good point. In any case, this turn of events is something where this community has felt a duty not to be silent, not to withhold comment on the decisions of others. So perhaps we’re happy to take the tag line of ‘each to their own’ until we really really really care about  something or really really really disagree.

I bring this up, because I believe that, like St Andrew, we are called to share the goodness that we have found in Christ Jesus. But we are really only motivated to share what is truly core to us. Sometimes by meditating on what it is that gets us passionate, that gets us a little heated (whether in disagreement or just in excitement), we will become aware of what is truly core to us. Because we will only share what is core to us, what is written on our heart.

Perhaps in Andrew we find a challenge to elevate Jesus, his Christship, and our discipleship of Jesus, to that core level where we can’t but share, we can’t but comment, we can’t but introduce.

In conclusion, God’s word is not far from us. And it’s our job to make sure it’s not far from those around us, because, in Chirst, it is on our hearts and our mouths. With the example of St Andrew before us, we are called to share God’s word which has been placed within us.

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