There are divisions in the Church. Sadly, there have been divisions since the earliest days of Christianity, as is made clear by the opening of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. But just because something has gone on for a long time doesn’t make it right. Quite the opposite! For the last seven days Christians around the world have been praying for unity, to heal the divisions which so mar the Body of Christ, the Church. And while it is good to focus our prayers on unity for a week, I would venture to suggest that the unity of Christians is something which we should all be praying for all the time. It is shocking that the tribalism which St Paul condemns in the first century, is still alive and well today. People are still defining themselves as one sort of Christian as opposed to another, or by the place where they worship. Our culpability in this is something for which we need to repent. We need to turn away from division, and to turn back to the God of love, who longs to heal our wounds and divisions; fostering unity is following the will of God.
This morning’s Gospel begins with the news that John the Baptist has been arrested. His criticism of the immorality of the ruling family had upset the powers that be. Calling out Herod Antipas for divorcing his wife, and then breaking Jewish law by marrying his brother Philip’s wife, seems the right thing to do. We expect our rulers to set an example. It’s only right and proper. The church continues this prophetic vocation, calling out what is evil and wrong. This may, and will, indeed make people uncomfortable: That’s the point! No one likes having their wrongdoing pointed out, I know I don’t! But unless someone does, then we’re unlikely to change our ways.
In the Gospel, Jesus has just been in the desert for forty days, praying, fasting, being tempted by the Devil. He begins his public ministry by leaving Nazareth, the town where He grew up, and walking to Capernaum by the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is a day’s journey. This is an important place for Jesus to start His public ministry, because it fulfils a prophecy in Isaiah, which St Matthew quotes, ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.’ (Mt 4:15-16 ESV) This part of Israel is where people were first taken off into captivity by the Assyrians, seven hundred years before. So Our Lord’s restoration of Israel starts in the place where the Northern Kingdom first began to fall apart.
Strikingly, Jesus begins His proclamation of the Good news of the Kingdom by repeating the exact words of His Cousin, John the Baptist: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. Their message is the same: turn away from your sins and turn back to God, turn back to the God who loves you, and who longs to heal you. These are words of hope for the future, for restoration. This is a message which we all long to hear.
When Jesus sees two fishermen, Simon Peter and his brother, Andrew casting their nets, and invites them to ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ It is quite a simple and straightforward invitation. On hearing Jesus’ words they drop everything and follow Him. Immediately! They don’t stop to put their affairs in order, or to say goodbye. A little later, James and John do the same, leaving Zebedee, their father, behind in the boat. Nothing is more important than following Jesus, but these early disciples show us that following God has a cost. It transforms our lives, totally, but not without cost.
So what does Jesus do with this band of disciples? He takes them into synagogues, where He teaches and interprets the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament. Jesus proclaims the Good News of the Kingdom, that we are loved by God. He demonstrates this love in practice by healing the sick. God’s kingdom is a place where wounds are healed, where people are restored to wholeness, in mind, body and soul. There is a cost to following God, but here we see the reward of the Kingdom. Each and every one of us needs that healing and wholeness, which only God can provide. The Church continues to proclaim repentance from sin, belief in the Kingdom of God, and participates in the healing power of God.
These things begin with us, here, today. We hear the Kingdom proclaimed, we confess our faith together, we pray for the Church and the World, and we join in the banquet of the Kingdom. The source and summit of the Christian life is the Eucharist, where Christ feeds and heals us with His Body and Blood. God’s love is a reality, with the power to transform us and our world, if we have the humility to let God be at work in our lives. He does not force Himself upon us like a tyrant, but rather gives us the free will to choose to turn to Him.
God also wills that the Church be united, as Jesus prays in Gethsemane, ‘I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.’ (Jn 17:20-21 RSVCE) May we pray and work so that Our Lord’s will is a reality and that the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen.