Knowing when not to do something is important. It is equally as important as knowing when to do something. Knowing when it is a good time to retreat and make a strategic withdrawal is an important life-skill. Today’s Gospel begins with one such example. John the Baptist has been arrested for making outspoken political comments against members of the ruling Herodian family. He has been criticising Herod Antipas’ divorce and subsequent marriage to Herodias, his brother’s ex-wife. Following John’s arrest the political climate in Judaea had got a bit too hot. So, after His Baptism, Jesus withdraws from Judaea into Galilee. He goes back to where He grew up, in the northern part of Israel.
Jesus begins his public ministry by setting off from His hometown of Nazareth, 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, and which forms part of the first reading today:
‘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)
This part of Israel is where people were first taken off into captivity by the Assyrians, some seven hundred years before. So Our Lord’s restoration of Israel starts in the place where the Northern Kingdom first began to fall apart. Prophecy is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is becoming a reality.
Jesus begins his preaching ministry in the ancient village of Capernaum with a simple, clear message:
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Mt 4:17)
Our Lord’s message is exactly the same as the words of John the Baptist recorded in Matthew Chapter 3. This should not come as a surprise. There is a consistency between John and Jesus — they are proclaiming the same message. They both declare that people need to turn away from all that separates them from God and each other, and seek forgiveness and reconciliation. By doing this they (and we) will come to know the fullness of life which God offers to those who turn to Him.
Walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Our Lord sees two fishermen, Andrew and his brother Simon, casting their nets. Last week, in John’s Gospel (Jn 1:37-42), we learned how Andrew had originally been a disciple of John who had guided him towards Jesus. Both Matthew’s and John’s accounts stress the links between the ministry and proclamation of Jesus and John the Baptist. However, John locates the calling of Andrew and Simon in Judaea just after Jesus’ Baptism, whereas Matthew places it later in Galilee. Our Lord invites the brothers to:
‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ (Mt 4:19)
On hearing Jesus’ words Simon Peter and Andrew are ready to drop everything and follow Him. A little later, James and John do the same, leaving Zebedee, their father, behind in the boat. These fisherman believe that nothing is more important than following Jesus. Instead of catching fish, Our Lord invites them to catch people, to invite people to enter into a relationship with God and each other, that we call the Church.
So what does Jesus do with this small group of disciples? He takes them into local synagogues, where He teaches and interprets the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament), pointing out how He fulfils its prophecies. Jesus also 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. In both preaching and healing Our Lord demonstrates the reality of the Kingdom, both as a place prophesied by Scripture, and as the fulfilment of human longing. We are part of that reality today, as brothers and sisters in Christ, through our common baptism.
When we read Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we may be surprised to find that only three or four years after its foundation there are problems and divisions in the Corinthian church. St Paul makes his position clear:
‘I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgement.’ (1Cor 1:10)
The Christian community at Corinth has been disintegrating into factions, which is exactly what Paul does not want. Paul wants to preach the Good News: that Christ died for us all, to give us new life in Him. It is good to be reminded of this during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. For over 110 years Christians have set aside eight days to pray and work for an end to division, and to pray for each other.
Division amongst Christians is a difficult thing — it was 2,000 years ago, and it still is today. We are supposed to be united, as brothers and sisters in Christ, preaching Christ crucified, and calling people to the fullness of life in the Kingdom of God. It is shocking that the tribalism which St Paul condemns in the first century, is still alive and well today. Many 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. As followers of Jesus we need to turn away from disunion, and turn back to the God of love, who longs to heal our wounds and divisions. Fostering unity is following the will of God. We can and should pray that our dissensions cease, and that God’s grace may be poured out upon us. We pray for God’s help and guidance to bring us into the unity which is His will, to help us to thrive, and to give credence to our proclamation of the Good News.
May we grow together with our fellow Christians in love and our combined enthusiasm for the proclamation of the Gospel. Let us together believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now, and forever. Amen.