In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!
After the huge cycle in the Christian Year which focuses on Pascha, led up to by Lent (with the Triodion), and led down from (as it were) by Pentecost (with the Pentecostarion)—ending with last Sunday, the Sunday of All Saints—in all 18 weeks—we now, in our readings at the Divine Liturgy, turn back to the two Gospels according to Matthew and Luke. If you follow the daily Eucharist lectionary of the Orthodox Church, you will know that the period of Matthew began on the Second Day of the Holy Spirit, nearly a fortnight ago now: in our readings from Matthew on weekdays we are already past the Sermon on the Mount, which occupies Matthew 5–7, though the Gospel next Sunday is taken from that Sermon. We shall continue reading Matthew until the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in September, and then turn back to Luke’s Gospel until we arrive at Lent next year. And so today we read Matthew’s account of the calling of the first disciples, Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. As we read today’s Gospel—indeed, as we read over the next few months the Gospels of Matthew and Luke—we have to make a kind of mental change-of-gear. It is—what?—only three-and-a-half weeks ago that we stopped singing the Easter troparion: ‘Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling on death, and to those in the graves giving life’. It is not that we are to forget that, but in going back to the accounts of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew and Luke, we are going back to an account of what happened when the Resurrection was still in the future. Yes, these Gospels were written after the Resurrection, were written by Evangelists who believed in the Resurrection of Christ for early Christians who were themselves convinced that Christ has risen from the dead—but in following our Lord’s ministry of healing and teaching we are going back to a period when no one suspected who this one in their midst really was; when there was only a gradual dawning—and a limping dawning, at that, getting a glimpse of the truth and then letting it slip one’s mind through doubt or distraction—that this remarkable Rabbi, who defied the Sabbath, who spoke with an authority like no one else’s, who healed the sick, even on occasion raised the dead, that this extraordinary man was indeed Christ our God. If we don’t make this change of gear, then we shall prevent ourselves being there at these events, listening to Jesus’ teaching, watching his acts of healing, and feeling wonder, amazement, awe. For it is not enough to read about these events, and register them in our minds; we need to find ourselves in the presence of Christ, to hear his voice, to feel his love.
But, you may say, isn’t what I am recommending some kind of make-belief? We know that Christ has risen from the dead; that is why we come to church; that is why Sunday is a special day of the week for Christians: the First and Eighth Day of the week, belonging both to the realm of creation and to the ‘day without end of the Kingdom’, that realm transfigured by the glory of Christ’s Resurrection. And that is absolutely true: each Sunday is an echo of Pascha, a kind of little Pascha; each Sunday we hear at Mattins the ‘Dawn Gospel of the Resurrection’, which constitute an eleven-day cycle; each Sunday we sing the Resurrection troparion (or apolytikion) in the tone of the week—this Sunday in the first tone:
When the stone had been sealed by the Jews, and while soldiers were guarding your most pure Body, you rose, O Saviour, on the third day, giving life to the world; therefore the heavenly Powers cried out to you, Giver of life: Glory to your Resurrection, O Christ! Glory to your Kingdom! Glory to your Dispensation, only Lover of mankind!
No, we are not to forget about the Resurrection when we read about the ministry of Jesus, but we need in some way to enter into the minds and hearts of whose who witnessed his miracles, who listened to his teaching, who were his disciples. This is not just a matter of historical imagination, which we have to exercise any time we read about the past. As an English novelist said, ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’. There is more to it than that, and the Gospel we have just heard I think helps us to understand what it needed.
The account is presented very abruptly. The chapter (4) began with Jesus’ temptation in the desert, which is followed by this sentence: ‘From then Jesus began to preach and to say, Repent; for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’ (Matt. 4: 17). And then he comes across Simon Peter and Andrew at work as fishermen, and he says to them, ‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men’—and immediately they leave their nets and follow him. A little further on he sees another two brothers, James and John, in a boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. Jesus calls to them, and ‘immediately they leave the boat and their father and follow’ Jesus (4: 22). And the account is wrapped up with: ‘And he went through the whole of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness among the people’ (4: 23).
Last week I dwelt on the phrase of St Paul, κλητοὶ ἁγίοι, ‘called to be saints’: that is what we all are as Christians—called to be saints. We are here because we are responding to this call, to Christ’s call. This Sunday’s Gospel is, then, the account of an archetypal calling—or is it? Jesus, we are told, went through the ‘whole of Galilee’ preaching. It seems to me most unlikely that the calling of these four sums up the response to Jesus’ teaching in Galilee, as if no one else responded. He was, by all accounts, a popular teacher and preacher. This is not the account of an ‘archetypal’ calling, but of a very special call, the call to be Apostles, not just disciples, and not just Apostles, but to belong to the inner circle of the Apostles (to which Andrew seems to belong only tangentially). But that very special call is not irrelevant to us who are called in a different way, neither is it the same. I don’t think we should imagine that we are all called like Peter, Andrew, James, and John—nor, still less, should we feel that we ought to have experienced our calling like these men, and that if we haven’t then we have missed something. For the calling of this inner group that accompanied Jesus in his earthly ministry was not, for them, the final and definitive call: despite the insistence in the Gospel account of their immediate response. Their response may have been immediate, but it was a long time before they realized what it really meant. And in that they are like us. Like them we are not always clear what it is we are being called to, what it means to follow Christ, in the particular way that Christ is calling us—in the way that is unique to each of us. This will only unfold with time, it will demand of us patience, the least regarded of the virtues (though among those listed in the Lenten ‘prayer of St Ephrem’, which I hope we have not quite forgotten yet!). And at its very heart—not just during Lent, but every moment of our lives—it is a call to repentance, to turn our minds round, to bring them into line with Christ’s mind. We may live after the Resurrection of Christ, we may and should live celebrating the Resurrection of God, live in the glory of the Resurrection, but we still have to make a journey, as the apostles did, a journey in which the glory of the Resurrection is not always apparent, a journey in which we shall, if we are honest, experience puzzlement, even hesitation and doubt, as we try to follow Christ, all too often limping and stumbling, hoping to discern more clearly the Resurrection. But we have confidence, even if it seems constantly to slip through our fingers, for as a Latin Easter antiphon puts it: Resurrexit, sicut dixit, alleluia!—He has risen, as he said, alleluia!