The Bishop of Guildford preached at Sandringham Church in Norfolk during a weekend where he was the guest of Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at Sandringham. Bishop Andrew's sermon from Sunday 22 January follows.
"‘Follow me’, said Jesus, ‘and I will make you fishers of men’.
It’s a story-line in many of the most popular of our children’s books: small people, insignificant people in this world, called to be big people, people with a destiny, in a different world. Whether it’s four child evacuees who walk through a wardrobe only to learn that they are kings and queens in the land of Narnia; whether it’s a poor young lad whose chance discovery of a golden ticket makes him the heir to the Willy Wonka chocolate fortune; whether it’s an abused orphan with a scar on his forehead, who discovers that he is great in the kingdom of Hogwarts; or whether it’s a small hobbit with furry feet on whom the whole future of Middle Earth depends; there is something about this storyline that captures us as adults as much as children, that moves us, that speaks to our souls.
Interestingly it’s not something as superficial as fame or money that lies at the heart of it. We never sense that Peter and Susan, Edmund and Lucy crave the fame and fortune that awaits them on the other side of the wardrobe. It’s something much finer and nobler than that: a sense of significance, perhaps, an awakening to the idea that my life can make a difference, your life can make a difference: that we can leave the world a better place for us having been a part of it.
We most of us feel like very ordinary people with very ordinary gifts and very ordinary joys and struggles, whatever our position in life: but there’s something in these books that broadens our horizons, that expands our vision, that implies a spark of heroism in the most unlikely people, you and me included. I’m sure we all can resonate here with the Queen’s Christmas message last year, where she spoke of ‘drawing strength from ordinary people doing extraordinary things – unsung heroes’, in her words, ‘whose quiet dedication makes them special’.
‘Follow me’, said Jesus, ‘and I will make you fishers of men’.
Jesus, of course, specialised in drawing ordinary people into the extraordinary purposes of God. From the moment that a young woman from the unfashionable town of Nazareth was given the most crucial of roles in God’s great rescue plan for His world; from the moment a dishevelled group of shepherds was summoned to the manger to be the very first witnesses to a ‘Saviour who is Christ the Lord’; from the moment that Simeon and Anna, two elderly worshippers in the Jerusalem Temple, first welcomed the infant Jesus and so found their way into the Scriptures that even today inspire and motivate more than two billion people around the Planet; the potential significance, even heroism, of ordinary people has been an essential element of the Christian Good News.
They were experienced fishermen, Peter and Andrew, Janes and John, part of a family business that supplied Capernaum and the neighbouring villages with fresh fish all the year long. But Jesus’ promise was this: that he could take all their gifts and experience – all that skill with which they located fish and drew them into their nets, all that courage with which they negotiated sometimes wild and unpredictable waters, all that entrepreneurial ability that got them the best possible price in the marketplace - and use them to fulfil God’s purposes for the world He loves so much.
We might think that ‘being fishers of men’ was a rather unfortunate turn of phrase. The job of the fisherman, after all, is to ensnare fish, to pull them out of an element where they’re at home – the water – and into an element where they’re not at home – the air; and then to kill them for food. Yet in Jesus’ understanding, just the same skills could be used to encourage and not to ensnare; to draw men and women, young people and children from a place of dissatisfaction, emptiness and guilt and into an element where they’d truly be at home; to bring life, not death wherever they went. And when we first meet Simon Peter in this passage, an ordinary man doing a very ordinary job – and when we next flick forward to the Book of Acts, where Peter’s great sermon on the Day of Pentecost drew 3000 people into the life-giving net of the love of God – so we are witnessing the kind of transformation that our children’s books only dream of.
So why our interest in this storyline? Where does it come from, this desire not so much for the trappings of fame or money, but for significance, for leaving the world a better place for us having been a part of it? It’s dormant, I believe, in every human being, though sometimes long buried beneath an avalanche of pressure and anxiety, even cynicism. And speaking personally, it is one of the greatest joys of Christian ministry to see that vision dug out, reawakened, restored by the Spirit of the Living God.
Two of the heroes who have most influenced my Christian journey have been my grandparents on my father’s side. He was the son of a merchant seaman up in Newcastle-on-Tyne whose family was so poor that he’d suffered from malnutrition and rickets as a child and was small and somewhat disabled. She was a Vicar’s daughter from the Norfolk village of Martham, whose most powerful experience of churchgoing happened at the tender age of 8, when she’d listened spellbound to the preaching of a visiting missionary from China.
Dr Mary, as she became, grew up to study Medicine in the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle, one of only two hospitals in the country that then trained woman doctors. Dr Alec, as he became, had a tougher journey, training as a pharmacist before receiving a dramatic call from God as he walked on the Tynemouth Sands on the morning of November 10th 1918, the day before the Armistice was signed.
And so Alec and Mary met at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, and fell in love before disaster struck as Mary was accepted for missionary service, but Alec was turned down on account of his disability. And here comes one of the most extraordinary parts of the story: because Alec and Mary agreed that their relationship shouldn’t stand in the way of her fulfilling her calling as a missionary; and so Mary set off for China, and Alec was left alone.
It’s a story with a happy ending, otherwise I wouldn’t be here! A successful operation rendered Alec fit enough to be accepted by the missionary society. He duly travelled out to China, where bride and groom were married in the chapel of the Bishop of Hong Kong – and there followed fifteen years of building up a hospital in South West China, which still exists to this day.
Just as importantly they confronted some of the barbaric customs of the time: the foot-binding of young girls, particularly, and the burying alive of sufferers from leprosy; and they also set up services and Bible study groups, through which a steady trickle of men and women became Christians. On a visit I made in 2002, the churches in that part of China were over-flowing with people, many of them young, and it was a joy to see. And then, in 1938, Dr. Alec and Dr. Mary were summoned back to England, where they headed up the Mildmay Mission Hospital in the East End of London through the Blitz and beyond.
Ordinary people making an extraordinary impact: just two among the crowds of little heroes whose impact for good continues to bring faith, hope and love to an often lost and needy world.
And I have heard Christ’s call to ‘Follow me’, and I’m sure you have as well. And I responded because I believed, at the tender age of 13, that Jesus had work for me to do, and that I couldn’t do better than placing my gifts and abilities, such as they were, into his safekeeping. I still believe that 42 years’ on.
My life is infinitely less significant, of course, than that of those four disciples by the Sea of Galilee, whose courageous witness to the Risen Christ was to turn the world upside down – or perhaps we should say, right side up. And life in the diocese of Guildford is not as exotic as life in the China of the 1920s and ‘30s. And not everyone, thankfully, is called to be a vicar or a bishop! Yet I still believe that the very best way to make a positive difference to the world around us – whatever our calling - is daily to respond to Christ’s command – or is it invitation? - to ‘Follow me!’
Here’s a prayer I regularly find myself praying: ‘Lord, help me to see what are you doing today, and how I might join in.’ It’s the prayer of the follower, the disciple - the prayer of the one committed, however falteringly, to working with Christ in seeing his Kingdom come, His will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
And so as those who have passed through the wardrobe of Christian baptism to find ourselves sons and daughters of the King of Kings, let’s pray this prayer daily, laying aside our small ambitions for something bigger and nobler. For what better way to spend the days that remain to us here on earth, as ordinary men and women called to be the children of the Living God?"