Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23
Some of you will know that Rosemary and I like to walk and cycle. What you may also know is that I have a terrible sense of direction and that it’s quite common for us to get lost. My brother-in-law, also a Richard, pointed out to me that the most important part of any journey is how you start. If you get the wrong road, if you go in the wrong direction to begin with, it’s a much more serious mess later on. If you take a wrong turn later on, it’s usually not as bad. And he is absolutely right. We try and take a few extra minutes at the beginning of a walk or a ride just to be absolutely sure we are on the right track. Hold that thought.
Today I want to reflect on joy. I have been thinking, in the last three sermons I have given, on the way our faith is embodied in ‘the life we live’. That our faith takes on flesh, in the way we actually conduct our lives. This is not difficult stuff, but it came home to me at Taizé last year. What other Christianity is there apart from the one that people see? Brother Roger, the founder of Taizé, wrote this in his Rule of life to the brothers in the community: ‘Be filled with the spirit of the Beatitudes: joy, simplicity and mercy’. In October we considered simplicity, drawing on the story of the rich young ruler, told to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor (Luke 18:18-30) and thought about different ways that might play out in our lives in what we do with possessions and how we conduct our relationships. And that being unencumbered frees us up, makes the load of our life lighter. In December we thought about mercy, and the way that the expression of mercy is an essential component of the life we live; and also that we live ‘under the mercy’, to use the author Charles Williams’ phrase. If simplicity might be the framework of our lives as Christians, then mercy is the expression of it, and joy is its fruit. So joy is a bit different from simplicity and mercy. Simplicity is a life choice, how I live, relate, and spend money; mercy is what I receive and how I act; but joy is the result of a life lived in that way.
Last week in his sermon Vincent considered happiness. Now happiness and joy are two very similar things and their meanings overlap – you may think they are the same. For what it’s worth, happiness is sometimes seen as the product of events, of moments: we have a cup of coffee with a good friend, we see a good film, we’re happy. Joy is something rather deeper, more spiritual, a sense of wellbeing that comes from doing the right thing, the knowledge that you’re going in the right direction. If you think of joy as a river, constantly flowing, then happiness might be like the sun shining off it on a summer’s day. I don’t want to get too hung up though on the difference between happiness and joy. Vincent talked about the way that being happy might depend on personality, on individual tastes, on circumstances. And it’s not something you can successfully manufacture, although you can put yourself in the right place for it.
Back to today’s gospel. In the second half, we read about the calling of the first disciples – Simon, Peter, Andrew, James and John. All 5 were fishermen casting their nets, or repairing their boats. Jesus walks along the beach, commands them to follow him and they leave their work behind and do just that. The way it is written it seems quite spur-of-the-moment: but it’s more likely that they had heard him preach, or seen him do miracles, maybe even spoken with him and then his words, directed personally, to ‘follow me’ were what tipped them over into doing it. Or maybe they regarded him so highly as a rabbi, as a master of life, that when he invited them to follow him, there was such a sense of privilege, of opportunity, that they could do no other. Either way, from that moment the direction of their lives changed radically. ‘Radically’ comes from the Latin ‘radix’, a root. The root of their lives was being transplanted. They could have absolutely no idea where it would take them. Perhaps that was just as well, since all but one (John) died a martyr’s death. Of course, for them, there was literally a route, a road to travel: they followed Jesus where He went. But at the root – that word again – of this was not a road, but a person, a presence, the reality of Jesus. It was all focussed on him. ‘Follow me’ – not go that way, do this or do that. In the moment when they left their nets and boats to follow Jesus, they were entering into a relationship with Him. They became disciples. As Rowan Williams point out in the first line of his book, ‘Being Disciples’, ‘discipleship is a state of being’. It is the connection with Jesus, the fact that they became his that marked them out.
I would like to take us back to the beginning. To the beginning of our lives as disciples. There are many famous accounts of the start of the journey which I’m not going to read because they may seem a bit distant. Here is mine. I was a schoolboy, 16 years old, and some of my friends invited me to a church youth group. This was interesting to me, because coming as I did from an all boys’ school, there were girls there. But I found myself drawn, not only to the female company, but also in to what was happening: the talks, the sense of fun – joy, even – new friends: and I took the crazy step of starting to attend church, which was over the road. One Sunday evening, after a few weeks, I was singing a hymn when I was overcome with a sense of presence – that someone was there. That is the moment Christ found His way into my heart. At that point the direction of my life completely changed. That event – I don’t call it a decision – still has repercussions today. It has affected my choice of career, who I chose to marry, how I spend my money and my leisure time, the fact I am here this morning.
It is often said that no-one remembers sermons and there is a lot of truth in that. But I can clearly remember, a few years ago, Vincent saying with great conviction, ‘there is nothing more real than Christ present here this morning’. It was such a startling comment, and in many ways the opposite of what appears to be true, that it stuck with me and I have often reflected on it. I wonder how that strikes you? The thing is that Christ, his presence, our relation with him, our connection with him, influences each of us. Our being here, our partnership in worship and action, in prayer, in bread and wine made holy, in fellowship and friendship, has a powerful effect on the way we live our lives. It really does! However we came to be here, whether it was a moment of presence like mine, a sense of calling, or you just grew up believing, here we are. It is the life we live. And its fruit, is joy. Paul tells us that joy is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23). This can be our experience too, if we let it. It is about being on the right path, heading in the right direction. It is about being with Christ. It is a joyful thing to be here. Truly. I hope you feel that! It is joyful to live with that sense of presence, to share our lives with people on the same path. That does not mean that we will be permanently in a state of advanced ecstacy. In fact, that might be extremely annoying. It does not mean that there will not be sadness in our lives. There will be. Pain and sorrow form part of everyone’s life, there is no escape from that. But our lives are founded, rested, rooted, in the presence of Christ, more real than we know it. ‘You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy’ (Psalm 16:11)
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.