‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him (Matthew 4:19-20).
Just before Christmas I saw some boys who attend the school that I left more than 40 years ago. They still wear much the same uniform as I did but they don’t wear it in the way that I used to. When I see one of the school boys with his shirt hanging out, his tie at half-mast, and his shoes the like of which I would never wear, I want to stop the car, get out and ask him what he is playing at, looking the way he does, but no doubt 40 years ago, a passing motorist might have looked at me and my contemporaries with our hair on our shoulders, and our bright red socks, and our big collared shirts, and wanted to stop and ask us what we were playing at. Within the constraints of the school uniform we thought we were being individuals, but in reality we were all looking much the same, because most of us are not leaders, we are followers. Therefore, a critical question is always, ‘Who are you following?’
When Jesus called his first followers, there was nothing unusual about a Jewish Rabbi gathering a following. Saying to fishermen ‘I will make you fishers of men’ is hardly a manifesto – but an earlier verse puts it more fully: ‘From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near”’ (Matthew 4:17). It should be no surprise that ‘follower’ (disciple) is related to ‘discipline’. ‘Discipline’ can be used in at least two senses. The first is to train people to obey rules or a code of behaviour. The second refers to a branch of knowledge (particularly in higher education). If we are to be disciples and follow Jesus today then we need to be aware of the demands of discipleship.
Distilled into just a few words, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near,’ this essential message of Jesus reminds the would-be disciple that being a follower of Jesus means that we must go his way rather than our own way. This affects every decision in life. ‘Repentance’ is a new way of acting because of a new way of thinking. Whether walking or driving, most of us know the experience of taking a wrong turn. If we are to reach the right destination, we need to correct that mistake as soon as possible. Following Jesus does not mean that we never make mistakes but it does mean that we should be looking to put them right. ‘The kingdom of heaven’ is a very reverent way of speaking about the ‘the kingdom of God’. The two expressions mean the same. The characteristics of the kingdom of God are inextricably linked with the characteristics of the king – love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, justice, compassion, joy and peace, to name but a few.
Two patterns of learning are the apprentice pattern and the student pattern. The apprentice watches the craftsman and then begins to work under the craftsman’s careful supervision and guidance. The student reads and studies so as to learn and know what to do in any given situation. For a Christian, being an apprentice and being a student are both important. The Gospel stories show us Jesus in action. Through prayer, we believe that we can know the presence of Jesus with us in our day-to-day lives. We must seek to live under his careful supervision and guidance. The Gospel stories (particularly Matthew) also give us the teaching of Jesus to study, so that we can learn and know what to do in any given situation.
As we begin a new calendar year, I want to encourage everyone to share in our Tuesday’s Together programme. In our carol service, I shared that a simple activity (‘Letter to God’) had been something from Prayers and Reflections that had greatly helped me. Explore Together gives us the opportunity to study and meditate upon a Bible passage in different ways. The Bible commentaries continue to be popular with those who attend. Monthly worship at 2B1 enables us to sing, pray and have conversation together (as well as eating cake). Finally, the traditional Bible study is intended to equip us all to navigate around the Bible and to dig deeper into the text. Between now and Easter we will be looking at the Sermon on the Mount. You don’t need to have been before to join any of these groups now – but printed notes are available on Matthew’s Gospel for those who would like them.