January 28, 2018

3rd Sunday after the Epiphany

Jonah 3
Psalm 62:5-12
Mark 1:14-20

1 Corinthians 7:29-31


One the oldest forms of Christianity in the world is Coptic Christianity. They are Orthodox Christians who live mainly in Egypt. They came to Australia in the 60s and formed strong communities here. Today, there around 100.000 Coptic Christians in 60 churches around Australia with only 100 priests serving them (1 priest for 1000 people). As such, they are continually looking for new people to be ordained as priests from within their own communities.

Two of them were Mina Iskander and Michael Shehata. Both had their own professions before they were called to serve as priests. Mina was a Sydney-based general practitioner while Michael had been running his own dental practice for six years before they received the calls. Yet, to accept the calls, both of them had to leave behind their professions and become full-time priests...

Mina and Michael are only two people in the long-held tradition in the Coptic church. Previously, Father Augustinos Nada also had to leave behind his day-job as a scientific technical officer in pathology at Mount Druitt Hospital to accept the call.[1]

Friends, God calls people from all walks of life to join God in God’s mission to save the world. Today, we hear the story from Mark’s Gospel about Jesus calling his disciples from amongst the fishermen.

Simon, Andrew, James, and John were professional fishermen. Like Mina and Michael, they were good at their professions since, at least in James and John’s case, they managed to hire other people to fish.

But Jesus didn’t call his disciples from amongst the fishermen only. In Matthew’s Gospel (9:9), we heard the story about Jesus calling a tax collector also named Matthew to be one of his disciples. We don’t know for certain what the other seven disciples did for a living before they accepted Jesus’ calling. We often think that most of them were fishermen, but they may not be.

Indeed, it was very likely that Jesus’ disciples consisted of people from different walks of life. He didn’t choose only one particular group of people. He invited people who held different jobs with different experiences and status in the society. As we read about his life in the Gospels, Jesus interacted with all kinds of people: poor and rich, children and adults, news and Gentiles, ritually clean and unclean.

His followers were not only males either. It is true that his disciples were all males (and that was something to do with the dominant patriarchal custom in his time than with him himself). But, outside the circle of his disciples, women from all walks of life also followed him. We know that a group of women travelled with Jesus and his disciples to look after them. And these women too reflected the diversity of the society where he served.

Friends, Jesus called all kinds of people to follow him in his mission to proclaim the Gospel. Note once again that not all of his followers were his disciples. Not all whom he called left behind their previous jobs to be his full-time disciples, just like what Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John did. Most of Jesus’ followers continued doing what they had been doing. Yet, through their own vocations, they proclaimed the Good News to the people around them.

God indeed calls everyone, not only the Minister or the Pastor or the Priest, to join God’s mission. In the Middle Ages, before the time of the Reformation, calling was seen given only to clergy people. People then believed that God called people into full-time ministry. In other words, God called people to become members of the clergy. Non-clergy people did not have calls. Their roles were to obey the members of the clergy.

The Reformation movement in Europe, that began with the protest by the German monk, Martin Luther, broke down the barrier between clergy and lay people. For Martin Luther and other Reformists, God called everyone, clergy and lay. God did not call only an elite group of people to serve; God called everyone to serve.

Everyone has a vocation, which comes from the Latin world vocatio, which means ‘calling’.[2] Everyone is called to a particular role or station in life. Everyone is called to serve God in his or her own context as a nurse, a teacher, a business owner, a driver, a cleaner, a clerk, an administrator, a secretary, a plumber, an electrician, a volunteer, and, yes, even a salesman and a politician. This is what the Reformists called as the ‘priesthood of all believers’, a foundational doctrine in the Reformation.

We all are called to proclaim the good news of God in Jesus, no matter who we are and what we do in the society. We all are to become the messengers of God’s good news in whatever context we find ourselves in.

When little Alice Ramsay was walking with his mother in central Sydney, she saw many homeless people sleeping on the streets. A thought came to her: why not doing something to help these people? So she came up with an idea. She walked again with his mother through the streets of central Sydney, this time with enough coins to give to anyone who asked.

When many of the homeless people said to her that just food would be fine, she came up with another idea. In 2016, she gave 15 bags full of food to the homeless people on Sydney streets. Today Alice is 9 years old and her charity work had grown with the help of local charity group and store who heard about the project that she was undertaking. One Christmas Eve last year, Alice handed over more than 40 bags filled with biscuits, juice, sultanas, chips, fruit, and water to people in need on the streets.

Friends, we don’t need to have high qualification or important role/status to do God’s work in our life. If an ordinary little girl like Alice could hear the call to serve God’s people in Sydney, there is no reason why we can’t do something similar.

We hear the same message from our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. To understand Paul’s writing, we need to understand that Paul lived at a time when the believers sincerely believed that the end of time was near. Paul and the early Christians believed that Jesus would return in their lifetime. Paul’s teachings therefore were all taught within the framework of Jesus’ imminent return.

That’s why in his letter, Paul asked his readers to behave as if their marital status or their emotional condition or their economic situation was only secondary. Jesus would soon return and the world as they knew it would be no more. Their status, being, and wealth would be rendered insignificant in the new world that would begin with Jesus’ arrival for the second time. As such, Paul asked them to see these earthly things as secondary and give their lives fully to the work of God’s Kingdom.

Now, Christians living in 21st century like us may not live with similar sense of urgency any longer. We believe that God will usher in a new age and a new creation through Jesus, but we don’t know when the fullness of time will arrive. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from Paul’s message to the Corinthians. Jesus may never return in our lifetime, but life is short anyway. Whether Jesus returns in our lifetime or not, one day we will see him face to face when we die. We all live in a ‘borrowed time’, whether we are 20 years old or 90 years old.

As such, we are to see everything that we are and everything that we have within the framework of his Kingdom. At the heart of our reading is Paul’s call to see our life: our status, our personal and emotional well-being, and our economic situation within the framework of the arrival of God’s Kingdom. Paul didn’t call the husbands to divorce his wives (and, of course, for the wives to divorce their husbands). Paul didn’t ask the believers in Corinth to cut off their relationship with their family or to ignore their well beings or to give away all their belongings. They were still in the world and they needed all these things. But Paul asked them not to define themselves or to depend their future by who they were or what they had.

Likewise friends, everything that we have must be seen within the framework of our call to be Jesus‘ followers to proclaim the good news of God, first and foremost. Our status or wealth should not be a hindrance to answer God’s call. Whether we are single or married, have children or not, emotionally stable or unpredictable, rich or poor, God calls us to proclaim the good news of Christ.

But God may call us to go to somewhere or someone difficult. And our reaction may not be like the reaction of Simon, Andrew, James, and John who immediately left behind everything to follow Jesus when he called them. Their reaction may be more similar to Jonah.

The reading that we hear today from the book of Jonah tells the story when, for the second time, God called Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh. Many of you would know what happened the first time God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh: he ran away.

But Jonah had his own reason. God wanted to give the city of Nineveh the second chance, but Jonah refused to give the people in the city the opportunity to repent and be forgiven. But why? Well, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the most powerful kingdom at the time, the super power of ancient world. Assyria was responsible for the destruction and the overthrowing of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, from which Jonah came. In other words, this was a nation who had brought so much pain and suffering to Jonah and his people. No wonder that Jonah refused to go. But, at the end of his self-inflicted exile, Jonah learnt a valuable lesson: God loved the people of Nineveh as much as God loved the people of Israel.

Friends, we too may be called to somewhere and someone difficult. And our first reaction may be like Jonah, run as far away as possible from where God calls us to go. But just like God loves and calls an imperfect person like us, God loves and calls everyone, including those whom we don’t necessarily like.

Jonah delivered the shortest sermon in the Bible. His sermon consisted of only eight words in English. Yet, he delivered the most effective sermon in the Bible: the whole city listened to him and followed his call to repent. No prophet had every had such receptive audience. (Perhaps, I should also start preaching less-than-10-word sermon every Sunday. What do you think?) Jonah may have accepted God’s call reluctantly, but his ministry turned the life of the population of an entire city.

You never know friend, but your ministry to someone or some people, even to a person or people that you don’t necessarily like, will make a big difference in that person’s or those people’s life. But, first of all, we need to accept God’s call to minister that person or those people. God calls you and me to serve God and God’s people wherever we are and no matter who we are and what we do in life. God’s call goes across all kinds of boundaries. Let’s heed the call today and embark on a new adventure towards a new life with our God.

Toby Keva

[1] Compass: Out of Egypt – The Copts. On http://www.abc.net.au/compass/s4703974.htm (29 July 2017)

[2] Michael Rogness. Commentary on Mark 1:14-20. On https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2315 (January 25, 2015)