The calling

Sermon at St James

Isaiah 6: 1-8; Luke 5: 1-11

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

In the year that King Uzziah died – Isaiah chapter 6 - one of the most famous passages in the Old Testament. Traditionally a reading for Trinity Sunday because it speaks of the majesty of the Lord, who in Isaiah’s vision is enthroned in heaven, surrounded by six-winged ministering seraphim – sort of angels. It’s a depiction of God in all his fullness and glory – thrice holy, the Holy Trinity.

And that triple acclamation has for 16 hundred years been incorporated in the eucharistic or consecration prayer, words which we say at almost every communion service: Holy, holy, holy Lord; heaven and earth are full of your glory. We say them together and with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven - what a notion that is! – with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. I always find this a moving and even pivotal moment in the service: Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.

And there’s yet more from Isaiah 6. This vision of the Lord enthroned in heaven causes Isaiah to be acutely aware of his unworthiness to be there in God’s presence. Woe is me, he says, I am lost, a man of unclean lips. But the Lord, through his angel, purges him: Your guilt is departed and your sin is blotted out. And we can be sure that when we acknowledge our sinfulness and unworthiness, God will cleanse us and forgive us.

But there’s more still. The Lord asks: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? And Isaiah answers: Here am I send me. And so this passage has also become a traditional reading for the ordination service. Here am I; send me.

It’s this calling of Isaiah that links our first reading with today’s Gospel, telling us the call of Jesus’ first disciples. Luke’s account of Jesus calling the brothers Simon and Andrew, and James and John is different from that of Matthew and Mark. It’s also different in John’s Gospel, but then just about everything is. In the first two gospels Jesus simply comes up to them along the shore and says: Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And at once they leave their nets and go with him.

But Luke gives us another of those delightful pictures of Jesus in Galilee, a scene we can easily visualize in our imagination: the crowd on the sea shore eager to hear what Jesus has to say, pressing closer and closer to him so that he’s almost in the water; so he climbs into Simon’s boat and uses it as a pulpit. When he’d finished his teaching he persuaded Simon to let down his nets again, though he’d caught nothing earlier, with the result that they had an amazing catch, and all four of them were needed to bring it in.

And Simon, rather like Isaiah in the presence of the Lord says: Depart from me; I am a sinful man. But Jesus response is: From now on you will be catching not fish but people. And when they reached the shore they left everything, it says, and followed him.

Fish feature quite a few times in the gospels, including of course the Feeding of the Five Thousand with the five loaves and two fishes. And indeed for a short time in the early church, on account of that, they had fish as well as bread and wine at their meetings for holy communion.

The Greek word for fish is ἴχθυς (ichthus), the letters of which came to be used as an acronym in Greek for Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour. And so the fish became a badge, a symbol, indeed a secret sign for a believer, an especially useful password at times of persecution. And there’s many a fish scratched into the walls or painted on them in the catacombs in Rome and elsewhere.

Often that fish is simply two curved lines joined at a point for the head and crossed at the end for a tail, obviously a fish, and I’m sure we’re all familiar with it as we see it today in many Christian publications and as a car sticker or a lapel badge, but even now, though no longer a secret, it’s probably only recognized by committed Christians.

Back in those early Roman times when two strangers met it was not unusual for one, if he were a believer, to draw the upper curve in the dust of the ground to see if the other would respond by drawing the lower curve to complete the picture, and if he did, all was well.

In the first three centuries Christians needed a secret identification as huge number of them were put to death by the Roman authorities, often by horrific means, and mainly because they refused to worship the Roman gods or the emperor himself as being divine. There were periods of tolerance, but there were also times of violent persecution, as under Nero beginning in AD64. And it came to be said that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. That they were willing to die rather than renounce their faith was seen by many as a witness to the authenticity of the Christian faith, and so the numbers of believers continued to grow.

But in our own era there is very much more persecution and many, many more martyrs than there were then.

The first Christian martyr was of course St Stephen, and significantly his feast day is on Boxing Day, the first day after Christmas Day, reminding us as we celebrate of what allegiance to the one who was born might possibly involve. And last Boxing Day morning there was an item on the news that was so apt. The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, announced that he had commissioned a review into the present persecution of Christians worldwide. “Yesterday,” he said, “my family and I walked to our local church and enjoyed an uplifting Christmas service.  We attended as a simple matter of personal choice, but since being appointed Foreign Secretary it has struck me how much we take that choice for granted: others round the world are facing death, torture and imprisonment for that very right.”

The extent of this persecution is almost unbelievable as is also the brutal manner of it, and it’s reckoned that every month 250 Christians are actually murdered. Every month 250 of our fellow Christians martyred simply because they are Christians. And then there are all the others who are imprisoned and tortured and deprived of their rights and generally living and worshipping in fear in many countries, the worst ten being North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran and India.

Last Sunday morning on the Radio 4 programme called Sunday it was announced that the Bishop of Truro is to lead the review, and Jeremy Hunt said that he wants our country to use its excellent diplomatic links to raise the problem with the governments of other countries and also to let the Christians in such places know that we are aware of their suffering and that we’re thinking of them and praying for them.

Well, what can we do? We can join in that prayer, and there’s lots of stuff on-line about all of this, so we can make our prayers informed prayers. And I wonder if here at St James’ our Ministry Team and PCC, when next considering our church’s annual giving, could find a way of contributing to a cause that would help at least a few persecuted and often deprived Christians in some place and also let them know that they’re not forgotten.

And finally, we can give thanks that we are able to come here Sunday by Sunday without fear to say: Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.