Albert Schweitzer, virtuoso musician, medical missionary and anti-nuclear campaigner, was also the person who tried to change the way the world saw Jesus. His book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, caused a sensation when it appeared in 1906. Schweitzer ends with a haunting passage that presents the challenge of Jesus to the contemporary reader by taking us to tonight’s gospel and the calling of Andrew.
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil in our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.
‘He comes to us as One unknown’. Andrew and brother are by the lake, the stranger on the shore says, ‘Follow me!’ and they do, because of – what? His eyes? His voice? His sheer magnetic power? He commands, and they drop everything and obey.
Now, some do come to faith in this way, the classic model of religious conversion. But for many it is a more gradual thing, a process rather than a crisis. You may envy Andrew’s decisive experience, or you may say, ‘If that’s what coming to faith means, I don’t want to.’ After all, a lot has happened since 1906 to make us sceptical of pied pipers. Think of Adolph Hitler: an hour with him could persuade the hardest-bitten generals, who knew the war was lost, that it was all going to be fine. They had a word for this bewitching experience: the Führerkontakt. Think of the young people seduced by charismatic mentors into the barbarism that may yet make our government intervene in Syria. We need to be able to achieve a critical distance from big decisions we might be about to make, and certainly when it comes to matters of faith. So, you may well say, no Messiahkontakt, no blind faith for me.
Well, Mark’s gospel might give the impression that this is what happens to Andrew and his brother - two young men caught in the tractor beam of a stranger’s power (Mark 1.14-20)
- but that’s not the picture Matthew gives. In the verses immediately before our reading he says that Jesus* ‘left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake.’ He continues, ‘From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,”’ and only then does the writer say, ‘As he walked by the sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers…*’
‘He made his home there.’ Jesus doesn’t just pass through Capernaum, he’s there for - what? - months. And Capernaum’s not a big place - just a village, really - no-one’s a stranger there for long. So if you’re Andrew, then (with all respect to Dr Schweitzer) you do know his name. You may have had a drink with Jesus, or a meal, and felt at home with him; you may have heard one of his weird stories that made heaven suddenly come close; you may know someone who claims Jesus healed her, or someone else who claims (just as remarkably) that Jesus had told him his sins were forgiven and he believed him.
Jesus has become a part of your life, like your neighbours, like the local rabbi or the guys in the other boats you work with - or against - out on the lake; and yet he’s unlike any of them. Then, one routine morning of net-casting and fish-gutting, this familiar figure shouts over to you: ‘Come on, time for a different kind of fishing,’ and you go. A risk? Of course. Blind faith? Hardly.
Here we are, the umpteenth generation after Andrew, with our own daily routines, and now we encounter Jesus. He is someone you get to know here: his voice becomes familiar through the words of the gospels; his way with people sinks in, through his meal of bread and wine we share, just as his first disciples did. This is a place to feel at home, both with him and (I hope) with his people, a place where life begins to mean more, and some of that ragbag of stuff that fills our heads begins to make sense.
And that’s how it might be for a while; for years. Then one day the familiar voice will come.
How will it come? It may be in the voice of another person, some words you hear or read that just hit home. Or perhaps it will be an inner pressure, a prompting of the heart. Anyhow, this time the voice will say, ‘Come on. Time to move.’
Where will the voice take you? It may Andrew’s path of sharing faith with others, with the risk of being laughed at or misunderstood. It may be Schweitzer’s path of doing some great work. It may be a path to something small, immediate and unglamorous, or to a life-changing departure (and those, by the way, do not always involve changing your address). Whatever it is, it’s likely to involve some risk. There’s not much that’s worth doing that doesn’t.
Why listen to the voice? Well, you don’t have to. In many ways it’s easier not to. The cultured despisers of Christianity fail to see that sometimes faith is not an emotional prop but more like a mosquito in your bedroom, something it would really be rather more convenient to be without. So, none of us has to listen, it’s just if you don’t, you will never discover what you were made for, and I’ll never discover who I really am. And then, unlike Andrew and his brother, we shall be of all people most to be pitied.
He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself…and…they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.