In my thoughts and prayers right now are our Brothers David, Jonathan and Nicholas and the 39 pilgrims who are with them in the Holy Land. On Monday they will be by the Sea of Galilee, which for me is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The Sea of Galilee has a particular power and spirit because it was there and in the surrounding region that Jesus first called his disciples to follow him. It is the cradle of Christian vocation.
“He saw Simon and Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
He saw James and John who were in their boat mending the nets. He called them and the left their father Zebedee and followed him.
He called the rich young man and said, “Sell everything that you haveand follow me.”
He saw a tax collector called Levi and said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up, left everything, and followed him.
Some of these stories have a romance to them, but actually in every case Jesus’ call to follow him is extraordinarily radical and utterly demanding. He doesn’t say, you can carry on as you were, and sort of have a splendid life on the side. In every case he says, I want you to leave everything. Everything: your nets, your father, all your money and all the taxes you’ve gathered. Come empty and carry nothing and follow me.
No wonder some, like the rich young man, said no.
Even the disciples didn’t get it – or complained about it! In our Gospel today, Peter says to Jesus, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.” “Yes, Peter, you have – and I tell you, anyone who leaves everything – houses, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, fields – for my sake and the Gospel, will receive a hundred-fold now, and in the end, eternal life.”
This uncompromising command to leave everything and indeed the longing to leave everything to follow Jesus inspired so many of the first monastics: St Anthony and the desert fathers in the 4thcentury, who left all their property and wealth behind, and headed out into the western desert.
And in the early Celtic Christian tradition, such men as Patrick and Columba embraced what was known as “white martyrdom.” They left their homelands to travel to a foreign land, leaving everything behind, to follow Jesus. As a contemporary writer put it, “They sailed into the white sky of morning, into the unknown, never to return.”
Well, most of the rest of us are not called to such extreme acts of renunciation for the sake of following Jesus. And yet, those words in the Gospel are surely being addressed to each one of us. “Leave everything and follow me, and you will receive eternal life.” What can that mean for us?
I believe it contains a deep truth, that unless we let go of the familiar, the safe, the secure; unless we take the risk of becoming vulnerable, we cannot grow. So much of the literature of the world is about this very theme. From the story of Abraham in Genesis, when God says to Abraham, “Leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house, and go on a journey to a foreign land” to the great epic stories of the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Lord of the Rings. They all require leaving everything and going on a journey that will lead to a new life, a new identity.
For most people today, that experience happens to them when they marry. The Bible, in Genesis, in Matthew, in Ephesians, all say the same. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” For a marriage to be successful there has to be a real leaving behind by the couple, and there has to be a real letting go by their parents. In marriage, there is a new creation. Each person’s identity is changed. There can be no new life without the leaving behind of the old.
But whatever one’s state of life is – whether married, or a monk, or living alone – Jesus’ words to Peter, to Andrew, to James and John, to the rich young man and to Levi, to leave everything and follow him, are for us. This is not a one off, but a daily demand. Jesus asks us every day to say, “I leave everything to follow you.” I think that this means that Jesus calls us every day to new beginnings, to new life. And in many ways, the sin against the Holy Spirit is really the sin against new life.
Every day we are called to embrace the new life, and that is to let go, to leave behind what has become too comfortable. To let go of our habits, our compulsions. It is each morning awakening to a new day and saying to God, “Where do you want to lead me today on the journey of life? What are you asking me to leave behind? How are you asking me to change?” We resist change, but it’s how we grow.
“To live is to change,” wrote Cardinal Newman, “and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Although we so often resist it, there is something about beginning, or beginning again, which stirs our hearts. If fear stops us from making the journey, we risk becoming like the pot-bound plant. The roots have nowhere to go but round and round the pot, eventually strangling and choking the plant.
So today, perhaps hear these words of Jesus addressed to you. “Come, leave everything behind and follow me.” How will you respond? If the invitation seems daunting, or too much, remember that it comes with a promise: “Leave all behind and you will receive a hundredfold in this age, and in the age to come, eternal life.”
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