Today is the feast of St. Matthias who replaced Judas among the twelve apostles. Matthias had been with them since John baptized Jesus in the Jordan. He witnessed Jesus’ ministry with the crowds, heard the teaching, witnessed healings, had his own personal and communal experience of Jesus. Probably he was one of the 70 whom Jesus sent out and later was at the crucifixion. Hardly anything is written about him. The apostles selected two candidates. They drew lots thereby choosing Matthias.
The group probably wasn’t seeking a big personality. They already had that in Peter, James, and John. Now they were amid grief and change as Jesus had ascended back to heaven. Instead, they likely sought stability, one who had stuck it out with them and whom they trusted would remain. Remaining with through grief and loss is hard.
In language from the gospel, Matthias chose “to abide in Christ” and this company of friends. Abide can mean to live in, to make yourself at home. Abide also means to remain or to stick with through challenge. Jesus says the Father stuck with me. I’ll stick with you no matter what. Abide in my love, Jesus says. Remain with me.
The Thursday after Ash Wednesday feels like a hangover. Shrove Tuesday is full of excitement and pancakes. Ash Wednesday is solemn and full of reflective work. Then this Thursday comes along, and it doesn’t even have its own nickname. It’s just the second day of Lent.
In any journey, there’s always that feeling when the initial excitement of something beginning has worn off and you get a sense of how long the journey is actually going to take. It’s that part of a hike when after a mile or two you get a glimpse of the mountaintop through the trees and say oh wow, that’s a long way from here.
Six weeks from today, we Brothers will be sitting up here waiting for our Superior James to wash our feet. In between this Thursday after Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, there will be six weeks of daily life and all the joys and challenges that goes with it.
It’s with that spirit of daily life that makes the readings for two day of Lent perfect. In our Gospel this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that anyone who wants to follow him must “take up their cross daily.” I love how Jesus uses that word daily. Jesus didn’t have to include that word daily. Jesus could have just said that anyone who wants to follow him has to take up their cross. The fact that Jesus purposefully put in that word daily gets at something important to the Christian experience.
Many of you are aware of my special affinity for angels. These mysterious figures make appearances throughout scripture, filling the depths of my imagination with stories of their continuous worship in heaven, particularly as described in the Revelation to John. If there were a runner-up for the affections of my heart, it would probably be shepherds. The primary responsibility of these country-dwellers was the husbandry and protection of flocks of sheep entrusted to their care.
In Luke, chapter two, we learn that shepherds were the first to receive the news of Jesus’ birth, announced to them by a multitude of angels. In just under two weeks, we may soon find ourselves singing a popular Christmas carol that begins: “While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground, the angel of the Lord came down, and glory shone around.”[i]
Throughout scripture, we encounter numerous references to shepherds. For example, the renowned King David of the Old Testament served as a shepherd for his father Jesse’s flock during his youth. King David, who was not only a shepherd but also a skilled musician and credited as the author of the Psalter, likely penned the words found in Psalm 23:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”[ii]
In Matthew chapter 7, Jesus concludes his famous “Sermon on the Mount” with a series of contrasting images:
13-15 There is a narrow gate and a wide gate, says Jesus. The narrow gate leads to a hard road, while the wide gate opens to an easy road. The first leads to life, while the second leads to destruction.
15-16 There are good prophets and false prophets, says Jesus. The false prophets are those who come “in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” You will be able to distinguish between them by their fruits, he assures us.
16-20 Similarly, there are good trees that bear good fruit and bad trees that bear bad fruit, Jesus tells us. The good trees remain and continue to produce good fruit, but the bad trees are cut down and cast into the fire.
21-23 Then, Jesus says, there are those who say to me “Lord, Lord” and who do the will of my Father in heaven, and there are those who say, “Lord, Lord,” but do not do the will of the Father. The first group will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the second group will be sent away.
A visitor to a monastery went up to the abbot, and asked him, ‘What do you monks do all day? The abbot replied, ‘We fall down and we get up again. We fall down and we get up again.’ I think that is a pretty good description not just of the monastic life, but of the Christian life itself. It describes I think each one of us who try to follow Jesus Christ. As we try to live this life, we inevitably fall, mess up, we make mistakes, we sin, we fall short. But what is also true about this life of discipleship, is that when we do fall, Jesus is always there ready to pick us up. That is the paradigm of the Christian life: falling and getting up again, dying and being raised to new life.
Many years ago, I spent time living in a monastery in Belgium. It was very influenced by the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the monks had adopted many Orthodox practices. The one I loved most happened during Lent. Whenever we entered the church during Lent, each of us, including the oldest monks, would not just bow to the altar, but we would fall down onto our hands and knees and touch the ground with our foreheads, acknowledging that we are but dust. But we didn’t stay there! Having acknowledging our fallenness, we immediately jumped up, because Christ has raised us up. I used to love doing that!
St. Mary Magdalene
“I have seen the Lord.” Today we celebrate Mary Magdalene. After his resurrection, Jesus first appeared to Mary. Jesus first sent Mary to share the good news.
We know little of her story, but Jesus chose Mary. Jesus cast out from her seven demons. She experienced release and freedom, love and compassion. Mary traveled with and followed Jesus, witnessing his ministry. Receiving much, she kept coming, as she did even to the tomb.
Weeping, Mary did not recognize nor fear angels as most do. She did not recognize Jesus when he appeared. When Jesus called Mary by name, she turned and recognized him. It’s a brief and beautiful portrait. Hearing, turning, she was found again, seeing her Savior and friend. Jesus sent Mary to tell others the good news of what she saw and heard from Jesus.
Mary Magdalene is, especially for John, the prime example for us of being a Christian. First, Jesus chose Mary and healed her. She followed along and witnessed his teaching. Jesus continued to come, surprise, and reveal including amid deep grief. Jesus sent Mary to share what she knew, first to a small group of men huddled in fear. Mary was apostle to the apostles.
How did you come to know Jesus chose you? How have you experienced healing, divine compassion, and love? How is Jesus further being revealed now, showing up including in your need? Keep sharing the good news of how you see Jesus as did Blessed Mary Magdalene, whom we remember today.
We could infer from this Gospel account that John and Jesus had met for the very first time the day before, when John baptized Jesus. John had said, “I myself did not know him.” Not so. They did know one another. They were cousins. They would have known each other since their births, their impossible-to-believe births, which had been predicted by angels. Angels, no less! Jesus, born to an unmarried mother who insisted she had not had a sexual union; John born to a mother who was old enough to be his great grandmother.
If it was important enough for Mary, while she was pregnant, to travel the 90 miles from Nazareth to the Judean hills to see her pregnant Aunt Elizabeth, John’s mother, it is unimaginable that they would not have visited each other after the births of their miraculous sons.[i] Visited many times. No one in the world could understand one another like these two couples could: Mary and Joseph, and Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zechariah. These two boys, Jesus and John, had to have known one another, and probably looked to each other, befriended each other, confided in each other, shared the burden of their imposed identities with one another. Both of them loved going into the desert. Maybe they camped together? They were cousins, virtually the same age, the only child of their parents. Neither son had married; neither had pursued a profession that was identified; neither, it seems, had found their voice to fulfill the “angelic predictions” until rather late in life. Both of them, at the time of this Gospel account, were about age 30. They had to have known one another. And known each other very well.
St. Andrew the Apostle
In the Eastern Church, St. Andrew is known by the title Protokletos: St. Andrew, the First-Called.
In this first week of Advent, the first week of the liturgical year, today’s feast provides a simple but profound opportunity to return to first principles.
In a contemplative spirit, we can pause to reconsider some fundamental questions about what it means to be called by Jesus, and what it means to be sent.
In the world of spiritual care, there is an oft-quoted adage. It seems especially common in the world of hospital chaplaincy:
“Don’t just do something. Stand there.”
I first heard it from the novelist John Green, whose experience as a hospital chaplain shaped his authorial approach to empathy. During my own months as a chaplain intern last Fall, this deceptively simple reminder kept me centered in the demands of my role. While I in fact did, and said, and asked many things, it was ultimately just standing or sitting there in loving availability that God would use to open a healing space in a patient’s experience.
Allowing ourselves to be loved by God, as Jesus did, also requires some degree of just sitting there, as Mary of Bethany did in Jesus’ presence. But consenting to this transformation at the core of our being is anything but passive: it is our single greatest challenge. To the world, that process looks like nothing. But to Jesus, it is the one thing necessary.
St. Andrew the Apostle
Today has been a day full of celebrations in Scotland, because today is St. Andrew’s Day, the patron saint of Scotland. From all the flagpoles has been flying the ‘saltire’, the cross of St. Andrew which is shaped like an X, signifying how, at his own request, Andrew was crucified, deeming himself unworthy to be crucified on the same kind of cross as Jesus. Andrew has always been a very popular saint, and is patron of many countries, as well as Scotland, including Russia and Greece. Not surprisingly he is hugely venerated in the Orthodox Church, where he is called the ‘protokletos’, or ‘first called’, for in John’s Gospel he is the first disciple to be called by Jesus. The Orthodox also regard him as being the first Patriarch of Constantinople.
That all seems so distant from that simple and very beautiful story in our Gospel today from Matthew, where Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee and sees two brothers, Simon and Andrew his brother who are casting nets into the sea – ‘for they were fishermen.’ And Jesus says to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people. Immediately they left their nets and followed him.’ I have always loved the story of Jesus calling the fishermen, and when I first visited the Holy Land one of my most moving experiences was of standing quietly on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, looking out over the lake, and imagining Jesus walking up to me and saying to me, ‘Come, follow me.’
But I have also been intrigued by that other story which John tells, about Jesus calling Andrew. In John’s Gospel, in the first chapter, we are told that John the Baptist was standing with two of his disciples, as Jesus was walking by. One of these two disciples was Andrew. As Jesus walks by John the Baptist says, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God.’ So, Andrew and the other disciple of John follow Jesus. Jesus turns and sees them following him and says, ‘What are you looking for? They said to him, ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’ And he said to them, ‘Come and See’.
So, we have this story in John about the calling of Andrew, the ‘first called’, and then we have this other story of Andrew’s call by the Sea of Galilee, which took place sometime later. We know it was later because Matthew tells us that John the Baptist had by now been arrested. So, what do we make of these two apparently different stories about the call of Andrew: the earlier one that took place not far from Jerusalem, where John was baptizing, and then the later one in Galilee? What I think it tells us is that the call of Andrew came in stages. It took time. And this certainly fits my own experience of coming to faith.
When Andrew first sees Jesus and hears his teacher John the Baptist describe him as the Lamb of God, he longs to know more and starts to follow this intriguing figure. Jesus turns and looks at him. But he doesn’t say, ‘Follow me.’ At this stage he simply says, ‘Come and See’. Come and spend some time with me. Let’s talk! Andrew stayed with him all day. We can imagine him sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening, asking questions. Perhaps by the time Andrew left, he had already decided he wanted to follow Jesus, because he immediately went off to tell his brother Simon what had happened. ‘We’ve found the Messiah! Come and see for yourself.’ Perhaps they both came to faith that day. But it was only later, as they worked their trade on the lakeside in Galilee that they made the decisive step of leaving all and actually following Jesus. For now, Jesus was starting his ministry, and he needed them now. Now, ‘Come, follow me.’ Now was the moment once and for all, to throw in their lot with Jesus. So, they left their nets behind and followed him.
I wonder if this is familiar to you in your experience of coming to faith? Perhaps you too came to faith in stages, perhaps sometimes reluctantly. Perhaps you are, even now, facing the challenge once and for all, to throw in your lot with Jesus. And what would that mean, for you? For Andrew and Simon, it meant leaving their nets, their homes, their families, leavingall behind. For you, for me, we may not be called to leave our families and homes and work behind in the same way. But to follow Jesus we must leave our ‘world’ behind, and enter a new world. To enter this new world, which is the Kingdom, we have to radically change direction. To be a follower of Jesus is to turn around and in the words of Colossians, to ‘set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.’ If we choose to follow Jesus each of us will be challenged to completely change direction and to ‘leave our nets behind’. That will mean something different for each one of us. And what I have discovered, after more than twenty years in the monastic life, is that Jesus never stops calling us to follow him. Every morning, at the beginning of every new day, there is this gracious invitation to say ‘yes’, to leave all and ‘Come follow me.’
Today we give thanks to God for St Andrew. We pray that like him we may have grace to say ‘Yes’ every day to the call to follow Jesus. We pray that each day we may lift our eyes ‘to things that are above’, to see the glory which awaits us, and which calls us ever on.