Epic Christianity

Luke 5:1 – 11

Years ago, if you wanted to win Oscars, you made a biblical epic. My grandmother’s favourite film was The Greatest Story Ever Told. I remember being taken to see The Ten Commandments and Barabbas at the cinema. Our favourite, of course, has always been Ben Hur. Everyone remembers the chariot race, and ramming speed in the slave galleys.
The scene we’ve witnessed this morning would make a good opening for a film. The lights go down, the cinema audience hushes. As the opening credits finish, the camera pans across Holywood’s idea of what first-century Palestine might have looked like; and settles on an elderly man sat on the side of a fishing boat by a lake. It doesn’t take us long to work out that this is meant to be Galilee, and this is St Peter. He’s speaking to a small knot of bystanders.
‘It all started on a day much like today. We had been out most of the night fishing as usual, but with little to show for our efforts. It was a warm morning, we were just sitting on the beach, cleaning and mending the nets, when along he came…’ And the screen dissolves to recreate the scene St Peter is describing. We’ve probably heard the story many times; culminating, as we heard again just now, in Jesus’ famous promise to Peter and his crew to make them fishers of men. Our film would go on to portray the rest of the extraordinary life of St Peter. Adventure after adventure: the high drama of Jesus’ passion, crucifixion and resurrection, the founding of the Church, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the persecutions under Saul, followed by his dramatic conversion, the spread of the church across the world. It would make a stirring film, full of tension, drama and excitement. Oscars all round.
The trouble is that for most of us, even if we came to faith in extraordinary, epic circumstances, the reality of our Christian life since then will not have been a series of dazzling adventures, to be recreated on the big screen, with chariot races, a star cast and a clutch of awards. For most of us, our Christianity is simply who we are. We don’t take on the world in the way that we see in films, we don’t change the course of history by our prayer vigils, or the thousands we lead to faith; we just get on with trying to love our neighbour as best we can.
Are we only second-class Christians, then? Mere walk-on extras amongst the cast of thousands in the great drama of salvation? More seriously, are we of less value to God than St Peter and the A list line-up of Christian history? I trust not.
But it can seem discouraging. We don’t celebrate the ordinary. We don’t go into raptures over routine. Yet being a Christian can sometimes seem very unexceptional. Worse, at times it can be a matter of hanging on to faith by our finger nails. You come home from a Sunday service, and you can’t remember a word that’s been said. You come back from another funeral, and find yourself deliberately not thinking at all, because if you were to allow yourself to think, you would only ask questions. Questions like ‘why him?’ and ‘what was the point of all that praying?’ And sometimes being a Christian amounts to little more than clinging on to our integrity. Walking the narrow way, when everyone else on the committee, or the board, or the team, or the staffroom, is voting to take the broad way, whatever that may be. Nobody would pay to see films of lives like these.

The view from the tower of Chale Church on the Isle of Wight is spectacular: stretching out across Chale Bay all the way to the Needles: chalk cliffs, rolling green downs and shimmering blue sea. It is this dramatic view that attracted a director and his crew to St Andrew’s Church, to shoot the opening scenes of a film called New Year’s Day. Sadly, on when the cameras and the lights and cast arrived, the fret was down, and the magnificent view was completely shrouded in white. I’m sure the film was at least as exciting as Ben Hur. But I suspect, though I’ve never seen it, that my brief but brilliant cameo as a country vicar was swiftly consigned to the cutting room floor!
However I learned the lesson that day, that no matter how exciting the finished film, the process of actually making it is unutterably tedious. Six times we all marched around the Church, on a bitterly cold March day. There was an hour’s wait between each take, while lights and camera tracks were reset and the cast shivered and complained. The glamour of cinema is all illusion.
Think of the metaphors for the Christian life that we find in the Bible. Some suggest high drama, to be sure: putting on the whole armour of God and withstanding the foe, as Paul describes in Ephesians. And ‘blessed are ye, when men shall revile you and persecute you’, says Jesus, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.
But even for St Peter, there will have been many times when, as a fisher of men, he worked all night without catching anything; and then some carpenter came along and told him he was doing it all wrong. Other biblical images suggest simply hanging on in there in our Christian life, and remaining faithful through the next week, or the next month, or the next year. The woman who petitions the unjust judge does so without expecting that her suit will be heard. When Jesus bids the weary come to him, implicitly he recognises that life will sometimes be wearisome. ‘Ye are the salt of the earth’, says Jesus, also in the Sermon on the Mount. Salt is just, well, salty: there’s no high drama about it. Jesus goes on to talk about shining as a light, and being reconciled to your neighbour. These are unexceptional, everyday, undramatic pictures of living the Christian life that no-one makes films about.
God does not call us to live the illusory, life of the all-action Hollywood epic, that omits or glosses over so much; but to the real life of ordinary Christianity. ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man’, says St Peter, echoing the words of Isaiah, half a millennium earlier, ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.’ Such as these are the people God casts in his drama of salvation, rather than A list stars. Live this life, and we will not be played one day by Sir Kenneth Brannagh or Dame Judi Dench. Live this life, and we will not find ourselves walking a red carpet, or preparing an acceptance speech for some awards ceremony. But though no-one offers us a six figure sum to film our life story, it doesn’t actually matter. We are no less Christians than St Peter, no less precious in God’s sight; for we too are called by Jesus to be everyday, ordinary, faithful fishers of men.
© Jon Russell 2019