Picture busy Northumberland Street. But not now; no, no, no! Picture Northumberland Street on Christmas Eve, about half past four, an hour or so before the shops shut! Here, everybody is on a journey; and everybody is rushing. You don’t make eye contact with anyone. The only conversation, barely discernible above the noise of buses and taxis, is one-sided, as people clasp mobile phones urgently to their ears. You get irritated by the lady with the six shopping bags who is walking too slowly and holding you up. You avoid the street sellers and the Big Issue vendors. You take your life in your hand as you try to dodge the furious buses on Blackett Street. You speak to no-one, you interact with no-one. You just rush, on a journey by yourself, in a world of your own, surrounded by hundreds of other isolated, disconnected souls.
Now picture Allendale Market Square. It’s Saturday afternoon. You’ll notice folk chatting by the door to the Co-op and in the other shops. You’ll hear laughter, and greetings. People will be sat outside the pubs; children will be drinking cans of coke. You hear news that someone has been taken to hospital; you learn of the birth of a new grandchild. You are connected. A five minute journey today might take you half an hour, because you cannot cross the square without bumping into someone you know.
There are many journeys in the Bible. For the most part, they too are quite gentle journeys. One or two people drive like Jehu, or charge down the hill like Gideon; but most Biblical journeys proceed at walking pace. However in our day, more and more people are Northumberland Street: rushing everywhere, by car or bus or aeroplane. On a Biblical journey, you have time to notice things along the way. You have time to meet people, you have time to spend in their company.
Today, we walk with Jesus and his disciples in the gospel reading, as they journey along some hot, desert road. Listening, moving in a big group, sometimes; but also probably breaking into twos and threes. Chatting to one another. Complaining: that wouldn’t be too surprising, would it? Thinking of home, now and again? Wondering whether we will find shade in the heat of the day? Wondering where we will sleep tonight? And reflecting, perhaps, on what is happening on this simple, ordinary, everyday, epic journey.
And as we walk, on a typical, dusty, Middle-Eastern day, we meet people. By this stage of his ministry, Jesus is probably quite well known in the area; and a man comes up to him, as we pause to drink at a well in a little village.
‘I will follow you anywhere’, he exclaims to Jesus, his voice full of enthusiasm and passion. In his earnest eyes you can see the excitement, as this new teaching from Jesus fires his imagination. But, ‘Even foxes have holes’, replies Jesus. ‘Even the birds have nests. Have you any idea what it is like to wander and wonder each day where you will sleep tonight, and where it is that I am leading you?’ As the man sits beneath a tree, and begins to think through the implications of his hasty declaration, you can see some doubts beginning to creep in.
Later, two others express their readiness to join our band. They are keen and eager to follow; just as soon as everything at home is settled. For of course there are family who are due an explanation. There are affairs to set in order. They will follow; they can see it’s the right, the only thing to do. It’s just that, well, the time right now is not all that right. Though our journey is leisurely paced, it won’t wait; and we must journey on. Jesus has words of warning to give to those who are never quite ready even to start the journey.
Sometime today, we wander into the Samaritan village. As we cross this market square, closed doors and closed faces make clear there is little welcome here. In a little world of its own, the village people are happy with their lives the way they are. Or perhaps they are unhappy, ground down with worry or poverty; or threatened, we know not how. At any rate, they don’t want to hear a foreigner’s message, though it might have been music to their ears. Caught up with a journey of their own, they don’t want to share Jesus’ journey.
James and John are quick to suggest a response; they are not called Sons of Thunder for nothing. ‘Shall we call down the fires of judgement upon the villagers for their hard-heartedness and their obstinacy, and their sinfulness in refusing to listen?’ Is this what the church is for, to thunder like James and John? Swiftly to pronounce judgement upon those who don’t see things our way? Is it our task to summon punishment for others, because we are in the right?
We are fortunate, really, that Jesus is less quick to call down fire and brimstone; for there are times on this journey when each one of us is under-enthusiastic about hearing his message and following him. Times when each of us is less than ready to drop everything so as to serve Jesus better.
Take Peter for instance, who is celebrated in the Church calendar this weekend, chatting away to Jesus as we journey along. ‘Over-enthusiastic’ is Peter’s middle name. He is the first to perceive who Jesus really is; and a week later he’s volunteering to build cabins for Jesus, Elijah and Moses on the summit of a mountain! Later, Jesus shall surely not wash his feet! But if he must, then not just his feet, but all of him. Peter is always the first to operate his mouth before his brain is in gear. We love him for that ‘first boy in the class to put his hand up’ exuberance, because behind it there lies a real devotion to Jesus, and a real spiritual depth and holiness.
But the same Peter can be terrified even to admit he knows Jesus. As he cowers in the dark night of the courtyard, his face lit by the fire in the brazier, watching Jesus’ trial from afar; several of the High Priest’s servants recognise Peter’s northern accent, and question him. We all know Peter’s frightened denial in response to their enquiries, ‘I tell you, I don’t know the man!’ We all know the disappointment on Jesus’ face, as the cock crows that third time, and their eyes meet, as they both acknowledge what has been lost, what has been betrayed. We remember how Peter slinks away into the night. Perhaps we even know what it is to share his anguished sobs, as he berates himself for his cowardice.
For in various ways, and at different stages of our journey, we have all been here, in the depths of doubt and denial, as well as in the flushes of enthusiasm. So that though we might begin our prayers by demanding judgement along with James and John; we shall surely end them with Peter, by pleading for mercy.
For this is not just a story: we all journey with Jesus day by day, on a journey to the heavenly Jerusalem that takes our whole life. Our ‘walk with Jesus’, or ‘discipleship’, or ‘ministry’, or ‘Christian life’, (call it what you will), is worked out along this journey. Not in some grand design; not in our grasp of the nuances of doctrine; not in the Church committees on which we might sit, nor even in the qualifications that we earn. It unfolds simply and ordinarily, as we work out Jesus’ call to follow him through the people we meet each day.
A few will be like the Pharisees, trying to trip us up or put our faith on the line. Some, like the pig-keepers in the region of the Gerasenes across the Jordan or the people of the Samaritan village, will be too busy with their own lives to pause on the road and talk. There will be those like the woman at the well in Samaria, or the lepers whom Jesus heals, who have deep needs of various kinds. And some will be over-enthusiastic; and others, too slow to react. And some will be in danger of judgement; and all will be in need of mercy, just as we are.
Our calling, or our faith, or whatever we call it, is lived out in the way we deal with each of these we bump into on our journey. In the way we treat them, listen to them, understand them, make allowance for the difficulties with which they must grapple. In the way we listen, and speak, for Jesus to them, and try to treat them as he would. More Allendale Market Square than Northumberland Street, then.
© Jon Russell 2019