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Third Sunday after Epiphany

Readings: Isaiah 9:1–4, 1 Corinthians 1:10–18 & Matthew 4:12–25

When I was growing up, my mum had a rule that my sister and I weren’t allowed to eat dinner in front of the TV. The one exception to this rule was Sunday night, when a nature program titled “Wild Kingdom” was on. The show was a precursor to today’s Animal Planet channel. I think the only reason for this exception to mum’s rule was that she liked to watch the show just as much as we did!

I remember watching one episode about elephant seals in Argentina. The show focused on a particular mother and her pup, who had just been born. Soon after giving birth, the mother, who was now starving, left the pup on the shore so that she could go and feed. After feeding, she returned to a different part of the beach and began to call for her baby.

Other mothers had done the same thing, and all of them returned to the beach at much the same time. I remember thinking to myself there was no way the mother and pup in question would ever find one another. The camera then followed the mother as she called to her pup and listened for the pup’s response. Following each other’s voices and scents, soon the mother and pup were reunited. The host explained that, from the moment of birth, the sound and scent of the pup are imprinted in the mother’s memory, and the sound and scent of the mother are imprinted in the pup’s memory. 

I was reminded of this recently when I read a quote from an American pastor who said, “We are imprinted with a memory of God, and God is imprinted with a memory of us, and even if it takes a lifetime, we will find each other.” The quote made me think of the famous statement by St Augustine of Hippo who wrote when speaking about God, “You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You”. Augustine was basically saying that we were designed by God to be in relationship with God, and that we won’t find peace until we are in that relationship.

The text from Matthew’s Gospel today describes the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Matthew describes Jesus walking by the Sea of Galilee and calling the first of his disciples. Matthew says they immediately left what they were doing and followed Jesus. As readers, we are struck by this idea that immediately they left what they were doing. It is as if they were compelled to follow Jesus and to obey him, almost as if they had been waiting all their lives to hear this voice, to be issued this call, so that when it came, they dropped what they were doing.

Indeed, it would seem that even these four, who were already in a worthy vocation as fishermen, had restless hearts—so restless that when they heard Jesus’ call to them, they could do nothing else but leave everything behind and follow. Perhaps they were simply responding to what had already been imprinted on their souls from birth—the knowledge of the voice of God—so that when they heard the voice, all they could do was obey.

When I was a parishioner at Christ Church South Yarra, I was a participant in the inaugural Education for Ministry group in the parish. EfM, as it’s known in short, is a four year program of theological education, largely aimed at lay people in parishes, that covers the Old and New Testaments, Church History and the interaction of faith with the modern world. The mentor and facilitator of our group used to say that all people are born with a God-hole; an internal craving they spend their lifetime trying to fill. And for those people who don’t know God, they try and fill it through material things, whether that be power, wealth, status or possessions, but of course no matter how much they try to fill it with those things, the craving remains. In a way, he was saying the same thing that St Augustine was, “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You”. 

It was certainly something that I could relate to at the time I started EfM, because even though I was happy with my life at that point: with my family, my career, my faith and even my material possessions, I still wasn’t completely satisfied. Something was missing. That something was a deeper relationship with God. My faith had always been strong, and I had always enjoyed a relationship with God, but it clearly wasn’t the relationship that God intended. Through EfM, and several other associated factors, I came to realise that God was calling me to ordained ministry. In the time since I answered His call, I no longer feel restless; I have found my rest in God.

But I do remember after answering the call, that even though I felt that I was finally doing what I was meant to be doing, I still felt a little uncertain, not about my faith, or my relationship with God, but about what God’s purpose for me was, specifically in relation to my ministry.

Throughout my time at theological college, and during my ministry formation, my peers and I were often told of the importance of getting “bums on seats”; in other words, growing the size of the congregations in which we would minister. Whenever I heard this, the thought that came immediately to mind was that I needed to be out evangelising in cafes, pubs and on street corners, trying to convert “non-believers” to Christianity. Being an introvert as I am, this was a frightening thought, and I began to question exactly what God was calling me to. But I realised that God wasn’t expecting me to evangelise in that fashion. That was perhaps the expectation, or hope, of others in the church. 

After much prayerful reflection, and several conversations with my Spiritual Director, I was able to discern what it was that God was calling me to do, and also importantly, how it was that I was to go about doing it. If only our own discernment could be as simple as the way Matthew portrays the discernment of Peter, Andrew, James and John in today’s gospel passage when they answer the call of Jesus.

Some time ago I was contacted by a young person who was in need of pastoral care. They were a member of a Pentecostal Christian community and were experiencing significant issues in their relationship with their partner, who was also a member of the same Christian community. This person was suffering from extremely low self-esteem, and based on what they told me, it appeared their partner was quite manipulative and controlling, even using the person’s faith to make them feel guilty about their response to their partner’s admissions of infidelity. This person had spoken about their problems with friends from their Christian community, and also with family members who were part of a similar community in another Australian city.

All of them were basically telling this person the same thing; that they should forgive their partner and try to repair the relationship. The person was conflicted though, because they realised that their partner had been trying to manipulate and control them throughout the entire time they had been together, and they didn’t think it was healthy for them to put themselves in that situation again, but they also felt that as a Christian they should forgive partner and try to help them.

So we met in the church on a number of occasions and spent time in both prayerful reflection and theological reflection, as the person tried to discern where God was in their particular situation and what God might have been calling them to. Several weeks elapsed before they contacted me to let me know that they had ended the relationship with their partner and that they had been visiting several different churches looking for a new church community to join. Their family were surprisingly very supportive of their decision and they told me that they had actually become much closer to their family again as a result of what had transpired. They were also feeling much better about themselves and seemed to be much more self-confident. They attributed all of this to discerning what God was calling them to do in their particular situation.

Much like this young person, who had to listen for the voice of God among the many different voices that were telling them what they should do, I’m sure all of us may struggle at times to hear where God is calling us to be, and what He might be calling us to do. The reading of Scripture, prayerful reflection, or spiritual reflection, can help us to discern how our own restless hearts can find their rest in God.

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