22nd January, 2017
One of the great joys of the post-Christmas season is finding a new calendar! We have new calendar hanging in our home which includes a wide range of interesting facts. For example, earlier this week the fact for the day was that on that day in 1351 and English cook was sentenced to one day in the stocks for cooking a chicken pastry described by the magistrate as, “foul and stinking and an abomination to all mankind.” This is not the entry on this calendar that I wish to speak about today, but I couldn’t resist sharing that little insight.
The entry that really caught my attention is one towards the end of the month that reads, on this day in 1926 Vasili Arkhipov was born to a poor family near Moscow, and though you probably don’t know it, you may owe him your life. I love the fact that we live in a time where looking into such an enticing statement is as easy as picking up your phone and doing a quick internet search. And here is what I found.
At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, Vasili Arkhipov was the second in command of a Soviet Nuclear submarine that was in the waters off the coast of Cuba. An incident took place where the submarine lost radio contact with Moscow and for a number of reasons the captain formed the view that war had begun between America and the Soviet Union. The captain decided to launch a nuclear torpedo at American ships in the area, but required the consent of two other senior officers. Protocol demanded that all three officers were in agreement before the launch could take place. Of the three officers involved only Arkhipov refused to fire the weapon. Had that weapon been fired, there could well have been a nuclear war. So maybe the assertion made by my new calendar is right…maybe we are all here because of that one person’s actions.
There is a writer I quite like named Thomas Cahill. Cahill is an American academic who more or less writes popular history books. He has written six out of seven book series that he calls “The Hinges of History”. This series focusses on key moments in human history and how those moments have shaped the world we live in. They are very easy reading and very interesting. That title of “The Hinges of History” is a good one as it describes pivotal moments where history seems to turn in a new and before unimagined direction. Perhaps the moment I just described, when a soviet naval office opted for peace under challenging circumstances, was a hinge of history. A moment when human civilisation was turned away from the brink of third world war.
This morning’s Gospel reading is one we are all familiar with. I say that because we use this passage every year on St Andrew’s day. This year it turns out we will be having it twice. The passage is more than a passing reference to our patron saint. This gospel story follows directly on from last week’s passage concerning the baptism of Jesus. Together these two stories are marking a pivotal moment in the life of Jesus. Despite the later development of the birth narratives found in Matthew and Luke, the synoptic tradition affirms that Jesus’ encounter with John was the real beginning of the Jesus story. That was the moment when Jesus stepped from relative obscurity and set out on the path that ultimately led to the first easter.
Part of the story of this new beginning was that Jesus gathered together a leadership team, the apostles. When we consider the readings we’ve had over the last few weeks we can see that we have moved from the birth of Jesus, through the story of the Magi and on to the beginning of the actual ministry of Jesus. Our attention has shifted away from Christmas and now raises questions about the would-be messiah. Will Jesus liberate the Jewish people? Will he confront the occupying forces of the Romans? Will he be a great conquerer and ruler like King David from whom he is descended? These questions arise from the text because they are the sorts of things that first time listeners of the Gospel stories would have been wondering.
The questions these passages raise for us are different, but no less important. Some questions are not easily answered, such as, what was Jesus really aiming to achieve when he embarked on his ministry? There are as many opinions on that question as there are people. The question today that arises for me, is not so much about the new direction Jesus’ life was taking, but rather about the new direction those first disciples decided to take.
Did they really just drop everything and follow Jesus? In some circles that idea is help up as being the definitive way converstion takes place. Jesus calls and we follow. I don’t actually know very many people for whom that is the case, while accepting that it must happen for some. From my conversations with different people on this topic, the common theme seems to be that conversion often takes place over period of time. It may include certain memorable moments, or particular conversations, or even a rare moment of clarity, but most commonly I hear people speak of a growing relationship with God that deepens over time, rather than a profound one off experience. I know for myself that my commitment to my faith journey happened through lots of little things, rather than one big thing.
For this reason I suspect that when Jesus called the first of his companions that call did not come out of the blue. How many of us would simply up sticks and walk away from employment and family to take up with a complete stranger? Not too many I hope. My feeling is that these first followers had some kind of relationship with Jesus prior to when the recorded story begins, but that is simply speculation which cannot be supported one way or the other.
What we can say with certainty is that these discples were experining a hinge in their personal history whether they reaslised that or not at the time. At the moment Jesus’s life took a new direction, several others also chose a new direction. Not all pivotal moments in our lives are ones we choose. In this particular instance that was the case, the disciples were not compelled to go with Jesus, but rather chose to respond to an invitation. They would of course go on to experience other pivotal moments in which they had little choice, such as the crucifixion, the resurrection, and if our tradition holds true, many would also lose their lives in service to others.
In the light of todays reading perhaps you would like to reflect on your own story. To see if you can recall pivotal moments when your life turned in a new direction. Was God part of that experience, or was that moment accompanied by a sense of God’s absence? Was your pivotal moment is a time of grief, a change in employment, travel to a new place. Perhaps your pivotal moment was a kind word or a small encouragement when you didn’t expect it. Maybe it was the end of relationship, or the beginning of one.
You might be surprised by what you find. Maybe you discover a hurt that needs to be put right. Maybe you’ll find something to be grateful for. The philosopher Cornell West teaches that it takes great courage to interrorgate yourself, to look past the masks we were publically and to really know ourselves. But he says, knowing ourselves is an important step on the journey towards truth and that loving truth is essential to understanding the world we live in, and how much our world requires the transformational love of God.