A Voice From The Isles:
In today’s Gospel, in the opening verses of the Gospel of St Matthew 9, Jesus comes back home to “His own city,” Capernaum, a town on the edge of the Sea of Galilee. Here was St Simon Peter’s home, the operational base which Jesus chose for His extensive ministry in Galilee, near the major highway from Egypt to Damascus. It was a sizeable town at the time of Jesus; and even today it remains impressive with a fifth-century basilica on the site of St Peter’s home and the considerable remains of a fourth-century synagogue nearby. The Sea of Galilee has receded, so you can no longer arrive by boat, as Jesus did, and step from the boat into the town. You have to walk for about two minutes from the sea to reach the town.
Some years ago now my wife and I walked around Capernaum and saw both the basilica and the synagogue. While we were in the synagogue we were deeply aware that we were walking near the places where Jesus and St Peter and many disciples had walked. However, we were puzzled by the canopy and the fence over the rocks that had been gathered from the surrounding area. Then we realized that both the canopy and the fence were there to protect those rocks from the weather and from those people who might wish to gather a personal souvenir of their visit to the operational headquarters of Jesus Christ. Now, how do all these aspects of Capernaum fit together in this Gospel passage—St Peter’s home, the return of Jesus to that home, the local synagogue, and those efforts to remember the ministry of Jesus by building a church or being tempted to steal a rock?
It is clear that Jesus knew that Capernaum was the place where He would call many of His disciples; He would find those who wished to follow Him. As the 12th and 13th verses of the fourth chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew tell us, Jesus had left his childhood home in Nazareth “and settled in Capernaum” only when he learned that St John the Baptist “had been taken into custody.” That was the moment when Jesus began to preach, as set out in the 17th verse of that fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” However, another significant reason why Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum was not simply to find disciples but to fulfil the ancient prophecy in the 9th chapter of the book of Isaiah that it was on the shores of Capernaum, that “the land would be made glorious by the way of the sea,” that “the people who walk in darkness will see a great light” and that “the light will shine on them.”
We are in same position as those Israelites in the Book of Isaiah. There is a light that wants to shine on us. However, it can only shine brightly if we move with Jesus from our childhood homes where we grew up to our present homes where we can now grow into being disciples of Jesus Christ. For us, the society around us has, like St John the Baptist himself, “been taken into custody” not by the forces of evil, but by the forces of complacency and the search for painless personal happiness. If we remain in our childhood homes seeking happiness—which is quite OK for a child—we will not grow up into mature Christians. We might pose as adults and even be genuine Christians, but we will not fulfil the mission which Jesus Christ has for each of us. St Paul phrased it well in the 11th verse of the 13th chapter of First Corinthians “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child,” but when I grew up, “I did away with childish things.” We need to move in our lives from the home of Jesus in Nazareth, about which we know a great deal, to His operational headquarters in Capernaum, about which we need to know much more. When we make that move in our lives what do we find?
First, we find the homes of St Simon Peter and his fellow fishermen, the people who are to be trained up to fulfil the ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus was under no illusions. He knew that He needed to teach others how to follow Him, how to complete His mission on earth. Jesus knew that it was in Capernaum He would find faith—faith from St Simon Peter and his fellow fishermen, faith from the friends of another paralysed person in the 4th verse of the second chapter of the Gospel of St Mark who would be lowered through the roof, faith from “the paralytic lying on a bed” in today’s gospel. What did Jesus say to these people? In the 19th and 21st verses of the fourth chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew, He told Saints Peter, Andrew, James and John : “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” In the 5th verse of the second chapter of the Gospel of St Mark, Jesus told the paralytic who had been lowered on a pallet through the roof, “Son, your sins are forgiven;” and here too, in today’s gospel, Jesus tells another paralytic, “Take courage, son, your sins are forgiven.”
That message which Jesus gave to the fishermen and the paralytics is precisely the message that Jesus give to us today: Your sins are forgiven. Take courage. Follow me. However, to receive that message we need to move now with Jesus into the tough fishing town of Capernaum on the edge of a major trade route, not continue living in the romantic village of Nazareth. Recently, my four-year-old grandson, whom I will call Charlie, informed me that he might not grow up. “Some people grow up,” he said, “but I might not grow up.” Humm! Interesting idea: You see, Charlie is in the middle of a family with very competent siblings. He feels rather threatened that life is just too difficult. Now, I was quite firm in my reply. “Charlie,” I said, “We all grow up. You are going to grow up.” However, you know, Charlie has a point. We don’t really all grow up all the time. Sometimes we just pretend we’ve grown up or we prefer to be openly childish, because life is just too difficult. In those situations, we need to cry out to Jesus to help us grow up, to help us to find what Jesus has for each of us to do now.
When Jesus stepped out of that boat in today’s Gospel, you can be sure that He was looking forward to being home among his friends, to resting for a little while before continuing His ministry. Instead, He found that His ministry was ever with Him—no time to relax, an immediate healing was needed. Many of us in that situation would say: “Give me a break! I’m tired. I’ve been away from home for quite a while. I need to rest.” Instead, Jesus told the paralytic to “take courage;” and then Jesus read the thoughts in the minds of the Jewish scribes and showed His authority by saying to the paralytic: “Get up, pick up your bed and go home.”
That is precisely what Jesus says to each of us today: Get up, forget about your illness and go to your home, your home as an adult, where you are living now, not where you lived in your childhood. When the crowd around Jesus saw what had happened to the paralytic, “they were awestruck, and [they] glorified God.” Why? Because Jesus had been “given such authority.” We too are in that crowd around Jesus. We too are struck by His authority; and that authority reaches into our lives. It is that authority of Jesus Christ that empowers us to grow up. It is that authority that gives us the confidence to put away childish things, to stop thinking like a child. Just like my grandson, Charlie, we can grow up. He is doing it; and so can each of us.
Jesus grew up in the synagogues in Galilee, first in Nazareth and then in Capernaum. We too can grow up in our local Christian communities; we too can travel to other Christian communities and communicate to them the authority of Jesus Christ. We have the God-given ability to be disciples of Jesus Christ. However, we do not need to build a new church on the site where Jesus ministered. We do not need to steal a rock from a place where Jesus preached. We simply need to grow up, to seek the will of the Father, and to use the power that comes from the Holy Spirit to become disciples of Jesus Christ.