On Sunday, July 24, 2007, the Catholic men of the Douala Archdiocese in Cameroon held the general assembly of the Catholic Men’s Association (CMA) at the Our Lady of Annunciation Parish in Bonamoussadi. I was asked to lead the assembly in a bible reading but I instead chose to reflect with the group on three words from Sacred Scripture: “Come, follow me”, some of the most frequent words on the lips of our Blessed Lord as he began his public ministry.
Generally, during a CMA-organised Mass, the priest gives time for members to go out into the congregation to ‘fish out’ and bring to the fore, against the background of the beautiful CMA anthem, potential candidates for membership of the Catholic Men’s Association (CMA) of the Archdiocese of Douala.
The Catholic Women’s Association (CWA) has come up with a much more colourful version; the women go out in search of candidates with candles alight; the candles symbolizing Christ, the light of the universe. “I am the light of the world,” says the Lord, “anyone who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12).
When we take our brothers by the hand and ask them to follow us, we are merely re-enacting what Christ himself did on several occasions at the beginning of his public ministry. He went out in search of faithful followers who would take his message of salvation to the four corners of the earth. Thus, the words: “Come, follow me,” became some of the most frequent words Our Redeemer pronounced as he screened potential candidates for discipleship; those who would suffer persecution and even martyrdom in his name because he would be sending them out to hostile territory, like sheep among wolves (Mt 10:16).
They must therefore be men of steel will because Christ’s enemies would only be too happy and ready to hand them over to the courts to be condemned for their faith; to synagogues for scourging, and to governors and kings to be bound hands and feet and thrown into dungeons for daring to preach his word (Mt. 10: 17-23).
These three words of divine invitation, “come, follow me”, which still ring in our ears as fresh as when they were pronounced well over two thousand years ago, constitute the subject of our meditation this morning. They have been echoing down the corridors of human ears from one generation to another for centuries and they still carry the urgency of those early days because then, as now, the harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few (Lk 10:2).
Let us therefore reflect on the Lord’s invitation this morning in two phases: 1) How Christ calls his disciples in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). 2) How he calls them in the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel according to John. 3) In my conclusion, I point out the obligation we all have to extend Christ’s invitation “Come, follow me” to our own brothers and sisters, especially those whose faith has weakened, for one reason or another, or those who have not yet heard our Lord’s call to sanctity.
Our Lord’s evangelisation territory starts off rather small as he sends his disciples only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” (Mt. 10: 6), which he himself has come to redeem. It would later take the unrelenting persistence and strong faith of a stubborn Canaanite woman, whose daughter is possessed by a demon (Mt 15: 21-28), for our Blessed Lord to start changing his policy of “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He would later abandon this policy altogether when the said “lost sheep of the house of Israel” reject his message of salvation, thus forcing him, as it were, to turn his full attention to the whole world. It is then he tells his disciples, and us this day, to “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the gospel of creation. Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16: 15-17); “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28: 18-20).
With such a vast territory to conquer, Christ necessarily needs faithful followers under a strong leadership because the harvest is plentiful, but the harvesters are few (Lk 10:2). The three words, “Come, follow me”, become the hallmark of our Lord’s command to a select few, a band of timid followers, who are still wondering if they are doing the right thing by following him.
Let us begin with the synoptic gospels. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are called “synoptic” (from the Greek word which means “seen together” or “seen at a glance”) because of their remarkable similarity to each other. They narrate the events of Christ’s life, including his call of his apostles, in very similar ways.
According to Matthew, Jesus called his first disciples by the Lake of Galilee. “As he was walking by the Lake of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who was called Peter, and his brother Andrew; they were making a cast into the lake with their net, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Come after me and I will make you fishers of people.’ And at once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there he saw another pair of brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John; they were in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. And at once, leaving the boat and their father, they followed him” (Mt. 4: 18-22).
The pairs of brothers, Simon and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, receive an instant call and respond instantly. The same instant call and prompt reaction characterize Mark’s description of Christ’s call to his first disciples: “As he was walking along by the Lake of Galilee he saw Simon and Simon’s brother Andrew casting a net in the lake – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Come after me and I will make you into fishers of people.’ And at once they left their nets and followed him. Going a little further, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John; they too were in their boat, mending their nets. At once he called them and, leaving their father in the boat with the men he employed, they went after him” (Mk 1: 16-20).
If Matthew and Mark give such as similar account of the call of Christ’s first disciples, what does Luke say about it? Saint Luke gives his account of the call of the first disciples a lot more flesh than does Matthew or Mark. Whereas Matthew and Mark show us that Jesus is meeting those he is calling to his service for the first time, Saint Luke tells us that Jesus has already met Simon Peter for sometime before extending a formal invitation to him to become his fisher of men: “Leaving the synagogue he went to Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in the grip of a high fever, and they asked him to do something for her. Standing over her he rebuked the fever and it left her, and she immediately got up and began to serve them” (Lk 4: 38-39).
As we can see, Christ’s reputation as a miracle-worker is fast gaining ground and people are already asking him for favours. Simon would see so many of such wonders that when some begin to reject Christ and abandon him, and Christ asks the Twelve if they too want to go away, it is Simon who makes this wonderful profession of faith: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6: 68-70).
After the miracle in Simon’s house, days pass before our Lord again meets Simon, this time by the Lake of Gennesaret. Saint Luke tells us that the crowd is pressing around him listening to the word of God when he catches sight of two boats at the water’s edge. “The fishermen had got out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats – it was Simon’s – and asked him to put out a little from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat” (Lk 5: 2-3).
Is our Lord’s choice of Simon’s boat a mere coincidence? I doubt that it is. By performing one of his first recorded miracles at Simon’s house and later choosing Simon’s boat to preach from, our Blessed Lord is definitely sending out signals to whoever cares to listen that he has already found the leader of his team. Simon is being ‘anointed’, as it were, for greater things ahead. The Lord is gradually hewing the Rock on which he is to build his Church. It won’t be long before he publicly tells Simon: “And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16: 18-19).
But, that is still to come; for now, we are still at the early stages of Christ’s ministry and Peter’s personality is still a little fuzzy in our minds. We can only imagine Simon also staring at Our Lord alongside the crowd that is listening to his preaching in wonder. He too must be asking himself where this young man must have had this type of knowledge from. “They were all amazed and said to one another, ‘what is it in his words? He gives orders to unclean spirits with authority and power and they come out.” (Lk: 4: 36-37).
Word is already reaching beyond the confines of the province about the wonders wrought by our Lord and Simon, who has seen one of our Lord’s first miracles performed under his very roof, is also invaded by feelings of wonderment. As Simon is still staring dumbfounded, our Lord suddenly turns to him and asks him to cast his net. “Put out into the deep water and pay out your nets for a catch” (Lk 5:4).
Simon Peter, with the rough features of a seasoned fisherman, his face having been beaten by the storms at sea for years on end, knows that sea like the palm of his hand. He and his kid brother, Andrew, and the other companions, James and his brother John, the sons of Zebedee, had struggled all night long but had had to admit defeat and come back home empty-handed. They were now cleaning their nets to wait patiently for another day, for there would always be another day. So, being asked to pay out his nets must have sounded to Peter like sheer folly; and he would have not hesitated to say so, had the command not come from our Blessed Lord himself.
Simon is beginning to understand that with this young man, anything is possible. Has he not been a witness to some amazing things from his hands not that long ago? Was it not under his very roof that the young teacher had rebuked the fever that had grounded his mother-in-law for days? Now that he is asking him to cast his net one more time, who is he not to obey? “Master, we worked hard all night long and caught nothing, but if you say so, I will pay out the nets” (Lk 5: 5-6).
The “if you say so, I will pay out the nets” is already a mark of submission to a more powerful authority, the attitude of a humble man before his Lord. In gratitude, our Blessed Lord rewards him, as he always rewards all who obey him, with another miracle: “And when they had done this they netted such a huge number of fish that their nets began to tear, so they signaled to their companions in the other boat to come and help them; when they came, they filled both boats to sinking point” (Lk 5: 6-7).
It should be noted that it is Simon and his kid brother Andrew who invite their friends, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, to come and help them with this amazing catch. By so doing, they win for Jesus those who are going to be some of his most devoted followers. That is what we too are called upon to do, my brothers. We should invite others to come to Christ so that together, we can bear witness to his miracles.
But let’s examine Simon Peter’s reaction to our Lord’s miracle in his boat. The miraculous curing of his mother-in-law a few days previously is still fresh in his mind. Then comes the miracle of the fish and Simon can take it no more. He, Andrew, his kid brother, and his other companions, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are “completely awestruck” (Lk 5:9). The evangelist tells us that “When Simon Peter saw this he fell at the knees of Jesus saying, “leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man” (Lk 5: 8-9). This is already a great sign of what kind of leader Peter is going to be to his flock; a leader steeped in humility; a man with what Archbishop Fulton Sheen calls “a deep sense of his unworthiness,” a true mark of greatness in a leader, who will serve his flock, rather that wait for his flock to serve him.
Seeing how confused Peter is, our Lord quickly comes to rescue him from the turbulent sea of debilitating doubt, as he will on several other occasions in the three years they will spend together. “Do not be afraid; from now on it is people you will be catching” (Lk 5:10), he tells him as he stretches out his hand to Peter. “Then, bringing their boats back to land they left everything and followed him.” (Lk 5: 10). That’s the same message Christ is still giving us today. “Pay out your net among your brothers and sisters. Do not be afraid. I am with you. I will protect you.”
We have, my brothers in Christ, seen the remarkable similarity in the call of Christ’s first disciples, mainly the pairs of brothers, Simon and Andrew, and the Zebedee brothers, James and John, in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. We have also seen how Luke gives his own version a little more flesh than the other two evangelists. Let us now see how John treats the same call in what has come to be known as the Fourth Gospel.
Christ’s call as seen and heard by John
Let’s begin with a brief review of how John differs from the synoptics. A number of features differentiate John’s gospel from the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. John is much more concerned than the synoptics to bring out the significance of the events of Christ’s life and of all that he did and said. He is also far more interested than the synoptics in worship and sacraments. His is a much more complex work and gives more details of Christ’s life.
Now, how does John see Christ’s call of his first followers? Chapter 1: 35-51 gives the answer to our question. First, we are told that Jesus’ first followers were John the Baptist’s disciples. As Jesus is walking past by, John the Baptist points him out to his followers in these words: “Look there is the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:36). That pricks the young men’s curiosity and they decide to follow Jesus, who turns round, sees them following him and asks: ‘What do you want?’ They answer, ‘Rabbi – which means Teacher – ‘where do you live? (Jn 1: 38-39); and then comes the divine invitation: ‘Come and see;’ so they go with him, see where he lives, and stay with him all day (Jn 1: 39-40).
One of these young men is Andrew, who can hardly wait to find his elder brother, Simon, to bring him to the Lord: Anyone who truly finds the Lord cannot keep the joy to himself. He has to share it; and that is what Andrew does. He hurries to his elder brother and tells him: “We have found the Messiah” (Jn 1:40), and then takes him to Jesus. I can almost hear Andrew urging his reluctant and perhaps skeptical elder brother to “come and see.” And Simon perhaps thinking to himself: “Oh, these young people are always excited over nothing. Okay, I’ll go and see but knowing Andrew, I won’t be surprised if I don’t find anything exciting about this guy at all. But, it doesn’t hurt to go and see.”
That is what we are being called to do this day, my brothers. “Tell our own sister and brother, ‘we have found the Messiah’” and lead them too to Jesus as Andrew does his brother. A remarkable thing then happens. Christ takes one look at Peter and immediately calls him by name. He does not ask Peter his name, he simply says: “You are Simon son of John; you are to be called Cephas – which means Rock” (Jn 1:42). Christ, the Saviour, the Co-Creator of the world with his Father, knows us all by name. As the prophet Jeremiah reminds us: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jer 1: 5). We see Peter already being singled out as the Rock on which our Blessed Lord will build his Church. (You’ve probably heard the Latin expression “Ubi Petrus, ibi eclessia” – where there is Peter, there is the Church of Christ.) So the Rock on which Christ builds his Church comes to our Lord through his kid brother, Andrew.
The next day, Jesus meets Philip as he is leaving Galilee and invites him to follow him. With no hesitation whatsoever, Philip follows the Lord. The excitement of having been touched by divine grace is so intense that Philip decides to share his joy, and he goes out in search of others. There is a beautiful exchange between Philip and his friend, Nathanael, a.k.a Bartholomew: Philip tells him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote, Jesus Son of Joseph, from Nazareth,” (Jn 1:45-46).
But, like many of us, Nathanael is a victim of the stereotype syndrome. He judges people from outward appearances or from their origin. Stereotyping distorts the picture we have of people; it reduces us to narrow-minded tribal loyalists, regionalists, racists or trumpeters of ethnic intolerance. The question he asks shows that he is merely putting everyone from Nazareth into one basket and dismissing them as worthless. That is why he is astonished that anyone can admire what comes from Nazareth. “From Nazareth? Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 46-47, he asks, his voice steeped in disbelief.
What I find remarkable about Philip, my brothers, is his refusal to indulge in fruitless polemics. He probably knows his friend well not to argue with him. Nathanael is probably the type of individual who finds it difficult to change his mind, especially about people from remote and backward villages like Nazareth. That must be why he finds it difficult to understand why his friend, Philip, is so fussy about a man from Nazareth. For his part, Philip thinks it better to simply invite his friend to “Come and see” and then make up his own mind by himself.
All this while, our Blessed Lord is beckoning Nathanael to come to him. He has obviously heard the discussion between the two friends and is calling them to come to Him, the Omniscient, the Omnipresent, the Omnipotent. What happens when they do come to him? Instead of getting angry at Nathanael for his negative view of him and his village, as many of us would be in a similar situation, our Blessed Lord only has words of praise for him. As soon as he sees Nathanael, he says: “There, truly, is an Israelite in whom there is no deception.” (Jn 1: 47). Nathanael is astonished, as we all would be, I guess, and asks “How do you know me?” (Jn 1: 48).
Oh, what a question to ask our Blessed Lord! From that question, it is clear that we are still in the presence of a soul that has not yet encountered the marvels of the Lord. Peter and the others, who have seen our Lord at work, who have witnessed the miracles our Lord has performed so far, would not ask such a question. Our Blessed Lord simply tells him “Before Philip came to call you, I saw you under the fig tree” (Jn 1:48-49). And what follows is the true encounter of a receptive soul to the saving grace of the Master. Nathanael, now completely dumbfounded, as had been Peter and his companions earlier, gives one of the first, if not the first, public recognitions of Christ as the Son of God in Sacred Scripture: “Rabbi,” he says, his voice dripping with astonishment, “you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel” (Jn 1: 49-50). And our Lord tells him, “You believe that just because I said: I saw you under the fig tree. You are going to see greater things than that. … In truth I tell you, you will see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending over the Son of Man,” (Jn 1: 50-51).
In this short reflection, my brothers in Christ, we have met some of those who are to travel with Christ throughout the three years of his public ministry. Our Blessed Lord calls each of them by name and in the state in which he meets them. The same holds true for us, he calls us in the state in which he finds us. He does not ask us to become someone else. No, he merely asks us to shed our old ways and embrace the new, the doctrine of love, which we should spread around us. Christ is asking us to invite others, as Andrew invites his elder brother Simon, and Philip, his friend Nathanael, to “come and see” and hear the Lord.
Christ’s followers are not necessarily people who think or act alike. We can still think differently, vote for different candidates in elections, militate in different political parties and still carry Christ’s message of love to the whole world. After all, Christ’s early followers came from different backgrounds.
In fact, you couldn’t find a much more heterogeneous bunch of people than Christ’s apostles. They include sceptics (like Thomas, the Twin), barely literate fishermen (Peter), scholarly tax collectors (Matthew), seasoned writers (John), impatient and violently anti-Roman nationalists (Simon the Zealot), among others. There is even a traitor among them, Judas Iscariot, whose feet our Lord washes, but who turns round and sells his Master for thirty pieces of silver.
The case of Matthew, the publican, and Simon, the Zealot, is worth mentioning. Whereas Matthew, by his profession of tax collector, is virtually a traitor to his people since he collects taxes for a despised foreign power, Simon, the Zealot, is a virulent anti-Roman combatant, who is ready to use violence to overthrow the foreign yoke. This leaves one wondering why our Blessed Lord chose such two diametrically opposed individuals as his companions! In his beautiful book, Life of Christ (p. 113), Archbishop Fulton Sheen says that Christ might have chosen Simon the Zealot “because of his wholehearted enthusiasm for a cause.” If he carries that enthusiasm into the defence of the new faith, Christianity would thrive in hostile environments.
Whether we are political activists, soldiers, tax collectors, bayam sellams, or even highway robbers, our Lord is asking us to “come, follow him” into his vineyard. After receiving the grace of salvation, we should then go out in search of others. The divine invitation “Come, follow me” still resounds in our ears everyday. We are still being urged to come and follow the Lord, not alone, but with our brothers and sisters in the light of what the Apostles Andrew and Philip did. This is far from being an easy task, but with Christ’s Advocate, the Holy Spirit, guiding us, everything is possible, “for nothing is impossible for God” (Lk 1:37). May our Blessed Lord continue to inspire us in our evangelisation mission. Amen.