‘In Capernaum by the sea’

4 minute read

Preached at S. Thomas, Kensal Town, on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, 2020

‘Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea.’ (Mt. 4.13)

For the last six months, I have been a school chaplain. I work in Islington at a comprehensive school, with 1350 children aged between four and eighteen. It’s a genuinely amazing job. I love it every single day. The children and young people I work with are endlessly fascinating and creative – both for good and ill!

I have a special privilege: working with children as they go through childhood and adolescence, watching them growing up. Watching them finding their feet. This is especially true for the new year 7 children, moving from the order and certainty of primary school into the much bigger, much more chaotic world of a secondary school. Life gets complicated. All the former certainties are gone, eyes are opened and there is a whole new world to discover, whose horizons are much further away, whose paths – and even whose rooms – are much harder to find.

‘Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea.’

I wonder what it was like for Jesus. He moved away from his childhood home. He moved away from his childhood, from his friends, from his family, from the world he knew. It was 20 miles away. It’s like walking from here to Slough or to Welwyn Garden City. When was the last time you did that? It’s a whole new world. I wonder what he felt like.

He made his home in Capernaum by the sea.

By the sea. For all that the Sea of Galilee is a piddling little puddle in any reasonable context, it was nonetheless a scary thing. For all that Peter and Andrew and several of the other disciples were fishermen, the sea was still a place of chaos and terror. On land, there was a degree of safety, of familiarity, of control. But the sea, the sea was wild, out of any possible human control.

‘Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea.’

Jesus is thirty years old here. He has been an adult for a fair old while now, but perhaps this is a moment of growing up, of stepping away from his childhood and taking on the burden he was born for. He felt excited. He felt disconcerted. He felt lost. It was new. It was uncomfortable. Just as he felt hunger in the manger, just as he felt fear in the Garden of Gethsemane, just as he felt pain as the nails were driven into his hands on the Cross, so here he feels disconcerted, apprehensive and nervous. This is a beginning, and just as in our beginnings our Lord felt afraid.

And in Jesus’ new beginning is the new beginning for Peter and Andrew as well, as they are called from their nets to follow Jesus. Such a simple thing to do now, but if only they had known… If only they had known the journey, if they had known their failings and falls, if they had known of the Cross, if they had known of their hard years telling of Christ, if they had known of their martyrdoms in the name of this man, would they have followed him?

Meanwhile, S. Paul writes to the Corinthians. The Corinthians, whose Christian conversion had plainly not resulted in growing up. They are locked in a juvenile battle over supremacy, over who was better, whose baptism was superior. Paul rebukes them.

‘Christ sent me to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.’

One of the key aspects of growing up is embracing complexity and ambiguity. Life is not as simple and straightforward as it seems when we are seven.

The Christians in Corinth didn’t understand. They still thought in the same way as before. They thought that the Christian faith was just like their former life, like the rest of the world, with Jesus bolted on the outside. They thought that a Christian life was just as competitive, all about seeking power, seeking supremacy – and like all Greek society, valuing eloquence.

These, S. Paul says, empty the Cross of its power. The Cross stands in opposition to the world. To the rest of the world it is foolishness. From the outside, Jesus’ life and especially his death seem pointless. They seem to achieve nothing. But there is a deeper wisdom, if you will perceive it. There is a deeper wisdom, elusive, disconcerting, unfathomable as it may be. The mystery of the Cross.

‘Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea.’

This is, I think, what growing up, maturity, in the Christian faith is all about. It isn’t simple. It’s not normal life with Jesus bolted on. It’s a whole new way of perceiving and understanding the world. It means leaving behind all the old certainties.

We, like Jesus, have to leave Nazareth. We have to step out of our infancy, step out of what is safe and comfortable and well-ordered. We have to make our home by the sea. We have to come to terms with the chaos and the uncertainty of the world.

The Christian faith is not founded on simple answers to life’s deepest questions. No, it is founded on the Cross, which offers no easy answers. It is founded on the Cross, which defies all our attempts to explain it, to categorise it, to understand it.

To grow up as a Christian does not mean understanding everything. It means learning to live in the shadow of the Cross, that deep mystery that offers no simple answers, but is the path to life eternal.

‘Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea.’