There was once a philosophy student at Oxford University who was sitting their final examination, an exam which would determine whether or not they would be awarded their degree. The exam itself consisted of a single question – “What is risk?” – to which the student was required to give an appropriately philosophical answer. The student considered the question for a moment, then simply wrote “This is”, and submitted these two short words as their answer.
I don’t know if this story is true, or if it’s one of those “urban legends” that springs up from time to time. But regardless of its factual status, it’s a story that does seem to me to highlight one of the critical features of Christian faith. Namely, that to be a disciple of Christ is to take an enormous risk, it is to gamble a great deal on the promise of faith, a promise which cannot be verified in material or merely human terms.
Now, that may seem a strange statement to make, especially if we’ve become used to the notion of religious faith as a source of comfort and meaning in our lives. And while I certainly would not wish to deny this aspect of faith, the reality is that the solace we find in faith is itself built on an enormous risk. For as Paul himself wrote: “Either Christ is risen, or our faith is in vain”. In other words, there is much we quite literally have to “take on faith” – or, in the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “believe what we cannot prove”.
To be called to faith in God through Christ is to be called to an enormous risk, a risk which in the face of conventional wisdom, with its demands for evidence and proof, amounts to absurdity. And to be called to discipleship to Christ is to be called to a way of life that challenges every human conception of what the “good life” involves, of what is “reasonable” or “possible” or “necessary”.
It is to be called to a way of life that believes in Christ as the Way and the Life, but in which the travelling companions of faith and hope are doubt and ambivalence. It is to be called to a way of life in which we are called to live, not for ourselves, but for a God who is revealed as mystery; a God who cannot be pinned down and mapped out and explained away in simple terms – but who, inexplicably, mysteriously, seeks us out and invites us into the tricky, risky business of relationship.
In short, if someone were to ask us as Christians what risk is, we might properly reply: “This is”. The this, of course, being the very life of faith itself.
And we get a sense of that in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus himself has already been given an insight into the risks of ministry by the arrest and detention of John the Baptist. Moreover, John’s subsequent execution will illustrate in the most graphic terms the very risk that Jesus himself will face and suffer: that the life of faith, far from providing security and safety, frequently leads us into danger and hardship. So it was for John the Baptist, so it was for Jesus himself.
And so it was also for the disciples. As Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee, he sees two brothers, Andrew and Simon – later to be known as Peter – casting nets into the sea. And he issues them an invitation to follow him and become “fishers of men”; and they follow. Next, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are in their boat with their father, mending nets. Again, Jesus invites them to follow him; and they leave their father and follow.
This passage has often been interpreted as meaning that discipleship involves the abandonment of worldly things, of attachment to possessions and employment and even family in order to follow Christ. And, indeed, there is a rich tradition in Christian history of monasticism and solitary devotion in which individuals and communities have given themselves over completely to God. And in doing so, they were taking a great risk, letting go of the normal basis of human existence in order to pursue communion with God. And the wider Church has benefited greatly from this risk: many of the most beautiful and profound hymns, liturgies, and prayers of the Church were products of this exercise in risk-taking.
But I also think that there is another sense in which today’s reading illustrates the risk of discipleship, a risk that does not involve a retreat from the world. When we look at what the first disciples were doing when they were called to discipleship, we see that they were going about their daily chores, undertaking tasks with which they were thoroughly familiar and which they had been performing for the whole of their adult lives. And when we understand what those chores represent, we understand also the risk involved in following Jesus.
Those chores – mending nets or casting them into the sea – represent the world of the familiar, the world of the safe, the known, the comfortable. A world made all the more poignantly familiar in the figure of Zebedee, the father of James and John. For here is a rhythm and pattern of life, handed down through the generations, which provides structure and meaning and enables people to make sense of the world. It is safe, secure, and familiar, a world in which everyone knows their place and everyone understands the natural order of things.
And then Jesus comes along, breaks into this cosy, familiar world, and tears it to pieces. By saying “follow me” to the first disciples, Jesus was not so much inviting them to withdraw from the world, he was inviting them to enter into another kind of life altogether. In other words, he was inviting them to take a terrible risk: to leave behind the world of the safe and familiar and enter instead into the realm of the unknown. Like explorers setting off for uncharted lands and oceans, Jesus was inviting the first disciples to follow him into unexplored territory – territory in which they were exposed to risk and danger. They were being asked to understand the world, their own lives, and their relationships with one another in terms that transcended the small world of comfortable familiarity which had previously dominated their thinking.
In other words, they were being called to change, to turn their lives upside down and see things from an entirely different point of view. They were being asked to undergo a very real transformation, a change of heart and mind that had them stepping out of the realm of the known into the realm of the unknown. They were being called to undertake the very real risk of discipleship to Christ.
But what is this risk? For the disciples, it was the risk of witnessing to a vision of God that was so radically different from the conventional thinking of their time, that they attracted not only dislike but active hostility. Like the famous Athenian philosopher Socrates, who was executed on the charge of disrespecting traditional religion, the first Christians were actually charged with atheism, because their witness to a personal, relational God – a God who actively loves us – marked such a radical departure from the common understanding of god at the time that it was said to amount to a denial of god. The risk of their witness was the risk of inviting others to change, to leave behind the familiar and the comfortable, and be something more than just what they were used to being. And it was a risk that cost many of them their lives.
In Australia, and in much of the western world, this is a risk from which we are thankfully spared. So what is the risk of our discipleship? Is it the mockery of fashionable, militant atheism? Is it the risk of being caught up in the materialism of the modern world, of being hijacked by the popular culture by which we are surrounded? Or is it the risk of indifference, of the fact that our culture and society are too apathetic, too self-absorbed to be interested in what we have to say?
Perhaps, in different times and places, and to different degrees, it is all of these things. But I would like to suggest that perhaps the greatest risk we face today is the risk of comfortableness, of being unwilling to change and explore the unknown. And by this I don’t just mean the kind of hidebound traditionalism that says, “this is the way we’ve always done things; these are the hymns we’ve always sung; this is the time we’ve always held our service – and we’re not going to change now!” Rather, I’m talking about the kind of mindset that clings to ways of being and doing church for no other reason than this is what we are used to and comfortable with. This is the kind of blinkered tunnel vision that not only ignores the changing world, but actually expects the world to conform itself to us. Instead of going out into the world and inviting the world to see itself anew, we expect the world to make that transformation on its own and then walk through our doors and become like one of us.
In other words, Jesus’ invitation to the disciples to leave behind the safe and familiar and “follow me” into danger and risk is the very invitation which Jesus is issuing to the Church today. And I can certainly understand the trepidation which this invitation produces; there is much, afterall, that is beautiful and true in the ways in which we have been church up until the present. But the invitation to discipleship is not an invitation to abandon these things; rather, it is an invitation to see ourselves in new ways that enable the good and valuable things of the past to have a new life in a church that is not merely new or relevant to the modern world, but which is actually transformative.
But that requires risk. That requires letting go of the apron strings – and perhaps even of the purse strings. That requires letting go of our parochial and sectional allegiances, and resisting the temptation to engage in politics and intrigue whenever they are threatened by innovation. That requires a largeness of heart and an openness of spirit that is prepared to sacrifice, that is prepared to suffer injury and hurt. That requires a width of vision, a depth of passion, and an attention to detail that is prepared to take the longer view, to see the far side of some new horizon.
That requires, in response to Jesus’ invitation to “follow me”, a preparedness to leave behind all the symbols of the safe and the known, and dare the risk of discipleship, the risk of exploring uncharted realms.
You will be pleased to know that, according to the story of the philosophy student, the exam marker was so taken by the student’s response they awarded the student an honours grade. Which isn’t to say that every time we risk something, we’ll necessarily succeed. But what it does say is that there is more at stake than mere success or failure; what is at stake is the risk that, in refusing the call of discipleship, we threaten the very life of faith itself.