Sun 25 Nov
There are two things we know about St Andrew from the Bible stories. Firstly, he was the brother of Simon Peter. Yes, he was the brother of Peter, the big leader and star, first bishop of Rome and all that. Indeed in nearly every mention of Andrew there is this reminder: ‘Oh, you know who I’m talking about, Peter’s brother’. Peter is never referred as Andrew’s brother! Andrew seemed to be defined by his relationship to his elder brother, and exist in his shadow.
We know that it can be hard to exist in the shadow of a well-known, dominant sibling; or likewise exist in the shadow of a dominant husband, or a dominant wife or child. Sometimes a big personality – like Peter – takes all the available space and air-time, and it is hard for the less dominant sibling to find their own way. Sometimes that sibling chooses a place to live, or a career, far away in order to find and be themselves.
We see this dynamic time and again in families. Whether it’s a dominant father, mother, or sibling; or just dominant values and expectations that feel too prescriptive, the one ‘in the shadow’ will seek out a physical, mental, or spiritual place where they can ‘stand in the sun’ – where they can be their own person. Sometimes though, sometimes with good reason, they don’t. And they can live often feeling unnoticed, undervalued, and unfulfilled. Resentment can breed there.
Secondly, we know – as per the ‘follow me and fish for people’ story – that Andrew was called by Jesus to follow him. And that this little group of Andrew, Peter, and the Zebedee boys [James and John] were a bit of a tight four in the team of disciples. There is mention, for example, in Mark 13:3, of the four privately questioning Jesus.
The thing about being ‘called to follow’ is that the path of following is different for each person. We don’t know much about the Zebedee lads and how the path turned out for them. But we do not quite a bit about Peter’s path, and Mary Magdalene’s path, and Paul’s path. And they were each different – different ministries, different ways of being faithful, different ways of being leaders. We also know something of Andrew’s path.
The Gospel of John, written in the 2nd century and not to be read as history, gives us a narrative about Andrew. In chapter 1:35-40, Andrew is a follower of John the Baptist but is attracted to the spiritual magnetism of Jesus of Nazareth (who was also probably a follower of John). Andrew goes and tells Simon Peter about Jesus and introduces them.
Note, given what I’ve said about dominant siblings, Andrew isn’t trying to ‘keep Jesus to himself’. He wants other people, even a brother he might find overbearing, to experience the spiritual mana of this Nazarean, like Andrew has experienced him.
The Gospel of John also gives us two other stories about Andrew, both with Andrew in the role of introducing people to Jesus. However, unlike the story of introducing his brother, these stories are about introducing outsiders. In John 6:8 it is Andrew who brings forward the boy with five barley loaves and two fish. As we know from the tale of Jesus blessing children in Mark 10, and the disciples trying to prevent the children’s access to him, a child was not seen as having the same rights as an adult. A child was an outsider. And, I would guess, particularly this boy who had the audacity (the faith!) to offer his lunch to feed a multitude.
The other introduction story is found in John 12:20-22 where a group of Greeks – note not Greek-speaking Jews but Gentiles attracted to Judaism – sought to meet Jesus. They first approached Philip, who bore a Greek name and came from a Gentile and Greek speaking area. Philip then asks Andrew to introduce them to Jesus. This scene was created to underline the theological point that Jesus came for [in the words from John 10] ‘other sheep not belonging to the fold’. Once again it is a story that paints Andrew as approachable, favourable to outsiders, who would take the risk of disturbing the busy schedule of the much-in-demand Messiah Jesus.
So, if we think about the call or conversion of Andrew and ask what path he was being called to, then the Fourth Gospel seems to provide us with something of an answer: it was a ministry and mission of hospitality and assistance to people – whether great or small, whether insiders or outsiders – who wanted to discover and live the spiritual way of Jesus.
Interesting the lectionary, the schedule of Bible readings for each year, aligns the conversion fish-for-people story with the story of the conversion of Nineveh from the Book of Jonah.
This Nineveh episode needs some background in order for us to understand what is going on. By 922 BCE the united monarchy under King David and King Solomon had divided and there were in effect two states called Israel [in the north] and Judah [in the south]. Jerusalem was the capital of Judah. In 722 the Assyrian Empire invaded the northern state of Israel. Then in 587 BCE the southern state of Judah fell to the Babylonian Empire and the people [though not all the people] were taken as slaves to Babylon. Some 50 years later the Persian King, Cyrus the Great, gave the Jews permission to return home. They did so in 539 and began to reconstruct Jerusalem.
It was a fascinating time and we can read about it in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. These two leaders were trying to keep their people focused and cohesive during the massive rebuild. And one of the strategies for cohesion was, in the words of Ezra, an admonishment to ‘put away your foreign wives’. These women with their foreign customs, ideas and faith were seen as a threat to the unity and the purity of the faith and culture.
We presume these were women they had married in Babylon, or for those who stayed behind in 587 the wives referred to may have been Canaanites. This ‘putting away’ directive, given the divine imprimatur, is one of those texts of terror in the Bible, and you can read this mass divorce scene in Ezra 10:6-44. For ‘putting away’ meant condemning those women to poverty and an early death. It was a ‘blame the foreigner’ for polluting our culture and faith mentality. Unfortunately we are still familiar with this mentality today.
The good news, the ‘texts of hope’ if you like, is that the Bible contains two books most likely written during the reconstruction period that give a contrary view. In other words there was, despite Ezra claiming God’s will and all that, a debate going on in the Jewish community around the practice and extent of hospitality. There was a view, similar to that of St Andrew six centuries later, that outsiders and foreigners and their children are welcome and should not be excluded.
One those books is Ruth, which not so subtlety tells us a story (the folklore) that King David had both a Canaanite woman [Tamar] and a Moabite woman [Ruth] as ancestors. And note the writer of Matthew’s Gospel, by naming and including these women in the genealogy of the Messiah, aligns the Jesus movement with anti-xenophobic sentiments in his day.
The other book is Jonah. This is a parable. So relax, there is no literal whale that swallows and regurgitates people. Jonah is a caricature of your average follower of Ezra in 539 BCE who is happily going about his daily life when he gets this call from God to go and preach to the people of Nineveh – Ninevites being wicked horrible foreigners who deserved to be barbequed by divine fire. Jonah thinks God is out of God’s mind and humorously embarks on a number of avoidance strategies. Yes, as this story is told you are meant to laugh and smile and be beguiled.
Eventually Jonah as our text today picks up walked just part way into this wicked city, and said just one sentence “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And we can imagine him muttering it under his breath. Well, that sentence was enough. In the most successful evangelistic event in history the whole city repents and turns to God etcetera etcetera. And Jonah goes off and sulks.
At the end of the parable Jonah has come to understand that God’s boundaries and compassion are not synonymous with that of Ezra and Nehemiah, or even the majority of Jews in the reconstruction period. What is in need of conversion is not the Ninevites but bigotry and xenophobia.
The parable of Jonah was written by a Jew asking questions about the soul of his people and his religion. Will his religion, as expressed by Ezra, be defined by the care of insiders and their security? Or will his religion and people be defined by a bigger vision? It’s a pertinent question to every faith, every church, every culture and time.
St Andrew for me symbolizes in the Christian Scriptures this spirit of the authors of the books of Ruth and Jonah. He takes the teaching and example of Jesus and applies it.
So Andrew is the symbol of extending hospitality and friendship to those he finds difficult [like maybe his dominant older brother?]. Rather than be defined by this family power dynamic Andrew retains his hospitable and sharing nature.
Andrew symbolizes the extension of hospitality and friendship to children, those who are excluded from positions of power and influence. And maybe Andrew, from his family of origin, has some idea of what that was like.
And Andrew symbolizes the extension of hospitality and friendship to foreigners, Greek-speaking Gentiles who like Ninevites, Canaanites and Moabites, were usually not considered to be fit to be included as full members in the community of faith.
Andrew represents that stream of faith that is always suspicious of the boundaries we put around God – making God a projection of our prejudices. Andrew represents that stream of faith that instead wants to open the doors wide to all who are outside and invite them to come in as valued visitors, fellow seekers of truth and hope.