The Calling of the Disciples
The Lord of the Rings
Sermon preached by
The Revd Dr Joan Crossley
26th January 2003
Unless you have been away in Antarctica for several months, you can't have failed to notice that the second of the three Lord of the Rings films has been released.
I expect many of you here have either seen one of the films or read the book. I first read the book about twenty years ago, having heard the wonderful Radio 4 series.
The country has, in recent weeks, gone Lord of the Rings mad. If you haven't been caught up in any of this, then I hope you will forgive me, but as I hope to show, the story has both relevance for our own age and powerful resonances with our Christian faith.
The story of Jesus calling the disciples in today's Gospel reminded me of the opening of the first part of the Lord of the Rings. In the story the Hobbits, (miniature humans with pointy ears), a dwarf, a prince of elf land and a man, are drawn together to take part in a great quest to dispose of a dangerous evil Ring. If they fail to do so, the forces of darkness in the form of an evil wizard will destroy the beauty and peace of the whole world.
In the same way Jesus called disparate characters such as the fishermen, Matthew, Judas, Mary of Magdala to Him, to be His followers. The mixture of talents, personal qualities and experience contained within so varied a group made for its vitality.
As Paul was later to make explicit in the first letter to the Corinthians, it is this variety of spiritual gift, and service which will ensure the well-being of the Church. Paul adds the proviso that all, no matter how different, must be subject to the Holy Spirit. The calling of the Fellowship of the Ring is modern reworking of this idea of diversity making for moral health.
The story could also be seen as a metaphor for tolerant alliances between different nations or faiths, so necessary for the safety of our modern world. All the members of the Fellowship are caught up in the same great purpose, to oppose evil and to restore the good. In the course of the novel, the mistrust and enmity between traditional rivals are overcome by their allegiance to the greater common purpose.
So it must have been, if you think about it, for the followers of Jesus. They were from different regions, probably spoke different dialects, they certainly came from a range of social backgrounds, but they all recognised the greatness of Jesus and were willing to give themselves entirely to His service.
We are not told much about the home life of the other characters, but the writer Tolkein paints an idyllic picture of a beautiful rural place called the Shire. The little Hobbits live simple, innocent and happy lives. They live by agriculture and enjoy peace and continuity. Like the fishermen who were working by the side of the lake, the Hobbits were caught up in a greater task than anything they ever envisaged.
Perhaps, like the Hobbits, Peter and his companions were very contented with the life they had been leading. But Jesus' call was simple and powerful. The fishermen were compelled to leave the security of their family trade and launch out into the unknown life of discipleship.
The Hobbit is pulled out of the obscurity of his life in order to destroy the evil power of the Ring. The novels of Tolkein are remarkable for the way they describe evil. The point about evil is there is nowhere which remains immune once it is unleashed upon the world.
Tolkein was planning the novels during the 1930s, a decade which saw the rise of the fascist powers in Europe. Like the little peace-loving Hobbits nestling in the Shire, even the most remote and apparently serene parts of Europe, like Holland were caught up in the evil of Fascism.
The fact that a small, apparently insignificant, creature like Frodo will stand up against the forces of evil gives one hope. He isn't a hero in the conventional mode, like the glamorous Aragorn, he is small, not very wise and not very brave. When he is confronted by the fact that he and he alone can return the Ring, he is afraid and overwhelmed, but still he rises to the challenge. Indeed it is the little creature's innocence and decency which makes him the right person for the job. In so far as it is possible to resist the lure of the evil Ring, he strives to do so, always remembering the good of all which he serves.
Frodo, the Hobbit, stands for all who give themselves for the service of others. I have been told that in times of extreme danger, in wartime for example, hitherto ordinary women and men can achieve extraordinary feats of courage and behave in resolute ways they would not have believed was within their capacity.
What happens in the story, what happens in war, happened to those ordinary men fishing quietly by the lake two thousand years ago. They were called by One far greater than themselves, to be far greater than themselves. They found the capacity to serve in ways they could not imagine.
Eventually with God's grace, the teaching of the Lord Jesus and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, those fishermen went out into the dangerous and confused world in which they lived, preaching and claiming souls for Christ. Some eventually would be called to organise the fledgling Church, others would be called to travel far beyond the world that most of them knew. Others would be called to die for the Faith. Ordinary men made extraordinary by the inspiration of Jesus, inflamed and supported by the Holy Spirit.
This week in the news there has been a lot of argument as to whether rap music with violent lyrics is inciting young men to acts of violence. It is perhaps just as interesting to consider whether the enthusiasm with which the Lord of the Rings is being received speaks about a hunger among the young for examples of goodness.
We have to ask what is the appeal of the Lord of the Rings book, to yet another generation of readers? Surely it is because within the story are archetypal heroes, timeless examples of self-denial, courage and friendship which will hopefully always strike a chord in people learning what is possible for humanity.
Tolkein was inspired by his upbringing as a Christian, which encouraged him to believe that even at times of the greatest darkness, the light of God, and all that is good will dawn upon the world. Amen