The calling of Jesus’ disciples is a story I remember clearly from childhood Sunday School. I remember coloring and pasting and moving around the felt pieces that included sandals and boats and fishing nets. I remember those words from an older Bible translation: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
When I remember a Bible story as a Sunday School favorite, that is usually a warning to me: I’m probably remembering through a simple lens a story that might’ve been much more complicated than I knew as a third grader. When I reread the story today, I looked closely for the complexities and open-ended questions that live in the story. This story does not disappoint.
The Gospel of Mark is a little more than half as long as the other three accounts of Jesus’ life, in Matthew, Luke and John. That is to say that Mark is economical with his words; in what he does include, every bit counts. Mark does not choose to begin his story with lengthy accounts of the birth or childhood of Jesus; instead, he announces the arrival of the ministry of Jesus through the words of the prophet who came before him: John the Baptist.
Mark tells us John “appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” In thirteen tightly crafted verses, Mark introduces John, tells the story of him baptizing Jesus in the Jordan River, and tells how after that baptism, Jesus went to the wilderness where he was tempted. In chapter 1, verse 14, Jesus returns from the wilderness, and begins his ministry. Mark, who does not waste words, introduces the calling of the disciples, by tying it back to John the Baptist: “Now, after John was arrested,” Mark says, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”
My Sunday School memories of this Bible story do not include the arrest of John the Baptist. We had no felt board representations of him being shackled and dragged off to prison. But that is where Mark begins. Mark assures us that this is not a cute story about some fishermen and their teacher, but a complicated story about oppressed people trying to find a better life under the tyranny of an evil king.
Herod was one of the most ruthless and immoral rulers in the history of Israel, and he sent John to prison for criticizing him. John’s arrest is not only a statement about historical context, it’s a warning about personal discipleship. Speaking up for Jesus, as John did, may land you in difficult situations where you did not hope to be. It is no accident that this is how Mark introduces the calling of the disciples.
The arrest of John reminds us that this well-known story of the calling of the disciples is about real, complicated people and situations. So, let’s consider for a moment who those people were.
Jesus finds Simon and Andrew, and then James and John, as he is passing by the Sea of Galilee. They were fishermen. Now fishing, for many folks, is a pleasurable hobby, right up there with golf or camping. Sermons on this story are full of fun stories that draw on themes of patience for the big catch or finding God in nature. But this is not a story of a pleasant afternoon in the boat with your buddies. Simon and Andrew, James and John: these are working people. This is basic subsistence, paycheck-to-paycheck kind of work, where survival was dependent upon hard work and a little luck. And Jesus comes up them and says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
We aren’t given enough detail to know if they had been having a good day or a bad one on the water. We don’t know if they had been fairly comfortable of late or were on the verge of starvation. We don’t know if Jesus made this offer to people who were reasonably happy or who knew they had nothing to lose. Perhaps we are supposed to assume that any of those things might have been true.
What we do know is that they went with Jesus. Immediately, it says, and without any hesitation, they followed him. They could not say no. They had to follow.
Their willingness to follow is even more interesting when you consider the poor marketing strategy employed by Jesus. I’ve mentioned that the personal experience of John the Baptist wasn’t exactly a strong endorsement to follow—following Jesus might get you arrested, or worse. Additionally, both John the Baptist and Jesus hint that following will not be easy. They offer no image of an attractive outcome.
Compare this to how invitations are usually offered. Think about what happens in our world when someone wants to sell you something.
With Jesus it is different. Jesus doesn’t say: “Follow me—I’ve got all the good stock tips.” He doesn’t say: “Follow me—I can help you lose the weight and keep it off!” He doesn’t say: “Follow me: I’ve got five easy steps to spiritual fulfillment.”
No, Jesus says: “Follow me—for the time is right to repent.” Both John and Jesus make it a point of saying they are calling people to repentance, which is a word that means, to turn around. The call is to do the hard work of looking at who you have been or the situation in which you find yourself and admitting that it is time for a change.
The big news of this past week was the Inauguration. Given the events of not only the past two weeks, but at least the past two decades, it is clear that a willingness to repent and go a new direction is going to be necessary if our democracy is going to survive. The increasingly combative and vindictive behavior of our politics must come to an end, or it is going to destroy us.
In your own life, I wonder if there is a situation that is similarly in need of repentance—a move in a new direction. Perhaps it has to do with a destructive habit or addiction; maybe it’s a way you’ve been conducting yourself in a relationship; possibly there is something about your priorities that needs a wholesale reorientation, or as Jesus called it, repentance. Repentance can be public or personal.
Because of the personal and public dimensions of this call to repentance, there was a particular theme in the Inauguration that caught my attention. I’m drawn to it because it is not so political: It’s about our new President, but it’s an observation that was made by Gerald Seib, who writes for the Wall Street Journal. On Wednesday evening Seib wrote this:
“Over the last five decades, Joe Biden endured multiple human tragedies and saw his political obituary written over and over again—yet always found a way to pick up the pieces and move forward. On Wednesday, he was inaugurated as the nation’s 46th president and proceeded to tell the nation it could do the same. Pick up the pieces and move forward.” (Seib, WSJ, January 20, 2021).
Seib went on to state clearly that Biden–who has lost a wife, a daughter, and a son–faces one of the great tests of his life as he enters this presidency. Regardless of your political leanings, that seems like an accurate read of the situation. It’s also, I think, a good read of what is required in each of our personal and public lives in order to thrive. From time to time we have to take stock of who we have been, grieve the ways we have failed, and change directions as we seek to move forward.
I joked a bit about the fact that Jesus’ offer to the disciples wasn’t all that attractive—that he didn’t market it well. But there’s more to it than that. Even though we are often drawn to things that look easy or convenient, we also know there is great appeal to a challenge. We love the idea that we might rise to the occasion, overcome great odds, confront an intractable problem and work toward a solution. It’s not always the easiest way, but it’s the right way.
What business, church, or community doesn’t grow stronger by assessing its past and asking how it can grow stronger? Who among us hasn’t been inspired by another person who has learned from their mistakes? This was the attractiveness of Jesus message. It was how he fished for people, and how he inspired them to do likewise.
As a church, there are countless ways we can be challenged in this manner. We can give thanks for the ways in which we’ve always fished for people; and we can be inspired to think about new ways we might take up that work tomorrow.
- Our congregational care ministries, for instance, nurture our members and friends with care and love; but they also invite people to consider how they might change and go deeper in their walk of faith.
- Our music ministries draw people into the beauty and majesty of God; and we are challenged to think about ways we can use these gifts to reach more and more people.
- Our Racial Justice Ministry acknowledges sins of our past, but not to paralyze us with guilt; but to call us to a future that is not so segregated and unjust.
- In the days to come, our new Braver Angels ministry welcomes Knox members to ask how all of us can play a part in picking up the divisive pieces of our public life so that we can move forward together.
With all the talk of politics lately, I want to continue to remind you that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is so much bigger than our politics. Yes, Jesus did have things to say about Herod, and about plenty of unjust rulers and authorities in his day. But he did not place his trust and hope in any of them. The idea that the kingdom of God can be compared to anything in American politics makes a mockery of our faith.
John and Jesus both proclaimed the Kingdom of God; they said the time is at hand for it now. The Kingdom of God is one of the most important metaphors in Jesus’ ministry, it occurs 98 times in the Gospels. Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as a pearl of great price, and a treasure hidden in a field. He calls it a net that can be thrown into the sea so that it catches fish of every kind.
This is Jesus’ good news for us. In repentance: the willingness to follow him and go a new way, we can discover the Kingdom of God. If we follow Jesus, we can embrace challenges that will bring us richness and vitality we have never imagined.
May it be so for you today.