Mark moves quickly. Just 14 verses ago it was "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." He quotes Isaiah, then tells us that John the Baptist appeared, dropped down, proclaiming a baptism of repentance and forgiveness – turning away from what they had valued, towards a God who loves them. In verse 9, continuing to accelerate, "In those days…" Jesus shows up, no birth narrative, and hops in line by the river to be baptized. The heavens are torn apart, a voice announces, "You are my Son, the Beloved" Then the Spirit IMMEDIATELY – Mark uses this word 42 times1 – drives him into the wilderness for two whole verses of temptation. "Now after John was arrested," as today’s text begins, we take another big step. It takes Matthew until chapter 11 to mention, offhand, that John was even in prison.
Now, quickly, the ministry shifts from John to Jesus, who comes to Galilee proclaiming: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." It feels big, out there, far away, and then, in an instant, Mark roots this proclamation in a particular place, and Jesus is strolling by the Sea of Galilee. It is important to note, as Anna Carter Florence mentions, that these aren’t the people and professionals he knows. Think how easy it would have been, she writes, for Jesus to go to the Nazarene Carpenter’s Guild and say, "Guys, I need some disciples. Follow me, guys, and I will give you a hammer and nails and make you build the house of God’s kingdom, which has come near!"2 He walks up to a couple of fishermen, casting a net into the sea.
There has been significant scholarly debate about the background of these fishermen, which seems like a working class job, but these were also folks who have houses, who have, in verse 20, hired men. Most have ended up splitting the difference -these were not wealthy men, but not the poorest of the poor, either.3 The point is that they weren’t the ones you would expect to be chosen. "It is preposterous," early church father Eusebius wrote, "from the world’s point of view that those without education would be used to instruct the nations."4 If I was going to start a movement – and I think this is what Eusebius is saying – I don’t know if I would choose fishermen to start with. It’s like picking the shortest kid who can’t dribble first for your basketball team. Wouldn’t we want to choose someone with access, someone who could really help us get the word out? We’d need someone to raise money. We need someone to design strategy. We’d need a marketing plan. We might need someone to catch fish every once in awhile, but they’d be part of the committee on hospitality, they wouldn’t be the first ones chosen.
But Jesus right walks up: "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." This metaphor, Brian Blount argues, conjures the harsh notion of a people who have been confronted with a new reality that they must not, under any circumstances, ignore. This kind of language is used in the Hebrew Scriptures in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, and Habakkuk.5 In each of these cases this fishing is rough, about judgment, is about God hooking us, drawing us back in. But Jesus shifts the sense of the metaphor here, in content and in tone. It’s like – and this is Anna Carter Florence again – I will make you do, Jesus says, what you already do, and I will transform your verbs for the kingdom of God.6
I will transform your verbs for the kingdom of God. This helped me a lot. I was stuck, earlier this week, on how quickly the disciples dropped everything. Jesus’ presence affected these men in such a way that they IMMEDIATELY – there’s that word again – left their nets and followed. Same thing with James and John, in a boat mending their nets. IMMEDIATELY they got up and left their father and the hired men in the boat, hopped down and began walking….
Some of this, to be sure, is Mark wanting us to understand "…the effect of the powerful, sovereign word of Christ. [These disciples] do not reflect, do not weigh the advantages and disadvantages, and compare his teaching (which they have not yet heard) with other teachers, but without a word begin to follow. They do not even ask where they are going – they will learn this along the way."7 Jesus didn’t say to James and John, I need you for a task. That’s what we do in the church. Someone says, I need you to do this thing. Chair this committee. Help with dinner. Organize a team. Serve on a board. It is about a specific task. This also works well in getting folks to agree- it seems more likely you will get a "YES" if you know what you are getting into, if you can be assured it will end soon, if you feel like you’ve got a good chance of success. But Jesus didn’t offer any of those assurances. Jesus didn’t even offer them anything more specific than, "fishing for people," and who knows if they had any idea what that meant.
But if it is about Jesus transforming our verbs, it is about Christ meeting us where we are, and changing what we already do, using it towards God’s purposes. It is about a refashioning of our moments. Our days. Our own, already God-given, vocation.
Maybe you are a child, getting shuttled around from school to activity to sitting outside as mom or dad have a meeting, feeling like you can’t do much. How might you, children of the church, children who we all have made promises to, like we did for Patrick today, find a way to be kind to someone, as you seek to follow Jesus?
Or a youth, whether in middle school and getting a sense of who you are as everything changes around you and within you, or in high school as the pace and pressure build, how might you serve God? At school. With your friends, or with those on edge of the group you could include?
Maybe you run a small business, or a larger one. How can you run that business in a way that honors God, that takes care of the people that work for you, that meets your customers with compassion and grace?
How might God re-fashion your daily verbs in the office at work? How might God take the way you manage people’s money, the way you guide them in the law, the way you consult or manage or build or sell or recruit, towards God’s ends? This does not necessarily mean asking your co-workers about Jesus, though us Presbyterians could surely benefit from a nudge in that direction.
Maybe you are a stay-at-home parent, that thankless job. How might God refashion the dropping off and picking up, the chasing around, the shopping, the emails and phone calls, the care for the sacred children entrusted to you, as a way to teach them something of who God calls us to be?
Maybe you are retired. We had a great conversation at the men’s lunch bible study about the opportunity retirement brings to live into God’s call, to use the privilege of time and space. Some of you are relentless volunteers and that is an amazing thing. Nonprofits in general, churches, too, can’t function without you. Sometimes, too, health limits what you can do. But God can transform that, too. Into service. Into checking on friends. Into sharing your wisdom. Into praying for this church, for the world that surely needs those prayers.
Our family had an amazing quick trip to southern California over the long weekend last week, and we were hustling to get back late Monday. Ella Brooks and I sat right behind Carrie and Heath, and early on noticed they were making friends with the young woman seated to Carrie’s left, on the aisle. We had a stop in Nashville, but were staying on the same plane, and it was about 830 pm. We had gotten some snacks, but I was trying to work out being able to rush off the plane, secure rations, and still get back on as everyone boarded before we left. This young woman must have overheard. Once the plane was clear, and everyone staying for the next leg was counted, I was getting ready to make a run for it. And this same woman rushed back down, back on the plane, and handed Carrie a bag. She had found the first place she could on the concourse, bought 4 sandwiches, chips, a few drinks, spent about $50, and set it down. "I wanted to make sure the kids got something to eat," she said as she smiled, and rushed to make her connection.
In order to follow Jesus with your LIFE, you have to first take one step out of the boat. Jesus walked up to those fishermen, and offered to take what they had, what they knew, their daily verbs, and transform them for the kingdom of God. Because Christ wants ALL of us. Not just the parts of us at church, or at home, but he calls whole people, whole selves, whole lives, to be disciples wherever we are, in whatever we are doing. It is a mighty call. But something happened in the hearts of those fishermen, there as they mended their nets. They saw something in the eyes of this man who walked up to them. They sensed in him – and they probably couldn’t even articulate it at the time – life. Life abundant. God’s love made flesh in the world. And he, too, looks at us, and says, "Come. Follow…"
1. "The Gospel according to Mark: Literary Features & Thematic Emphases," Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
2. Anna Carter Florence, "A Parable Universe," in the Lent 2015 Journal for Preachers, Vol. XXXVIII, No 2, p 5.
3. See Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring, "The People’s New Testament Commentary," (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2004), p 109, for example.
4. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament II, Mark, Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall, eds., (Downer’s Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1998), p 18.
5. Jeremiah 16:16, Ezekiel 29:4, Amos 4:2 and Habakkuk 1:14-15. This note comes from Brian Blount and Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002), page 23-24.
6. Carter Florence again, p 7.
7. Boring and Craddock, 109-110.