January 24, 2021 Third Sunday after Epiphany The text is Mark 1:14-20
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
We read that John the Baptist has been arrested for condemning Herod’s marriage to Herodias; he denounced these nuptials because she was still married to Herod’s brother Philip. And the marriage to a man whose brother was still alive was contrary to Jewish law. Herod, as we know did not take kindly to John’s condemnation; and well, we know how the story ends for John. With the news of John’s arrest, we find that Jesus has now travelled to Galilee with the intention of starting his ministry to redeem God’s people. This begins with his proclamation of “Good News of God”, “euangelion”, which translates to our modern English word, gospel.
And with this proclamation, Jesus issues three edicts; “repent”, “believe”, and “follow”. Let’s start with the command to repent. The dictionary defines repentance as: “feeling such regret for past conduct as to change one’s mind regarding it”. And the expansion of this description is that after changing one’s mind, one must change one’s behavior. Thus, a repentant person must literally “turn around” from past actions and move in a totally different direction. The same dictionary tells us that to believe is to: “have confidence in the truth or value of something”. And when it comes to belief in a theological sense, it nearly always requires a trust in that which is unseen and or unproven by reason. I would suggest that repentance and belief are the easier of these three commands to achieve.
The desire to repent, or change our ways may be brought about through our internal moral compass; that is, we know what’s right and what’s wrong, and often all that’s needed is for someone to point out where our behavior is in error. When Jesus issues a call to repentance we do so because we inherently know that this is necessary for our understanding of the coming kingdom of God. Belief is also relatively easy for us to accomplish; for we accept that we are blessed to have faith through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit calls us to believe and gives us the ability to answer this call to faith in Christ. Martin Luther reminds us that we are not able to come to faith by our own actions; only through the Spirit are we blessed to believe. So, there you have it; “repent” and “believe”, both rather easily attained; one through human understanding of morality and the desire to better oneself, the other through the action of God’s Holy Spirit.
Here’s the difficult one though, “follow”. The first two are passive in nature, the mandate to “follow” is a bit tougher; this is a call to action. “Follow me” Jesus tells his first four disciples, and we’re told that they left their old lives behind and followed Jesus into discipleship. These, and the eight who came after them formed the dozen apostles whom Jesus taught to bring others to “repent”, “believe”, and “follow”. They became “fishers of people”. Yet, we know little more about these first four before they answered Jesus’ call, other than they earned their living as fishermen.
And we know that Matthew was a tax collector, a job that was carried out under the auspices of the Roman occupiers of Israel; and that the Jewish inhabitants despised those who collaborated with Rome in this job. And nothing is revealed about the former lives of the remaining seven Apostles, other than, they too answered the call to follow Jesus. And I find that quite reassuring, that the first to follow Jesus were ordinary people and that there seems to have been nothing extraordinary about their lives previous to their answer to the call to follow into discipleship. As the church year progresses, we will travel again with Jesus as we witness his mission to redeem God’s people. And along this journey we will observe the actions of the twelve, as they transform from ordinary people into the ones Jesus called to follow him.
These “fishers of people” will “repent” and “believe” as they “follow”. They will grow in faith, learn, understand, trust, and call others to follow. They will also doubt, misunderstand, fail to understand completely, deny, abandon, and betray Jesus, the One who first called them to follow. But these are the followers that Jesus chose to accompany him on his mission and to continue his work after his death and resurrection. What was it about Jesus’ presence that convinced these first disciples to abandon their lives to follow into an unknown future? They might have had some prior knowledge of Jesus and his message; after all, Galilee is only about fifteen miles from Nazareth. Jesus may very well have prior contact with Simon, Andrew, James, and John; they may have even heard Jesus preach before. The Gospel doesn’t tell us. Even so, their willingness to leave their normal lives behind must have been prompted by something they felt about Jesus’ identity and purpose.
But, no matter how much they thought they might know about Jesus, they didn’t have the full story when they abandoned their nets to follow him. We have the Scriptures, and these tell us exactly who Jesus is; we are witnesses to the resurrection of God’s own Son. We “repent”, we “believe”, and we profess to “follow” this Jesus of Nazareth. We reaffirm these convictions every time we communally recite a Christian Creed; often the one established in Nicaea, this morning, the one attributed to the Apostles themselves.
Armed with this knowledge of the identity and nature of Christ as the Son of God, as the Redeemer of the world, perhaps we should examine our answer to Jesus’ call to “follow”. I don’t mean the ways we proclaim our faith through Creeds, our attendance at worship, our giving to the church, the things we do to care for others in need. These are things we are tasked to do simply in response to the thankfulness we have for the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf. The question I pose to each of us this morning is this; if Jesus were to ask you to “abandon your nets”, to leave your current life behind to “follow” him, how would you respond? We’ve established his identity as the Christ, as God’s Son, as the Savior of the world. Is this enough to convince you to walk away from your family, livelihood, and home? Would you answer the call to “follow” Jesus in the same literal way the first disciples did?
I don’t intend for this to just be a hypothetical exercise, I’m asking that we all take a moment to look within ourselves and honestly ask whether we would have the faith, trust, and courage to leave everything behind to follow Jesus. Now, please don’t picture yourselves as one of the first disciples, having been called by Jesus to walk away from your fishing boat. That’s too easy, these early followers led rather simple, somewhat uncertain lives under a foreign occupier. Their lives were extraordinarily less comfortable than what we enjoy. Imagine that Jesus was to call you now, to leave behind all that you hold dear; to “follow” him in his mission. I’m going to leave this question to linger for a bit; take a moment and search yourself. I wouldn’t dream of asking you to share your answer here, but I do think this is a worthy exercise to consider. And, even if our lives are vastly different from those of the first “fishers of people” we do share a common humanity. We are all just ordinary people. Yet, they chose to follow Jesus into an unknown future; would we truly do the same?
St. Mark reports that these first fishermen followed Jesus “immediately”. I can’t imagine making such a decision without an enormous amount of thought before coming to a conclusion. And I will admit, I would find myself hard-pressed to just up and go, leaving everything behind.
And the only saving grace I can find is that Jesus hasn’t appeared right before me in the flesh to make his request. Being in Christ’s physical presence may have been what prompted the disciples to follow as they did. But we do have the presence of the Holy Spirit within each of us, calling for us to follow in whatever way we are able. Maybe Jesus’ earthly ministry with those he first called was sufficient to put God’s plan for God’s people into motion. Jesus’ resurrection has accomplished the “Good News” that God has promised, that we are set free by the work of Christ on the cross. Perhaps it is enough after all to “follow” Jesus in the ways we currently do; by showing we are his disciples by the way we act toward his people. By “loving others as he first loved us”. By continuing lives of repentance, belief, and following his commands. I reckon this will be enough for us in this time and place. But, considering whether we would “leave our nets behind” to walk alongside Jesus remains an open question; one that, as individuals we ought to come back to occasionally. I think that pondering this within ourselves is ultimately good for the soul. The occasional glimpse that we take into our deepest thoughts often serves to open the door for the Spirit to come along with us, as we ponder our place in God’s kingdom.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious and Holy God, we hear the call to follow your Son to repentance and belief in Christ as Savior. Give us the strength to trust that however we answer to his call will be sufficient for his, and your purpose for us. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who calls each of us to follow and to be “fishers of people”; whether we leave our nets behind or not. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good.