Deacon Sue Nebel
Earlier this month I was at the Diocesan Center in downtown Chicago for a meeting of the Commission on Ministry. It was our first meeting of the new year, a time to welcome new members. A time to get to know each other and to orient the new people. Prior to the meeting, we had been told to be prepared to respond to this directive: “Tell briefly about an important decision you have made.” After a brief go-around to introduce ourselves, we divided up into small groups of three or four, to share the stories of our decisions. In my group, one person told us about asking a woman he barely knew to accompany him to a business social function. It was the beginning of a relationship that led to marriage. The other three of us had made decisions related to vocation. In each one of the situations, the person faced a choice. They could move forward on a well-defined path, a path shaped by family background, role expectations for women, and a sense of security. Or they could opt for a non-traditional path, responding to a deeply-felt conviction that it was what was right for them. Each of them chose the second one, moving out of their comfort zone into the unknown.
We have a situation like that—people making important decisions--in this morning’s Gospel lesson. The setting is the Sea of Galilee, where fishermen are in their boats out on the water, engaged in their work. Jesus comes walking along the shore. Spotting two brothers, Simon and Andrew, he calls out to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” They drop their nets, get out of the boat, and follow him. Continuing on, Jesus finds two more fishermen. James and John, with their father and some hired men, mending their nets. Jesus calls out, “Follow me.” Like the other two, they drop their nets and join up with him. An important, life-changing decision for the four men. They choose to join up with this man Jesus to head off to who knows where. They turn their backs on a secure livelihood. A familiar pattern of going out each day in their boats to fish. Bringing their daily catch back to sell. Keeping their boats and their nets in good repair. In the blink of an eye (Mark uses his familiar term “immediately.) they leave it all behind to set out on a different path—into the unknown.
It is quite a story. Like so many Gospel accounts of Jesus’s ministry, this one is pretty thin on details. I find it frustrating. What’s going on here? I want to know more about the decision made by Simon, Andrew, James, and John. I want more information. When I was in Deacons School, moving toward ordination, the instructor in one of my preaching classes offered some good advice. Words I have remembered and put to use. When faced with a challenging passage of Scripture, he told us, approach it in a stance of asking questions. First, what questions do you want to ask the text? Then, what questions is the text asking you? What questions do I want to ask this passage about Jesus calling his first disciples? I want to ask about the back story. Did those four men make their decision to follow Jesus on an impulse? Or, was it something they had been thinking about? Was his calling to them on the Sea of Galilee their first encounter with him? Was he a complete stranger, or had they already met him? What, if anything, did they know about his plans? Not much to go on here.
But the version of this story in the Gospel of Matthew gives us a clue about the situation—and a possible scenario. Matthew begins his version of the story by telling us that Jesus had left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. So it could be that Jesus had been in the area for a while. He may have been looking for followers. Maybe he was talking with lots of people. Talking about his mission to spread the word about the good news of the kingdom. Keeping an eye out for people the potential to do the work of ministry. It is possible that Simon and Andrew, and James and John, had heard about Jesus and his mission from others. Or maybe they had been involved in some of his conversations. Maybe they were more than a little curious about his vision of a different world than the one they knew. One that would be better for everyone. So, when Jesus comes walking along the shore with his invitation “Follow me and I will make you fish for men” they might have been open to possibility. Open to setting out on a different path. They respond to Jesus’s invitation. They choose that different path. A path that will take them to places far beyond the limits of the place where they lived and the work they did. They will indeed “fish for people,” bringing new followers to Jesus. They will learn to do new things, like teaching and healing. and, eventually, they will begin to build the church.
Now to the other question, the more important one. What question, or questions, is this text asking us? I think it is this: Will we do what Simon and Andrew and James and John did? Will we decide to follow Jesus? The answer is yes. The fact that we are gathered here this morning testifies to that. We said yes in our baptism. The question is right there the baptismal liturgy, as clear as can be. Candidates for baptism, or their parents and sponsors, are asked: Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord? They answer: I do. Most of us, I would guess, were probably too young to understand what was happening in our baptism. What was being pledged on our behalf. The Church, thank goodness, makes sure that, as we grow older, we learn what baptism means. We claim those commitments as our own. They shape and form who we are and what we do. The Church gives us many opportunities to affirm the promises of baptism. We can do in liturgical rites like Confirmation or Renewal of Baptismal Vows. We do it in baptismal liturgies, joining with the persons being baptized to renew our Baptismal Covenant. To respond to questions about how we live our lives. In the Diocese of Chicago, renewing that covenant is often part of a Celebration of New Ministry, the official welcoming of a new priest as rector or vicar. Again and again, we claim ourselves to be followers of Jesus, his present-day disciples. This, we affirm, is who we are.
Follow me, Jesus says to the four fishermen in the Gospel story. Follow me. Jesus has continued to say it to people down through the years. He says it to us. Every single one of us. Every single day. The question is not if we will say yes, if we will follow him. We have answered that one. The question is how. How will we follow Jesus today? How will we continue the work started by Jesus and, the four fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, along with others who joined them?. Each morning, as we look to the day ahead, we should ask ourselves: What will I do today as a follower of Jesus? How will I live out my promise to love my neighbor, understanding neighbor in the broadest terms? How will I respect the dignity of everyone I meet or with whom I interact today? What can I do to work for justice? To make the world a better place for everyone.
Follow me, Jesus said to them. And they dropped their nets and followed him.
Epiphany 3; Year B: Jonah 3:1-5,10: Psalm 62:6-14; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20