3rd Sunday after Epiphany
January 21, 2018
Listen to today’s gospel reading and sermon:
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. – Mark 1:14-20
Why do you follow Jesus?
Sometimes I’ve asked you in a sermon or in personal conversation why you come to church or to Immanuel specifically. Sometimes I’ve asked questions about what your faith means to you or how you live out your faith through church or through your work or your family life. But this question is a little bit different. So take a moment, and think about your answer to the question: Why do you follow Jesus?
It’s hard for me to put my answer into words, but since I’ve asked you I’m going to try. I think my answer would be something like: Because Jesus speaks grace to me in a way that no other person or thing can. Because Jesus’ unwavering commitment to radical love and God’s commitment through Jesus to conquer everything including death itself that tries to stop that love is a story that gives me hope. I would probably say that in ways I cannot understand it has to do with some water poured and words spoken by a pastor at my baptism, a moment to which I can point to in order to identify God’s promises that well up in me. I might say something about the way in which the offer of Christ’s body in the Eucharist breaks me open and puts me back together again in ways that heal me week after week. And, somewhat less unique to Jesus, though also important is that I really like Jesus’ nonviolent resistance to empire, power, and wealth, even when I’m the one Jesus is resisting.
But honestly my best answer is in this gospel story about Jesus and some fishermen. Jesus begins his ministry and after he begins to proclaim his message about the kingdom of God come near, the first thing he does is to stop by the sea of Galilee. He says to Simon and Andrew and then to James and John: “Follow me.” And they did, in the way characteristic of Mark’s telling of Jesus’ story, they did so “immediately.”
Let me be clear. The parallel that I am drawing between this story and my own response to Jesus’ call is not my immediate willingness to follow. I am at best a reluctant follower most of the time. On a regular basis I discover that I am instead trying to lead God into my own projects and my own ideas about how life and ministry are going to go. Sometimes with the help of trusted companions I am able to let go and follow Jesus, but other times even realizing my error, I keep tugging on Jesus to follow me instead. Sometimes I know what I need to do and I don’t or I think I can’t. So in that regard, I envy the immediacy of these disciples in the moment.
But the parallel I see to my own response to Jesus’ call is that I have no real words to explain why I follow Jesus. Did you notice that they say nothing in this story? While everything I said a moment ago is true about my reasons for following Jesus, those words are an attempt to explain something that is deeper than explanation. It’s an attempt to explain what is, frankly, a miracle. Without a word these four fishermen and shortly a whole host of others begin to follow this Jesus they barely know. We often attribute this immediate and, let’s be honest, irrational response to Jesus either to some great act of faith on their part or to some utter lack of impulse control. But what we don’t usually call it is a miracle.
We think of the miracles as the stories of Jesus healing, calming the storm, turning water into wine or a boy’s lunch into a banquet for thousands. But this is no less a miracle story for me. Jesus takes ordinary people doing ordinary things and turns them into disciples as fast as he turns water into wine or multiplies the bread for thousands. Which is to say, also, that the decision and the power in this story to create disciples rests not in the hands of four ordinary fishermen, but in Jesus.
Why do I follow Jesus? Because Jesus called me to follow and then Jesus made me a follower. I am a firm believer along with Martin Luther that faith is a gift given and the power to live in that gift is from God, just as the gift itself. This is at once immensely freeing and immensely frustrating. It reminds us when we fail to follow to turn not to our own resources but again to God as the source of our faith. I think it also sets us free from the worry about loved ones who don’t profess faith or come to church. We can witness in word and deed in the ways that seem most effective to us, better yet in the ways in which God is calling us to do so. We can raise our children, or teach our parents, or invite our friends in the faith, but faith itself is from God – for Andrew and Simon, James and John, you and me. Why God makes disciples out of some and not others, why some follow and some don’t is a bit of a mystery to me, but I trust a God who can raise the dead, so I have to trust that what we see as faithfulness and following Jesus isn’t all there is to it in the end.
And at the same time this call from Jesus is immensely disruptive. It is rarely easy. And though I don’t find it coercive, it is sometimes disturving the way in which God calls us to challenging work for the sake of this kingdom of God come near. Poet Thom Shuman puts it this way in a poem called “Intruder.” ** Spoiler alert: the intruder is Jesus:
it’s the same:
put the key in the deadbolt,
turn and lock;
check the windows;
put out the dog;
leave a light on…
all those routines
to feel safe and fall asleep in peace.
but some night
in the midst of my security,
you will tip-toe into the house:
rearranging the furniture
so I will stub my soul
when I burst out of my cocooned rest.
cracking the combination
of my heart
you ransack all my fears
and stuff them
into your pocket.
“come, thou long-expected Jesus”
you slip out
leaving the door
standing wide open
that I might
into the kingdom.
Come, Lord Jesus!
Come, Lord Jesus!
That’s the story of these disciples, of Jesus coming in when they were busy in their daily routines to rearrange their lives and open the door for them to follow. It resonates with my own story of faith, as well. But we take heart in this difficult call because we are not called alone. Even here brothers are called in pairs. And the promise is not to make them powerful or successful or brilliant or even the best disciples. The promise is that Jesus will share with them, in them, through them this power to invite others to follow. He will through them and with them create the miracle of a community of followers to support and guide each other. The invitation is not so much to go snare people into the faith, but to invite people, then to watch God’s miracle of faith draw us together into a living, breathing community we call the body of Christ.
It’s not always easy, but I hope that Jesus keeps showing up to invite me to follow, that Jesus keeps working the miracle of faith in me to jostle me out of my carefully arranged plans and into the life-giving adventure of following Jesus, and that he might do the very same for all of you.
-Pastor Steven Wilco