Without fail, the same prayer was lifted at the end of each Session meeting at a particular church: “Lord, thank you for those who serve in our military and the first responders.” It was the contribution of the same elder each month as we made our way around the circle. And even though I had come to expect hearing it, it was never offered as merely routine. It was always spoken with a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation and a passionate plea for God’s blessing and protection for those who serve. It made me take notice more of those who were serving in these roles, whether it was the volunteer fire department chief who was also around the table or an officer in uniform. I am impressed by the dedication of these public servants: from firefighters to police officers to EMTs to those who serve in the National Guard or have enlisted in a branch of the military. When things go wrong and people are in trouble, they are often the first to respond. More than that, even, they go to work every day expecting that this might happen, anticipating that they will rise to the calls placed before them, sometimes putting themselves in extreme danger. They don’t know what crisis is in store, but are willing to go and serve. Such service, I think, is an act of courage, compassion, and faith, and can serve as an inspiration for us to respond in our own ways to opportunities for service.
Our gospel text today is about first responders; those who took enormous risks to answer a strange man calling to them from the shoreline. Like our modern day first responders, the disciples answer a sounding alarm, particularly in Mark’s telling of the story. This is the gospel that begins not with a sweet birth narrative, but with a wild man from the wilderness, John the Baptist, shouting words from Isaiah. In just a few short verses, we have a whirlwind of activity, as Jesus is baptized, then spends 40 days being tempted in the wilderness (captured in two verses). The messenger from God, John, is removed from the narrative by arrest, and Jesus enters again. These verses are full of markers of time, which almost make the start to the gospel read as a sounding alarm; a high-level alert that something big is happening. Jesus spells it out clearly: the time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.
This proclamation brings a dual sense of alarm and reassurance. On one hand, everything is about to change. A new day has dawned, and like we discussed last week with the story of Samuel, it is time to wake up and pay attention. On the other hand, there is comfort in knowing that the fullness of time has come. It brings a reassurance that the outcome is already known or at least anticipated. As Ted Smith notes:
Jesus does not just announce the time. He fulfills it, in word and in flesh. And he calls people to respond. . . . As Mark tells the time, God takes the initiative. The reign of God is not the product of discipleship, but the precondition of it[i].
Jesus’ first words in our text don’t just introduce the scene; they test the footings of the foundation and provide the assurance that everything is ready to go.
As is common in Mark, the word “immediately” punctuates the responses of these two sets of brothers. Like the people of Nineveh repent immediately after Jonah’s very short sermon, the disciples’ response is complete and almost instant. Commentaries are quick to remind us that:
Nothing in vs. 16-20 tells us why the fishermen do what they do, why they leave their nets and the hired workers and follow Jesus. Somehow they are compelled to follow him, a man whom they cannot understand, on a journey that will perplex and confuse them to a destination as yet unspecified. The fishermen, now disciples, act in faith – not a faith that understands, takes only calculated risks, or seeks after reward, but a faith that responds to a call from outside, a call that must remain unclear and even frightening . . . Responding to Jesus provides the disciples with no answers for their life struggles, but only questions. It provides them with no security, but rather with rejection and even danger[ii].
What we do know is that these four men responded. They don’t appear to have superhuman characteristics, or even be particularly qualified for such a calling as they received. In fact, John Calvin described them as “rough mechanics,” meant to illustrate that the story was not about who they were, but about who God would help them become[iii].
The translation of the call in the NRSV, and the one many of us quote, is a bit misleading. It has Jesus implying that he will teach them to fish, an action. In reality, Jesus promises in the Greek to make them fishermen. It’s a noun, not a verb. This story is not about teaching a particular set of skills, but about transforming the lives of these first responders in a way that shapes their very identity, so that following Jesus would not just be something they clock in and do, but a part of the central core to who they are. They are not called to just add one more thing to their busy lives, and pencil Jesus in for a shift every so often. No, they were called to embrace a whole new way of life, one that even involved leaving their livelihood and their families. And immediately, even with the full weight of their entire identity at stake, they left their nets and followed him.
This is a story about more than just four fishermen. It is also about us, now, and what we are going to make of the realization that the kingdom of God is near. As professor Lamar Williamson writes:
Jesus’ “Follow me” confronts us all with a decision that lies deeper than the question of earning a living. His call to discipleship focuses on the question of life’s ultimate loyalty, a question more basic than that of vocational choice. It speaks to Christians whose lives are humdrum, whose discipleship has degenerated into a preoccupation with things like nets and boats and hired servants.
This text calls us to consider whether or not we might identify as first responders in faith.
On a more personal level, this is a basic question of belief. Who are we following? Some of us may identify a specific moment in which we decided to call ourselves Christian, kind of like those first disciples. Others might not have an exact date, but an ongoing sense of God’s nudging along the journey, with moments of articulation. Either way, we know that our faith is always a response to the initiative of God. That’s how it works. God lays the foundation, brings things into fullness, opens our eyes, sounds the alarm, and we respond to that grace. We do this by singing Jesus Loves Me and other hymns of praise; through wrestling with scripture and asking tough questions; and when we walk in the door on a Sunday morning hoping to hear the good news again so that when we walk out we are changed. Every time we open our Bibles or begin to pray, we are responding to God in faith. We are saying we have decided to follow Jesus. We are identifying ourselves as disciples.
But it doesn’t stop there. Elton Brown says:
Christianity is always both for now and for the long haul; both a moment and a lifetime[iv].
Being a disciple of Jesus Christ requires ongoing, daily work. It’s easy for us to get caught up in the tangled nets we hold, ones we might need to drop in order to most fully live into the realities of God’s kingdom. It is easy for us to let others bear the burden of the work of discipleship because we are too busy, or not qualified, or tired, or just disinterested. We can become apathetic about this calling. To those dull places, Jesus comes again, and offers a refreshed identity and understanding of ourselves with the promise that we can become something different.
Our text for today offers us the opportunity to begin, or renew, our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ. To scan our eyes on the horizons of our lives and see where God breaks into even the most ordinary moments of our existence, and invites us to be something more.
As Eugene Peterson phrases it in The Message: “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.” (Mark 1:15)
May we be first responders in our lives of faith, on our feet and leaping into action, immediately reacting to God’s presence among us. Then, we can truly call ourselves disciples. Amen.
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
January 21, 2018
[i] Ted. A Smith, “Homiletical Perspective, Mark 1:14-20,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
[ii] Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, and James D. Newsome, “Third Sunday After Epiphany,”Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year B, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993).
[iii] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. 1, trans. William Pringle (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Printing Co., 1845), 242-44., as referenced by Lee Barrett, “Theological Perspective, Mark 1:14-20,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
[iv] Elton W. Brown, “Pastoral Perspective, Mark 1:14-20,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).