By Bill Hattendorf, Lay Preacher
If it were me, I think I might have just stayed in the fishing boat.
Today’s Lesson is about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. We’re right at the first chapter of Mark, the first of the Gospels to be created.
Mark tells us that after John was “handed over” to the authorities (pa-ra-do-thē-nai), Jesus returned to Galilee and began to preach the gospel. The NRSV that we heard a minute ago translates this verb paradothēnai as “arrested,” however, the Greek verb has a much fuller sense, as it includes an allusion to John’s death; later the same verb is used to speak of Jesus’ being handed over to death.
The author of Mark clearly links these two men’s deaths. Both were prophets who offended the powers that be. Both died violent deaths. Gospel scholars have noted how for Mark, Jesus’ kingdom ministry takes place, from the very beginning, under the shadow of the cross.
Considering how important a role Jesus has played in the history of the world, we really don’t know very much about him, particularly before he started his ministry. And we know almost nothing of the background of any of the disciples Jesus calls. The four in today’s story were fishermen. Matthew was a tax collector, but before Jesus came into their lives, we don’t know what the other seven had done, where they were from, what kind of families did they have, etc.
As far as we can tell, the twelve guys Jesus called to be his companions were ordinary men. As far as we know, Jesus didn’t do background checks, figure out IQ levels, measure professional skills, financial acumen, or temple education.
It seems like he picked people probably much like you and me. His disciples were anything but perfect. Many times they misunderstood him. So often they appear pretty clueless. They fell asleep on him, they often hesitated to follow him. Judas betrayed him and Peter denied him.
These guys didn’t ask questions, which seems pretty astonishing. Jesus shows up by the Sea of Galilee, calls out to Simon and Andrew, tells them he’s going to upend their lives, give them a new vocation, then commands them to follow him without a backward glance or a thought for the family fishing business or anything else. Mark records no questions asked by either of the fishermen. In the space of one more sentence, Jesus issues the same call to James and John with the same results. In a flash they’re out of the boat and following Jesus.
There seems to be no business plan, no evangelical outreach strategy, no job description, no interview and no time to consider the pros and cons of the offer – just an itinerant preacher who appears on shore, shouts an invitation and walks on.
That first century of today’s story was an era of apocalyptic expectation among the Jewish community of Palestine. The end of the world was upon them. Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment. Many of these “fake messiahs” we know by name and a few are even mentioned in the New Testament.
The prophet Theudas, according to the book of Acts, had 400 disciples before Rome captured him and lopped off his head. A mysterious figure called the Egyptian, raised an army of followers in the desert, most of whom were massacred by Roman troops. In 4 B.C.E., likely the year Jesus was born, a poor shepard Athronges put a crown on his head as “King of the Jews” and he and his followers were brutally cut down by soldiers.
There was Hezekiah the bandit thief, Simon of Peraea, Judas the Galilean, Simon son of Kochba, and many more – all of whom had Messianic ambitions and all of whom were killed for doing so. Many of them by crucifixion.
My point in mentioning these is that following somebody doing what Jesus was about to do had the potential of being hazardous to your health.
Thus my remark at the beginning that I think I might have stayed in the boat or dithered about what to do for so long that Jesus would have been a speck on the horizon before I made my move.
We have to be careful about reading texts as if we could just plop them into the 21st century with no attention to context, and I know that this story, like other call stories in the Bible, is particular to a time and a people. These men did not seek to become Jesus’ disciples. They had not presented Jesus with their resumes and begged him to accept them as students.
It was Jesus’ initiative, not theirs, that resulted in their becoming Jesus’ followers. That’s typical of other call stories as we see in the story of Abraham and Moses, Samuel and Isaiah. God chooses whom God chooses. These call stories confront us with the reality that God has a habit of showing up unexpectedly in the oddest places and inviting us to see, listen and turn around from where we are and follow him – no questions asked.
I should say here that there’s another way to hear this story. Let me tell it to you a bit differently.
Imagine again that you’re Simon or Andrew, James or John, fishing on the Sea of Galilee, going about your daily work. And then appears – Jesus of Nazareth, his hometown just a few miles away.
And you know Jesus, you’ve known him practically your whole life. You know the stories about him, how his mother was visited by an angel, that a heavenly chorus even announced his birth, that he was chosen by God.
You know Jesus. You’ve talked to him, listened to him teach. You’ve heard him whisper about the coming reign of God. He’s promised that something amazing is coming, that God is going to redeem God’s people, that the poor will be lifted up, the hungry will be filled. God’s faithful just have to hold on a little longer, just wait until the right moment. Wait for the right time.
Just recently you heard John the Baptist was arrested by the imperial powers, his preaching silenced, his ministry cut off. Now Jesus comes to you and says, “The time has come.”
Luke similarly begins his Gospel account of Jesus’ Galilean ministry with Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth about the “year of the Lord’s favor” that Isaiah had prophesied. Jesus then said, as recorded in Luke, that time had been fulfilled in the people’s hearing that very day.
The time has come. It’s time for Jesus to begin his public ministry. Jesus is saying to these first disciples, “Hey, remember everything we talked about, everything we’ve prepared for? It’s time. Now is the time.”
So, I don’t think the calling of the first disciples is about them dropping everything to follow a stranger. I think it’s about following a teacher, a leader they already know. Jesus is telling them, “My work is entering a new phase, the time has come for me to travel and preach and heal. You know everything we’ve talked about . . . everything you’ve been preparing for? It’s time to put that into action. Come on, follow me, I’ll show you what to do.”
I think that’s a message we can still hear today. Most of us won’t experience Jesus as a complete stranger telling us to drop everything. Being around the church for a while, Jesus is no stranger to us. We kind of know who this guy is. Jesus is an old friend who’s taught us well and now calls us into action. Jesus says to us, just like the first disciples, “The time has come. Everything you’ve learned, everything you’ve heard, everything you’ve prepared for? It’s time.”
Coming to Galilee proclaiming God’s Good News is no longer an abstract rumor circulating at local gatherings; a person is now looking at particular people and inviting them to participate in his mission. Jesus tells them he wants to make them part of his life and mission, and they must decide what, if anything, to do in response.
A list of rather obvious barriers comes to mind. We have responsibilities to families and members of our churches and communities. Fishing isn’t just a hobby but a livelihood. They expect us to be in the boat every day doing what we do to fulfill our responsibilities to them. Wouldn’t it be irresponsible, even crazy, to walk away with some street preacher?
But the stickiest glue holding us in the boat might just be the desire to be in control. We go to elaborate lengths to gain and assert control over our lives, families, work and finances. Although even with all of our diligence, financial markets may crash, disease may enter our lives, people may behave badly and relationships may be damaged. It’s hard to live with uncertainties, so we hide or pretend we’ve got it all under control.
All this can make it difficult to respond to Jesus’ call, because in order to say yes we have to follow a leader who stands the world on its head. He brings us face-to-face with our humanness and challenges us to stake our lives on his promises instead of our plans. Following Jesus is life-giving and transformational – but we don’t get to draw the map or have our questions answered before we start walking. We have to listen to Jesus’ call and take the first step.
Jesus called his disciples to become fishers of people. He called them to follow him, to share the good news. Those first disciples called more disciples, they shared the story, they extended the ministry of Jesus across the globe and through the centuries.
Jesus calls us, too. It’s not the voice of a stranger asking us to drop everything. It’s the voice of our teacher, our Lord, calling us to be the church. Not to go to church, but to be the church. Remember that we are the church – not the building or the institution, but the living church, the Body of Christ.
It can be downright uncomfortable. Jesus stands on shore giving an invitation that makes real promises with real demands. The one thing that makes it possible for us to follow is that we know he will walk the entire way with us, leading the way right into the kingdom.
“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan © 2013
Bible Gateway translations for Mark 1:14-20, Matthew 4:1-17; Luke 4
Commentary on Mark, Working Preacher, by Michael Rogness, 2015,
Bible Study Tools on Mark 1, from John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible
Boyle Gospel Chapel, Fishers of Men, by Brenden Peters, 2019
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