January 25, 2015
[Audio podcast available here.]
We are still in the liturgical season of Epiphany—basking in the light, thinking about God’s revelations in our world. The season of Epiphany. And I had a bit of a little “e” epiphany this week as I prepared this sermon.
That happens sometimes with these overly-familiar texts. These Bible stories we’ve heard over and over again since we were kids. The ones we have colored pictures of and sung songs about (I will make you fishers of men . . . ).
These stories where we know what to expect. Like this week—I looked up the scripture, saw the heading–”Jesus calls the disciples”–and I knew what the text said even before I read it. It’s really a pretty straight forward story as far as Bible stories go. Jesus calls the disciples; he says “follow” and they follow.
Not only did I know what the story was, but I knew what it meant: like the disciples, we are supposed to follow Jesus when he calls to us. There is surprising agreement among preachers of all persuasions about what this story means for us today.
Sure, some preachers focus on the part about leaving behind the nets. Some talk about how we are called into an entirely new way of life—not just to a specific task. Some focus on the work we are called to do—help spread the good news of the Kingdom of God. Some focus on the fact that Jesus called lowly fishermen—which means he can certainly work with whatever we have to offer. Some even look at the foreshadowing at the very beginning of this passage—John has just been killed– which lets us know what awaits this fishers of fish turned fishers of people.
But really, it’s all the same. From the Sunday School lessons to the grown-up sermons; in conservative churches and progressive churches: Jesus says, “Follow me.” And we, like James and John and Peter and Andrew, should follow.
This week, though, I started wondering why we always read this story this way. When we read the story of Jesus blessing the children we don’t say, “See how the disciples turned the children away? That’s what we should do.” We don’t read about James and John asking to be seated next to Jesus in heaven and say, “We should be vying for the best heavenly chairs.”
As Christians—and especially as Anabaptist Christians—our focus when we read scripture is on Jesus. What is Jesus doing? What is Jesus teaching? How can we better follow the example set by Jesus?
So, yes, it’s great that James and John and Andrew and Peter all leave their nets and follow Jesus. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do the same—If ever God incarnate should ask you to lay down your fishing net, or turn off your computer, or leave your classroom, or send in your letter of resignation . . . I would suggest you do that.
But why are we so hyper-focused on the disciples in this story? What about Jesus? What is it Jesus is doing here that we are called to imitate?
That was my epiphany. Like I said, “epiphany” with a little “e.” But still, I find it interesting to shift my focus away from the disciples and onto Jesus.
If you think about it, the fact that the disciples follow Jesus makes a lot more sense than the fact that Jesus invites them to follow him in the first place.
A charismatic healer invites you to leave behind the drudgery of being a fisherman in a backwater town like Galilee—Why wouldn’t you say yes? The perplexing part is why Jesus asked them to follow him. Surely he could have gotten along just fine without them. It’s easier to find food and shelter for one person than twelve. And Jesus seems to spend a lot of valuable time explaining things to the disciples. And they certainly aren’t much help when he gets arrested.
I’ve always taken it for granted that Jesus had disciples, but really, their very existence is pretty amazing. It’s a deep sign of God’s grace that Jesus—God incarnate, the savior of the world—walked around the countryside with a group of people. That he invited people to be part of the work he was doing—work he surely could have done without their “help.”
We’ve all experienced unhelpful help. The kind of help that makes a task take three times as long as it should: kids helping to wash the dishes; me helping Ryan iron his shirts; a committee full of people helping to edit a document. And the more capable you are at something, the more of a problem “help” can be. I’d say Jesus was pretty capable in the savior department. The disciples must have driven him nuts a lot of the time.
There is a story recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke about a man who brings his demon possessed son to Jesus for healing. The father says, “I asked your disciples to heal him, but they couldn’t do it.” And Jesus says, “You faithless generation. How much longer do I have to put up with you?”
Can’t you hear the exasperation? Jesus is hauling these guys around with him all over the countryside and they can’t even help him out with a little exorcism now and then.
So why does he do it? Why does Jesus call James and John and Andrew and Peter away from their boats and nets? Why does he invite these uncomprehending fishermen to follow him around and get in the way?
It makes no sense.
And yet here is Jesus, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, recruiting fishermen to follow him.
What if the point of this story is not that we should follow Jesus? Again, following Jesus is great. I support that. You should follow Jesus. But what if that’s not the main point of this story.
What if the point of this story is that we should invite other people to be part of our lives? People we don’t think we really need. People whose help might be less than helpful. People who will not always understand us or agree with us. People that will make us say, “How much longer do I have to put up with you?” . . .
You know, now that I’ve gotten this far into the sermon I kind of want to take it back. That following Jesus thing . . . that leave your nets, strike out into the unknown . . . that’s good stuff. I kinda like that better than “go hang out with a bunch of people who will drive you crazy”– now that I’ve thought this through.
Honestly, if I were savior of the world, I’d go solo. Or maybe grab a cute and compliant sidekick to drag around for emphasis.
But this whole 12 disciples thing. Twelve disciples plus Joanna and Susanna and Mary Magdaline and who knows how many other folks traipsing around with Jesus—that is no way to run a salvation tour.
It makes no sense.
Unless the point isn’t to do life efficiently, but to do it together.
Unless salvation is as much about how we relate to each other as it is about how we relate to God.
Unless somehow, by God’s mysterious and confounding grace, the good news of the Kingdom of God comes to fullness only when we work to live it and proclaim it with each other.