A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany (24/01/21): Follow Me and Fish for People

Follow Me and Fish for People
Mark 1:14-20

One day Jesus appeared in Galilee. One day he wasn’t there. And the next he was. And not very long afterwards it seemed everyone had heard of him. Some tried to fit him into what was already happening, as if he were the outcome of a trend or a movement that was already taking place, as if he were the product of forces that were already in play. They wanted to fit him into the pattern of what they already knew,  that somehow he was no different from what was already there. But there was something fresh or different about Jesus. There was an out of time, an unprecedented quality about him.
There were those who swore that they had seen him down by the Jordan in the crowds who went down to see John. But how could anyone tell? Those crowds were so large that people said that “everyone” had gone from Judea and Jerusalem. How could anyone pick out one Galilean from such crowds.
There were others who said that he had the look of someone who had a bit too much time in the sun. It was true that there were those who went out into the wilderness to find God, or find themselves, or find something. John himself had been one of those. Some of those who went out there never came back. And those did return most of them were crazy, like the devils who lived in the wilderness had taken them. And even those who didn’t come back possessed were strange, a little touched. But Jesus had none of that. He seemed self-possessed, self-assured, very clear in his own mind in what he was about. Jesus just came into Galilee, around the lake, in the towns and villages and in the countryside in between, he came into the province and began to preach.

There was certainly a familiar ring about what Jesus was saying:
“The kingdom of God has come near repent and believe the good news.”
Weren’t those essentially the same words that John had been saying. Wasn’t that what he had preached? Wasn’t that the message that had got everyone so excited? God’s rule is at hand! The kingdom which will overthrow the Empire is about to happen. There will be an end to oppression and captivity, and we will be free to worship God without fear. Those things are very near, they are about to happen, so you had better get ready. Turn your lives around and live in the hope that the promise of the kingdom gives.
Certainly that was very much what John had been saying. Later others would look back and remember, didn’t Jesus appear not long after John had been arrested? After all you never saw the two of them together. Maybe Jesus was John. John had reappeared, in disguise, or perhaps the same spirit rested on Jesus as had rested on John. Except that John had always been over there, whereas Jesus was right here. For John you had to go out to the edge of the wilderness, down by the river, and wait in the crowds to see and hear him, Jesus showed up right where you were working and living. It was relatively easy to ignore John if you wanted to, but somehow Jesus appeared and there was no avoiding him. The words were the same. But when Jesus said them they had a fresh urgency. Like the kingdom of God really was at hand! Somehow, in a way that no one could quite put their finger on, Jesus was the words he was speaking!

For once the lake has been calm overnight. The sea of Galilee today is undisturbed by the winds that blow down from the hills that surround it. The Romans call this body of water Lake Tiberius. Just like them to name the scenery after their emperor. But maybe they are right, this is just a lake. It speaks to a Hebrew unease about the chaotic nature of water that they refer to this relatively small body of water as a sea. There is something about water that reminds the Jews of the void that existed before God spoke the world into existence, and something about water that made them fear that void’s return.
But this morning the sun is shining. Simon and his brother Andrew are standing up to their thighs in that water. Each has a basket slung over his shoulder and a large circular net in his hands. They watch and they wait for any hint on the water’s surface of the fish that swim below. Again and again they twist their bodies and swing their arms and their nets spread themselves out over the surface of the lake, where they land with a small splash, hopefully capturing the fish beneath. They haul the nets back to themselves, empty what is inside into their baskets, and the watching and the waiting begins again.
Even though they are focused on the water, with the sun still rising in front of them, they become aware that someone is walking along the otherwise deserted beach. The stranger stops on the shore behind them, closest to where they are in the water working. He waits and he watches for a while. He speaks. He calls to them over the water:
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
Only then do they recognise who this figure is. This is Jesus who everyone has been talking about. They draw their nets back to themselves one last time. The bundle the wet cords up and push the nets into the baskets with the few fish that they have caught. And they wade back to beach and join Jesus there. There is no negotiation. Jesus turns and continues along the beach in the direction he had already been travelling. After no more than a moment’s thought Simon and Andrew put their baskets down onto the shingle and go after go after him.

Further up the beach they see Jesus stops again. Near the water’s edge is the boat owned by Zebedee. Simon and Andrew can still feel the chill in their bodies from standing in the water. They do not have the luxury of a boat to work from.  They try to work on their account, but sometimes they hire themselves out to work in the boats of men like Zebedee.  There are always more fish in the deeper water at the middle of the lake, if you have the means to get there.
Zebedee is sitting in the stern of his boat watching his sons and his hired men working. They are cleaning and repairing the large nets that they had been using on the lake overnight. James and John turn and watch Simon and Andrew as the come along the shore following Jesus. Again Jesus stops on the water’s edge nearest where the boat is turning gently on its anchor. And again he speaks the same words across the water:
“Follow me and I will make you fish for people”
There is that moment of recognition when James and John see that it Jesus who is calling them. Right away they put down their bundles of twine and the sections of net they had been working on.  Together they slip over the side of the boat and wade to shore. Again there is no discussion, Jesus turns and continues along the beach. Simon and Andrew, now with James and John follow him. Zebedee watches them go, from the boat.

No sooner than Jesus is announcing the Kingdom of God than he is calling people to do the work of the kingdom. Perhaps his choice to walk along this beach on this morning is deliberate. He is creating a living parable, making a symbolic invitation. He approaches real fishermen so that he can say to them:
“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
Whoever he calls, whatever they are doing, his call will make a dramatic difference to them. His invitation and his promise delivers to everyone who accepts them a new purpose and a new set of priorities. What went before in some sense must be left behind, because the kingdom is very close, and it must be acted upon now. And the most pressing priority is that good news. The work of the kingdom is to make that good news heard. The work of the kingdom is to invite people into that renewed sense of purpose and those transformed priorities. The world and everyone in it needs to hear so that they can turn around and head in the direction God is calling them, into his peaceful and loving reign. Perhaps Jesus calls fishermen first, when afterwards he will call everyone from tax-gathers to revolutionaries, he calls fishermen first to turn the word of his invitation to them into a metaphor for his whole mission:
“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
“Come with me and I will give anyone and everyone a new life and a new work. But for you Simon and Andrew, James and John, in your case the old life was an analogy, almost a preparation for the new one. From here on in you will be casting a net of faith and you will be gathering people into that new life in all its fullness that is the kingdom of God.”

Jesus appears. Simon and Andrew and James and John are gone. People want an explanation, not least those who were left behind, Zebedee in his boat and Simon’s mother-in-law in the house. Looking back those who knew them search for some explanation. Why would these young men leave what they had, their responsibilities and their commitments, to follow Jesus just like that. The people who knew them want some reasonable or rational explanation for what they did. Except no such validation of an act of faith can exist. Either Jesus is who he appears to be, or he is not. Either he is the Messiah, a thought which even so soon after his appearing is already being whispered, either he is the Messiah, or he is not. Either God’s rule is so close in him that it is actually present, or it is not. Either you believe what he says, or you do not. Either you do as he asks, or you do not. Either you go after him when he calls, or you stay in the water, or you stay in the boat and do not. There is no external validation for the life which Jesus calls people into. Try as anyone might, no one can find a reasonable or rational explanation for what Simon and Andrew, James and John are doing. Not psychology, if anyone could think of that word, not economics, not politics, there is no reason for them to follow, beyond Jesus himself. Their actions are a decisive act of faith. The life which Jesus leads people into, the mission which he gives, can make no sense unless Jesus is exactly who he appears to be.

Much much later Simon, who by then is called Peter, Simon questions what he has done. In the dark, surrounded by hostile strangers, pressed in by the walls of a courtyard, beside a fire which doesn’t warm him, far away from the open air with just his brother and the cold water of that first moment of calling, Peter has a crisis of faith. He, for two nights, can’t find an explanation, a validation for what he has been doing. Jesus like John before him has been arrested. And, even more quickly than John, he is put to death. Jesus dies not because of the weakness of a so-called king who made a rash offer to a girl  who was controlled by her spiteful mother. Jesus dies to show that the emperor reigns not God. Except Jesus doesn’t stay dead. Simon Peter has enough faith left to go to a tomb and find it empty. He sits again on the beach where it all started, and the call he first heard there is renewed. The kingdom is very near in Jesus, and for Peter his life has to be lived in that knowledge. Peter’s life must consist of “feeding sheep” and “fishing for people.” There is no explanation for that beyond: Christ himself, and that he is alive! And even that demands and act of faith.

Follow Me and Fish for People by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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