When our son was two years old, he took delight in running everywhere. He didn’t want to hold hands; he didn’t want to walk with us. If he could see a straight shot of sidewalk ahead of him, he would make a break for it and run. The problem was that he would soon come to the corner; and, of course, our immediate fear was that he would run into the street. At that point all we could say was, “Stop! Freeze!”, followed by, “Wait right there!” Short, direct commands designed to keep a two-year old safe.
We hear Jesus in the Gospel passage speaking in the same way, offering short, sharp directives, full of energy: Repent – Believe – Follow. Immediately Simon and Andrew respond. A little further on Jesus sees James and John and calls them, as well – immediately, upon seeing them. There is no room here for Q&A, for discussion, for pondering.
That is Mark’s style. Of all the Gospel writers he uses short sentences that are action-packed; he doesn’t waste words painting a picture or setting a scene. It’s almost as if we can see him watching the sand in the hourglass running out. He’s got something important to say and maybe not enough time to say it in: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”
We’ll be spending a lot of time in Mark’s Gospel this year; his is the primary Gospel source for Year B in the Sunday lectionary. Our ears will become accustomed to Mark’ short, sharp, action-packed version of Jesus’ story.
But I wonder if there is more to Mark’s direct and hurried Gospel than just his own particular style. What if this were Jesus’ own sense of urgency for his message and his mission? Both Jesus and John the Baptist called their fellow Jews to repentance; but John stationed himself in the wilderness east of Jerusalem along the Jordan River. People looking for refreshment and a new beginning needed to go to John, however it was they heard about his message and his ministry of baptism to get ready for the Messiah. He was stationary.
Jesus, on the other hand, was mobile, itinerant. He went from place to place, from town to town. Sometimes people approached him, but just as often Jesus was taking the initiative and approaching others. He showed up in places where people gathered – their workplaces, houses of worship, party venues, the public square, the communal water source, dinner parties hosted by people of prominence and authority.
In this opening scene of his public ministry Jesus returns to his home province of Galilee from the Jordan wilderness after forty days of prayer and fasting and being alone with God following his baptism. He was returning home, you might say, a changed man – or certainly a man with a clear mission and purpose.
His mission was to announce that God’s kingdom, God’s dominion, God’s power to reign in the affairs of God’s people and the world as a whole had arrived. And he was calling and inviting anyone who wanted to get on board with that to do so now.
So often much is made of the response of Simon and Andrew, James and John – the first four disciples – who drop their fishing nets, walk off the job, and follow Jesus. But we don’t think much about how that call was issued in the first place. At least here in Mark Jesus sees Simon and Andrew and tells them to follow him. A short while later he sees James and John and calls them immediately.
There is no vetting process here, no resume review, no application to fill out, no mulling over about whether this person standing in front of Jesus would make a good disciple or not. No doubt Jesus’ perception, wisdom, and insight were sharpened and heightened after having just spent forty days on retreat. So he may have seen something in each of the four that he knew would be of value to the work in front of them.
But there’s another layer to this story, another echo of a rhyme with Biblical history. When God called Abram and Sarai to pull up stakes in Haran, the land of their ancestors, and go to the new place that God would show them, they were going off into the complete unknown. There was no proposal made, no discussion, no assured outcome, or even a prescribed destination that could be plugged into Google maps. All they had was a promise from God that they would be blessed and that they in turn would be a blessing to all the families of the earth – an enormous promise with absolutely no specifics to go on. It was a future that was completely unknown, except that God would be in it.
Jesus’ call to the first disciples was also to a future completely unknown, except that God would be in it. Did these four hear Jesus’ call and remember Abraham’s story and sense the connection, the faith, and the blessing? Maybe.
And maybe Jesus’ very short, direct, imperative, words touched a chord with their urgency. Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John had probably all heard about the message and work of John the Baptist, that he had been calling people to prepare themselves for the coming of the Messiah. And they probably would have heard, as well, that John had been put in prison by Herod the puppet-king of the Roman government. So, when Jesus suddenly turned up announcing that God’s reign was at hand – rather than Caesar’s – the fishermen might well have thought this was a mission worth getting on-board with.
We live at a different point in history. Rather than being at the start of Jesus’ mission, we are in the midst of it. What may have seemed like a clear binary choice at the beginning - follow Jesus and work to make God’s kingdom a reality in the lives of God’s People or not – now often seems much more fuzzy or nuanced or confusing.
Many, if not most of us, have grown up with some form of Christian belief and belonging. The Church has been doing God’s work more or less since the beginning. We have had more than two-thousand years of praying the Lord’s Prayer and asking for God’s kingdom and will to come and be done here on earth as it is in heaven.
We know that we live in a world that is multi-cultural and multi-religious and we know all too painfully what kind of harm can be done by intolerance and insistence on conformity towards people of other faith traditions. And as Americans we have that clause in the First Amendment to the Constitution that we often call “separation of Church and State”; there is much more that could be said about that, but we don’t have time to go into it here. But at any rate a theocracy in America is neither possible nor desirable.
So we are in the middle of Jesus’ mission where our choice, our decisions, our context, and our way forward is not always clear. And Jesus still is calling us forward, just as much as Jesus called Simon and Andrew, James and John; just as much as God called Abraham and Sarah. The call is to us as individuals, as a parish and diocese, as the Episcopal Church, as the entire Body of Christ throughout the world, the Church Universal.
We are called to “Repent – Believe – Follow” and to invite others to do the same. Maybe fewer words are better. Maybe we are living in a time when the clarity and brevity of Mark’s Gospel is what we need. Maybe that will cut through some of the noise and fog that seems to plague our world.
Repent – Believe – Follow. These words are the hallmark of renewal; they can be a touchstone in our Christian discipleship. They put us right in the center of Jesus’ mission in, and for, and through us. They remind us that we are called, like Abraham, like the first disciples, to a future completely unknown, except that God is in it.
Repent – Believe – Follow.
Let us pray.
Lord Christ, give us your gift of grace to hear, heed, and follow your call to be and serve and do that which you would have us do for your glory and for the good of your Church and for the blessing of your world. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 24, 2021