At the end of October, I will preach my very first sermon. I’ll preach first to a small group from my homiletics class and then in January I will preach at The Falls Church Episcopal where I am doing an internship. The text, Mark 1:14-20, is not a particularly difficult one in terms of “the preaching task.” It is a short, straightforward narrative and there are some clear implications for us as 21st century Christians. And yet. The implications of this passage are distinctly uncomfortable.
Just imagine the scene from this Gospel reading: a stranger sees two sets of brothers hard at work. He urgently calls them to leave their family business and follow him. And astonishingly, they do so. They leave fish still in the nets, their boats, their families, and their homes. They do not conduct a job search to fill the positions they are vacating, they do not fundraise for their new ministry, they do not pack a bag for the road. Immediately they leave everything and follow Jesus.
Even as someone who left a job and community to pursue a calling to theological education, this story makes me uncomfortable. Simon, Andrew, James, and John give up everything. They keep only their relationship with one brother. The rest of their life is utterly transformed. And Mark tells us nothing about this process. I am left with so many questions: Did they love their jobs as fishermen or hate them? Did they have spouses and children? Did they leave their families in economic distress? And most of all, do I have to leave everything, immediately, to follow Jesus?
I think we can discern one answer to this question by examining the first sentence of the passage. Mark 1:14-15 is significant for a number of reasons. First, these two verses situate the passage within the larger context of Mark. Jesus has just been baptized and been tempted in the desert for forty days. This story, the calling of the first disciples, marks the beginning of his ministry. Jesus’ very first act of public ministry, before he has healed anyone or preformed a miracle, is gathering community. Simon, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee are not called into solitude, in fact they are called into community.
Second, these verses tell us that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. Galilee was not a wealthy area. It was not a booming economic center. Galilee was filled with hardworking, oppressed, left out, and exploited people. Jesus did not begin ministry by calling the religious elite of the day, the chief priests, Pharisees, and scribes. The first disciples of our Lord, Jesus Christ were just regular people.
Third, these first two verses define for us the “good news” that Jesus proclaimed throughout his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe.” Much could be said about this one sentence. But what I find significant for us as 21st century disciples I glean from a single word: repent. This word, repent, connotes so much more than the definition on dictionary.com. Throughout the New Testament, to repent means to turn around. Repentance is the ongoing reorientation of ones life towards God. The continual surrender of self-centeredness in light of the Good News proclaimed through the life of Jesus.
So as Jesus traversed the sea shore in Galilee calling fishermen to follow him, his directive was repentance. His call was, “Surrender your self-centeredness. Surrender your grasp on worldly possessions. Surrender your life to God.”
After looking closely at this passage, I am no more comfortable than when I began. Discipleship is difficult. Discipleship comes at a cost. To surrender ones life to God may not look like literally, leaving everything, immediately, to follow Jesus. But our call is no less radical than that of Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Surrender, reorientation, transformation, change – are hard.
God calls all of us, regular people, to repent. To surrender everything we hold onto so tightly: our income, our relationships, our jobs, the success and material happiness we grapple for on a daily basis. In the midst of a culture that pressures us to produce more, buy more, spend more, and have more, Christians are called to surrender.
To surrender may not look like selling all you own, but it does mean holding what you have lightly. To surrender is to realize again and again that all we have belongs to God. To live generously. To give our whole-selves.
The good news in the midst of this uncomfortable passage is that we are not called alone. Like the first disciples we are called to this work as part of a Christian community. The call is urgent. The call is serious. The call is difficult. And we have the rest of our lives to practice. Amen.
Photo: An artistic representation of Mark 1:14-20 created for my Homiletics class. Photo Credit: Richard Allred