“Taking Up a New Life”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (NRSV)
I’ve always struggled with the story of the call of the first disciples. It’s just feels too neat and tidy. Think about it: Simon, Andrew, James, and John aren’t sport fishermen. They’re not old men on a boat dock with more beer than bait. They’re meat fishermen. They’re businessmen on whom their families depend.
Like farmers, fishermen have developed a particularly close relationship with the natural world, with the forces of nature. They read the wind, the skies, the movement of the water, the changes of the seasons. In their bones, they feel the rise and fall of barometric pressure. They know how it affects the fish, where in the lake they’ll go, how deep they’ll be. Fishermen have to be able to build, or at least repair their boats and their nets. Their lives and livelihoods depend on attention to detail and fierce determination in the face of drought, flood, and those potentially life-altering storms that can sweep in from out of the blue on the Sea of Galilee.
The notion of such pragmatic, willful, independent-minded fishermen “immediately” dropping everything to follow a stranger who appears out of nowhere seems far-fetched to me.
Then again, as the unique embodiment of God, Jesus is himself a force of nature. So, maybe it makes sense to imagine Jesus’ presence as something the fishermen feel, something they respond to the way they respond to the unseen changes of pressure. As part of the Creative Mystery that is God, Jesus sweeps in like an unexpected storm, and the fishermen can’t ignore him.
When Jesus says Follow me, his words seem to hit the two sets of brothers like a header—a gust that comes at a sailboat from the opposite direction of the wind that’s currently pushing the boat forward. The fishermen, then, have to adjust course, or else drop sail and row back home. What they can’t do is to try to fight Jesus. He’s more than a storm, more than ripples on the surface above a school of fish. He can’t be read that easily. The fishermen will also learn that Jesus is more than a boat. They will never steer him in a direction they want to go.
To follow Jesus, Peter and his fellow fishermen have to give themselves over to this brand-new, life-altering presence, this unexpected phenomenon that lies beyond their control. To move in a new direction, they’ll have to take up a whole new way of life.
While considering that, let’s remember that Jesus himself has already done a similar thing. In the previous chapter of Matthew, John baptizes Jesus, and after the baptism, a voice declares to all with ears to hear that Jesus is God’s beloved and most pleasing son. As soon as Jesus begins sailing forward on this magnificent wind of holy purpose, a header sweeps in and throws Jesus into turmoil.
In the wilderness, he realizes that:
He could use his unique identity and gifts for his own benefit.
He could live a life of self-serving privilege.
He could manipulate people with celebrity status.
He could rule the world through violent power.
Jesus resists the temptations to do as most people—and as every nation—would do in that situation. Then, right after the abstract visions of his temptation, things get concrete and personal. Jesus’ cousin, John, is imprisoned for doing what prophets and prophetic communities do: He has spoken truth to power. In challenging Herod, John publicly interjected the ethics of his spirituality into the political life of Jerusalem.
John’s imprisonment is another header in Jesus’ sail. And when it hits, Jesus rows back home to Galilee. To me, this return feels like a spiritual retreat, a time during which Jesus steps back to contemplate how the fundamental force of God’s nature—the wind, the breath, the Spirit—is shaping the direction of his own journey. According to Matthew, Jesus begins to live the life of one who has taken his baptism seriously. He lives the life of what Donald Messer called a political mystic, someone who, grounded in faith, hope, and love, engages everything about the Creation. As a practicing and faithful Jew in the prophetic tradition, Jesus’ life is one of mishpat and tzedakah, the foundational Hebrew concepts of justice and righteousness. And wherever mishpat and tzedakah are compromised, whether in the faith community or beyond, Jesus gets involved, and he calls his followers to join him. The disciples have to learn that lesson, and they don’t learn it willingly, or quickly, or completely.
Peter seems to be everyone’s favorite disciple, and probably because he’s the disciple about whom we know the most. We watch his journey begin with his seaside call. And it becomes a very human journey, a journey of eagerness and evasion, a journey of loyalty and betrayal. We’re all in the same storm-rocked boat with Peter, trying to live into a new way of life, a Jesus way-of-life, a life that is both humble and bold, fiercely honest and fearlessly compassionate, constantly prayerful and continually engaged with God’s beloved world on behalf of all that is vulnerable, taken for granted, and exploited.
Our call as Christians and as a Christian community is to take up that new life, the life of disciples who are neither ashamed, nor afraid, nor perfect. As disciples of Jesus, we are always in the presence of the one who calls us, teaches us, empowers us, guides us, and redeems us.
And the goal of the life of discipleship isn’t “going to heaven when we die.” The other side of death is the realm of the one who is more gracious than our minds even want to imagine.
The goal of the life of discipleship is the kingdom-revealing, world-altering witness of love, gratitude, and generosity, the witness of mishpat and tzedakah, we leave behind.