Thursday, January 22, 2015

Gone Fishing (Mark 1:14-20)

"It’s already here.”

That is the gist of what Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”. The kingdom of God is not off in the distant horizon. It is already here.

Such audacious words set not in the present tense, or the future tense, but the definitive, conclusive past. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”

In his masterful commentary on Mark’s gospel, Ched Myers points out that no sooner Jesus makes this audacious claim, the scene changes, and it does not appear that what Jesus said has come to pass. Myers writes, “Instead of a kingdom epiphany, the second act opens with Jesus wandering by the sea, bidding some common laborers to accompany him on a mission. The world appears still very much intact.” (Binding the Strong Man, p. 131)

Mark seems a bit blunt in his storytelling. The words of Jesus’ good news might echo in the readers’ ears and the familiarity of this story of “fishers of men” might warm the Christian’s heart, yet the next sound we hear is not angel chorus singing alleluias above but the grunt and swearing of fishermen, trying hard to haul back a respectable day’s catch.

Despite the announcement the kingdom is here already, the world of fishermen—its hard toil and little pay—does not cease to be. Instead, the world goes on with its hustle and bustle. Hardened, callused hands are not suddenly relieved of being worked to the bone. Backs still ache from the long day’s work, casting nets. If there is any spiritual moment for these fishermen, it is the muttered prayer hoping “the big catch” is still possible in over-fished, over-worked waters.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Why do these words have any meaning, any grounding, in a world without a moment to look up from deadlines and quotas?

It is astonishing what happens next. Jesus calls to the fishermen to follow him, and immediately, they put their nets aside and leave with him. At this point, the earnest reader feels a number of honest questions start percolating within. How can people leave their jobs? How will they make ends meet? Is there something awry here? How can they afford to do this?

Mark’s gospel says “immediately”. Sight unseen, teachings unheard, Jesus summons, and they respond without a moment’s wavering. No argument, no scoffing or banter from ship to shore takes place. Quite simply, Simon, and Andrew, and then James and John “mutely…abandon their nets” (Douglas R.A. Hare, Mark: Westminster Bible Companion, 23).

What would prompt such a remarkable and contrary decision? Curiosity? Boredom? Foolishness?

The words of Jesus give us a clue: Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. At first glance, it sounds as if Jesus is offering a similar job opportunity. You know how to fish. Would you like to help reel in some believers? Many of us learned a song in Sunday school to that effect.

The English translation does not reflect the Greek’s way of recounting Jesus’ words. Instead of “I will make you fish for people”, the better translation would be, “I will make you to become fishers of people.” What Jesus asks the fishermen is not a question of livelihood. Rather, he is asking them if they want a life, a new way of living. Hearing this spin on the text moves us away from a vision of discipleship as “task oriented” and ask us a deeper question. Follow me, and you will become something different. You know the world as you know it. Now take up my ways and you will see the world as God knows it. (Here, I am indebted to the insights of Ted A. Smith, Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 1, p. 289.)

I suspicion that is why the nets in their hands got tossed aside. Jesus came to them not looking for something. He came looking for disciples, not an entourage to tend his needs. He looks for people who catch the subtle difference between “doing” and “being”. Jesus is offering another way of life, one given to becoming persons shaped by bearing the cross, seeking to live out the contrary ethic of Jesus, despite the world itself seeming indifferent to this Jesus’ claim that the kingdom of God is already here.

These fishermen are the beginnings of a long list of people who decided to follow Jesus. As Mark’s gospel unfolds, Jesus develops a small core group of disciples as well as crowds who are around for his teachings. It is not an easy path, as Jesus asks them to take leave of many things: family, comfort, power, or privilege. Not everybody stays around Jesus faithfully. Not many persons are willing to take Jesus’ ways as their own. Sight unseen, these fishermen hear something that causes them to get out of the boat and head off in another direction with Jesus. They hear not just another day’s labor, but a different, and more fulfilling way of life offered. It is a risk, it is a gamble, but they take leave of their nets nonetheless.

I found myself reading this story from Mark’s gospel and wondering what it says to us. Instead of imagining a boat out at sea, I recollected a different image altogether: rows of empty bookshelves.

A couple of years ago, I heard of a minister who was learning about a completely different understanding of ministry. He had read about it, attended trainings, and spent time discussing these ideas with colleagues. Then one night he had a dream as he slept. He imagined sitting at his pastor’s office desk, surrounded by empty bookshelves.

As he woke up, he tried sorting out what this dream meant. Why did he dream that his bookshelves were empty? He realized this new way of understanding ministry was challenging everything he knew. The dream helped him see something that he had not quite named. What he had taken for granted as “the way” for doing ministry now was no longer something he wanted to take for granted. As he had been learning about new ideas, part of him had begun to realize that it was time to start anew, to take leave of his long-held understandings and doing ministry in a “business as usual” type manner. It was time for him to become a different sort of minister and lead the way for a different way of being “church”. It was time to take leave of what he knew—the skills, the methods, and the understandings—and go on altogether different adventure, learning to share the gospel of Jesus anew.

I learned this story from Ron Carlson, a member of our denominational staff. He recounted the story as a good illustration of what happens when you start thinking differently about the purpose and identity of congregations. You ask yourself good, big picture questions like: Who are we? What is our purpose? What does it take to become the disciples that Jesus summons us to become for today’s world? What nets, books, or other objects need to be let go so we can start becoming what Christ summons us to become as his disciples?

See? This story of the calling of Jesus’ first disciples could be relegated to being a story best told in primary age Sunday school, however, but I find this story as one with some lingering questions for even the most mature of Christian believers. Listen and ponder the edginess of Jesus’ words to the fishermen. The difference between “doing ministry” and “becoming disciples” is vast.

Are we still holding onto some nets that we need to let go of? Can we accept “starting anew” with our understandings of discipleship is part of saying ‘yes’ to Jesus’ summons to follow him? As I note in the annual report, it is important to ask one another these essential questions of identity. How do we live out the gospel in an era increasingly indifferent to religious traditions and institutions like Christianity and churches? How do we bring the gospel to the world, “which dearly needs the gospel to be practiced, lived, and proclaimed in its midst?”

I go back to the question of discipleship as “doing” vs. “being”, and I look at what I encounter in churches around our Region. I can cite a number of good indicators something new and exciting is happening in the life of our churches.  Churches are getting involved with their local communities, nothing new, yet still new for many churches that got complacent and content within their own four walls and missed out on community changes, new neighbors (especially speaking languages and from cultures different than ours).   I have visited some churches with pastors and congregants willing to give of their time, despite living in the midst of the world of deadlines and quotas, to help others in our community improve their lives because these churches are finding these are ways to “practice, live, and proclaim” the gospel.

I see Jesus calling to us in our boat, a place of toil yet of familiarity, calling us with winsome words, “The kingdom’s here. Will you become my followers?”

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