What is fun about our lessons from last week and this week is we get two different gospellers’ versions of Jesus’ first call to the disciples. Last week, in John’s gospel, we got that great story of Philip and Nathaniel. When Philip is asked to follow Jesus, he runs to find Nathaniel. They have this great conversation about whether anything good can come from Nazareth. Nathaniel reluctantly comes, and when he finally speaks with Jesus, he is amazed at what Jesus knows about him. In the midst of community, conversation, and collaboration, both Philip and Nathaniel are able to say yes to Jesus’ invitation to discipleship. On the other hand, Mark’s gospel paints a very different picture of the calling of the disciples. Mark tells us Jesus passes two sets of brothers by the seashore, and instructs them to follow him. Both sets of brothers drop what they are in the middle of doing. In fact, the second set of brothers wordlessly abandon their father to follow Jesus. No conversations or discernment; no collaboration or goodbyes. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus invites, and disciples drop everything immediately and go.
I do not know about you, but I am actually in the John camp when we are talking about discipleship. As an extrovert, I tend to process things aloud. I need to talk through a problem with others to figure out what the best option might be. I like to get input from others, using them as sounding boards to make sure my decision will have a positive impact. I like to marinate on the feedback, pray a bit, share my leanings with a confidant or two, and then act. So the idea of Nathaniel hemming and hawing, expressing his initial doubt with Philip, and then challenging Jesus when he seems to have some insight about Nathaniel seems totally relatable to me. I need conversation, community, and collaboration, especially if I am going to drop everything important in life and follow someone in a new direction.
In some ways, I may even be closer to Jonah when we are talking about discipleship. We hear only a small part from Jonah’s riveting story today, but what we might all remember is Jonah is a terrible follower of God. The first two chapters of Jonah are filled with Jonah saying “yes” to God, and then totally running in the opposite direction. He even endangers some total strangers when he boards a boat in the opposite direction of Nineveh. He needs to be swallowed by a large fish, facing death and shame before he is willing to do what God has asked Jonah to do.
Many of you have heard this before, but my own call narrative was neither immediate nor direct. When I first sensed a call to ministry in college, I avoided it. I figured, maybe I could just volunteer for a year instead. I loved working at a Food Bank that year, but figured, maybe I should work at a faith-based non-profit instead. That would certainly count as serving God, right?!? And then, when that did not feel totally right, I started to look at going to school – not for a Masters in Divinity, but maybe to study theology. You know, try to learn about God, but not to be a minister. Even when my priest suggested ordination it took me another whole year of talking to other people, reading countless books, prayer, and going on retreat before I could say yes. Clearly, my identification with Nathaniel and Jonah is not unfounded.
But today’s lessons are nothing like my tendencies. The portion of Jonah that we get today does not highlight any of Jonah’s dramatic avoidance and foibles. Instead, when Jonah offers the shortest sermon ever, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” immediately, the people of Nineveh believe God, proclaim a fast, and everyone – everyone great and small – puts on sackcloth. To understand the significance of this response by Nineveh, we need to remember that Nineveh is no saint. They are a great kingdom of people who have been oppressing God’s chosen for ages. They are tyrants, powermongers, and bullies. No one scares Nineveh. And yet, with Jonah’s sermon of judgment, they stop immediately, take on a fast, and repent of their ways. No debates, no town hall meetings, no consultation with the king. In fact, in the verses we do not read today, the king even proclaims that the livestock need to be put in sackcloth. The repentance of Nineveh is total and immediate.
We see the parallels in Mark’s gospel today. The two sets of brothers we read about, Simon and Andrew and James and John sound very similar. They are both in the fishing industry, they are both working on nets, and they both respond immediately to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. But there are some subtle differences that make their stories even more powerful. You see, Simon Peter and Andrew are fishing from the shore with leaded nets. They are fishermen, but not very wealthy ones. Meanwhile James and John are from a higher socioeconomic status. James and John have a boat and hired workers. They are fishing by dragnet method, which means they are able to harvest much larger catches.[i] Their father is also mentioned, which likely means their family has been at this business for generations. And yet, despite the fact that James are John are in the midst of a long-standing, thriving business, both James and John and Simon Peter and Andrew have the same response to Jesus. They drop everything immediately and go.
I wonder when you have similarly acted with immediacy to God’s call on you. The moments do not have to be as dramatic as walking out of the classroom, office, or house without a word to anyone. Maybe they were moments around giving to the church or a cause. Maybe they were moments when you offered help to a stranger, knowing full well you were going to be late to your next engagement. Maybe you called a Congress member or State Representative because your faith could no longer tolerate inaction on an issue. Maybe you heard the volunteer sexton was retiring, and you said, “Here I am.” Or maybe your immediacy was in getting out of bed one day and finally stepping in the doors of a church – because you needed a community to help you figure out this voice that was calling you to something new. At some point all of us hear Jesus say, “Follow me.”
Now you may be sitting there thinking, “I have never said yes to that voice,” or “Most of the time I feel like a failure in following Jesus.” The good news is that you are not alone. Despite the fact that Simon Peter, Andrew, John, and James all behave exemplary today, we know as we read more of Mark’s gospel, that these are the same men who will fail time and again in their faith. These are the same men who will deny Jesus, will argue about feeding five thousand people, will try to hold on to Jesus, and will vie for favor with Jesus. Yes, today, they say yes immediately and they drop everything they have ever known and step out and follow Jesus. But tomorrow they stumble, and keep stumbling their entire journey with Christ.
What our texts remind us of today is, as one scholar puts it, “Becoming a faithful Christian disciple takes both a moment and a lifetime.”[ii] We are not going to feel emboldened to follow Jesus every day. We are not going to abandon our families and our way of life every day. There will be moments, hard days when we need courage and reassurance. On those days, we can remember the moments when we said yes and answered the call. We can recall with encouragement, on those days when we do not feel very faithful, the days when in fact we were entirely faithful. And if we are struggling to hold onto those “yes” moments, we remember that we are called in community.[iii] Whether the entire city of Nineveh was acting together, or disciples were called in pairs, our ability to answer God faithfully is usually done within the context of community – within a group of people who can remind us of our faithful days, and let us go when we need follow. We are not alone in this adventure of following Jesus. And that is good news! Amen.
[i] Daniel J. Harrington, ed., The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 2 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 76.
[ii] Elton W. Brown, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 286.
[iii] Karoline Lewis, “You are Never Alone,” January 14, 2018, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5044 on January 18, 2017.