Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Mark 1: 14-20 The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
Jesus Calls the First Disciples
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
This is the closest I have ever lived to the ocean. I was kinda of close the summers I lived in DC in college, but that doesn’t exactly feel like it counts. I only went to the ocean once or twice, with work, and I had to keep my eye on a whole bunch of little kids to make sure nobody went so far out into the waves that they couldn’t get back. If I just think about places that I’ve lived long enough to have bills come to my house and get called up for jury duty, this is the closest I’ve lived to the ocean by far. And, this is the first time I’ve lived around people who fish for a living.
Now, I am the granddaughter of an angler. My maternal grandfather loved to go fishing and take his grandkids with him. “Grandkid holding a fish” is one of the most common genres in our family pictures. He especially liked to fish for trout near the Qualla Boundary, the home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, in North Carolina. If we couldn’t make it to the mountains, we’d fish in the pond on my great-grandfather's land. He kept it stocked with fish. Once, over two days, I caught 14 bluegill. I was very proud of myself. We let each one of those little fish go. Who knows if I caught any of them more than once. It was from this same pond that I caught my largest ever fish, an eight-pound catfish. Nobody wanted to fry it up so great-granddaddy fed it to his cats. They were thrilled.
I tell you this because, while people I grew up with may have supplemented their diet with fish they caught and may have found fishing to be relaxing and fun, no one I knew relied on it to make a living. Tourism was the only industry that really relied on fishing, and, again, it was sport fishing. Not the kind of fishing that gets large amounts of seafood to stores for the broader community to purchase. There are not entire industries keeping working boats afloat, nets and traps functioning, and processing catches for consumption. It’s a whole new world for me when I spend time on a working waterfront. I certainly don’t know what it is like to make your living in a job that is so dependent on a mix of good weather, the right tools, and deep knowledge of where fish usually are along with the discipline to get out to the fish at the right time to catch them and just plain luck.
Even though the technology has changed a bit in 2000 years, the risks of this work and the forces that shape it would have been familiar to Jesus’ disciples. Because when he realized that he needed co-workers, he left the wilderness where he had been and headed to the water. Maybe the people who fished for a living, in uncertain conditions often out of their control, had a skillset that matched up neatly with the unpredictable, demanding work of the Gospel.
Now, to be fair, the Sea of Galilee wasn’t an ocean. Richard Horsley reminds us in his notes on Mark that it was, and is, a large and deep inland lake, large enough that many people fished in it for people beyond their own direct families. It is from their ranks that Jesus called his first disciples. We’ve kind of jumped all over the Gospels to hear call stories the past few weeks, so it is probably worth it to be reminded what is going on in Mark just before today’s reading. Like all things in Mark, chapter one is intense and fast-paced. Karoline Lewis reminds us in her commentary, we’ll hear the word “immediately” a lot in this book.
Mark has no stories of Jesus birth and begins with John the Baptist calling people to repent. Jesus follows John into ministry, asking to be baptized himself. Jesus feels great affirmation from God at this baptism. And, yet, the Spirit will drive him into the wilderness for forty days. In this temptation filled wild place, he will discern what it means to be the Messiah. In that time, he also seems to realize that he needs coworkers. That is where we begin today.
Dr. Vargas points out that John has been arrested. That’s a bit of foreshadowing. Things will not go well for John. And, Vargas invites us to consider if we might wonder, if Jesus is building on the work of John, might he too face similarly powerful opposition? If it does, it won’t be fore a while. Because the first people he meets respond to him remarkably positively. He says to Simon and Andrew, “follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And, immediately (there’s that word), they leave their nets behind and follow him. He walks a little farther and sees two more people, James and John, who are also fishermen. He called them to follow, and immediately they left their dad and everybody and followed.
Horsley’s notes on Mark point out that Nazareth was in Galilee, about 16 miles from the Sea of Galilee. This may explain some of the reason why these two sets of brothers were so eager to follow him. Maybe they didn’t know him in particular, but he was from the area and, therefore, they were more likely to trust him. I read somewhere that I can’t remember and couldn’t find to cite in this sermon that some scholars even argue that that it is possible that Jesus and these brothers even grew up together, or at least knew Jesus by reputation. I’m not sure I buy that. The author of Mark seems to want us to believe this calling is out of the blue. Jesus being unfamiliar to them makes the fact that they followed all the more miraculous.
I have read some folks who wondered if these brothers had ever listened to John preach. When they heard Jesus building on John’s message, saying “repent!” but also adding “believe in the good news!” Perhaps when Jesus showed up, they had been primed by John to receive him. It was like Jesus said, “All that stuff John was talking about... that's happening now. Come and be a part of it," they could have already been ready to go. I find this theory interesting. It certainly helps me understand more easily how they can shift so quickly from what Cynthia Briggs Kittredge calls from one kind of “drawing, catching, and harvesting” to another.
But, maybe we don’t actually need a full explanation about why they chose to follow. Karoline Lewis argues that the nature of epiphanies is that “they just happen.” She offers this line that I think is worth pondering: “There you are — and what will you do?” Kittredge notes that the fishermen will “offer a different kind of provision” in this new calling. Sometimes they will actually feed people, even with fish. But, most of the time, they will offer a different kind of nourishment. I can’t help but think that the patience, flexibility, and discipline from their work as fishermen will help carry them into their next catch. I hope that each of us will find ways to use the skills we’ve cultivated in service of Christ in the world. The disciples have gone fishin’. When Jesus invites us to come with, I hope that we, too, will have the courage to follow.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Richard A. Horsley’s notes on Mark in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Alicia Vargas: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-114-20-6
Cynthia Briggs Kittredge: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-114-20-4
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3500
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.