I had the privilege of speaking at my church this Sunday morning from Mark 1:16-45, and have shared the text of my message below:
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. (NRSV)
At some time or another, each one of us is afraid that we will not be enough for some task, that we will not measure up to some challenge, that our chance to make a positive difference will come and that we will not make it. I’m at a stage in my life where I’m spending a lot of time looking at academic job postings. It’s daunting, there’s always a doubt in the back of my head if I actually fulfill the job requirements, and a question of what I could do to meet them – More teaching? More writing? Outright abandon my current work and switch to a more popular specialization? (Probably not that last.) And with this doubt and this question comes a drip of fear – what if I fail to get a job? Does that reflect on me? Am I somehow broken, or inferior? What else do I do with my life if that decade-long plan ends? Will it matter? That’s my fear – others may not be as career-focused at the moment, but we do ask questions about our lives, our families, and our projects.
I imagine that Jesus’ first disciples asked similar questions. While “fisher” is an important and useful profession, I don’t think that first century Jewish children laid awake at night dreaming of a life spent in the boats – the hours were bad, the work grueling and dangerous, and you would always smell strongly of fish. “Disciple”, on the other hand, seems like a much more appealing career – the rabbis were widely respected for their theological and practical wisdom; they were doing meaningful work defending Judaism against the cultural incursions of Israel’s imperial Roman masters. I expect that being a student of one of these teachers was a much sought-after position.
I also expect that Simon, Andrew, James & John knew from a fairly young age that it wouldn’t be their position. They were sons of fishermen, apprenticed from youth to nets and sails while other, more privileged children had more time for theological study. Saul of Tarsus (later the Apostle Paul) is an exemplar of the sort of young man who would be a disciple – zealous, intelligent, studious, and with a family that could afford the best and most prestigious teachers for him. I wonder how these rural fishermen felt about their childhood companions becoming disciples. Were they jealous? Did they feel inferior? Left out? Resigned to their position in life? John’s Gospel says that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist – was his brother Simon upset about Andrew shirking his share of the fishing, or did he wish he could leave the boat and join him? I think it was the latter – Mark says that when Jesus called “[they] immediately left their nets”, while the parallel passage in John conveys a palpable sense of excitement about following this man, this long-awaited Messiah.
These four fishermen are only the first of Jesus’ unlikely choices in this passage. When he goes to Simon’s house, they warn him that Simon’s mother-in-law is ill. I imagine Simon is worried about hosting his distinguished guest, and warns him “please be quiet, my mother-in-law is resting”. Instead, Jesus heals her, and she immediately begins hosting (useful, given that the whole city was about to descend on the house for healing). Later, a leper Jesus heals goes on a region-wide promotional binge; if I were choosing a promotional agent I would not have picked an outcast from the margins of town, yet Jesus does. As someone who often feels like the wrong person for the job, I am deeply encouraged by this Lord of Lords who so consistently chooses the “wrong” people.
I do wonder myself why Jesus didn’t make the typical choice for his first disciples. I think it’s because he was building a new Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, where the last are first and the first last. In our passage, the people of Capernaum are amazed at the authority of Jesus’ “new teaching” – judging by Jesus’ recorded sermons, he had a deep reverence for God’s Law, but a fresh perspective on it. Perhaps whatever gaps there were in his new disciples’ education were useful to him – they may have needed extensive and patient instruction, but there was probably less they needed to un-learn to see the Scriptures the way Jesus taught them. Possibly Jesus’ choice was also an object lesson about the upside-down nature of his Kingdom – his disciples were not the most educated, privileged, or refined, but they were willing, and they came when Jesus said “follow me, and I will make you fish for people”.
I appreciate how Jesus asks – he relates this new task he’s calling them to to one which they have already mastered, fishing. It would have been cruel to thrust these men into a position they were completely unequipped for, though I can’t imagine there was a lot of net-mending in this new job. The Gospel accounts do record a significant amount of sailing around the Sea of Galilee, as well as some large hauls of fish scraps from meals Jesus had miraculously multiplied, so there were certainly some similarities to the lives the former fishermen had known. Regardless, Jesus spent much of the next few years with these men, eating with them, travelling with them, teaching them, and sometimes adjudicating squabbles between them, and when he left them he sent the Holy Spirit, a replacement Teacher, Counsellor, and Companion. Whatever they were when he called them, when Jesus was done with them these four men were some of the greatest fishers of people the world has ever known, bringing thousands at a time into God’s harbour. Jesus still calls fishers of people – the catch remains plentiful, and the workers few.
I am curious what the knee-jerk responses of these four fishermen to that initial call to follow were: “Yes, finally!” or “But I’m so busy right now with the boat” or “There must be someone else better qualified” (that last was my first reaction when asked about speaking today). Whatever their initial responses were, these men were certainly changed by their experience with Jesus. After Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, John 21 records this group of men heading back to their fishing boats, their time as disciples apparently over. Jesus, however, has other plans. The fishermen-turned-disciples-turned-fishermen-again fish all night, but catch nothing. Jesus meets them in the morning, and reiterates his call of “follow me!”, and once more the men put down their nets and follow. They have been changed, and are no longer what they once were, because Jesus has a Kingdom to build, and right then needs fishers of people more than people who fish.
The disciples are not the only ones in today’s passage who are irrevocably changed by their encounter with Jesus. The man in the Capernaum synagogue, Simon’s mother-in-law, and many others are freed from the bondage of demons and physical infirmity, a first fruit of the new Kingdom Jesus is building. The leper, formerly a beggar and outcast, is so moved by his healing that he immediately goes and tells absolutely everyone about this teacher that heals, skipping even the rituals of cleansing in his excitement. He, like the disciples, has become a fisher of people, and is so successful at it that Jesus can no longer enter towns, but attracts a crowd even in the wilderness.
Jesus is still building his Kingdom, where the sick are healed and what is broken is made whole. Jesus still calls “follow me”, and still recruits fishers of people. We may fear we are the wrong people for that job – broken, inadequate, or unqualified, but the “wrong” people are exactly who Jesus calls. We may actually be broken and inadequate, but Jesus equips who he calls and in God’s Kingdom the willing serve and the broken are made whole. “I am making all things new,” Jesus says, and if we will come when he says “follow”, we too can be part of the new life he is making.