The lessons for the first 3 Sundays of Epiphany (3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time) are about God’s call and the mission of his followers to bear witness to his Word; and the readings for the past 2 Sundays have empha-sized that most of those who venture to be Jesus’ disciples are very ordinary people; just plain folks, ordinary as dirt, whom God uses to accomplish extraordinary things. In fact, it’s interest-ing that the Gospels never claim that Jesus’ disciples were chosen because of a special talent or for any charismatic gift – for high moral fiber – or an exceptional IQ. From the world’s point of view his disciples appear to have had no executive or administrative promise that they would turn the world upside down. All that they seem to share is a willingness to rise to their feet when he says ‘follow me, and I will make you become fishers of people”.
I can remember hearing this invitation in sermons and Sunday schools from my early childhood – and I wondered for a long time what it means to ‘fish for persons’. Jesus was addressing folks for whom fishing was the means of their livelihood – so maybe they had a fair idea as to what his invitation meant. They knew how to fish for fish. They had plenty of experi-ence casting heavy nets and laboring to haul them in. So they must have wondered what this man – a carpenter and a stranger to fishing as an occupation – must have meant when he invited them to “fish for people”. It’s an odd thing to say and hear.
Some of my friends are literalists who take this and other biblical sayings at their face-value. – verbatim, factual, plain, and simple. Then they proceed to‘witness’ – anywhere to any-body and everybody they encounter. That’s what it means to them to be fishing for persons. Maybe you’ve encountered folks like this. I recently ran into one at Walmart. Button-holing complete strangers to confront them with their version of the gospel appears to be second nature to these folks. More often than not, they seem to me to have designed nets of various sorts which they think suitable for catching church members and hauling in people – very like Simon and Andrew fished for fish. At the other side might be our current diocesan motto: “making disciples – making a difference”. That sounds much more deferential and polite – it’s not as aggressively in-your-face – but like the literalist approach it also mistakenly implies that we are the ones – not God – who make disciples.
So I’m not a fan of either confrontational evangelists – or the timid types who only wit-ness obliquely to the love of God – or the social crusaders whose agenda is only tangentially gospel-driven. But whether aggressive or low-key, the Bible (except perhaps the book of James) nowhere teaches that we make disciples. It’s God who calls us to be his faithful disciples and to witness to his mercy and love. If disciples get made, God makes them.
So I think that Christian discipleship can be a dangerous thing – mainly because it’s about living in this world as Jesus lived in his – touching lepers and other social out-casts – pulling don-keys out of ditches on the Sabbath day – overturning tables in the temple – questioning scribes and pharisees – contending with Pilate – telling Peter to put away his sword. As Jesus’ earliest disciples learned, it’s about a kind of recklessness that is crucial to real faith – like leaving nets and families and securities. It’s about uprooting.
In today’s gospel, Mark tells about 4 fishermen. When Jesus first saw Simon and Andrew, they were casting their nets into the sea. He said, “follow me, and I will make you fish-ers of men” – and immediately they left their nets and followed him. Later he saw two more fish-ermen, James and John – and he called them to follow him. Leaving their father Zebedee with the hired servants, they got out of their boat immediately and followed him.
Notice that word, immediately. Mark’s gospel is a study in urgency. In the 1st chapter alone, the word immediately [Gk: euthus] occurs 11 times. Immediately following his baptism, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness – immediately Simon and Andrew left their nets and followed him – immediately he called James and John – a man with leprosy was healed immedi-ately – and on and on it goes. Today’s gospel moves rapidly from the first proclamation of Jesus’ message to the calling of his first disciples. His call was urgent and to-the-point: “follow me and I will make you fishers of people” – and the response fitted the call – immediately they stopped whatever they were doing and followed Jesus. There was an unmistakable – undeniably abrupt – change in their loyalties, their patterns of life, and the focus of their energy.
In conversion, one moves from a former structure of meaning to a new one – to a different paradigm in which the converted person undergoes a re-centering process. So when Christians talk about conversion, we mean to talk about changing the content of one’s faith from something else to faith in God’s presence among us as Jesus. Conversion means not only having a faith to live by – but being grasped by a way of thinking and being in the world that is intentionally oriented to Jesus. And that’s why the church must not only understand and preach the gospel – it must demonstrate what it teaches in its behavior because it is judged by its own standards. But faith can also be a hand-me-down – a kind of collective belonging – which is why it is possible to be raised ‘a good Episcopalian’ and at the same time be largely unconverted to Jesus. So have you wondered, as I have, why the stricter – even legalistic – churches have recently be-come stronger and more infl uential in our culture? They have eccentric customs and their prac-tices invite ridicule – their rules of observance prohibit access to apparently innocent pleasures – and membership limits opportunities for social or career advancement. Economist Laurence Iannaccone has suggested two reasons why this high price buys a better religious product. The rules discourage free riders, he says, and members with weak commitment are weeded out. He adds that ‘if a rich and textured spiritual experience is what you seek, then a storefront Holy Rol-ler church or an Orthodox shtiebl is a better fit than a suburban church made up of distracted, ambitious people who can barely find a morning free for Sunday services, let alone several evenings a week for Bible study and volunteer work.’
As I noted earlier, there is a sense of urgency in all of the Bible readings appointed for today. Although less accentuated in the Jonah passage, both the Epistle and Gospel lections are emphatic in their insistence, as Mark puts it, that “the time has arrived; the Kingdom of God is upon you” – the same theme that we celebrate throughout the season of Epiphany. It is also the core of Jesus’ teaching: God is beginning to act with his own appearance among us. And closely connected to this message is the notion that, in the not too distant future, God will act to consum-mate – complete and perfect – his presence with us. When that happens, the Kingdom of God will be an existential reality for us. We will no longer see it through a glass darkly. It will be as real as our own flesh and blood. Jesus’ proclamation is that it is beginning to happen now.
Our lesson from Jonah appears to place less emphasis on urgency than the ones from Paul and Mark; even so, a high priority is implied in a study of the Hebrew word “shub” which means to turn around 180 degrees. Jonah portrays God as calling to the people of Nineveh and pleading with them to ‘Return, rebellious children, and I will heal your turning away.’ These 8th century BC Israelites faced imminent disaster as Jonah tells them with painful clarity that impending dis-aster awaited them because they had turned away from God. So Jonah pleads for their immediate conversion. If they turn back to God, God will repent and save them – but their way to salvation lies in turning back to God. ‘Conversion’ is the English equivalent of shub. The Greek word for it is ‘metanoiein’. Both of them literally means to change one’s mind. In this case, shub con-notes turning back to God – and Jonah says t hat the Israelites need to do it now!
In I Corinthians 7, Paul similarly tells the new Christian converts that the time is short. The present world is passing away and God’s active presence among us is imminent. It’s his belief that our Lord’s 2nd coming is imminent – it’s not far away – it might actually happen within his lifetime. Indeed, Paul suggests that some of those to whom he was then preaching would still be alive when the 2nd coming occurs. This world is passing away, he told them – so undivided attention should be given to the Lord. Concern with mundane affairs and trivial things is there-fore misplaced – buying and selling, weeping and rejoicing, marrying and remaining single, being circumcised or uncircumcised – none of these are priorities – none of them really matters. In fact, in the measure to which we are concerned about these things, we are distracted from what is im-portant – and our attention is diver ted from being prepared for when Christ will come again!
The argument in Mark’s gospel is similarly a study in urgency. In his 1st chapter alone, the Greek word ‘euthus’ (immediately) occurs 11 times. Following his baptism, immediately the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days. Immediately Simon and Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus. Immediately he called James and John, and they followed him. A man with leprosy was healed immediately. The short passage which is our Gospel lesson today por-trays his call as urgent and to-the-point: “Come after me; I will make you fishers of people”. And the response fits the call: immediately they stop whatever they are doing and follow Jesus.
Although Jesus’ 2nd Coming is delayed longer than Paul thought it would be, the point of his message remains true and is no less urgent now than it was then. Christ’s coming is im-minent. And while none of us knows the day or hour, what we do know is that the days and hours of our lifetime are short and that we need to be prepared. So there is a simplicity and di-rectness in today’s Bible readings. In 2 statements and 2 commands they tell us that the time is now – that the Kingdom of God is at hand – and that our response to God’s call to repentance can-not be delayed because delay means missed chances to obey the commands to repent and believe.
Of course, all of us manage to miss these opportunities and all of us need God’s perpetual forgiveness. So we will turn shortly to celebrating Holy Communion because among its bless-ings is the abiding reminder of our need to heed this message – to offer another chance to repent again – another chance to believe again. That’s what we do here Sunday after Sunday. Pray that, God willing, we’ll continue to do it again and again and again until we stop everything else we’re doing and follow his Christ.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.