January 22, 2012

They Left Their Nets and Followed Him

Passage: Mark 1:17-18

And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Ray Jayawardhana, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Toronto, is the author of Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System. An article of his was published in a newspaper last year; it began with the tantalizing declaration: “Detecting signs of extraterrestrials won’t be easy — but it may well occur in our lifetime.” The article described how Jayawardhana imagined how this would take place.  The author admits there is no currently available evidence but is confident that such evidence will arise and when it does it “will mark a turning point in our intellectual history, perhaps only rivaled by Copernicus’s heliocentric theory or Darwin’s theory of evolution.”

The author goes on to remark that “some people worry that discovering life elsewhere, especially if it turns out to be in possession of incredible technology, will make us feel small and insignificant.”  Jayawardhana is more optimistic—he concluded “knowing that we are not alone just might be the kick in the pants we need to grow up as a species.”

I confess that I find the passion for discovery of alien life curious.  The assumption of this pursuit—that somehow humans as sentient beings are alone in the universe—I find deeply flawed.  The gospel of Jesus Christ has declared for centuries that we are not alone; not only that but another dimension of existence parallels and intersects our own; yes, our very solar system—“the kingdom of God has come near”, our Lord declared.  The intersection of these two worlds far from making us feel insignificant shows to us God’s incredible love for us.

1. It is at once striking and quite probably revealing that Mark’s version of the gospel story gets off to such a humble, modest start. Matthew has his mysterious star in the east and the Magi who follow it. Luke gives us layer upon layer of drama surrounding the birth and later appearance of Jesus. John brings us to the rim of the galaxies and the beginning of all things with that all-creating Word of God who was with God in the beginning.

But Mark; Mark allows Jesus merely to appear from out of nowhere, emerging humbly from the heat vapors emanating from the desert floor to be baptized by John in the wilderness. When we stand back with the whole story in our mind we know that Jesus himself is the very intersection of these two worlds.  He is where heaven and earth meet; he is where the world of God’s sentient beings of angel and archangel and the world of our humanity are open to each other.  We don’t have to live with our fingers crossed hoping to find other sentient being on a distant planet to accelerate our own species development; the kingdom of God has come near and in Jesus we meet the one through whom all things terrestrial were created and who would restore to us the image of God in us defaced by sin.

As Mark’s gospel continues to unfold at the very moment when we do expect the curtain to rise on the drama to come given who it is that has appeared seemingly from nowhere—we end up in Galilee; we end up nowhere, so to speak.  We might have expected to be in Jerusalem the centre of Jewish religious life; instead we are in the backwater Galilee.  Folks in Jerusalem quipped disparagingly—can anything good come out of Nazareth?  The whole business—including Jerusalem—was backwater as far as Rome was concerned.  Yet as the curtain rises here is Jesus in Galilee cobbling together a set of followers that can be described only (and perhaps at best) as rag-tag.  If you were assembling a team to change the world would you pick these fishermen?

We may not consider Unionville a backwater but as far as most news coverage is concerned it is not a place that matters much—Washington, Hollywood, Ottawa, Toronto, Paris, and London this is where things are perceived to be happening.  And the activities of Central United Church, where Jesus is cobbling together a group of followers, sounds insignificant to many compared to the work of professors of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Toronto.  Where does connection to life beyond our solar system really take place? The gospel declares this it is of cosmic significance these “anywhere-places” where Jesus meets and calls people to follow him.

2.  The article was titled Are we heading somewhere?  “The universe has no centre and no edge, no special regions tucked in among the galaxies and light. No matter where you look, it’s the same – or so physicists thought,” writes Michael Moyer in Scientific American. “This cosmological principle – one of the foundations of the modern understanding of the universe – has come into question recently as astronomers find evidence, subtle but growing, of a special direction in space. The first and most well-established data point comes from the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the so-called afterglow of the big bang. As expected, the afterglow is not perfectly smooth – hot and cold spots speckle the sky. In recent years, however, scientists have discovered that these spots are not quite as randomly distributed as they first appeared – they align in a pattern that points out a special direction in space.

Does it surprise you that astronomers discover patterns in the universe that suggests direction? I previously observed with you (Christmas Day sermon) that science is possible only because there is a correlation between the structure of human thought and the structure of the physical world and that the source of this correlation is—as John’s gospel declares—the word of God, the word who became flesh for our sakes in Jesus.  John Polkinghorne, a mathematical physicist and a Christian writes, "The Word is God's agent in creation, impressing his rationality upon the world. That same Word is also the light of men, giving us thereby access to the rationality that is in the world."

At a point in history chosen inscrutably by God this very same word of God is appointed to be that agent by which the ironfast grip of evil on the entire creation is broken. In his Son God has established a beachhead where evil concentrates its assault yet doesn't triumph, a beachhead from which the conquering one moves inland undoing evil's disfigurements, exposing evil's subtlety, besting evil's persistence. Everything has changed now that someone greater than our cosmic foe has taken the field on our behalf.  The whole universe has become the kingdom of his Christ and is moving inexorably to that day when evil will finally be purged.

It all adds up to something huge: in Jesus Christ a wholly new sphere has been forged for us. In him a new environment has been fashioned. Nothing less than a new world, a new creation, surrounds us. The kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ. Deliverance is now the sphere, the environment in which life unfolds -- or at least in which it may. All we need do is enter the new sphere, enter the new environment, that now surrounds us.

3.  And immediately they left their nets and followed him.  I have often wondered what compelled the disciples to follow Jesus; what makes these fishermen drop everything to follow him.  I would think that this is not the first time they have seen Jesus; I can imagine that they have heard him preaching around Galilee—“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”  A new world, a new creation now surrounds us in which you may live, repent, change your mind and believe!

Are these fishermen tired of the daily grind of being fishermen?  Is business in a tail-spin and they need a new venture?  As so many do in our era, had they found their identity in their work so a career change seemed a welcome answer to some inner sense of dissatisfaction.  Lily Tomlin once said “I’ve always wanted to be somebody, but I see now that I should have been more specific.”  Is Jesus promising these disciples that in following him they can finally be somebody?  I doubt that the prospect of travel around Galilee was the deciding factor.  I can’t imagine that economic improvement was a motivation since Jesus isn’t exactly promising wealth.  Are they just weak-minded people who need someone to tell them what to do?  You don’t need to be around Peter long to know this is not the case.

In answer to this question about what motivates them to follow I would invite you to consider a couple of points.  The first is this—everywhere the gospels testify to the truth that there is something simply compelling about Jesus.  I am sure that these fishermen have heard more than a few rabbi’s proclaiming how to have right relationship with God and given the Roman presence in the land likely have heard a few travelling philosophers as well.  The gospels declare to us that Jesus was both the message and the messenger in one phenomenon; the kingdom of God has come near because he has come near.  There is, simply put, something about Jesus that they cannot find in anyone else; the force of his person speaks volumes that here is Someone you can trust.

The second point I invite you to consider is something Jesus said to them; “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  The King James offers us a better translation here—“I will make you to become fishers of men.”  Jesus wasn’t offering them new angling skills as much as a new identity—“people-fishers”.

They would become “people-fishers,” anglers for human beings. It was a clever way to connect their current occupation with what Jesus had in mind for their future.  Maybe had they been construction workers, Jesus would have invited them to become builders of human hearts. Maybe had they been real estate agents, he would have invited them to become sellers of kingdom turf. Had they been software developers he might have invited them to be “apps” for people to see the kingdom of God.  The source of the metaphor is obvious enough—they were fishermen and so Jesus used a fishing metaphor to address them

What we see in the calling of Jesus to follow him is that we are called not merely to private salvation but to public vocation.  To be sure, for these fishermen following Jesus meant leaving their nets, leaving their current vocation.  But for many followers of Jesus they continued in their vocations even though their identity changed too; they shared in this same public vocation to make the kingdom known as these fishermen—people-fishers.  This is what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

It is for this same purpose that Jesus continues to cobble together congregations of believers—yes even us who worship under the banner of Central United Church.  The best thing you can do for another human being is introduce them to Jesus Christ.  I have been thinking about how we as a congregation can promote discipleship.  I have become convinced that the purposeful development of small groups for study, fellowship, mission, worship, and sharing the good news is vital for discipleship.  Take study of the gospel for example.  Research into learning patterns shows that within 72 hours people forget 90% of everything they hear—by Wednesday this sermon will be forgotten.  We need to supplement this with other learning experience.

I am holding this pattern of congregational organization up to you—larger worship events and small groups—as a methodology to be deliberate, purposeful, focussed in our discipleship.  I can imagine that gathering with a small group of people would be a great environment for a person to get to know Christian faith—fulfilling our identity as people-fishers.

4.  Jesus summons us to follow him with this invitation.  The announcement that the kingdom of God has come near is—according to the gospel—is the announcement that the moment has come for God to retake control of world God created.  God does this in Jesus’ summons to people to follow him.  What motivated these disciples to follow we’re hard-pressed to know.  We are told that they followed; that they said yes; no great drama occurs.

One minister told the story of meeting some sheep one day while walking down a country road on the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland.   The sheep detoured into a field. In order to detour into the field all they had to do was turn into the field. The first sheep, however, the lead sheep, had leapt over a sizeable rock that it could just as easily have trotted alongside; whereupon every last sheep in the entire flock had leapt over the rock too. Leaping over the rock was a wholly unnecessary complication. Still, the sheep who followed seemed incapable of understanding this; they simply did what the animal in front of them was doing.

Many worry that following Jesus means just such a mindless conformity to sheep-like following. When Jesus cries, "Follow me!", he is urging us to resist mindless conformity; he is calling us to defy social expectation; he is pressing us to think—genuinely think—rather  than re-shuffle meagre intellectual furniture and re-mumble the half-dozen cliches that pass for "thought".  Our Lord's call to follow him is a call to throw off the sheep-mentality, throw off social dependency, throw off thoughtless conformity to our world.  The call to these disciples is a call that makes them think deeply about the direction of their lives.

There is yet another aspect to Christ's "Follow me!" So far from the mindlessness of sheep-like conformity, Jesus insists that we think.  Ponder for a minute the place scripture gives to thinking. Think about the place scripture gives to the mind. We are to love God with our mind for example.  One of the more definitive calls in this respect is in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans to the work of being transformed by the renewing of our mind.  Followers of Jesus are to find ourselves transformed—head to toe, through-and-through, every which way—we are to find our entire self transformed, beginning with the renewal of our mind (Rom. 12:2).  Discipleship always includes the most rigorous thinking.

6.  Mark’s gospel begins this way; “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God”.  Much ink has been spilled by theologians over where the introduction to Mark’s gospel ends and the story begins.  What constitutes Mark’s prologue the “beginning” of his book, they wonder.   One professor thinks that the whole story of Jesus life—the whole book—is what Mark has in mind as “the beginning of the good news”.  Good news that continues.  Marks’s gospel ends at the empty tomb with the angelic messenger telling the women to spread the news that “he (Jesus) is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.”  What began in Galilee now spreads to any place in our world as Jesus continues to summon people to himself.  You will see Jesus in these “any-places” like Galilee of our world calling people to himself.

And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.