This sermon was delivered Sunday, January 22, 2012.
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." 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. 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.
What does it mean to be a disciple? I feel like, as people who may have grown up going to church, or who have spent much of our lives in a Christian community, many of us hear the term ‘disciple’ and we don’t think much about it. Perhaps, if we give them any thought at all, we think of the disciples as hangers-on, twelve guys who followed Jesus around, occasionally asking questions, occasionally making fools of themselves, eventually betraying the man they loved and followed.
But actually, the disciples were ordinary people from all walks of life who brought their skills together to help Jesus in his ministry. They listened and learned from him, yes, but they also helped him in his work, teaching, healing, feeding, and organizing.
In this short passage, we hear a story that is a bit confusing. Jesus is walking along the shore, sees a few fishermen and calls out to them, inviting them to come along with him. Immediately, we are told, they drop their nets and run to join him. If this weren’t strange enough, a bit further down the shore, he does it again and two more men join him, giving up their family business and the source of their livelihood to follow this strange preacher around the country.
Now, reading this, we might first wonder what were these guys thinking? What could have possessed them to drop everything and follow Jesus? Had they heard him preach already? Did they already believe he was the messiah? Or did he just possess so much power and charisma that they were compelled to follow him? We don’t know.
Mark doesn’t waste words on petty details like that, explaining why these fishermen were so willing to join Jesus, changing their lives forever and giving up everything they knew. Mark merely tells us that they did it, and that they didn’t waste any time.
Jesus called, and they answered.
I believe we all have stories of being called. Some are epic and surprising and life-changing, and some are gentle, small enough that it can be easy to miss their importance. In seminary and throughout the ordination process, potential ministers are asked to tell and retell their story of when they first heard the Call to ministry. I remember some of my colleagues describing it as being hit over the head with a 2x4, while for others it was a still small voice nudging them ever closer to ministry until they couldn’t ignore it any longer.
My own Call was a mix of the two. Although I would never use violent terms to describe it, there was a suddenness to my first feeling of being Called…I wasn’t hit over the head—instead, I felt like the Holy Spirit was rushing into me, filling me with hope and excitement. It was such a powerful feeling that I can still remember exactly where I was walking the moment it happened, the feeling of the leaves under my feet and what the sky looked like.
That feeling of joy lasted for a few minutes until the doubt came seeping in. This was crazy, wasn’t it? How could I be called to ministry? I didn’t even identify as Christian at the time, didn’t know what I believed about God and Jesus…so God couldn’t really be calling me to be a minister…right?
But, the initial feeling had been so strong that I had to pursue it, to let myself imagine that it was possible, and to seek advice from my pastor. And that is when the slightly less dramatic, but ever more persistent Calls came. Opportunities to try ministry fell into place, mentors and friends voiced their belief in my Call, and even though it was scary, it always felt right.
I didn’t immediately drop my fishing nets and leave everything behind to follow Jesus, but I did start walking towards him, changing my priorities and my focus until those feelings of doubt were edged out by certainty. That feeling of certainty that I was on the path that God was leading me on must have been something like what those first disciples felt when they were called by Jesus. Mark doesn’t tell us whether or not they were afraid, but he does make it clear that they were certain. They must have been, to leave all that they knew behind. Once you have felt the Call, there is no going back.
We are not all called to be pastors, but we are all called to minister to God’s creation, to be disciples... Because we each have different gifts, our specific callings are different. When Jesus called these four fishermen, he said “I will teach you how to fish for people…” He knew what their skills were, and he apparently knew how they could translate into the work he needed them to do. They didn’t know what they were getting into, they didn’t know how to ‘fish for people,’ but he promised to teach them, and so they went. Jesus saw potential in them that they perhaps hadn’t seen in themselves, and that is often the way a calling works.
In the United Church of Christ, there are many requirements for ordination, but the most basic two, the ones you must have to even start on the path, are that you feel a personal calling to ministry, and equally important, that other people confirm that you have that calling. It’s not just between you and God, but also between you and your community. This is one of the reasons that being in Christian community is so important, because we help each other to recognize where and how God is calling us.
I think about our friend Yael, who will be ordained here in our church next month. Did she have any clue the first time she stepped into this sanctuary that she would be starting a life-changing journey? Did she already know that she had such amazing gifts for preaching and ministry? I’m sure God had started calling her already, but it was entering into this space, worshipping and ministering with you, being encouraged and affirmed by this community that helped to move her from where she was that first Sunday morning to where she is going, to lead a very lucky congregation in Maine.
What does it mean to be a disciple? What does it mean today, for us? It does not mean that we are all called to be preachers—thank goodness! Some of us are called by God to be healers, teachers, artists, parents, or activists. The important thing to do is to follow those calls, listen to your community, take the risk to throw down your net and follow Jesus where he’s asking you to go, and trust that you will learn what you need to along the way. That is the way we can change the world, one call at a time. AMEN