The lectionary reading from Mark 1:14-20 focuses on another disciple-building day in Jesus’ early ministry. John the Baptist had been arrested and Jesus was moving forward with his mission of gathering a cadre of dedicated disciples.
Jesus’ foundational message to the world was stated simply and with gusto: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The time was right for Jesus to build his spiritual kingdom. Two sets of fishermen brothers (Simon & Andrew, James & John) responded to Jesus’ invitation as they were working at the Sea of Galilee. The rapid response of the brothers implies that they had been open to a new direction and that Jesus’ invitation correlated with their receptivity.
In calling James and John, Mark’s text indicates that the brothers immediately left their father and the hired workers. James’ and John’s hasty departure left their dad at least two persons short. The hardship this likely caused casts a long shadow. The usual lesson drawn from the brothers’ actions is that following Jesus is worth abandoning all else, including your closest relatives and livelihood. For better and for worse, this pattern of people dropping everything is a recurrent theme. By its extreme nature, the act of forsaking all other life commitments seems impressive. As a result, many people have declared the renunciation of worldly duties as the necessary gold standard for serving God.
It takes courage to confront the notion that God somehow demands a blind and reckless obedience. The biblical account of Jesus calling his disciples continues to be used as a justification about how God’s chosen people are holier than the rest of us, that an elect few who forsake the usual measures of wealth and status earn a saintly status. An opposing view is that while it is wonderful to serve God, doing so does not necessarily imply that we give up all current commitments. Life goes on. In weighing the two variant approaches, it seems unwise to burn worldly bridges, especially if it alienates the very people whom God calls us to love. It sounds like a supposed act of valor by throwing everything away, but this is not necessarily a prerequisite for serving God. How each person struggles to serve God reveals the challenges of religious commitment. No matter which of these two paths a person chooses, hearing and interpreting God’s call remains difficult for people of good conscience.
What would it take for you to drop all your roles and responsibilities to follow a spiritual teacher? Nowadays, this process is described as a cult of personality. Neither Simon & Andrew nor James & John had the benefit of hindsight. Modern people of faith realize that the brothers chose to follow the Jesus who would later be proclaimed Son of God. Yet from their perspective, the situation was uncertain. We can conclude that the brothers made a wise choice given what we know. Nagging questions remain, such as whether the brothers’ response to follow Jesus was motivated by pure faith, an impulsive decision, or simply a desire for an exotic ride on the wild side (perhaps all three played a role). Whatever their motivations, the brothers’ act of abandoning their family and profession contributed to their later elevation as elite saints. Given that the twin pair of brothers may have sacrificed everything is more than compensated by how they became celebrated in the decades and centuries after they dropped their fishing nets and forsook their families. Perceived this way, what the men gave up was nothing compared to the status they gained.
What are you ready to do for God? This momentous question looms because it involves the meaning of life and the weighing of priorities. Allow God to help you discern the best way forward. Are you ready to open your heart and mind to a transformed life? You needn’t be among the spiritually elite to serve God. Also, consider that church helps us pool our time, talent and treasure for greater effect. There are people in our community whose names we don’t yet know, but they need our help. You needn’t abandon your family or profession to live-up to the iconic phrase “fish for people” (Mark 1:17). God can use you right where you are. This is how Discipleship and Outreach—“DO—advance. Together, we can make the crucial difference.