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Grief and Gospel: The Call

The Coast

Week of Sunday January 22 - Epiphany 3
Gospel: Mark 1:14-20

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen.17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

On Mondays, I begin my lectionary study at 6.00 am. Usually by now, mid morning, I have the draft of an article, even the beginnings of a sermon. Today I have laid myself out on the couch, grieved to the point of weeping. It began like this.

It is common to observe that Jesus’ public ministry begins when John has been arrested. Less common, is this observation from Brian Stoffregen.

It may also be that John and Jesus are both precursors to the fate of the disciples who will face "being handed over" (13:9, 11).

First John, then Jesus, now us. We are proclaiming good news which will not be welcomed by the powers that be, and yet for other folk will be compulsive, sweeping them up like a net which captures everything in its sweep. It is dangerous to tell people the good news. We risk netting them into something which will overturn their lives, and may cost them everything...  they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me... children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. (13:9-13)

Yet this, apparently, is good news! The word euangelion (gospel), in its context, meant the bringing of the news of a victory in battle. It was the joyful running of a marathon to tell the news of the victory, even if one died from the effort of the race!

We are at the beginning of a great drama, here in Mark,  where 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.’

For me, there has always been a slight sense of unreality about this beginning; something that did not ring quite true.  A movie I saw as a child, portrayed Jesus as a figure coming down the beach towards the boat. He sees Andrew and Peter and says, “Follow me.” That is all!  There is no conversation, no dialogue, and no persuasion. He commands, and they follow. It seems a parody of any kind of relationship.

As an adult, I learned to be deeply suspicious of churches where such peremptory commands were in vogue. And to be suspicious of those who claimed such instant conversion. These things often seemed, as my experience grew, to be indicators of abuse and of immaturity.

This movie image was also not the way things were done in Jesus’ time. In his time, people chose a Rabbi to whom they would attach themselves.  They chose the one they would follow, and from whom they would learn. We still do the same when we choose our heroes and life guides. This is not how it happens in Mark. Here, Jesus chooses his disciples, and little choice they have in the matter.

Stoffregen quotes Ched Myers:

Mark's call-paradigm contrasts sharply with the traditional method of rabbinic recruitment.... Normally the student sought the teacher and followed only for as long as it took to attain rabbinic status himself. The call of Jesus, however, is absolute, disrupting the lives of potential recruits, promising them only a "school" from which there is no graduation. This "first" call to discipleship in Mark is an urgent, uncompromising invitation to "break with business as usual." The world is coming to an end, for those who choose to follow. The kingdom has dawned, and it is identified with the discipleship adventure.

So there is urgency, and there is a sense of compulsion in this short story of choosing disciples. There is drama; this is good news of victory. It is at hand!

Why, then, could I not see this for so long? Why was this calling by Jesus, unreal, and even embarrassing?

Was it because we had lost the drama, and focussed on conscription?   As a church we too often set out to capture people; they become statistics. They used to say of a church near my theological college that it was simple to get in, but the people up the back, with the big black bibles, would not let you leave so easily.

We are not quite so tactless in my tradition. My congregation would never harangue you, or corral you. Nevertheless, we do worry about bums on seats; the phrase is part of our lectionary! If there is a visitor, we wonder if they will come back—not for their benefit, but for our numbers. Yet, as Loader says, the ... “context does not suggest that the disciples went out in search of numbers, any more than Jesus did.”

Somehow, we have to embrace the compulsive, imagination capturing nature of the good news of Jesus, whilst avoiding the abusive potential of netting people who have not been caught by the vision itself. I use this image with some reservation, but would we want a small army of volunteers who believe in the cause, or a large army of conscripts dragged in unwillingly, or under false pretences?

Sometimes I think we lose track of just what “good news” is! In Binding the Strong Man, Ched Myers says,

There is perhaps no expression more traditionally misunderstood than Jesus' invitation to these workers to become "fishers of men" (1:17). This metaphor, despite the grand old tradition of missionary interpretation, does not refer to the "saving of souls," as if Jesus were conferring upon these men instant evangelist status. Rather, the image is carefully chosen from Jeremiah 16:16, where it is used as a symbol of Yahweh's censure of Israel. Elsewhere the "hooking of fish" is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Am 4:2) and powerful (Ez 29:4). Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.

...The point here is that following Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the "world" of the disciple: in the kingdom, the personal and the political are one.... This is not a call "out" of the world, but into an alternative social practice. [pp. 132-133]

We don’t go to Jesus to get saved, but to work for the victory, to be part of the coming good news. The saving of our souls, and the blessed assurance of knowing Jesus, comes from seeking to live this life; a by-product! True, we may come seeking to save our life; I did. But the immediate call is to grow beyond this.

It all goes wrong when the saving of souls becomes primary, and becomes something about getting into heaven. It all goes wrong when we think good news means we are saved from pain and loss; that it’s about us, not all the people, and all-Earth. When we are comfortable, the good news becomes abusive, because it inevitably degenerates into maintaining our comfort and conscripting people to become like-minded supporters of our salvation. If people see the vision they will need no conscription. The net of Jesus will compel them, grip them, enliven them. If we are haranguing, or grasping out at people, we have not yet heard the good news ourselves.

And so my grief begins.

My fruit trees are beginning to bear in earnest. We’ve needed to put crutches under the laden boughs to support all the fruit. I have to rebuild the frame that holds the bird netting; it is no longer high enough for the trees. I stand out there some evenings, my blood grown out of farming stock, and feel a quiet grief that I will have to leave this place. The gospel will call us on somewhere else. I can feel it growing, brewing. Something is beginning. It seems we have so much to lose when we leave this place; it has been a little paradise.

It is easy to be blinded by what we might lose, and not see what, and how much more, there is to gain.

Are we living in a petty popcorn movie of a life, where the main thing is keeping our fruit trees, and a nice job, and all our ticky tacky? Or are we living in a life where the Human Jesus captures our imagination, nets us, and hauls us into a new consciousness?

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there's doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same....

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.  (c) Malvina Reynolds 1962 (YouTube)

Are we living in a life where the Human Jesus captures our imagination, nets us, and hauls us into a new consciousness?

Today is my birthday. And Norm died this morning. He was a member of my wife’s congregation. She liked him, and appreciated him. I grieve. One day, I will be Norm. Dead. Whether I keep my fruit trees, or not. I do not wish to lose the joys of this life; grapes and peaches, friends and family, the land.

When Jesus comes to the boat, I will have had time to consider. I have read the gospels many times.That's the meaning of this calling of disciples. It's the choice I make each day, as I consider how to live the day.

When Jesus comes to the boat, he invites me to go and follow him; to fall in behind and join the great drama of life. Will I spring up and follow him off the beach into the countryside, or will I turn it all into ticky tacky, a cheap little beach shack like all the others? They all look just the same.

In my first draft of this reflection, I wrote that “as soon as I seek to convert people, as soon as I worry about numbers, I lose the way. The gospel inevitably becomes conscription. It ceases to be the drama of that meeting on the beach ,where the fishermen are netted by a compelling hope, and enthralled by what might be. It becomes about me.”

Then the phone call came, about Norm. And I saw how correct I was. I do not wish to lose everything, including my life. So the building of churches follows; making a safe place, another boring ticky tacky, where I am in control, and the gospel is about saving me, and finally becomes a great denial of death. And I will conscript you in any way I can, because I will feel good if you are along side. Wih the warped psycholdogy of death denial, I reason that if you agree, I must be right. (Even if I have to beat you into agreeing with me.)  This is the core ab-use of people in fundamentalist “evangelism.”

Or... I can let go of it all, all the ticky tacky, and let the drama, and the promise of victory reel me in. I can fall in behind and follow, whatever the cost, wherever it takes me. I know I have no idea, really, what this means, and what it will cost. I am like a disciple, imperfect, blundering, denying, frightened. But he is calling me.

So I will go back and lie on the couch awhile, because this is all too hard. I want life to safe and comfortable, with good fruit trees, and nice neighbours. I will grieve their loss, and the loss of my life, for these things will come.

Then I will get up, and try again. Because if I take the pleasures of my backyard, which are denied to most people, as some kind of right, rather than happenstance, what will  I do? I will take a foretaste of the kingdom—ev’ry man ‘neath his vine and fig tree, and turn it into ticky tacky. God forbid I do that. That would truly be to lose my life.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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