If you were with us last week, the scripture passage we’re about to hear will sound both familiar and unfamiliar. Last week we heard from the gospel according to John, and this week, we’re going to hear from the gospel according to Mark. Both passages involve Jesus calling disciples. Both passages involve familiar characters, and a message and a call that has resounded through the ages. There are some differences, though, so keep awake.
SCRIPTURE: Mark 1:14-20
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 lake—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.
It’s a little ironic, I think, that we encounter God primarily through the written word. Don’t get me wrong—I think the Bible is a wondrous and wonderful thing most days, and I am grateful to have this collection of stories about God and God’s people all in one place.
But this story confirms what our ancestors knew very well: words on a page don’t mean much without someone to show us how to live them.
Jesus didn’t write anything down. The only evidence we have that he even knew how to read or write come from the times he read the Torah aloud in the synagogue and wrote something in the dust with a stick while he was saving a woman from being stoned to death.
Jesus absolutely had something to say. He begins his public ministry with a public declaration: “The time is now. The kingdom has come near. Turn your lives around and believe this good news!”
We can assume there wasn’t an instantaneous mass conversion in response.
But instead of giving up, instead of going home to write a book, instead of retreating to the safety of the synagogue or the Temple, where he could debate and teach, Jesus reaches out to a few fishermen.
He says “come, follow me.”
He creates a community.
As Jesus calls his disciples, he does not choose the people who already wield power or influence. He does not choose the people who are well-connected and who might connect him to the people ‘in the know.’
He chooses people who are willing to learn—to be transformed into something new for the sake of the kingdom of God. He chooses people who are willing to not only tell the story, but become the story.
More than writing an immovable text, Jesus trusted the people whom he called to pass on what they would see and hear and experience in his presence. For many, many years the Jewish people had relied on oral tradition—storytellers who memorized and mastered the stories passed on to them. These people would recite and even perform the stories they knew, and so the songs and histories and prophecies of the Hebrew bible were passed from generation to generation.
In the same way, the stories of Jesus were passed on from person to person, gathering to gathering, missionary to missionary until they, too, were written down and edited and organized.
You’ll notice, though, that each gospel tells each story a little differently. The first three gospels are called the ‘synoptic’ gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are the closest—they differ in details, each has a few unique stories, but for the most part they align. John, however, tells a very different story. His gospel is almost entirely unique, and tells some stories in a completely different order than the other three.
For example: the moment when Jesus flips tables in the temple. In the synoptics, that story comes just before Jesus is arrested. In John, it’s one of the first things Jesus does after he begins his public ministry.
Here’s the thing: we could get caught up in details and start asking “well, what really happened? Which is it, the beginning or the end?”
Or, we can zoom out and ask “why is Matthew or John telling us that story right now? What else is going on in this narrative that makes this story fit here?”
The gospel writers, ironically, were not concerned with a chronological history of Jesus’ actions and words. If they were, we wouldn’t need four of them. Instead, each of them approached the task of writing about the life and ministry and resurrection of Jesus with a particular goal in mind.
Matthew writes to convince Jewish readers that Jesus is the promised Messiah. That’s why he begins with a genealogy that goes all the way back to David and Abraham. He talks about Jesus as a rabbi and a teacher.
Luke writes to establish Jesus as the defender of the poor and oppressed. He’s writing to a largely Gentile audience, and he portrays Jesus as the bringer of justice and righteousness.
John, on the other hand, is portraying a cosmic Christ. Jesus is not just an earthly king, but the king of all creation, the eternal son of God.
Mark has a much more simple mission: the shortest of the gospels, Mark simply wants to convey the good news that a Messiah has come, and although the Messiah was misunderstood and killed, he will come again.
The stories are different, the slants on the stories are different, but together they weave a larger Story that offers us good news in many ways and many different words.
God did not choose to tell us a single story from a single angle in one single way and tell us to catch up or pack it in. Jesus, throughout the gospels, taught these often-confused disciples the same lessons over and over and over again with patience and grace and creativity. He used sermons and parables and object lessons.
But this first chapter of Mark tells us that to write these stories down is to ensure that they last—but it does not ensure that they live.
My paternal grandmother—my dad’s mom—was the oldest girl out of twelve children. They lived on a farm outside of Fulton, Illinois, and she came of age during the Great Depression. She wanted nothing more than to be a teacher—she loved math and reading, especially, and she was the top of her class. If I remember correctly, she came in 2nd in the whole county in spelling.
But she was forced to drop out of school after the 8th grade to help care for her siblings and help her mother run the farm. She used to tell me that between all those kids and the hired hands, they went through two dozen eggs and a chicken or two every day. She could can anything, from meat, to any fruit or vegetable you could bring her, to pie filling.
She would go on to get married and leave the farm, and raise three children—one of whom had cerebral palsy and required intensive caregiving—while she worked full-time at a factory job.
But I still remember when I went to seminary, and she was so proud. She’d tell me how she always wanted to be a teacher, but she couldn’t because she had to take care of her family first. She was so glad that I had an opportunity she missed.
We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but I can still see that conversation, and I can tell you that it meant the world to me.
See, I wrote that story down so that I could tell it to you this morning, but that story is alive in me. It’s something that matters to me, a moment that shaped and formed who I am and how I look at the world.
But it’s not world-changing on its own. I could post that story on the internet, or write a book about it, and most people would go “that’s nice,” and get some warm fuzzies out of it and go on their way. They would forget it by the time they turned the page or scrolled to the next post. Words on a page, words on a screen—they’re tentative and fleeting and unless we encounter them somehow with our hearts and not just our brains, they won’t come alive for us, in us, through us.
In the same way that I loved my grandmother and so her stories are now part of my story, Jesus created a beloved community with his disciples. It wasn’t a safe space, but it was a space in which they could be fully alive and experience the transformation from very ordinary fishermen to fishers of people.
We can fast-forward to Acts, chapter two, and see how Simon, the guy who was tossing nets just a few years earlier has become Peter, the Rock of the Church. He tells the story of Christ’s life and death and resurrection as though it matters. Because it does.
My friends, this story—this good news—cannot end with you. We are the inheritors of that beloved community that Christ himself began: a community of transformation, where we cultivate faith, hope, and love.
St. Francis, the monk who gave up a literal fortune to join the monastery and carry on this sort of community, said “preach the gospel at all times; and if necessary, use words.”
In order to do that, we need to know and encounter this story in such a way that it is alive within us.
So I guess that’s the question: what’s alive in you today?